Dear Edtech founders – hire to design solutions, not to assemble boxes.
Your team’s decision to hire an external consultant is likely well-warranted. Consultants provide a unique and refreshing outlook on strategy, especially at a point of inflection.
The problem lies in how edtech companies vet their options of who should support their team in this moment of vulnerability (and opportunity).
As a service designer, edtech coach and consultant, I want to dispel a common misconception of how a consultant’s time is best spent with your company. Oftentimes, edtech founders and managers hire external help to produce hyper-specific solutions for a short timeframe. Let’s focus on this decision for the next few minutes.
The presumption is that the consultant is an "expert” and the weight that this term is allowed to carry is dangerous to the health of your edtech business. Far too many strategies fail in execution because there is not enough time spent nurturing relationships, getting buy-in from the team, and understanding the business.
In this letter to you, edtech founder or manager, I urge you hire consultants who will think holistically about your problems, their solutions and their overall involvement with your company.
One common way we’ve seen an expert-opinion weighed heavily is in setting the next steps for an edtech company during a growth hurdle. Let’s take a classic edtech challenge: the painstakingly long B2B school sales cycle.
I want to be clear in my opinion to sales. There is no one way to approach sales in edtech – it always depends.
It depends on the size of the school or district, the ease of use of your product, the alignment of your product with their students’ needs and school’s improvement plan, the perceived trust in your brand and consumer testimonials, the teachers willingness to try, access to technology, the school’s available budget, the purchaser’s power to sign a cheque, the existing amount of sales numbers under your belt, the social and educational impact data that you have to share...
… Okay, I’ll stop. My point is: no matter how typical the problem is, your strategy and solution will almost never follow a pre-prescribed, fool-proof plan – if done right.
Nonetheless, when founders and managers come up against the long sales cycle they inevitably decide they have a sales problem and need a consultant to come in and build a new sales strategy or sales team.
The emails we receive have prescribed solutions built into them. They go something like this:
These predetermined James Bond missions (“hire a new sales team”) sound like bold and exciting changes that are just big enough to have a “real” impact on your business.
But change is not tantamount to potential.
In reality, they paint a hyper-specific and limiting portrait of the problem not only for the consultants, but also for your team.
All of the above-mentioned areas can support your sales funnel in some way. Whether it would be to nurture higher engagement from existing users for retention and organic sales, or to strengthen the likelihood of a sale by providing social and educational impact data that schools can trust. The danger lies in framing your problem as the solution and it being accepted by your team and consultant as the point to build an action plan around.
This is how a consultant can fall short and become an expensive mistake to make. By communicating the problem area to be explored as the solution, you aren’t demanding enough from your consultants. Strong consultants are holistic problem solvers, rather than siloed experts. Hire them to asses the situation. This assessment is where the real value of an outside, expert perspective comes from. But, I’m not just here to share a frustration with how needs get framed. This is a much bigger problem. I am concerned for edtech businesses.
You see, there is no one way to build an edtech business and yet there are so many formulas and frameworks that are being peddled through our industry’s networks as THE way to go about X (let x = sales in schools or product development or fundraising or how to succeed like Newsela did).
Consultants are often looked to because they have hyper-specific knowledge and experience in seeing through strategies, methods or processes. The problem is when you allow your consultants to apply and execute a formulaic solution (whether or not you know that’s what they are doing) to your expressed formulaic problem. Without further inquiry, and curiosity, you place a bandage over growth pains, until your next round of funding comes in (hopefully) allowing you to finally focus on the real problem.
My colleagues and I have seen founders go through the pains of poor advice in action. Countless ineffective how-to tools and one-size-fits-all methodologies are recommended with only a surface understanding of your particular company. Do any come to mind for you?
There is no better example of a destructive relationship than when a consultant, unwilling to dig deeper before taking up an edtech leader’s prescribed solution, meets an edtech leader looking for one-off strategies in the hope of a quick fix.
