It’s been a busy week as I’ve been pulling together content for the Tech Stories website and thinking about core values as I develop my business plan.
I wanted to take a moment away from the website and business plan to reflect on my blogging as it hit the 100,000 mark for page views, but wasn’t sure about which area to focus on. When developing the projects page of the site I noticed that:
1) It was a year today that EdShelf hit their Kickstarter goal, and
2) There appeared to be a common theme to the randomness of the projects that I’ve beeninvolved with, which was…
When trying to put my experiences into any kind of order I read an interesting article by IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown, about the profile of “T-Shaped” people;
“T -shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter “T” to describe them. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective- to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. Tshaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills” TimBrown, IDEO CEO via T-Shaped Stars: The Backbone of IDEO’s Collaborative Culture
This explanation fitted with the projects that I have worked on and I’d like to explore my experiences to highlight the role empathy has played with all of the projects I have been involved with recently. I detail events and then include an “E-Factor” regarding why I got involved with each initiative.
There are a lot of changes happening in education for both educators with budget cuts and MOOCs etc, as well as EdTech developers with traditional methods being replaced by social business methods.
I hope that my taking a moment to reflect on my experiences helps someone… somewhere because, as you will see…
EdTech Is Tough!!
Chapter 1: Redundancy & Social Media
The company that I worked at for almost 10 years was closing one of their offices. The reason for this was due to government budget cuts and, as an education supplier, these cuts affected the business.
Given the results I had achieved in various roles at this company, I wondered if I had done enough to at least get an interview with one of the “Big 3″ Tech companies. I tried to get a hold of the head of UK Education at Google, Apple and Microsoft. When I did manage to speak to one of them, the feedback was frustrating and disappointing for me;
“Why can I not find you on any social media channels?” Was the opening question…“Erm because I’m not on any” was my reply. At the time I thought social media was a waste of time and had no digital footprint at all.
“If you want to be involved with EdTech you need to be on social media… It comes with the job now”
I thanked him for his time and feedback, hung up the phone and walked over the the desk of the nearest digital native in the office. They sold me on a medium that I had dismissed as a waste of time (without doing a single bit of research on it) in a single sentence;
“William I have a Twitter account and have 4,000 followers. We discuss an idea that I have and they help me to tweak the idea by suggesting improvements. If 10% of those followers buy what I am developing, I’ll have enough revenue to start the business”
“Are you telling me there’s a business case for being on Twitter?” Asks I! I went on to explore social media and got connected
After putting 10 years into a company, redundancy was horrible, to then realise that your skill set is becoming out dated was devastating. I’ve constantly shared my experiences in the hope that other EdTech sales people who are not exploring the in-demand social business skills will open some social media accounts… The alternative options to not seeing the signs and not taking the time to re-skill is not a pleasant one!!
Chaper 2: Learning to be Sociable
I had read Social Nation by Barry Libert and opened a Twitter account. I lurked and listened for a few months initially. As I listened and learned I also curated various lists. When I finally felt ready to Tweet one of my first messages was;
In early 2011 I attended two events: Bill Aulet’s Inbound Marketing workshop and the Association of Colleges Communication Conference. Bill Aulet’s workshop blew my mind!
I had found that the sales methods which had previously had been welcome and had achieved good results, were starting to become less and less welcome. This workshop highlighted why this was the case, how sales and marketing today is more about the experiences of existing users more than ever before.
When it comes to the very best products, people want to buy them.
Great sales operations are no substitute for product-market fit
Dave Feinleib, Why Startups Fail
I produced my EdTech Report to share my research which was based on the sales practices of major tech companies, who stress the importance of co-creating and collaborating with current and potential users… and staying as small as possible and ultra-focused until you have achieved Product-Market Fit.
Chapter 3: EdTech is Tough!
Bill Aulet detailed his process of going through the due diligence with a company he was involved, called SenseAble Technologies. An area that they considered as an early market was education, but the board discounted the sector.
The reasons for this was because they advice that a startup should aim to be market leader within 2 years of operating in a niche sector, and this would be unlikely in education.
When I caught up with Bill during a break I asked for advice with my ideas and his advice was pretty much try a different sector because “EdTech is tough” he added that he advises his students to avoid education because it’s such a difficult area to scale your ideas.
Oh No! We have a problem! I really don’t want to leave education, but I’m not going to ignore any advice that someone like the Head of Entrepreneurship at MIT is providing!!
If EdTech is so tough then how many stakeholders are missing out on opportunities? How many cool products developed by MIT alumni Founders are educators missing out on? How many EdTech startups are going out of business because EdTech is tough? I’ve considered solutions to this challenge since 2011.
Through being involved with two projects that got good exposure without any sales people being employed, some progress is being made.
