Why Teachers Make The Best Entrepreneurs
The best innovators, fundraisers, and problem solvers are often found at the front of a classroom.
These days more teachers are launching their own startups and developing products that may transform the educational landscape for good.
Great educators, unhappy with outdated books and off-the-shelf products, are showing a fierce appetite for the sort of tech tools that are transforming every other aspect of our lives. And the interest in these tools is quickly growing—2014 alone saw more than $2.3 billion invested in education technology.
Apart from the growing need for these resources, there’s another, much simpler reason the education technology market is taking off: the teachers pioneering this market make great entrepreneurs. Here are five reasons why:
Over the last few years, my company has evaluated hundreds of education technology companies and made several acquisitions. I’ve met founders who couldn’t sell water in the desert. I’ve sat through dozens of awkward pitches from brilliant developers who have a hard time translating ideas into words. Not so for great teachers.
Like great teachers, Steve Jobs had mythical power to convince coworkers that the impossible was possible. He sold colleagues, investors, and customers on big ideas by convincing them to expect more and do better. There is a reason that the single most important factor in student achievement is the classroom teacher. Content is critical, but research suggests that non-cognitive factors like grit and perseverance are game-changers, particularly for low-income students.
Great teachers don’t just teach; they make students believe that they can do it. They make it fun and make it matter. Ever try selling polynomials to a group of 13-year-old boys? Like great sales and marketing, the magic of great teaching is part substance, part entertainment—delivered live, every day, in 45-minute chunks.
Great teachers know how to get their kids what they need to succeed. Public funding covers the basics, but field trips, art projects, or a warm coat quietly delivered to a needy student often make a difference.
Teachers often leverage every available resource, including parents, local businesses owners, or their school principal. They are not afraid to make “the ask.” They are great fundraisers because they know how to tailor a pitch to their audience and hone in on the value proposition. In education-speak, that’s called “differentiated instruction.”
Teachers are also willing to put skin in the game. Research shows that, with little fanfare, most teachers spend on average $500 of their own money on classroom resources. Given the humility of most educators I know, I suspect that the real number is much higher.
Great entrepreneurs are willing to improvise, modifying their business plan as they learn more about their audience or circumstances. All too often, I’ve seen founders adhere to a product feature for too long, even when it became clear to customers—and investors—that it was a loser.
Teachers rarely have this luxury of time. They are expected to engage a tough audience, impart knowledge, and change lives between bells with a fixed curriculum and prescribed textbooks. Great teachers fail fast and pivot.
In a class of 20 students, half the students may be lost or bored at any given time. One student’s question can take a lesson plan in an entirely different direction. Snow days. Sick kids. Budget cuts. Teachers know how adapt, and do it quickly.
Why is it important that teachers design products? Because teachers know what students want and what educators need. Product developers think about the process of understanding consumer or user need as part of the design thinking process. IDEO and the Stanford d.School call this process “empathy”—trying to truly understand the needs and constraints users face.
When teachers create products for the classroom, empathy comes naturally—they understand the myriad demands in a classroom and can grasp the most effective solution.
Teacher entrepreneurs are rarely in it for the money. Last year, we saw more than 6 million teachers use our free platform to develop and share lesson plans, uploading 800,000 digital resources. They do it out of a desire to share and collaborate, an intense frustration with the status quo, and the knowledge that there is a better way. They want the best for their kids. When an entrepreneur is passionate about their product and customers, investors know it and customers get it.
—Rob Grimshaw is the CEO-elect of TES Global, having joined the business in November 2014 as chief operating officer. He joined TES from the Financial Times, where he worked for 16 years and led the development of its successful digital business. Find him on Twitter at @r_g.