Some examples of the kind of “foolproof” advice openly given (at $200 hourly rate) that we’ve come across:
How to reach teachers? Engage in Twitter chats and Facebook teacher groups.
How to close business? Get a booth at a conference for school and district administrators. Ones that are largely recommended: ISTE, FETC, and SxSW EDU.
How to hold a child’s attention? Build a product that looks like a social platform and sprinkle some gamification for good measure.
How do I prepare to go-to-market? Build out your strategy using the pragmatic marketing framework.
These shotgun solutions and prepackaged tactics can lead to an inconsistent brand, message and promise to customers and users. This hurts business.
To be fair and clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with these frameworks and solutions. In fact, I am a huge supporter of edtech companies showcasing at conferences when it makes business sense. It’s a costly endeavour that deserves a proper campaign and post-event strategy to close deals. In fact, we’ll be at SxSW EDU next week. We are looking forward to a few days of learning and inspiration from phenomenal changemakers in education, like you!
The problem is in when these frameworks and solutions are applied without due investigation and assessment of the business. A call or two with the CEO may not be enough to come to the understanding that the consultant needs to be able to offer a solution with confidence and actually deliver the outcomes you want.
You may think I’m over-simplifying my point here, but I have to argue the opposite.
What all of these well-tested tools, frameworks and methods don’t take into consideration is a team’s capacity and ability to execute.
That’s your job. That’s my job. It’s our job to design and to provide a service, to the best of our growing abilities.
There’s an element of unlearning we need to do in our industry. My business partner, Roxanne, often says “you need to test everything”. What I’ll add to her wise words is “... and be curious”.
There is no one way to deliver on your business promises to stakeholders. So, here’s to testing smart.
Find collaborators that will design solutions with you rather than provide you with a method and one-way or no-way process. Recommendations that are given within a few calls will not deliver on sustainable, high-impact solutions.
The journey with a consultant should be intense and reflective. It requires time, and openness to inquiry.
A consultant’s tools definitely expedite the process to uncover stress points and areas of opportunity, but it requires well-deserved time to understand the way your company operates and delivers value at a macro and micro level.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t gain any immediate value, or ROI. Part of a consultant’s role is to nurture trust and enthusiasm for a more compelling, unified and improved version of your business. Invest in a consultant that helps your manage and welcome change with your stakeholders.
There is new life breathing in the public and private sector of education, and it requires teams to be nimble and able to adapt as market needs and government policies shift. In many ways edtech is in an adolescent stage – going through so many phases of perceived need.
The point is, the edtech industry requires creativity from you, your team, and from your consultants in order to grow. The cost of acquisition is far too high to solely rely on recommended methods and tools that are being used over and over in the edtech industry.
It’s our job to support you in finding the problem areas, to lend you a third eye (to provide and objective perspective), and to design solutions in the best interest of the business and its stakeholders including the kids, teachers and education leaders.
We are consultants and solutions designers, and we do our best work with ambitious leaders who trust in evidence more than expertise. In our view, expertise should only be treated as one of many insights. Ultimately, in-house evidence plays the most crucial role in all company decisions.
We believe that a company can make evidence-based decisions when curiosity, testing, and room for speculation is nurtured internally. This is how we operate and just like teachers need to model behavior for their students, we believe in modelling an example for our clients.
Our team pulls from many disciplines, areas and fields, ranging from education, design, philosophy, marketing, human interventions, supply chain, finance and more. We are curious about how disciplines can interconnect to form solutions that are inclusive, innovative, and optimal to a team’s capacity for growth.
A quote from Eric Hopper speaks to me as I end this letter to you, dear edtech founders and managers: ”In times of profound change, the learners will inherit the Earth, while the [experts] will find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.” Let’s be open to change, let's be curious about how our world is evolving, and let’s build mechanisms that allow our teams to adapt to the highs and lows that come with building solutions for all.
Let's connect at ISTE next week.