My experience in the Founder Institute program

Melbourne Autumn 2015 cohort

I went into the program having a pretty decent idea about entrepreneurship, having started and having run a non-profit for three years and working on Machinam for 18 months prior to the program. There were no real surprises out of my participation, but I can comfortably say that I got what I came for. I went into the program with the intention of developing and clear plan for the execution of our EdTech product and now that I am about to graduate, we are well on the way to accomplishing that.

What I liked about the program:

  • Accountability – you are expected to be accountable for your own performance in the program. The Directors are not there to hold your hand and spoon feed you.
  • Self-selection – there is a high proportion of people who leave the program (ours started with 28 participants and completed with 8). The majority of people who leave choose to do so of their own accord for a variety of reasons ranging from not being able to commit enough time, to pivoting late in the program, to realising the program isn’t the right fit for them.
  • Accepting of all founders - even though FI is a program for tech-based start-ups, it is not biased towards being a tech person, or having a tech co-founder (like I have found some similar programs to be – if your team doesn’t have a tech co-founder you may as well not bother!)
  • Pace – the curriculum is fast-paced. We spent just one week on each topic covering everything from validating ideas, through to revenue models to sales and marketing. I found this was enough to get a taste of each topic - not a deep dive, but enough knowledge to go back and work with later.
  • Supportive team dynamic – the culture of that was generated by the graduating participants was very supportive. No competitive vibe.

What could be improved:

  • Gender diversity – my main gripe. We had two female mentors (one of whom was a Director) and the rest were all male. However, on a positive note, our graduating class is split evenly between male and female participants!
  • Social focus – there appeared to be an underlying assumption throughout the program that every company is driven purely by profit. I did the program as the co-founder of a for profit, for purpose company. I did have some discussions with fellow participants (not necessarily those who graduated) who shared their desire to run a company that also provides a positive impact. As this is a structure that is gaining in popularity, I would love to see that reflected somewhat in the curriculum e.g. discussion about fundraising through methods other than investment, partnerships, measurement and evaluation.

How to get EdTech into schools

There is a very common conversation in the EdTech space that schools are hard to ‘get into’. It’s become an unwritten agreement of public discourse, but is it actually true? Well, if you treat your channel to school customers as you would a channel to business customers, then probably yes. But schools are their own unique phenomenon, and you need to treat them as such. So, how do you get your product into schools?

1.      Ensure your product is a painkiller.

First and foremost, your product actually needs to add value to the students and/or teachers. There are countless EdTech products on the market that have been developed without any input from the users, meaning they don’t actually solve a problem. The only way to ensure yours does is to involve your users from the outset. Know them intimately. Get into the classroom, spend time talking with teachers, hang out in the back of classes (it is possible to get permission for this if you develop good relationships with schools). Find out what the pain points are for your users and then solve them.

2.      Remove the risk.

One of the challenges you may come up against, particularly in education where risk-taking is, well…risky, is the reality of that adage ‘Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM’. In this context, sticking to the same, traditional resources that 90% of other schools are using isn’t going to get you into hot water, but sticking your neck out to try something different just might.

The reality is schools are risk averse. So, what to do about it? Remove the risk for your users. Have your early stage users involved in the product from the beginning. Engage them in testing your assumptions, trialling your product. Ask them what they hate about it, and then go and fix that. Show them from the beginning that your product works and will provide similar or better outcomes than the traditional alternatives everyone else is using.

3.      Appeal to the teachers.

The most common channel for EdTech products to get into classrooms is by being recommended by another teacher. So, you want to get teachers on board. How do you do that? Well, you can start with point 2, but there are many other channels. You need to establish relationships with teachers. Get creative. Think avenues like providing professional development for teachers, engage with the education community on social media, work with educational influencers – in Australia the likes of ACARA is a great start.

See more stats about usage patterns for digital technology in schools via The Gates Foundation Teacher Knows Best survey of over 3,000 teachers and 1,500 students.

4.      Patience is a virtue.

Don’t expect EdTech to be a quick buck. Schools are part of a large, bureaucratic system so they will likely behave in a bureaucratic manner when they are selecting a product. Acknowledge this is the case and build it into your sales pipeline.