Ed-Tech is Important, but People Are a Key Ingredient to Startup Success

Guest post by Renzo Weber, a former university administrator and co-founder of the online active learning startup company SimCase.

When it comes to innovation, much attention is paid to latest start-up to get funding or a newly-unveiled technology. Much less consideration is usually given to the human element that is critical to making any innovation a success. This is a big mistake because ultimately, it is people (potential partners, users, and advocates) that will help determine the success of your startup.

PW-36-2.jpgIn a recent talk, Professor Robert Wolcott of The Kellogg School described how undervaluing the human element of innovation is widespread across all types of industries. It can be a particular challenge for ed-tech entrepreneurs, especially given how long and involved the sales cycle can be when selling into schools and universities.

Indeed, it is not unusual for an ed-tech startup to talk to dozens of educators, from multiple departments, across an entire institution, before a decision is finally made on whether or not to adopt the new product. As such, it is very important for entrepreneurs to understand how different people throughout the innovation process can play a critical role in both adopting a new product or service and in making its implementation a success.

Here are some tips on how to navigate the process:

Look for alignment: The first step towards successfully adopting an ed-tech innovation starts on campus, with educators, administrators, and staff. These stakeholders must be excited about improving a specific dimension of the educational experience, and you need to understand what they are looking for. Even entrepreneurs with a great product still need to identify those specific institutions seeking to address the problem that their product targets. Not only does this help increase the likelihood of finding a receptive audience, it’s also a good sign that you are on to something commercially viable.

Identify your advocates: Professor Wolcott highlights another layer of people-driven innovation that can be helpful once you have identified a good product-organization fit. Simply put, an educational institution’s human capital can be divided between individuals who build castles (in order to “defend existing and dominant positions”) and those who build ships (allowing for the “creation of new growth through new business creation”). Both types of individuals are valuable within an organization, and strong institutions cultivate a healthy tension between them. As an ed-tech startup, however, you will need to identify “ship-builder” advocates as quickly as possible; they are the key to helping you generate interest and buy-in for your innovative technology across the rest of the institution.

Tailor your message: Being able to tailor your messaging to both castle-builders and ship-builders is another important step towards successfully navigating the human element of innovation. Stakeholders, even in well-aligned organizations, may have very different perspectives on—and expectations of—your product or service. It is critical to understand these differences so that you can tailor your message to address a broad spectrum of potential concerns. This will aid you in identifying and avoiding unforeseen barriers. Remember that in the end, entrepreneurs aren’t actually selling to an “organization,” they are selling to its people.

As technology companies continue to intensify their focus on education, it’s helpful to keep in mind that computers are only capable of doing what humans ask them to do (at least for now, anyway). Ultimately, innovation in education is still driven by the people actually using the technology. Remembering the human element in innovation will help entrepreneurs create better solutions—and facilitate the kind of change that stakeholders at educational institutions actually want and need.

Thoughts? Reactions? Let me know what you think @SimCaseHQ!

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Photo Credit: Flickr users Missy Schmidt

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