Chapter 4: Communicating Social Change
As a (reluctant!) new social media user and with the advice of Social Nation and the Inbound Marketing workshop still ringing in my ears, I attended the AOC Communications Conference. The main talking points at the event were;
1) The budget cuts, which led to my being made redundant at my previous job, meant that college marketing departments were being asked to do more with less.
2) College Marketing Managers felt doing “more with less” could be better achieved if they were allowed to use Social Media… but Senior Managers still “don’t get social media,” so the college continues to block these websites at the college.
Ah Ha! Thinks I! I know how SMT feel, I “Didn’t Get It” a few months ago, and I’ve been exploring this as a newbie… Maybe I could share my experiences and they help both SMT to understand the value of these channels, which will help College Marketing Departments to do more with less. I start to pull a whole bunch of data and research together… and try to put it into some kind of report.
Chapter 5: A Daft Draft
I curate a pile of data and send a draft report to Social Nation author, Barry Libert, and ask for permission to use extracts from his book. Not only does Barry kindly grant permission, he also helps to tidy my “Report” into something more like a report. Five drafts and two months later, we circulate the finished document.
Compared with my sales calls, the response to this report really was quite something! As few weeks after publishing the report I would make the same calls that I had done previously, but instead of getting;
“Who is this? Are you trying to sell me something” in a rather curt and unfriendly tone when calling anyone I had not spoken to previously, I would be greeted like an old friend “Hey William, Great to hear from you, how are you?” Even though we had never spoken before but they had read the Twitter in FE report.
Realising how ineffective and time consuming traditional cold calls and emails were, I tried to get my employer to change his sales methods and replace these calls with research for similar reports… But the suggestion didn’t go down too well “Get on the phone and sell” was pretty much the extent of the response
Chapter 6: Report, Report, Report
July 2011- Aug 2012
As I was working at a small startup which was operating in two markets, trying to getting resources for marketing was difficult as budgets were limited. I had to make calls and send spam during the 9-5 work day. Therefore I developed my skills around “Content Marketing” and other reports in my free time.
Each report was written in direct response to the needs that I was hearing from the educators I was speaking to. When I was being told that people could not consider our services because of the horrendous budget cuts (The sector lost 30% of staff during 2008-2012) I wrote my Business Development Ideas for FE report which had projections of £10 million for the sector.
The cuts eventually saw mass mergers of colleges, with Scotland going from 40+ College down to 10 (With the cost savings being unknown and nowhere near as much as policy makers thought it would be). The one thing that these mergers did seem to be a success with was with affecting the culture, so I wrote my Culture in FE report.
Chapter 7: Telling a Compelling Story
I’ve been involved with seven reports now. By far the one that was the most fun to write was a random little article called: Tech Story… What Educators can Learn from Pixar’s Toy Story. The idea for this one came about through three main sources of inspiration;
1) I was struggling to get a message across to educators about how challenging educators were to sell to, especially since the budget cuts.
2) I was making my way through the 10 books on Bill Aulet’s recommended reading list, and had finished “Made to Stick,” so was thinking of ways to tell compelling stories so they would “stick”.
3) Not being able to switch off from this work-realted issue when spending time with my kids.
We’re watching Toy Story (Again) because one of my kids is Toy Story mad and loves all things Pixar. We watch a behind the scenes program and John Lasseter highlights how:
“You have to tell a compelling story that keeps people on the edge of their seat… [and to do that] you populate that story with really memorable and appealing characters.”
I didn’t have the imagination to come up with memorable or appealing characters of my own… so I borrowed Toy Story’s and applied them to a college setting to discuss this topical issue.
Through attending many meetings and understanding things from the various departments’ perspectives, and being able to “stand in someone else’s shoes” I could draw out the different personalities in college meetings and attribute them to characters from Andy’s playroom.
Some of my college contacts got in touch to let me how much fun it was identifying the “Tech Stories” characteristics in college meetings. Some even said that it helped with procurement discussions as people were able to say “Oh Stop being such a Ham or Rex” about the technology solution they were discussing.
Chapter 8: Fail Slow, Fail Cheap
With the budget cuts now dragging on for two years with no end in sight, it was time to try some alternative models and to see if it might be possible to turn the “EdTech is Tough” sector into something easier to deal with.
I had met CrowdControlHQ Founder James Leavesley at a conference and could see the value in what he was doing, and he liked my Twitter in FE Report.
We collaborated on a Social Media Risk Report in Education. This was followed by me sending an update with a 75% reduction on the cost of CrowdControl’s services: 75% Discount for CrowdControl Pilot.
The update had a good level of engagement… but no sales enquiries. I had helped CrowdControl to “Fail Fast and Fail Cheap” …But Tech Stories was to fail slowly and painfully in this space for another 2 years.
