EdTech Field of Dreams: If You Build It, Will They Come?

You may be old enough to remember the award-winning movie starring Kevin Costner, Field of Dreams. The plot centers around a plan to build a baseball field and spectator stand in a remote corn field in Kansas. Costner’s Emmy-award winning performance is not what I remember. Instead, as I listen to entrepreneurs tell me about their great educational products, I recall the enduring line from the movie, “Build it and they will come.” It has become my tag line for the K-12 educational technology industry and could be a story and inspiration for a remake.

A Story To Spark Some New Thinking!

The storyline and the meaning behind it might spark some new thinking for you about your priorities for your company’s growth strategy and could enhance your ed tech product sales.Here’s a short screenplay for the remake.

The main character is a former educator who recognizes an unmet need to support instruction. He finds the time and some financial support to develop a product to address the need. His classroom is the playing field. Excited by student engagement and results with the new product, he shares the new application with his teacher friends and they also use it with great success. 

Now it’s time to go national, with the belief that every school administrator who sees a demo will buy it. Every pitch will score a home run. But then reality sets in. The inventor realizes that the critically-important sales and distribution strategy should have been carefully considered and mapped out. The big audacious questions are swirling around in his mind: How do I find someone who knows the K-12 market and will sell my product? How will I get the word out?

You probably know how this movie ends: with a strike out. Maybe you’ve lived it or know someone who has. Many, many great ed tech products are never purchased by school administrators. Unfortunately, they remain in the field of dreams, unheard of by most of the educators and students who could benefit. The developer deeply believed there was an urgent unmet need and the product would sell itself. But sadly, he woke up with the harsh reality of the K-12 school market. In this to-be-continued ed tech sales story, there’s a major barrier to entry: there’s very little money to let the world know about the product or the company.

The "Why" Questions That Underly the Story

Why is “Build it and they will come” the ed tech story line? I have asked myself and many others about this many times over the past three decades of my ed-tech career, but I’m still not sure about the answers.  If you could offer up reasons why, please share your thoughts with me and I’ll open up a discussion for us on the STS LinkedIn Group. Here are a few of the “why” questions:

… do promotion and brand building get much less attention than products and selling do? 
… do so many ed tech companies not even have a marketing director? 
… are marketing budgets a small fraction of what is required to make a significant impact? 
… is there hestitation to invest in content marketing and lead generation?

I believe some of the answers to the gaps in education marketing may be informed by market context. For a couple hundred years, education has been product driven. The textbook was the singular form factor and their big brand publishers were (and still are) the dominant players. Those products were “adopted” through a contorted bid process, radically different than how ed tech products make their way into the K-12 school market today. Selling was more traditional — in the dugout. Marketing wasn’t even in the ballpark.

Now you may wonder, what’s the point? Am I recommending that ed tech entrepreneurs stop dreaming? No, but let me share a another story that may change what they are dreaming about.

The Key to K-12 EdTech Success: A Whiteboard Exercise to Remember!

Several years ago the CEO of an ed tech start-up, who was considering hiring me for some consulting work, invited me to a meeting at his company’s office. Another marketing consultant, who I had never heard of (and who had no experience in the K-12 market) was center stage. He was hired by the angel investor to present strategies that promised to speed up the company’s sluggish sales and build awareness for their brand. 

The investor was getting nervous because most of the seed money had been spent to get the product ready to sell, to design a logo and basic web site, and to hire a couple of sales reps to cold call on school districts. My job was to observe what the consultant presented and provide the CEO a reality check on his suggested strategies. I figured it was a great way for me to get a consulting gig! 

The consultant gave a brilliantly delivered strategy with a whiteboard exercise that captured my attention.  To this day, I have a mental image of the chart he sketched. I’ve drawn a version of it for many clients and prospective clients, hoping that they would embrace the concept and adopt the key strategy. I gave the presentation a big thumbs-up and we both ended up getting consulting work. But the whiteboard image really stuck.

On that whiteboard was an image of a sales chart that had three different approaches, and a constant upward growth trajectory driven by the best (and only) path to sustainable growth for an ed tech business. The winning growth curve is not propelled by product prowess or sales superiority, it’s relentlessly driven by market leadership positioning.

Only One Sustainable Path to Steady Growth

Consider how these three ed tech growth strategies rise and fall over time.   First is the product-centric strategy, the most common focus for ed tech. Ed tech entrepreneurs are in love with their products and usually say there is no competition. But reliance on product superiority is very risky because products can be copied (faster and easier than ever before) and most any product can be made better and cheaper. So the growth line rises but then often drops precipitously. Products come and go, sometimes faster than we expect, and there are countless examples of companies toppled by surprise entrants.

Now, let’s look at K-12 sales superiority as a success strategy. It’s not sustainable either. For a time, strong selling and commission incentives propel the growth and revenue curve, but then profits begin to suffer and the sales line goes flat. It dies because there aren’t enough channel options. There is a shortage of experienced, successful sales professionals in the K-12 market. The few top guns are on the front lines representing the big brands, and for start ups, they either demand too much compensation or aren’t interested in taking the risk. Likewise, there is a short supply of agents, independent reps or resellers with the right skills and experience to do the job. It’s a thin talent pool and remarkably, at the sales management level, there are also very few people on the “bench.”

We are left with just one mountainous, sometimes exhausting, but steady pathway to the top – market leadership. But becoming a market leader is a tall order and the idea of doing what it takes to achieve can be really tough. I’m convinced, however, that this medicine is actually a powerful vitamin that slowly and steadily drives energy and injects new life into a product or sales focused business and growth is sustainable.  

Market leadership is not about designing a cool-looking logo or building a fancy web site.  It’s about doing the hard work to build and promote your brand and to establish your trustworthiness and credibility. You do this by establishing you and your company as thought leaders through the associations you have, the connections you make, and the content you present. For more about how to make the move, I encourage you to read the related article I authored and companion radio show interview I conducted recently with a savvy ed tech thought-leader marketing expert. There are specific examples of how and why this works in our education marketplace.

K-12 Market Leadership: The Way to Play. Play to Win!

Let me sum it up. Yes, you should keep building “insanely great products,” as my former boss Steve Jobs used to say. Invent and build products people actually need, not products they want to need or you think they need. Don’t worry too much about your company logo or the layout of your web page. 

On the real field of dreams, you don’t always have to hit a home run.  But don’t walk the bases or wait for customers to come, because you might find yourself very lonely. Take your brand, your talents and vision out on the field through amazingly good and valuable content that will make you the thought and market leader. Pitch your vision through content marketing and making connections with other thought leaders. Keep hitting singles and doubles that ignite your fans to spread the word about you. That’s the best and only sustainable growth strategy to fill your stadium. Technology has changed the ball game — use it to help spread the word, build hype and share your vision so people want to come and play ball with you! Everybody wins! 


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About the Author

Glen McCandless is president of Focus Marketing Inc., a business development firm that specializes in the educational technology market. Glen has over 25 years of experience helping companies efficiently and effectively sell and market technology products and services to K-12 and higher education buyers. For more information, please contact sts-info@agile-ed.com.

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