As a teacher and administrator, I wasn’t connected to the world of startups before the last two years; I had to climb a steep learning curve when I began working on an edtech startup. I’m hoping to make this process easier for other educators joining the EdTech movement, especially those who want to participate in Startup Weekend Education events. If I could learn what I’ve learned this past year or so, so can any other educator.
Here’s some basic tips for first-time educators participating in a Startup Weekend EDU:
- Let your teacher and administrator friends know that you may be contacting them over Startup Weekend to try out some ideas. It’s great to have access to educators when you are validating your team’s idea. (More on this in tomorrow’s blog.)
- Let your students, friends, family know that you will be largely unavailable during Startup Weekend. You won’t have time to do any grading, prepping or responding to anyone with lengthy emails. You’ll be surprised by how much you throw yourself into the work your team is doing!
- When you pitch your idea, make sure to state clearly that you are an educator. It adds credibility to your pitch. Some developers and others will specifically choose to join a group with an educator. For more tips on crafting your pitch, see one past judge’s advice. *You do not have to pitch an idea! Some educators like to join teams for their first Startup Weekend experience.
- If you pitch an idea and pull together a team, then essentially you are the team leader and will be expected to facilitate conversations and workflow. Do not simply assign people tasks; take the time to find out what skills people bring and also what they were hoping to get out of the weekend. Most people enjoy the creation process, so be open to your idea transforming. Your team is not there simply to provide free hacking and design work (more on hackers and designers tomorrow!).
- Don’t assume that the audience or your team will be familiar with educational terms or even what’s good for students. Many non-educator participants really want to learn from your experiences as much as you want to learn from them. (See tomorrow’s blog for a glossary of ed tech terms.)
- It will be appreciated if you let other teams know that you’re happy to provide educator insight if they get to a point where they’d like feedback from someone in the field.
- Take full advantage of the mentors who stop by while your team is working. Use these “interruptions” as a chance to practice and fine tune your pitch. The mentors have a full range of experiences so take advantage of their different areas of expertise. Some will know the education space, some will be from foundations or venture capital firms and some will be successful entrepreneurs who want to remember what it was like when they were in startup mode. Don’t be surprised if some of the advice you get conflicts with each other–their advice depends on their experiences.
- Be prepared to experience a full range of emotions—at one point, you may feel like you’ve just created the next Facebook, only to feel downtrodden later that evening when you believe your business will never get off the ground. It’s all part of the cycle of turning an idea into something viable.
- Make connections with participants, organizers and mentors. A significant piece of the Startup Weekend experience is meeting folks interested in Ed Tech. Take advantage of the great wealth of expertise that attends these weekends.
- And most importantly, have fun!
Often Startup Weekend organizers will encourage participants to place different colored stickers on their nametags to indicate the skill sets they bring or the role they want to play over the weekend. For example, a green dot may designate an educator, while red would be a developer. This helps immensely if you have the beginning of a team but are missing a key role; you can actively seek participants with the color sticker you want.
Educator: This category includes K-12 teachers, administrators, higher ed professors and administrators, and occasionally other kinds of educators. Startup Weekend EDU is encouraging more educators to participate in the Ed Tech world, so that products developed will solve real problems in education.
Nontechnical: Some participants will have non-technical backgrounds such as business and/or marketing. Once I had a fabulous startup attorney on our team! Often non-technical participants can create financials and help with the business model. (I’ve found that many educators, including myself, are so focused on wanting to provide a service that helps teachers that we don’t worry enough about the business model.) I’ve more than a few fellow participants who already run their own startups and have invaluable advice to offer.
There can be significant overlap between the role of a designer and a developer. In the startup community, this can be amplified because an individual many need to take on more roles and will have a wider range of experience.
Designer: A designer is someone who basically creates the look and interface of a website or app; a great design appeals to its intended user and is easy to navigate. There are primarily two kinds of designers: graphic designers and web designers.
- A graphic designer is highly skilled at making the application look beautiful but may not have experience in making the application functional.
- A web designer may or may not have a graphic design background but has experience in making a site intuitive and functional for users. (A web designer will sometimes say they do front-end development.)
- You may also hear designers/developers share that they have experience in UI or User Interface design, which means they’re comfortable balancing technical functionality and visuals, e.g., deciding where to place a button on an iPad app and making sure that it works.
