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School & District Management Opinion

Six Tips for Would-Be Ed Entrepreneurs

By Rick Hess — August 31, 2012 4 min read
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As I wrote on Wednesday, practitioners and entrepreneurs are seeking to launch new schools, deliver high-quality instruction, and provide new services to educators. We shouldn’t be wowed by jargon and good intentions, much less assume that any of these efforts will deliver--but we should ensure that smart, talented problem-solvers have the opportunity to succeed.

Now, I’m no entrepreneur, but I’m occasionally asked for advice by aspiring entrepreneurs and I do have a few suggestions I sometimes share. To that end, here are some thoughts that may be useful.

First, understand that success is not launching a nifty one-off, but requires building out efforts that can eventually expand to serve more and more children, educators, schools, or systems. This requires both resources and clients. Happily, there is a huge appetite among educators and funders for programs that offer some demonstrable evidence of success, so evidence of effectiveness can open doors and help secure resources.

Second, viability and growth require showing success, but it’s hard to make that case without resources and pilot sites. This can present a frustrating paradox for entrepreneurs. To break this chicken-and-egg dilemma, entrepreneurs need to scrap for initial resources, find sites where they can prove their mettle, and collect data to demonstrate their worth.

Third, from the outset, entrepreneurs need to be aggressive and strategic about collecting data and documenting their impact. Fortunately, there are a wealth of grad students and professors constantly seeking significant new programs and ventures to study and evaluate. New opportunities are particularly appealing to young academics seeking to stake out fresh turf. In return for exclusive access, entrepreneurs can get both the independent data and empirical analysis they need. This requires settling on credible metrics, collecting the data, and ensuring that the data are analyzed. Evidence of effectiveness opens doors to funders, districts, and grant competitions.

Fourth, when results are strong, it is vital for entrepreneurs to get the word out to potential clients. This kind of “marketing” is second nature for big corporations and snake-oil artists, but can seem a distraction to the most passionate and focused entrepreneurs. Nonetheless, it’s well worth finding time to find ways to push those results out through scholarly journals, widely read education publications like Educational Leadership and Education Week, web sites and blogs, and presentations to groups like the National School Boards Association and the Council of Great City Schools.

Fifth, entrepreneurs must think strategically about targets of opportunity. For instance, charter schools are immensely frustrating for tool builders or talent providers to serve because most are isolated units that are unable to purchase a service at scale. Any entrepreneur would rather deal with systems large enough that supplying them is economically viable. Now, the need to win access to some sites may argue for compromise. Charter schools, in particular, can be attractive partners precisely because they have fewer chokepoints to frustrate new providers and are less susceptible to turnover in the superintendent’s office. There is no universal rule here. Entrepreneurs need to make judgments based on context and circumstance.

Sixth, remember the importance of ventures that can be scaled cost-effectively. The most successful entrepreneurial endeavors today tend to be clannish--highly dependent on talent, passion, and committed staff--and therefore have trouble expanding rapidly or operating on a grand scale. The limits inherent in models that depend on limited resources, like philanthropic support or phenomenal talent, make clear the importance of those that leverage more plentiful resources. New ventures should always have one eye on the question of how their work might “scale"--or should seek R&D partners who will.

Finally, one proviso: all these tips are conditional. The most important bit of advice may be to be strategic and focused on the right problems. For instance, one intriguing, highly successful, but unconventional approach was that employed by the Grow Network, the David Coleman start-up that helped interpret high-stakes test data for parents, teachers, and principals and that is now a division of McGraw-Hill. Coleman noted that pilot programs can encourage new ventures to focus on designing solutions that aren’t scalable. Thus, Grow eschewed pilots and insisted from the get-go on citywide contracts. While this tack entailed big risk, Coleman has explained, “Building for scale transformed our product development and professional development from the beginning. We knew that since we were working with 4,000 teachers, we couldn’t make a thick, difficult product that required in-depth, one-on-one training. This approach is very different from building something that will work in one school and hoping it will go to scale.”

Anyway, for much more on all this, if it’s at all helpful, check out my 2010 volume Education Unbound.

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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.