Transformation of Ed-Tech Startups: Pivot or Evolution?

When I started Listenwise five years ago, I left a career as a public radio reporter to bring audio storytelling to the K-12 classroom. I started a company that brings public radio to students so that middle and high school teachers can use a public radio story with just about anything they teach. It was a simple concept.

Now, however, I talk about Listenwise as an ed-tech platform that builds student listening skills for 21st-century success. Sounds different, right? But the company is the same. 

Was it a pivot or an evolution?

A startup pivot is a shift in business strategy or product after getting feedback from the market. It’s typically a big shift. For instance, Twitter started out as a podcast company. When it saw that Apple iTunes was moving into podcasting, it pivoted into a messaging service. Good move.

What I saw with Listenwise was that public radio for the classroom has a large appeal, but teachers wanted us to do more. They wanted Listenwise to specifically work on improving students’ listening skills.

Focusing on a certain portion of the market that had bigger needs and problems, we realized we were well-positioned to solve those issues and they would value the product more.

This has been especially important in the 17 states that test listening on their high-stakes tests. California, Florida, Washington, and other states include listening passages in the ELA portion of the test. Administrators are desperate to find ways to help their students prepare. We are the only company in a position to help them do that.

To help teachers track student listening skills, we developed the first of its kind, multiple choice, auto-scored listening quiz. This allows students to practice listening on quizzes that are similar to what they will experience on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exams or the Florida Standards Assessment. And it gives administrators an easy way to track foundational listening skills, such as students’ ability to identify the main point, make an inference, and understand a vocabulary word in context.

We also heard from customers that they wanted to know the reading level of the listening passages. Research shows students can listen two to three grade levels higher than they can read. We don’t publish reading levels of listening passages because we want students to be challenged.

But we understand teachers needed some sort of gauge. So we worked with experts to create the listening challenge level, which takes into account a variety of language and speech factors in the audio passage. We assign a language challenge level of low, medium or high to many of our stories.

Our business strategy hasn’t changed. Nor have we changed what we do at the core of our business. We still sell subscriptions to schools and districts to our platform. We still curate non-fiction audio news stories, primarily from public radio, and put teaching resources around them so it’s easy for teachers to use. So, from that perspective, it’s not a pivot.

It’s been an evolution in our product as we’ve learned how we best meet the needs of the market. It also has changed the way I talk about Listenwise—now as a platform for listening skills.

It’s been an evolution. But with these new features and others, we’ve become a listening skills building company.

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