As a K-12 Ed Tech executive and later as a consultant, I have frequently been asked for advice on acquisitions of small Ed Tech companies. At this stage, the objective is not to evaluate management practices and key talent, you’re really just looking at a product and determining if, given proper distribution, it will be a hit. It’s a tricky business, prognostication. So to help me make better evaluations, I took a page out of my clients’ book (teachers) and made myself a rubric.
An acquisition target doesn’t have to have all 20 of these ingredients to guarantee success, but the higher it scores, the better I believe the chances are. If you’re building a product, best to bake these in early on. If you’re buying, or thinking about going to work for a startup, these are the things I suggest you look for.
1. Improve educational outcomes. An evaluation begins and can end here. While solid research is rarely available for early stage tools, case studies and pilots can be reviewed to determine that a product lives up to its promises.
The Big Five. These are non-negotiables.
2. Engaging. The student is the ultimate stakeholder, and usage is king.
3. Ease of Use. To quote a common phrase, “ain’t nobody got time for that.” Must be intuitive and easy to implement.
4. Affordable. Most products are competing for a share of about $200 in variable spending per student. Pencils, teacher lounge coffee and toilet paper is in that number, so if you think $40/student is “affordable,” think again. Price alone will otherwise sink a worthy product, so if the cost of delivery is high and won’t scale, pass.
5. Differentiated. Students at the same age/grade but operating at many different skill levels must be able to access the content and platform. A tool doesn’t have to include very low reading levels and special needs accessibility as specific products are designed to address these audiences.
6. Educational Taxonomy. If you’re selling to schools, the product needs to “speak” K-12. That means formatting to appropriate taxonomies such as grade levels, classrooms, groups, standards, school-to-district relationships and so on. As easy as this sounds, crossover B2C products that lack this school infrastructure have a rough road ahead.
Deal-breakers. How well these are done can make or break.
7. Flexible. Schools are like snowflakes in that they seem identical until you look closely and find no two are alike. Not only must a product adapt for many teaching styles, curriculum mixes and educational objectives, it must meet multiple modes of use such as whole group instruction, small group and intervention. The wider a product’s range, the wider the audience.
8. Not OMT. OMT is my shorthand for “one more thing.” I needed shorthand for it because it comes up that much in B2E as in, “My teachers cannot handle one more thing.” A good product will seamlessly enhance the overall curriculum and lesson plan.
9. Technically integrated. As a follow-up to OMT, multiple standalone platforms are less and less desirable. Winning products can export to lesson plans, gradebooks and other dashboards, and can ingest student information, class schedules and assessment results.
10. Modular in design. This won’t apply to all Ed Tech, but when content is involved, it should be as modular as possible. I call products either board games or decks of cards. A board game product works like Candyland where you drop into the beginning of a course of study and move along a path. Today, educators prefer decks of cards that can be shuffled, drawn or discarded inside their LMS. Enabling that requires excellent taxonomies and search functionality, as mentioned above in #6.
11. Device agnostic. While this is ranked last among my deal-breakers, it is growing in importance. This is something that can change with time….most of the time. If a tool is highly developed only around one platform and cannot translate to additional, that would be a cause for concern. The more hardware a tool can integrate with, the more ROI a district gets from those hardware investments, and the more value it brings.
Hair-Splitters. One of these alone won’t sink the ship, but the future is so much brighter.
12. Allegorical to something teachers already do. This comes from analyzing the Ed Tech Hall of Fame. Look at Accelerated Reader for instance…it improved the library book club system. United Streaming bundled curated video content. Skyward took the gradebook online. Study Island is fundamentally an online test prep workbook. These are all simple ideas straight from a teacher’s workflow, and as a BONUS—they have existing funding to tap. If a technology is going to cause a huge paradigm shift it may be ahead of its time.
13. Motivational. Everyone is talking about how important gamification is to knowledge acquisition, because it stimulates us to want to win. Heck, I even gave up Google for Bing because I get Bing Rewards points every time I search. It’s addictive! Any Ed Tech product that involves motivational elements to drive usage will have a higher success rate and a higher renewal rate.
14. Student control. This speaks to engagement and motivation, but it pertains to movement within a tool. My own son once looked at a potential acquisition for me at age 8 and said, “I don’t know where I’ve been or where I’m going.” While that company will never know that a 2nd grader gave them the death penalty, I have forever since looked for how well a product gives students feedback and a sense of control of their path. They should have a dashboard and reports, just as their teachers should.
15. Parental involvement. Technology by nature enables parents to get involved in the learning process during non-school hours. Products that make this seamless, rewarding and simple are not only going to fit into Parental Involvement Plans and Funds, they are going to drive better outcomes.
16. Teacher involvement. Teachers can’t stand to be marginalized by technology, so if a product cuts them out of the loop—it is doomed. Even when it is desirable for students to work independently, such as on a practice app, the best ones offer a way for teachers to know what happened and how it went.
Nice to Have. More dollars per point here.
17. Supports many grade levels and subjects. Many Ed Tech products target 3-8th grades for a reason…students are literate and have the time and access to technology to interface. When a product or suite of products appropriately spans K-8, 3-12 or even K-12, funding and tech management is spread across more grade levels which is of value to districts. There is distribution efficiency for the vendor as well when more subjects and grade levels are sold together.
18. Bilingual support. It can’t hurt, but it can help.
19. Accessible to struggling readers. The number of struggling readers keeps climbing. Even though I already listed “differentiation” as mandatory, it isn’t a must have to engage ALL levels of readers. When a product can include even poor readers, it definitely widens penetration into low performing schools and districts, as well as for struggling readers in every school.
20. Short sessions. If the product has a session length, it should be effective when used for 20 minutes or less at a sitting. Long tech sessions don’t go over with kids or the daily schedule.
What did I miss? If you disagree or want to add criteria, please add comments below!