On our return trip from ISTE, our LessonCast team stopped over in San Francisco for an EdTech Meetup featuring Eric Reis. Wayee Chu from New Schools Venture Fund and Alan Louie from Imagine K12 began the event by introducing companies that launched through their respective incubators—great to see friends from Junyo, GoalBook, ClassDojo, and Remind101 all in the same room.  Also reconnected with friends from MySciHigh, Kidblog and Plickers. (Missed my friend from!)

Jennifer Carolan, from New Schools Venture Fund and longtime friend of Eric Reis, interviewed Reis before opening the floor to questions from startup teams.  This was the 3rd time I’ve heard Eric speak, so though the fundamental philosophy was not new, it was good to hear his theories applied to EdTech.

Reis began the event by sharing that “magazine profiles are all lies—they make it seem like a founder has a great idea and boom it takes off,” and his case is no exception. It’s what I call the movie montage effect—all of the hard work blurs by moving the audience from great idea to success. Social Network implies overnight success through its mid-movie montage–when in reality all of these ideas take work, sometimes years of work. (The same effect exists in music; bands routinely do the circuit for 2 years before they’re “discovered” and become an “overnight success.”) Americans are in love with the mirage of rags to riches stories.

Assuming a basic understanding of lean startup thinking, here are a few of my takeaways from this chat:

1. Do we have enough courage we need to maintain our laser focus and not get distracted by good ideas?I love this question because I’m prone to being pulled by lots of intriguing ideas, which can distract from an absolute focus on testing our main idea.  Jason Fried, cofounder of 37signals recently shared a similar strategy in the July/August edition of Inc Magazine as his company decided to retire some profitable ventures because they took away from their main focus. Sometimes the decision to put aside a fabulous idea is the prudent call.  Keeping a board with cool ideas to test later has helped me maintain focus without feeling like I’ll forget an idea I want to remember later.

2. No matter what you do, you will be embarrassed by your first product. Reis further stated that “if embarrassment bothers you, then you’re in the wrong business.” Reis clarified that an MVP does not mean low quality however. Instead it’s more about releasing a product in its simplest form. Reis somewhat jokingly argued that early adopters essentially have mental illnesses or defects, though he acknowledged that sometimes it’s more because the problem is too big and they’re willing to try anything. The traditional early adopters actually prefer a product that isn’t quite perfect because they want to feel special.  The MVP is more about creating opportunities for real learning than it is as much about releasing a product. Reis argued that any work that’s beyond what early adopters require is a waste.  You should have released it sooner if it has more than the early adopters required.

3. People are “predictably irrational,” which means we have to submit everything to empirical testing, even if logic dictates a particular response.I was particularly struck by the discussion around business models. Too many companies, especially in EdTech, believe that if you get teachers and students on board, then the districts will buy it. Reis acknowledges that this is logical, but asks is that how it really works? Does the district care what teachers and students think? It’s important to test the question.

Working in the central office of a large district (with over 100,000 students), I know from personal experience that this kind of logic does not dictate district-buying decisions. The process is far more convoluted and often disregards what teachers want entirely. Companies that are relying on a student/teacher adoption to lead to district adoption don’t truly understand how the system functions in reality.

Reis stressed that we have a mental model of how the world should work/does work but that’s never based in reality. We must ground our work in reality without abdicating our responsibility to hold our vision as entrepreneurs. We need to hold two contradictory ideas in our heads. Great entrepreneurs can one day believe they have the best idea ever, then the next day share the data and realize “they’re doomed.”  Well, I’ve certainly felt both, sometimes all in the same day!

4. We don’t need viral growth across everywhere. We really only need to put pressure on one school, one district to see if the premise holds. Then test from there.

5. How do we learn in a high stakes environment like classrooms? So glad that this issue was raised! As a lifetime educator, it’s important to me that companies recognize that students are not simply laboratories to be exploited. In addition, public school teachers are also under a very trigger-happy gun with the increasing federal expectations for student achievement. As NCLB moves to 100%, schools are panicking and will be reluctant to deviate from established practices. (Charter and independent schools offer opportunities for EdTech, as long as we recognize that the results may be entirely different in a public school environment. The charter and independent school market are limited.)

Reis suggested that one option is targeting the students who are already not fitting into the system.  When early on in my career, I first began teaching in a low-performing school in North Philly, I was given essentially free reign with my students because my particular students had been unsuccessful in traditional environments. The school administration really only cared that my students weren’t disruptive. Anything beyond that was a plus. Within this context, I was able to be creative about reaching these students—this early experience makes me believe that the strategy of targeting students on the margins may work because the risk is lower for schools.

At first glance, it might seem that what you’re really testing would only apply to high-risk students but the reality is that much of what is successful in alternative education programs is really just good teaching. These practices are just effective, if not more so, with “traditional” populations. The real difference is that many traditional students have been trained to put up with mediocre teaching, so they don’t resist.

6. Be wary of the false sense of familiarity with the education market because we all went through school. Reis acknowledged that if you’re actually a domain expert in one of these education markets, then you can skip some of the steps because you know the answers.  As an “actual domain expert,” I still recognize though that what is true of the districts/schools where I’ve worked may not be true of districts and schools across the US. I still learned much from testing our ideas with a wide range of folks.

Reis also reminded us that we need to know all three groups really well—students, teachers and administrators, for ex. It’s a complicated model and to be successful we need to know all components well, not just one or two.

If organizations don’t have insider knowledge, outsiders can sometimes use this outside perspective to advantage by playing the “naïve questioner.”

7. Avoid the trap of success theater by “only making promises to investors about things you care about—be specific about what you want to learn, and then be clear about what you did learn.”   Too often entrepreneurs aren’t clear about setting realistic goals and measurement accountability posts, then find themselves wasting time and energy making themselves look like they’re meeting the expectations they set.  Just be realistic and specific from the beginning.

8. Don’t repackage bad ideas within lean jargon when pitching to investors. It doesn’t work, and you’re missing the point.

9. Khalid Smith, my cofounder of LessonCast and global leader for Startup Weekend EDU, raised one of the most important questions for me: Are students learning? In the education space, we should not simply be concerned with customer acquisition, but our focus should also be on whether or not we’re making things better.

Reis acknowledged this issue in other domains as well—too often businesses simply focus on whether or not their customers are happy, not necessarily if their services are making them more effective. In other businesses, this may not be as important, but in education children are the end users, so we can’t simply make them happy or make their parents happy or make their teachers happy. We can’t lose sight of the goal to make teachers more effective and to make sure that what we’re offering helps students learn. Otherwise, we’re failing our kids.

10. Final advice: don’t listen to Eric Reis or any other expert.  As Reis shared, most advice is anecdotal; experts who suggest a theory are more useful because the theory can be tested in on a micro-scale. Everything we do should be based on real data, real empirical evidence, not simply someone else’s advice.

Thanks again for all of the organizers of this event!

Some great takeaways from an Edtech event with Eric Reis, expert on lean startup thinking.