Why Every Canadian EdTech Startup Needs a Teacher

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At SXSWedu, my colleague at MaRS, Joseph Wilson and I ran our first-ever “Innovation Bootcamp for Educators.” Ably joined by our American friend and colleague, Elizabeth Pringle, formerly VP of professional development at the National Association for Independent Schools, the goal of our workshop was to give teachers some foundation to become more intrapreneurial within their schools and entrepreneurial in the EdTech startup world.

Having begun my career as an educator almost 30 years ago, during my talks in North America and around the world, I always tell the story of my early forays into entrepreneurship.

“You’re a high school teacher. You need to shut up and get back to class,” I was told by my department chair.

After this I became a lawyer, later returning to education, but my ideas were met with pretty much the same response. The perceived value of my entrepreneurial ideas while I was still within the school system – those that could make a tangible difference in how students learned and what their futures might be – were close to nil.

In practice, that hasn’t changed much for the vast majority of teachers. This totally kills what’s left of a shattered system, because the ones who have the tools to dig out of the deep historical rubble are actually discouraged to use them.

I spoke about this as recently as last Thursday, when I gave budding ‘edupreneurs’ their pitch prep session for the first-ever Startup Weekend EDU Library Edition, to be held here in Toronto this coming weekend. As I was talking about my early experiences as an entrepreneur, I was saddened to think that my message to educators who were considering entrepreneurship hasn’t really changed at all since I gave a keynote at the inaugural SETT education conference in Stockholm three years ago. That’s as sad as hell, really.

Every education technology startup in the world needs a teacher, but I’d argue that in places such as Canada (and Sweden) this is even more pronounced. Canada is a small market and few of our EdTech companies build solely for domestic consumption. This means that a greater range of expertise is required in the startup than in, say, an American EdTech startup intent on selling only in the US.

One of the amazing things about Canada is our strength in K-20 education. I remind people daily that this is something that a smart startup can leverage. But critical to being able to translate our domestic strength to a global audience is a really profound understanding of education, and this is where teachers come in. A teacher with deep vertical knowledge in a narrow area of education can help build a strong product. A teacher with that same vertical knowledge AND a broad horizontal understanding of and skill set in entrepreneurship can help sell a strong product in the real world and even in a Shark Tank.

When I look at the American EdTech scene, I see many educators who have become market champions for EdTech, entrepreneurship, and the things that their startups build. In Canada, this is a more recently emerging thing which, I think, has actually been a good thing. As is the case with our taste in that elixir known as maple syrup, we in Canada are more discerning. As a national EdTech community, we have defined ourselves less by shilling whatever was hot and newly-funded and more by asking hard questions about the quality of what has been and is being built.

And not everything being built will succeed – in EdTech or any other vertical. In this excellent Audrey Watters piece about when and why EdTech startups fail, she cites the example of (the failed) classroom data tracking and visualization tool, Knack for Teachers. The developer of the app blamed the failure of teachers as consumers as the catalyst for his failed product. As the piece points out, there were far more plausible reasons, including a flawed business model, better competing products, and a self-admitted lack of understanding of teachers for which, again, there is no one better than a teacher.

On that note, this Wednesday, in Toronto, my other partner in the MaRS EdTech cluster – Krista Jones – and I are giving a best practices workshop on business models in EdTech. If you’re in the city, please join us, as we will touch on some of these same issues.

Aron Solomon is also speaking at tomorrow morning’s Startup Breakfast in Montreal at Notman House. The title of his talk is “No-bullshit startup talk”.

Aron Solomon

Aron Solomon

A global strategist, entrepreneur, and advisor, Aron Solomon has close to thirty years of experience at the intersection of education and innovation. Having done much of what one can actually do in education - from teaching and coaching sports to fundraising, student recruitment, institutional strategy, and actually running schools - Aron was awarded a Ford Fellowship in 2003. As his leadership project, he launched the first independent school in-house consulting business, which became profitable in its first year.