How to grow an edtech startup

Written by Editor

02/06/2022

By Gabi Immelman, Founder of Mindjoy

 

Startups are not like the Field of Dreams, in that if you build it, people will come. It’s not as simple as building a great product, going to market and waiting for people to come – especially in the consumer space. 

In the consumer market, you build a product and test it with some users, who give you feedback that guides the changes you make – and then you iterate (repeat the process a few times). You work in a loop for a while until you think you might have a good product. Then you realise that part of your product has to drive growth and there are many different ways to do that. This growth engine is very much still part of the startup phase –  it is brutal and people don’t talk about how hard it is to get right.

Your product strategy has to be very aligned with your acquisition strategy, and you have to be focused on optimising to keep your customer acquisition cost (CAC) low. You have to find a growth channel that doesn’t drive up the cost of your product (unit economics). If you have poor unit economics, particularly in tough economic markets, no amount of fundraising is going to get you to have the fundamentals in place.

Mindjoy is still very much in the startup phase. Therefore, we are currently focused on what our growth engines are, how we acquire users, how much it costs to acquire them, and how to convert users into paying customers. 

This growth engine is core to the business and it takes a lot of work. You also have to be aware that what people want changes over time, so you need to focus on staying relevant.

 

People are everything

I believe the most powerful technology in any business or classroom are the minds in it. Great thinkers wield technology in a way that amplifies their thinking and solutions at scale, but ultimately it’s about people building and learning together.

I’m super bullish on learning from others. There are a ton of great people out there writing, tweeting and sharing their startup learning journeys. I obsess over other startups that inspire me, what they do and try to understand why they do it. 

One phenomenon that I’m interested in is small, high-performance teams that grow to serve a couple of million users. I love using this as a heuristic because you know this is possible. You can start asking yourself how they were able to scale to serve so many customers with a ‘two pizza team’, in other words 10 – 16 people. Aiming to scale growth with a small team influences your structures, systems and the type of people you hire. You might then make this a principle for how you design your organisation.

 

How you make decisions counts

At Mindjoy we prefer to embrace a diversity of voices, perspectives and life experiences, which leads to stronger, more inclusive teams and better outcomes. As individuals, we commit to raise tough topics and lean into different points of view with curiosity. We avoid judging people; instead, we are rigorous about thinking processes and ideas. We listen, learn and collaborate to gain a shared understanding.

When a decision is made, we commit to moving forward as a united team, always remembering that feedback is information, not judgement. We don’t always have to agree but we always treat each other with respect.

 

Startups are a team sport

Mindjoy wants to give people the ability to flourish, so we try to hire for strengths that fit. We work with people’s strengths and weaknesses to configure and build better teams. Another founder loaned me the idea that you hire for strengths, not lack of weaknesses. We constantly try to empower people to grow, push their limits and know they are capable of so much more than they think. 

Surrounding yourself with people who challenge you but also support you is what startups are about. Startups are a team sport. While working on your weaknesses is important to cultivating a learning mindset, as a leader you also need to make sure that people focus on the problems that they were hired to solve. You have to address the risks, while allowing them to play to their strengths.  

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Think carefully about how you’re scaling up

One of my core insights in building Mindjoy is that one thing making edtech companies expensive and hard to scale is that they need a lot of human input and support. There are many people involved in just getting one child through the learning system.  

One way of addressing this is that we have adopted a flatter hierarchy with our coaching team. As we grow, we think a lot about how we scale systems that embed our values and way of work. We think modelling accelerates your rate of learning, quite literally the idea of “show me don’t tell me”. 

With coaches, we model what Mindjoy sessions should look like in our weekly coaches workshop, we ensure we maintain a high standard by giving regular peer feedback (which are opportunities to give and receive feedback) and we encourage ongoing learning with the team. Also, we celebrate even the small wins with memes on Slack channels or shoutouts in meetings.

We want to be an operationally light team while reducing stress on humans. That’s why we automate processes and think through our systems from the design phase, so we don’t slow down processes and make the product too expensive.

 

Learning is a mindset

At Mindjoy everyone is constantly learning – we think that having a growth mindset is a superpower. This means we believe in making mistakes and we aren’t afraid to fail. We support each other when we’re stuck and we encourage our peers to persevere through challenges. We ask for support and we learn from each other. We don’t let past failures or successes stop us from taking future bold action and achieving our goals.

I’ve found it critical to have a learning or growth mindset. Skills are learnable and mindset matters in your ability to change your skills, strengths and weaknesses. This is something we try to engender and foster with kids, through coaches and learning support. 

We want to create a positive environment where we can talk about the things we struggle with, but also talk about the things we enjoy and excel at. We try to create ‘aha’ moments for children, as well as for our coaches and ourselves. I think the essence of being is having time to reflect, admit where we need help, and support each other and celebrate wins with our peers or community.

 

Advice for new edtech start-ups

“Edtech” is as broad a category as “start-ups”, so defining the space you wish to play is a useful place to start. Think about what kind of sale you’re going to make (are you B2B, B2BC or B2C?). There is no right or wrong answer here, just different paths to follow. The path you choose will inform and influence the product you build. 

Focusing on a niche, doubling down and going deep matters. I think people “pivot” too soon when a channel doesn’t work and the cost of product development is expensive. I started off with the aspiration to build a company that serves all young people, but trying to sell your product and build a business that targets “young people” is too broad.

You have to focus on your offering, focus on finding channels to distribute your offering, and test assumptions. To do that, you have to be specific with your positioning, your targeting and ultimately with who your customers are. This is a phase or process that you really can go deep into to get right.

Mindjoy is a consumer edtech company. There are two kinds of consumer edtech companies: ones where the student adopts the product and ones where the parent adopts the product. Traditionally, consumer edtech companies market to parents and many of these companies are very successful. By contrast, we exist for kids, which is challenging because kids are our users but not necessarily the economic buyer. We have to be extremely disciplined in remembering this, because it influences the choices we make and shapes how we think and build our product. The TLDR is that you should spend a lot of time on talking to customers, honing your positioning .

The other thing would be not to create one more app where content is your unique value proposition – content is no longer king. Counterintuitively, as learners we’re overwhelmed by cheap, abundant content. More access does not translate to more engagement or more motivation to learn. Instead, we’re working on solutions that drive behavioural change.

Gabi Immelman is the founder and CEO of Mindjoy, the edtech startup that’s for kids. She has worked with thousands of kids from all walks of life from Palo Alto (the heart of Silicon Valley) to the kids from the townships of Nyanga.

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