Confessions of a failed edtech entrepreneur

A while ago I reflected on being a stay at home dad. Now that I’ve been back teaching for six months, I think the time is right to reflect on another interpretation of my last four years, that of a failed edtech entrepreneur.

The closing of ideasLAB due to the restructure of the Victorian Education Department was extremely disappointing. Sadly, it is hard to imagine that working for Bruce Dixon for four years, will be topped in my professional life. ideasLAB was formed in 2009, when the ideas of the lean startup were just starting to gain traction. We tried to use some of these ideas at the lab, in order to be more likely to make decisions that offered real value for schools. My voluntary departure payout, which included an undertaking not to work in a government school for twelve months, gave me an opportunity to pursue the entrepreneurial dream. A dream, I ended up pursuing for four years.

Unlike most educators and academics I don’t have scorn for edutech companies. Though, their frequent media releases announcing their plans to “save education” do get old.  Rather, I believe that (unfortunately) education entrepreneurs are our best hope for improving pedagogy. In our current climate of data and performativity, school leaders seem unwilling or unable to try alternative learning and teaching approaches. This is despite the clear failings of current mainstream teaching and learning approaches. External companies, and consultants, appear to offer alternative paths, where school leaders can implement new approaches in their schools without putting their own neck on the line.

To understand the current entrepreneur, and their education startups, you need to understand the lean startup methodology. Lean startup, which has its roots in lean production and agile software development, was conceived and popularised by Eric Ries in 2008. Essentially, lean startup believes that startups are businesses looking for a viable business model. It assumes that an entrepreneur’s assumptions about their product and customers are wrong, and that they will most likely need to be radically changed before a viable business model is discovered. These beliefs, along with their tools and processes, are well established in software development, making a receptive environment for lean startup beliefs, tools and processes. Over the last ten years, lean startup has become the dominate entrepreneurship approach from startups to academia to multinationals.

What makes lean startup a fantastic approach, is that it assumes that the chosen approach is most likely flawed. The lean startup assumes that the entrepreneurs understanding is incomplete, that their assumptions are wrong, and they technologies change the business environment. It allows entrepreneurs to make good decisions in environments of extreme uncertainty and constant change. A lack of time and money is the enemy of the startup and lean startup provides a proven methodology to counter these.

Unfortunately, lean startup has problems. Major problems. When success is defined solely in dollars and cents, problems occur. Uber and AirBnB, and the rise of the sharing economy, are classic cases of this. Despite the rhetoric, the only metrics edtech entrepreneurs have or care about is sales. Not that sales are necessarily a bad thing but when they become the sole focus educational worth becomes lip service. Education startups, using the lean startup approach, won’t build their product until someone will buy it. Education startups cold call schools to sell a product that doesn’t exist. While this is great for product-market fit it doesn’t have anything relevance for understanding whether their product will actually improve student learning or work as claimed.

Despite slogans about improving education and learning, education startups don’t have metrics for this. The only measure of success they have is whether someone is willing to buy their product, and how far their product is towards hockey stick growth. Edtech startups, using lean startup, have resulted in a race to the bottom. They prey on the fears of school leaders. They make outlandish claims about improving learning when in reality they usually push outdated behaviourism, and over collect student data.

For lean startup to have a place in education, it needs to tackle the questions 1) what’s worth doing, and 2) what works. This should be easy as lean startup adherents know that it is most likely that what they believe is wrong. Yet, currently, edutech companies don’t believe, or want to believe, that what they are offering might not be good for students.

Until that day, most if not all edutech startups are just wasting everyone’s time.


And, my confessions:

I never found product-market fit.

I built a solution that no one wanted.

I continue to believe, that my idea still might work.

Even though, deep down, I know I’m wrong.

2 thoughts on “Confessions of a failed edtech entrepreneur”

  1. Thanks for this post Richard. As I have said to you previously “Welcome to the sharing economy.” You make an important point stating that many start-ups or ongoing ed service providers do push outdated behaviourism. Much of what is pushed to teachers as being innovative is still underpinned by behaviourist world views. At the very start of this Year my school had a whole day PD run by an external business. They began the day with a PowerPoint slide (bad start) that depicted a 21ST Century Learner but beyond a 1min description of the modern learner, every idea/approach was underpinned by behaviourist ideologies. I had one of those F&%Ck this moments. Schools talk of 21stC learning and constructivist approaches but they are not ready for it. Scholarly evidence points to changes in rhetoric with no change in practice.

    I tend to disagree with your comment that we need to rely on external companies to find the correct path… in our current climate of change we can either be shaped by emerging tech/ideas or we can shape those factors ourselves. In the classroom we all need to have those F&%Ck this moments and teach to suit our changed contexts off teaching and learning and allow the very unique students under our care to learn.

    1. Hi Simon,

      Thanks for the comment, and yes this post was inspired by our brief chat the other day. I don’t think external providers are the most likely to work, or the most ambitious, but I do believe most school leaders are reluctant to change and need the reassurance of external providers. Hopefully this will change. Cheers.

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