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Riders on the Storm

By Chapman Snowden — April 12, 2012 5 min read
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Note: Chapman Snowden is the founder of Kinobi and an innovator in training at 4.0 Schools.

So I casually mentioned the entrepreneur’s tension between confidence and hubris in yesterday’s post. It is not a tension to be taken lightly, as it is an important factor in our success as ed tech entrepreneurs. From day one of existence entrepreneurs are navigating stormy weather. Funders will tell you your idea sucks. Co-founders and employees will screw you. Policymakers will ignore you. And researchers will throw their best practices garbage at you.

Confidence will get you through that storm--to be confident is to have the gall to push our organizations forward amidst a myriad of obstacles while remaining flexible. Hubris punches a massive, self-inflicted hole in the hull of your ship before you even hit that storm. Hubris will tell entrepreneurs that the funders, et al simply don’t understand the power of the idea.

Ed techies cannot be afraid of failure; it’s merely a direction that we will have to navigate from time to time to find the opportunities to succeed. Confidence will help you navigate through failure--I’m confident that I, as an individual, can eventually succeed. I’ve failed throughout my life as a student and a professional. But I have had the luxury that, more often than not, my failure has been a result of my own action or lack thereof.

The stark reality is that we as ed tech entrepreneurs can do everything perfectly, from ideation to execution, and our start-ups could still fail miserably. That is utterly terrifying.

Confidence and hubris can be mistaken for one another in the early stages of product development. It seems like everyone in the start-up world has drunk the minimum viable product (MVP) Kool-Aid. To be clear, I am part of this group, and it tastes delicious. An MVP is essentially a version of a product with the minimum set of features necessary to learn from your evangelists. The concept of minimum is not universal--as an entrepreneur you must figure out what “minimum” means to your product and your user. But in the end, an MVP is a product that is a step above totally sucking, and can hopefully inspire your evangelists to help fill in the feature gaps as you navigate towards success.

Hubris leads ed tech entrepreneurs to think that if they develop an MVP and continue to iterate, they will more than likely succeed.

Confidence will help entrepreneurs recognize the more important determinant of success, especially for ed tech entrepreneurs, revolves around the minimum viable ecosystem. This is basically saying we must think about the minimum number of other players--policymakers, funders, potential partners, and users--that must change with us to empower our innovation. I first read about minimum viable ecosystem in a great book called The Wide Lens: A New Strategy for Innovation by Ron Adner, a professor at Tuck Business School at Dartmouth. In it Adner writes:

Greatness on your part is not enough. You are no longer an autonomous innovator. You are now an actor within a broader innovation ecosystem. Success in a connected world requires that you manage your dependence. But before you can manage your dependence, you need to see it and understand it. Even the greatest companies can be blindsided by this shift.

There are some great examples of giants in other industries falling prey to not considering the minimum viable ecosystem. Companies like Michelin created an amazingly innovative product in their run-flat tire, which significantly reduced the number crashes caused by punctured tires. Michelin’s innovation failed as a commercial product, though, because service stations couldn’t re-tool to fix the new tires. Similarly, Sony failed with its first e-reader in 2006 simply because it couldn’t get publishers to sign on due to the lack of a solution to digital rights management. To an ed tech entrepreneur, it’s terrifying that such well-established and well-run companies can overlook the minimum viable ecosystem. But even scarier is that these companies did so while still wielding the power to influence their ecosystem.

Most ed tech start-ups don’t even stand a chance of influencing their ecosystem--we lack the ability to change the pattern of interactions among the players in the system. For example, as we develop better and easier to implement solutions, we see district procurement processes become even more cumbersome. We exist in an ecosystem that is as resistant to change, if not more, than any other system in our country. This is true from federal policy to the major players all the way down to individuals in schools.

So what do we as ed tech entrepreneurs need to do to develop that minimum viable ecosystem? Since we don’t all share the same ecosystem, I’ll speak solely from the perspective of my start-up, Kinobi. Kinobi is a software-platform that uses the Microsoft Kinect to provide teachers targeted coaching on behavior management techniques. To succeed, Kinobi needs to:

Separate the concept of teacher training from the conversation on measuring teacher effectiveness. First figure out how to offer great training, then measure its effect.
Combine the training philosophies of alternative certification, residencies, coaching services, and in-house professional development to be one streamlined training regiment for teachers.
Relocate the basic training of teachers from out of the classroom into environments where it is safe to fail.
Add the concept of “practice” to the teacher training belief system, especially in schools of education.
Eliminate the reliance on “on the job training.”

Hubris will make me think that a great product is the solution to my needs. Confidence will force me to think through how to organize the minimum viable ecosystem to make success a possibility.

I sang New Orleans’ praises as a model city for adopting and implementing innovation. It’s crucial that we as a city keep in mind that this is a relative advantage; we’re by no means perfect. New Orleans is instrumental in a broader movement, but we cannot rest on our relative advantage to other education ecosystems and expect to push the movement forward. We have the opportunity to become an absolute model city if we continue to enable practitioners--school leaders, teachers, and ed tech entrepreneurs alike--to re-organize their ecosystems.

So this is a plea, both to New Orleans and the rest of the country, which I’ll match with a promise. If the power holders of the education world--the funders, the policymakers, the bureaucrats, the institutions, and the Kaiser Sozes--stop steering ed tech entrepreneurs and start to evolve with us, we will design things that can flat out get shit done. As far as I’m concerned, you can even take the credit for my success. But if you continue to steer ed tech entrepreneurs--if you try and shoehorn us into your hypotheses on ed reform--we’re all going down in the storm.

--Chapman Snowden

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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