The resignation of Arnie Duncan last week had me taking in a deep breath and thinking, “Brace for impact.”  I say this because I believe changes in accountability, which are driven by changes in ED administrations, affect our industry’s sales more than any other type of change.   Accountability is Education’s goal line, and you can always follow the money in B2E straight to it.  Take Google’s success with the Chromebook, for instance.  The driver behind that?  Surveys say online testing requirements.  The accountability trump card means districts must buy devices, now it’s just a question of which one?  

Google astutely anticipated what districts needed when acquiring a huge number of devices, and dominated in very short order.  But most B2E startups are not in a commodity race, nor are they squarely addressing the “must haves” of this decade’s accountability system.  Will that fact doom them to market penetration numbers on the fringe of the industry?

Not necessarily.  I mulled on this question seeing if I could name ed tech companies that obtained 20% or higher market penetration that didn’t overtly address accountability.  Whether the accountability is for assessment, data management, personnel management or other regulation, most of the big names in B2E won a commodity race around “need to have.” I thought of several widely used free platforms such as Class Dojo and Edmodo, but set them aside as my proof that you can win with a product outside the accountability lane for the time being because I guess I’m old fashioned and still count sales in terms of paying customers.

But then I thought of a “neat to have” that might be one of the greatest ideas of all ed tech time.  Accelerated Reader.  The closest this product came to directly addressing accountability was in raising the numbers of books students read.  I will concede that it arrived on the scene well before the accountability frenzy of NCLB, but it continued to grow and thrive in a variety of accountability environments.  I think it’s safe to use A/R as a case study in how to succeed as a luxury item.

  1. Simplification – A/R simplified a complex and time intensive process. Helping students select appropriate books was a nightmare for the librarian and often a failed process for the self-serve student.  A/R added sweeping organization and simplification to a long-time organizational problem.  Does your product? 
  2. Gamification – A/R gave teachers a gift in encouraging students to read. My macho son wore a necklace of colorful plastic beads to school nearly every day of 4th grade. Why?  His classmates were competing in the school for beads they earned reading books, all tracked in the token economy set up by Accelerated Reader.  Those necklaces, with their beads of varying point values, were a huge status symbol.  All teachers knew was that they didn’t need to cajole their students into reading – the kids were intrinsically motivated by the gamification.  Is your product lightening teachers’ loads by “selling” learning to kids?
  3. Feels Right – I have heard all the arguments against A/R as a reading strategy and I understand the concerns. But people have voted to keep using this product contrary to all these pedagogical disputes.  Why?  I think because it feels right on the whole.  Students are reading more.  Regardless of context and the loss instructional time for other initiatives, they are reading loads of books, which fundamentally is a good thing.  Does your product offer a similar sensible benefit even when the research might not back you up?
  4. Emerging Tech – A/R managed to put “the computer” to good use at a time when there was little justification for this newfangled equipment. It perfectly suited high student to computer ratios, and tapped into a funding source, Library Funds, that might have been able to acquire that equipment and the A/R license when the general budget may have been tapped for competing initiatives.  Are you likewise, and like Google, thinking strategically about funds, logistics, and how your solution doubles down on stretching educational tech resources?
  5. Business Model – A/R had a great for its day licensing model that was affordable, sticky, and created a barrier to entry for competition.  Is your licensing structure set up for mass adoption, word of mouth success and long-term sustainability or are you more motivated by winning a handful of blue chip clients, operating at break-even and fending off investment needs, or feeling like a high price gives your product a higher perceived value? 

I am confident given enough time I could give you more examples of extremely successful “nice to have” products, and I am confident they would score high on these 5 categories.  Even the couple of free platform examples I gave earlier are masters in the four non-financial strategies.  Score yourself against them to find out if you have a unique offering that skirts the safer but more crowded path of accountability, but can win on the road less traveled.

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