Building Products That Deliver: Jason Palmer of New Markets Venture Partners Shares Advice for EdTech Startups
In both higher ed and k-12 markets, edtech entrepreneurs typically have one major goal: getting their product into classrooms. A great idea and a beautiful piece of code are one thing, but finding people to actually use it is naturally the end game.
So, how can an early stage startup get its product into classrooms?
According to Jason Palmer of New Markets Venture Partners, partnering with a well-known educational company can help. But not just any company.
Listen in to our interview from last October’s LearnLaunch Investor Summit, to find out what Jason has to say about choosing partnerships wisely, and developing a proven product that brings value to the classroom.
Play the podcast episode above, read the transcript below, or download it on iTunes to learn more.
Hannah Nyren: [00:00:00] This Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times and today I am speaking with Jason Palmer of New Markets Venture Partners. Hi, Jason. How’s it going?
Jason Palmer: [00:00:07] Going well, Hannah. Great to talk to you.
Hannah Nyren: [00:00:09] So, we were at an event yesterday called the EdTech Investor Summit in Boston. And it was run by the LearnLaunch accelerator. And you were a speaker at the event. Can you tell me a little bit about what you spoke about, and why it matters?
Jason Palmer: [00:00:23] The event was geared towards a lot of startups that are here, that are trying to figure out how their edtech products can get into as many schools or colleges as possible. These are folks that have been working on their companies for sometimes as long as two or three years. And they wanted advice from some of us who’ve been around the industry for a while about the best way to get their products and solutions into schools.
Hannah Nyren: [00:00:43] So what kind of topics were discussed during this panel that you were on?
Jason Palmer: [00:00:47] So one of the largest is, when you’re a small company with just five or 10 employees, what’s the best way to approach schools? How should you relate to educators? And so we talked for a good amount about how you know you need to understand the problems of the people that you’re talking to. What are the issues facing teachers? What are the issues facing principals, educators? Do you understand the different folks in the system? Because different people at different levels have different problems. And one of the best ways to do that is to partner up with a larger, more established company. We had Curriculum Associates on the panel. Houghton Mifflin was on the panel. Now, we talked about McGraw-Hill and Pearson to a degree. So one of the best ways to get introduced to customers is by working with other larger companies that already work with some of the schools are trying to work with.
Hannah Nyren: [00:01:31] Right. And I know those larger companies make a point of partnering with as many startups as possible to help diversify the different types of things that they’re working on. So, how would a startup founder go about doing this? What do you think the best approach to establishing a partnership would be?
Jason Palmer: [00:01:47] Well, we talked about that in pretty nitty-gritty granularity. The first thing is to figure out, is there a company that your product or solution kind of complements in some way? You don’t want to just say, “Well, Pearson is the largest.” Or, “Houghton Mifflin is the largest.” “I’ll just call the largest company.” That won’t actually work. You need to figure out, what does your solution do? That has another complementing solution that’s next to it, and then work with that complementing company, so that the two of you together can have kind of a better, more comprehensive story of how you can work together.
Hannah Nyren: [00:02:18] You can’t just take a look at what companies are making the most money and assume they are going to spend that money.
Jason Palmer: [00:02:24] No definitely, especially because schools generally looked down upon companies that are about making money. They’re looking for companies that really want to help kids. That really want to help students, teachers. Saving teachers time is probably the biggest thing that companies can do to make sure that their product is super easy to use. It’s something that teachers can adopt on their own. There’s not a whole cumbersome process to get it set up and implemented. So we talked a good amount about that too.
Hannah Nyren: [00:02:47] Right. I remember it was mentioned that writing is something that takes a lot of time, so students are getting an app for writing instruction because teachers don’t have time to grade it.
Jason Palmer: [00:02:55] Completely, completely. I think it elicited the biggest laughter from the audience, because teachers really do not like grading at all. It’s well known. In fact, one of the panelists, I think the gentleman from Houghton Mifflin, was saying that he’s looking for a writing solution that can basically chop vegetables and wash dishes and do everything all in one. And a couple of people in the audience tried to claim that their products actually did that. Afterwards, they came up to the stage.
Jason Palmer: So, we also spent a good amount of time talking about how it’s evolved over the last 20 years. So, it used to be that freemium models were really not very successful. But now there are a few companies like new Newsela, ClassDojo, some others and Engrade, Edmodo maybe, that are succeeding with a freemium premium model. And the larger companies on the panel didn’t really think freemium was the future. But more so, I’m thinking it actually is working for some companies. You have to be careful and make sure your premium product is really high value in order for it to work.
Hannah Nyren: [00:03:56] Right. I think the trick is to make the freemium model good. Good enough to get people interested in the premium model, if it has very distinct add-ons.