I knew from painful experience how difficult educators were to sell to. Bill Aulet had warned me that it was tough, and maybe best to be avoided. But I knew that educators were not only missing out on great technology solutions because of this, but the budget cuts would soon be affecting their ability to innovate if they were not able to afford the latest “must have” gadgets.
I thought this model would work, In two years time I was to find that the ideas can and would work… My challenge was that I was in a “Bad Market”
“Feinleib highlights that some sectors (i.e. small businesses) can be a challenging target market for start-ups as there are two painful truths about them; 1) They are very hard to reach, and 2) They have no money. The product may be compelling and users need the solution, but the supplier is not able to reach their customers effectively!” Why Startups Fail
Chapter 9: Market Research
August 2012-October 2012
Trying to make my ideas and plans work were going horribly badly, nothing I tried was working. So I decided to ask people directly about my approach to see if the work had value to them to see if I should just return to the cold calls and spam emails.
The feedback I got was overwhelmingly positive, I couldn’t figure it out.
Has a move away from traditional sales been obvious & welcome? Yes = 100%
Chapter 10: Bad EdTech Episode 1: Rip Offs
September 2012-October 2013
When a documentary called “Reading, Writing and Rip Offs” is aired, which details how some unscrupulous companies were telling educators that their tech was free but, through some protracted means and complicated contracts, were extorting millions of pounds for a few laptops and photocopiers.
To say I was angry and frustrated watching this programme would be an understatement! This was the inspiration of my EdTech Report: Developing Relationships and Delivering Value.
Trying to write this in a way that would appeal to and be relevant to educators and EdTech suppliers was a real challenge and it took five complete re-writes and over a year to complete.
Isolated examples like this ones on this documentary has an adverse effect on the EdTech ecosystem, making it challenging for the “Good Guys” in EdTech to thrive… and a lot easier that it should be for unethical companies like the ones in this programme to operate in education.
A question I asked my education contacts after this show was “Have you ever thought what it’s like to sell to educators” the kind of response that I got was “You know, I’ve never thought of that before” followed by “William, we must be a nightmare to deal with for sales!”
Chapter 11: UKFEChat – A Little bit of Hustle
Having been on Social Media for two years I had joined a few Twitter chats by this point, and wondered why there wasn’t a chat dedicated to UK Further Education.
I then found that there was a #UKFEChat, but it had only been going for a few months and it appeared that a couple of the sessions were abandoned and/or cut short due to only a few people turning up. I felt the chat needed a little bit of hustle, so offered to help out.
It’s a big commitment to give up an hour each week to make yourself available to assist colleagues with their PD (and let off a little steam), and a poorly attended chat can be a little demolarising given all the effort moderators put in. But things like this need a little hustle in order to get a bit of momentum.
Chapter 12: EdTechChat – Cold Calling Is Dead
Another EdChat I was keen to join was #EdTechChat… and WOW! JUST WOW!
When you discuss issues like Inbound Marketing with social media experts and they say “cold calling will be dead in a few years” you wonder if they will apply to education. I had been having this discussion with my sales colleagues since I read Hubspot’s book Inbound Marketing two years ago. My colleague views were that “Companies will always need to make cold calls,” I wasn’t so sure this was the case.
This was confirmed for me in the first 5 weeks of EdTechChat I saw very clearly that cold calling would indeed be dead in education soon. 40 companies were mentioned some 4-500 times without a sales rep in sight on the phone or in the EdChat.
I did everything I could to let suppliers know that these changes were on the way, and continue to do so. In Scotland the call centre industry is worth £84 billion to our economy with very few jobs for community managers. In my opinion, these jobs will not be here in the near-medium future.
Chapter 13: StartupEduChat/EdTechBridge
December 2013-April 2014
For eight months I joined EdTechChat and every week companies doing great work were discussed by educators on Twitter.
During Decembers’ chat the topic was something like “EdTech you’d like Santa to bring,” and was an hour of praise for a handful of tech companies. I dashed off a post suggesting that PLN for suppliers be established where all these companies who were doing great work could share their expertise with others.
When I heard about Steve Isaacs and Katya Hott EdTechBridge presentation at SXSWEdu I supported them with this.
It was frustrating to hear providers being praised so much by users, but hearing nothing about the process they went through to make them such great products and providers. I thought a forum like this would help others who were struggling to get a “High Promoter Score” with their users in education.
I would hardly say that I was a success but my experiences are sufficient for me to consider putting a business plan together at the moment, so I hope this post might help an EdTech startup or two.
Chapter 14: Nurph
April 2014 – July 2014
Having developed a strong interest in data curation and Twitter chats, when I heard about Nurph I felt this platform could add value to EdChats… so offered to assist with the development of some education resources.
Nurph is a small startup who may not have had the resources to commit to education. At the same time I felt this platform could provide data that could provide some key insights for moderators, and assist with certain aspects of hosting a Twitter chat.
