Selling products and services to schools can be very difficult. In a few weeks I will attend the ISTE Conference in Atlanta, where I will spend most of the time talking with select companies who will be promoting their wares in the Expo Hall to the thousands of educators in attendance. I plan to collect survey information from these for-profit and non-profit companies to see what we can learn from their experiences in working with schools.
Anyone who is trying to create innovative products to sell to schools will tell you about the enormous challenges of this goal. Even if you start with millions of dollars and are backed by some powerful people, your efforts are likely to fail. Consider the example of inBloom.
A few months ago inBloom CEO Iwan Streichenberger announced that the nonprofit company was closing shop after enduring senseless frustrations in overcoming the complexity of working with schools. Especially disheartening was the intentional disinformation from certain influential leaders in education and parent groups about their intent. Even though schools desperately need a way to share data between various applications (e.g., student information system, learning management system, core and supplemental content, assessments, etc.) in order to streamline the personalization of the experience for each student, the "evil" intent of Bill Gates and company was too much for this solution to be accepted.
The arguments regarding protecting student privacy are understood and important to consider, but the time and expense for schools/districts to develop their own answers to this dilemma forces consideration of some common ground. School improvement requires a disciplined approach to the governance, operations, administration, and learning design. The bureaucratic, politicized structure of education, however, will impede any real change within the current system.
One of the biggest challenges in building a company that delivers valuable services to schools is the complex sales process. Committees, school boards, turnover, antiquated procurement rules, etc., combine to produce an average sales cycle of 20-30 months! That requires significant cash investment for almost three years before realizing sufficient returns. Even though schools are in dire need of innovative solutions, the very nature of these organizations (public and private) makes it too expensive for many companies to stay in business.
Are education leaders smart enough to resolve these issues to achieve school innovations? Some are pushing forward reforms that are making a difference and we'll be sharing about those schools/districts over the next few months.