Jason Palmer: [00:04:05] Exactly right. That’s right. Exactly right.
Hannah Nyren: [00:04:07] Interesting. So that’s kind of something that’s been discussed about the past. What do you think about the future? Where do you think edtech is going in the future?
Jason Palmer: [00:04:15] It’s already going there, to a degree. But we’re still in the first inning. It’s going to be much more focused on can your product actually work. Is it easy to use? Does it help save teachers time or improve student outcomes? And can you prove it?
Jason Palmer: So, we spent a good amount of time talking about the efficacy movement that’s going on right now. There’s the Jefferson Education Accelerator, that’s working with a number of companies to actually determine how well their products work in the classroom. There’s Tom Kane’s proving ground over at Harvard, that’s doing a similar thing. There’s LearnPlatform, a company out of North Carolina, that’s helping schools measure through a Chrome browser extension. What is actually being used in your district on a regular basis? And it turns out that 65 percent of edtech product licenses are not being used at all.
Jason Palmer: So schools are spending a lot of money for licenses that they’re not using, and now they can actually kind of monitor it — almost like a Nielsen rating for how your products are being used on your campus or on at your schools. And that will result in changes because the products that are being used and are actually being helpful will get bought more. The ones that are just being bought and sitting on the shelf and are not being used, those will be canceled. That’s a big change because before, it was this kind of, “Let’s just buy it and maybe it will work.” That’s not OK anymore. More and more school districts are asking for proof. Does your products work? Show me how it works.
Hannah Nyren: [00:05:32] The pressure is on.
Jason Palmer: [00:05:33] Yes, the pressure is definitely on. And I thought I was going to be kind of the efficacy person on the panel, because I’ve been beating this drum for a while — dating back to the Gates Foundation.
Hannah Nyren: [00:05:41] But everyone was.
Jason Palmer: [00:05:41] Everyone was. There other companies were too. It’s a big movement.
Hannah Nyren: [00:05:46] I think that’s something that people have really seen in past couple of years. There was a giant influx of investment, but then people started to realize that they need to make more wise investments.
Jason Palmer: [00:05:56] That’s definitely true. In the past, you go way back to 2004, when I think Maine was the first state that did laptop programs for children, for middle schoolers. That was kind of a, “Let’s just give them all laptops and it’ll magically improve education!” And didn’t really work out. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure that the teachers are trained, that the teachers are bought in, that it actually does save teachers time. That the devices actually have useful content that engages the student in kind of an individualized way. This has been probably overly popularized with the phrase “personalized learning,” but those programs actually need to deliver individualized instruction to the students. That’s where people need to be making their investments — in making sure their products are really high quality.
Hannah Nyren: [00:06:39] And that students use them.
Jason Palmer: [00:06:40] And the students use them. Well, and now, with some of the, like some of the VR and AR programs that I’m looking at, I originally was a skeptic that this would be meaningful.
Hannah Nyren: [00:06:49] I think many people were. But right now, people are realizing it’s practical uses.
Jason Palmer: [00:06:53] Yeah, it’s sort of it’s either maximum hype or maximum excitement. But the excitement is starting to bear fruit. I saw one program, it’s a company called Meregin, that’s actually being used to train teachers. So, these are teachers that are going to education school, getting their master’s degree. And so, instead of, you know, you’re going to the classroom for the first time. Having to deal with students for the first time as a teacher, you can actually do kind of a practice session in a virtual reality environment. Get used to standing in front of the class, get used to classroom management. Get used to guiding students in small groups, calling on students. Some of the teachers at the University of Virginia who are going through this program, love it. Think it’s fantastic. And you can see that type of use case that’s like a simulation could be really powerful.
Hannah Nyren: [00:07:39] So what did you think of the Edtech Investor Summit? What did you personally gain from it? I know you were a speaker, but you also were around a bit. So, what do you think was the value of it?
Jason Palmer: [00:07:51] Well the main value of the event for people like me, for investors is: I get to meet a lot of entrepreneurs and see their pitches and talk to them afterwards and learn more about their companies. I meet probably 400 entrepreneurs, look at 400 companies a year. And these events are some of the best ways to get to know them, because they’re they’re not just presenting one-on-one to me. They’re presenting to a whole audience. There are people asking them questions, and sometimes knocking them off their game. How do they respond when they’re knocked off their game? So it’s meeting entrepreneurs, which always gives me a lot of energy to mull over.
Hannah Nyren: [00:08:23] Well, it was great speaking with you today. I hope you enjoy the next conference that you’re going to.
Jason Palmer: [00:08:26] Thanks Hannah. Great talking to you too.
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.