Chapter 15: SaveEdShelf
July 2014-August 2014
A year ago today there were four years of frustration. I thought I was on the right track and that my ideas had merit. I had tried to work in ways that were ethical and welcome. I would try one thing and if it didn’t work I’d try another. So when I read Mike Lee’s post
BOY! DID I FEEL HIS PAIN!
I also felt that what he was doing was the future of EdTech sales. So I supported Alicia Leonard in her campaign to #SaveEdShelf. This turned out to be a success through a Kickstarter campaign.
My involvement with this campaign made me wonder if my ideas may be of value, but that the issue was I was trying to make them work in an area of education that was particularly difficult to engage with due to funding cuts and mergers etc.
Is hopefully obvious with this one… You have an idea, you think it will work out, it doesn’t and you wonder what went wrong and what you could have done differently. When the reality appears to be the ideas are sound but that… well, erm…”EdTech is Tough,” something I was warned about but was too stubborn to listen!
Chapter 16: Get2ISTE
July 2014-June 2015
When I heard that one of the EdTechChat moderators would not be going to ISTE2014 I raised the idea of “Social Tipping” for moderators via a blog post, but the idea wasn’t too well received. Moderators felt this would be benefiting financially from their chats.
Through her evangelising efforts with Nurph, Nikki Robertson removed some of these objections and between March 19-27th the idea was launched.By June £3,357 had been raised and 4 educators were off to ISTE.
Knowing how much time and effort moderators put into their chats it was insane that they were not able to get a little support to attend a conference and meet the people that they collaborate with online.Further researched highlighted that startups and international companies may be priced out of exhibiting at conferences, so this could be an alternative way of having a presence at the event.
Chapter 17: EdChatMod & Cmgr
August 2014-June 2015
I had been checking out various Community Management resources since I found out about Community Manager Appreciation Day in January 2014 and thought that EdChat moderators might benefit from some of the Google Hangouts and links.
As I had a lot of moderators contact details I invited them to join an EdChat Moderator forum to share ideas and resources. It was great to see Get2ISTE delegate Nikki Robertson host a “Birds of a Feather” session at the conference for EdChat moderators.
When doing research for the EdChat Resource Plan we found 89 chats had been started but abandoned. When we asked the moderators why the chat was stopped “Lack of participants” was one of the reasons. Community building is tough and the advice from experienced community managers makes it a whole lot easier!
Chapter 18: DigiDiversity & Startup Lady
April 2015-August 2015
Through following EdChat moderators I get to find out about all kinds of cool projects and the DigiDiversity SXSWEdu presentation to discuss minority women in technology is one example.
It is because of this presentation that I found out about Ramona Peirson and Declara. I have written something like 14 posts about Declara regarding my experiences as a user. This is one of the first products I have been an early user of and has been an interesting experience.
This service has exceeded all expectations and the potential for this social learning platform in education truly blows my mind. But I noticed that I had Declara in my database since 2013, when it was Peirson Labs when they attended a conference that I had a delegate/exhibitor list for. I also had an EdSurge article about them on file.
I took a moment to find out what projects people in my PLN are involved with and then passed the contact details of someone with shared interests. By doing so I’ve made some fantastic new connections with an organisation that was already on file.
Chapter 19: Chris Beyrle – 3D Printing
When I shared an update with EdChat Moderators about crowdfunding, Chris Beyrle asked if I could share details of his cause for a 3D Printer, I said I’d be happy to share the information and to get involved.
When exploring crowdfunding for 3D Printers to see if/how I might be able to help, I found there’s synergy with 3D Hubs and educators crowdfunding for printers. This could lead to more causes being fulfilled, the idea needs some development… but could work well.
Chapter 20: Tech Stories – Starting Up
So here we are. Four years ago I had a conversation with one of the “Big 3″ and my experiences were not sufficient to even get an interview, and Bill Aulet warned me how tough EdTech is.
At the weekend I had a Skype conversation with Good Audience, whose founders worked at Yahoo and Google, and GrowSumo, a Y Combinator startup that launched 3 weeks ago and is on fire.
Both said that education is a sector they would like to work in but are not focusing on it because they know how tough it is.
I’m going to develop some resources with them and a few other organisations who face the same issue and, depending on how these pilots go, I’ll know if there is a viable business to be had with the model I’m working on.
Whatever happens though, whether Tech Stories remains a personal brand… Or becomes a struggling startup I can guarantee you one thing:
Core Value #1 will be: Empathy
Collaborating and helping out where and when I can has worked better for me than cold calls and emailing corporate literature… So it appears to make plain good business sense.
If anyone would like more information regarding my experience please see www.Tech-Stories.co.uk or if you’d like to arrange to chat about my experiences, feel free to schedule a Skype call via this EdTech_Stories Calendly Page