Developer: The role of developer covers a wide range of tech folks. Essentially a developer or “dev”is someone who is willing and able to code, though developers usually take on more roles than simply coding a project to spec. Most developers have a mixed skill set so they don’t fall neatly into categories, but here are some terms tossed around to describe different technical expertise:
- Front-end developer: A front-end developer creates the visuals and makes sure that they function. Some front-end developers also call themselves web designers.
- Back-end developer: Most of the work a back-end developer does is invisible, but crucial. A back-end developer builds databases and infrastructures that support websites and applications.
- *Looking at the creation of a website registration process provides an example of a function that needs both front-end and back-end work: A front-end developer/web designer would make sure that the registration button was in a logical place and clearly directed users to register. A back-end developer would create the database that would connect to the front-end, so that all of the registration information was logically stored to allow users to log-in and interact with the site under their registered name.
- Hacker: In the Ed Tech community, hackers are not malicious programmers trying to illegally break into computer systems. In fact, a hacker is someone who has high-level coding skills and genuinely enjoys understanding, creating and changing computer programs and infrastructure to make them do something different than originally intended. The title hacker is usually given to someone by the larger community as a sign of respect, rather than claimed by one’s self.
- Coder: The term coder is a bit dated because writing software has become more sophisticated, but it can apply to anyone who writes software. Coders tend to focus on doing specific tasks well, whereas hackers are known for liking to explore what a program can do.
- UX/User Experience: Someone who oversees UX or the user experience is responsible for the whole experience of the user from the first moment of clicking on the iPad, mobile phone or program through all of the facets of the user moving through a program, app or game. The goal of the UX designer/developer is to drive the user toward what you want. During a startup weekend, you won’t have time to iterate enough times to have a perfect user experience but folks with experience with creating effective applications can jumpstart the process.
- Gamer: More and more gamers are joining Startup Weekends for Education because there’s a movement to make some kinds of learning more game-like, particularly skills that need lots of practice until they become automatic, such as basic math computation.
- Information architect: There may be some developers who are information architects, which means that they have experience developing large-scale infrastructure. You won’t be building information architecture during a Startup Weekend—the lean startup model calls for continual iteration on a small scale and architecture implies larger structures. While you don’t necessarily need these specific skills, architects tend to have experience with other forms of development and design as well.
In the end, don’t worry if you’re not really sure what each job description means; just ask people what skills they bring and what they were hoping to do that weekend. Everyone’s usually friendly and happy to explain what they can and are willing to do!
What Educators Need to Know about the Lean Startup Model
Though an experienced teacher and administrator, I was a complete novice when I joined a founding startup team. I didn’t know lean startup from Lean Cuisine. Customer validation was making sure to get my parking validated at a restaurant in Inner Harbor, and an MVP was the “most valuable player.” I suspect that many other educators interested in entering Ed Tech are coming from a similar place, so I’m creating a glossary of some Ed Tech terms, starting with the lean startup concept. For those of you who plan to participate in an EDU Startup Weekend, the founders and many participants advocate a lean startup approach to creating a business, so it’s useful to understand the concept.
Lean startup model: Eric Reis turned his blog into a recently published book, The Lean Startup, which was #2 on the New York Times Bestsellers list. (Inc. Magazine featured a condensed version of Reis’s book if you want further reading.) Essentially, Reis developed a business model that encourages startups to find out as quickly as possible whether or not the business idea/product/service is viable. The path to achieving this learning is to create a rough version of your product that goes into a cycle of testing, iterating, testing, iterating, testing, and iterating until the product is viable. An important part of this process is early and frequent customer validation. The lean startup model came out of a concept in manufacturing where small batches are created so that there is minimal loss of time and money if the market isn’t interested in that version of the product. The same lean process works well applied to technology too. When creating a web-based tool or an app, you can create a mockup to garner feedback without building the actual product or feature, for example.
Minimally viable product or MVP: This is not the same as a prototype! In the Lean Startup model, the goal is to create a test the smallest piece of a business to see if there’s a market for it. Reis defines the MVP as “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” Essentially, you’re looking for the minimum set of features needed to learn from your early adopters because you want to learn early what users want and don’t want. It limits spending time and energy on products that no one really wants. Most teams try to develop a minimally viable product during a startup weekend, not the whole business. It looks great to judges if you’re able to validate your idea/product during the weekend. You may be asking, but how do I do that?
