How one edtech startup is selling to the impossible K-12 market (hint: it's not by going bottom-up)

By Erin Griffith , written on April 9, 2013

From The News Desk

Edtech and health care startups face the same problem when it comes to fixing up a broken, government-entangled system. They don't know how to navigate the world they're trying to disrupt improve.

The technique that's worked in most other industries -- disruption from the bottom-up -- does not work in education. Teachers typically don't convince districts and school boards to begin paying for a new technology, particularly when a freemium technology. The jury is still out on whether the biggest bottom-up edtech company, Edmodo, which last year opened its API, will make money with its model.

But the other side of that coin -- selling to schools at the district level -- is just as difficult. Getting in front of the right person is nearly impossible; getting approval involves contracts, RFPs, lawyers, review cycles. The procurement period is at least six months long, which is ages in startup time.

As I concluded in January in the post "Education startups: The bottom-up approach doesn’t work here:

The result? Large entities that are only comfortable doing business with other large entities.
So what's an innovative startup to do? Partner with those large entities. With that technique, Chalkable, a startup that has built an app store for educators, has paved its own sort of third way.

To back things up a bit, the Chalkable platform unifies all of a teacher's apps in one place, solving a couple of problems for teachers looking to adopt new technologies: For one, it automatically creates accounts across apps, almost like a Facebook OAuth or Google connect. So if a teacher chooses an app, his or her students don't need to create yet another account. As Florida-based Study Edge learned, students aren't exactly motivated to build multiple new accounts on whatever flavor-of-the-month service their teacher might be trying. Further, because Chalkable deeply integrates with all of the class data, the teacher can easily manage multiple classes using multiple apps all from one place.

Chalkable now has a handful apps on its platform including ClassDojo, Khan Academy, Google Books, YouTube Edu, Desmos, BioDigital Human, MathBoard, Back Channel Chat and Dropbox.

The company was able to get 50 schools using its platform by going through the painful district procurement process described above. "It was very slow and we realized that, no matter what, it was going to be multiple meetings and it could be a year before they actually tried your product," says Zoli Honig, COO and co-founder of Chalkable. The company couldn't handle that labor-intensive of a growth process, so they decided to partner up with companies that are already in the schools. Yes, the very companies Chalkable is trying to disrupt.

The company is in advanced talked with a few different established ed-tech companies for distribution, Honig says. The tech companies are looking for fresh growth opportunities and can make money by taking a cut of Chalkable's app sales.

"These companies are ten to 30 years old and have been doing this forever," Honig says. "They do the RFP's, the state contracts and the bidding."

"All of the stuff startups don't want to do, they have been doing for a long time, so they know the game," he says. When Chalkable is able to announce its partnerships, the startup will also announce a huge jump in the number of schools using its technology.

It's not bottom-up, it's not top-down. Chalkable is hoping it's crazy enough that it just might work.

Chalkable has raised $1.3 million in seed funding from 500 Startups, Expansion Venture Capital, Great Oaks Venture Capital and Prolific Venture Capital. 

[Image courtesy World Bank Photo Collection]