Want your ed-tech product to survive? EverFi's Tom Davidson says to think about a distributed work force
For every seemingly (key word) useless thing we learn in high school, whether it's the Pythagorean theorem, the difference between ionic and covalent bonds, or just what in the hell "onomatopoeia" means, there's something applicable to so-called (key phrase) "real life" that goes untaught, such as the importance of credit and the dangers of substance abuse.
That's the thinking behind EverFi, a profitable ed-tech startup present in over 6,000 schools (across all 50 states) that aims to teach students about meaningful subjects that fall outside the core curriculum. The company launches programs about relationship/domestic violence, substance abuse, financial literacy, and civic education in schools with the support of organizations like the United Negro College Fund, Teach for America, and the JP Morgan Foundation, among others, and has expanded to some 150 employees across 25 states since its launch in 2008.
EverFi co-founder and chief executive Tom Davidson, who was formerly a state legislator in Maine, says that one of the key drivers of EverFi's success -- and many would consider a profitable, widespread education-tech business a success -- is its distributed workforce, which "travels from school to school" helping teachers and administrators adopt the platform.
"Any company in the country who is expecting their technology to just magically appear on the doorstep of schools and integrate itself is going to be very surprised," Davidson says, "And they're going to burn through a lot of capital doing that." For the next five to 10 years, he adds, any startup "serious about getting new technology into schools is going to have to have a very large, distributed workforce out in the field helping teachers integrate [their products.]"
It's hard to break into education. Unlike, say, a new email application, photo-sharing service, or social network, education-minded startups have to jump through many administrational hurdles whilst simultaneously struggling to appeal to teachers and students alike. And, unlike certain transportation startups, ed-tech companies can't just launch and hope for the best -- they've gotta do things the long, hard way.
That is especially difficult in schools that have suffered through not-so-stellar services in the past. Mention Blackboard to any teacher who's used the system for any amount of time, and you'll witness a fury typically reserved for lesser demons. Someone burned by, say, CourseSmart is less likely to jump at the opportunity to integrate a new product or service into the already hectic job of molding young minds.
"I feel like that is, for the time being… there may be a backlash [against new products and services]," Davidson says. "Teachers grab this stuff and they probably don't have the internal IT infrastructure to help them integrate this into their existing courses, and then they get frustrated [with a product] and the next guy who walks through the door gets the arrow."
While this might become less of a problem as "the Internet generation" starts growing up and teaching the young-in's, as my colleague Richard Nieva (basically) put it last Friday, for now it's an obstacle many ed-tech startups will have to hurdle, Davidson says.
"In an ideal world you'd have a lot better margins by not having a distributed service force out there," Davidson says. "But the bottom line is that anyone serious about ed-tech right now is going to need that."