Customer validation or validated learning: There are a number of ways to learn about your customers and what they like and don’t like about your product/service. There’s also a big difference between what someone might say they like and what they’re willing to buy or do. The best validation is showing that customers/users will in fact want your product/service and be willing to pay for it.
You first want to see if there’s any interest. For example, if you already have a free product but are curious if people would pay for some additional features, you could add a button to your site that advertises the new version (which you haven’t built yet!). If a number of users click the button, then you have begun validating that customers are interested. If no one clicks, then all you’ve wasted is the time to develop the concept—you haven’t spent excessive money and time on something no one wants.
During a Startup Weekend, you’re likely to focus on establishing general interest in your product or service, and if you’re lucky, getting some users to act. There’s not a lot of time to build significant traction. One way to establish initial interest is to create a landing page.
Landing page: To test the viability of an idea, a single webpage is sometimes created to see if anyone will sign up for the product/service. There are several pre-built free pages out there. I’ve used and liked KickoffLabs as well as Launch Rock. What’s great about these programs is that they provide data: how many times the page was visited, how many visitors were unique, how many actually signed up. (There are some great programs with more bells and whistles for when your business grows and you need to track more complex user actions. At LessonCast, we use MailChimp).
Here’s an example: I joined the team TeenStarter at Startup Weekend EDU in Seattle. The concept for this youth-only site was to provide both advice on creating a business (how to pitch, how to develop an idea, how to market) and to provide a platform for students to pitch their ideas to get seed funding (micro-financing for teens). Our hypothesis was that a student would post a video pitch and then use social media to send it out to his or her network. Friends of friends might also contribute, until the student received the money he or she needed to launch a business or community project.
Here are the steps we took to validate the concept that weekend:
- We created a landing page ( http://teenstarter.kickofflabs.com/) and used social media to blast to contacts of everyone on the team. (KickoffLabs showed 73 unique views and 17 users signed up.)
- Again using social media, our team sent out a request for any teenagers who had an idea to pitch. (One 13-year-old relative of a team member uploaded a video late Saturday night!)
- Once we had the site minimally functional, we posted the teenager’s video pitch and at uploaded a PayPal donate button. (Our featured teenager needed $60; $40 was raised before final pitches on Sunday night. She had the rest the next day!)
For a Startup Weekend, this exercise demonstrated a good conversion rate, and was a fairly solid proof of concept! You shouldn’t expect to get this far on most weekend projects.
Conversion rate: It’s one thing to get users to your site; it’s quite another thing altogether to get them to act/buy/participate. For example, if you send out an email directing folks to a landing page, the first conversion rate will be how many viewers actually click on the link to that landing page. Then the next level of concept validation is how many of these users actually sign up. It’s possible to have more levels of increased engagement beyond this, of course. Each increased level of engagement provides more validated learning about what customers will do. In the Teenstarter example, one measure of a conversation rate would be that out of 73 people who viewed the landing page, 17 actually signed up by providing their emails.
There are other ways to validate what your customers like: interviews are often used.
Interviews: Interviews are a great way to gather information during and after a Startup Weekend. Just because you are an educator does not mean that you should assume that you know what all educators will want—still take the time to get feedback from other teachers and administrators. Other participants, organizers and mentors can help you get in contact with people outside your own educator circle. Asking educators on other teams is one good method to gather some immediate input. Showing two or three versions of a product works well to provide you with specific feedback about features.
Mockups: Remember that you do not have to create a full product to get feedback. A mockup can provide the same information with much less time investment. I learned how to use Balsamiq (free trial period!) at one Startup Weekend—it’s great for creating a design of a website or iPhone app.
Traction: Once you’ve validated your concept, you next want to build traction, something that’s unlikely to occur during a Startup Weekend because of the condensed timetable but definitely an area of focus as you move your business forward. Traction means building a set of early adopters and being able to get those adopters to do something. For example, if you’re building a community-based site, then your traction would be connected to how many users are interacting on your site. If you’re selling a product to schools, how many schools have signed? If you’re interested in investors, then they will be interested in your traction.
When you’re at Startup Weekend, learn as much as you can from other participants and mentors about other effective ways to develop your concept into a viable business!