Edtech Entrepreneurs Must Find New Ways to Build Community

As 2022 turns into 2023, EdSurge asked educators and education leaders to share reflections on learning “lost” and “gained.”

The COVID pandemic has brought a rush of new people interested in building tools and businesses to help improve education. And today’s tech environment, with easy-to-use tools and social media, makes it easier than ever for entrants to reach global learners and sell their products or services, so that anyone with a good idea and a laptop can get started virtually overnight.

But as someone who has long helped entrepreneurs enter and grow within the edtech space, I can say that turning a good idea into a working innovation that helps educators and students remains a challenge. Sustaining these innovations takes communities that have become harder to build in these times of remote work and lingering pandemic concerns.

To oversimplify early-stage entrepreneurship, the process involves iteration and benchmarking. It requires the entrepreneur to absorb and process such “data” as, ‘What have I learned about myself, my team, my customers, my business, my community and the world?’ ‘How do I apply this learning to reframe the problem I am solving, or the solution I am building?’ Like a young child testing their capabilities to figure out their place in the world, those who build early-stage companies must then test each new iteration with the market, their community, and their own expectations and ethics.

Those who iterate frequently and mindfully have a better chance of succeeding. With each step in the journey, the endeavor comes closer to identifying “land”—a market need that can be served more effectively or efficiently.

At the start of this decade, the habits, communities and institutions entrepreneurs had on hand to source data, iterate and benchmark—to “spy land”—were fractured. The happy hours and gatherings that innovators came to rely on for mental health and sanity-checks evaporated, and subsequently the same trust proved difficult to build online. The local ecosystem we grew our companies within changed as families and institutions became unmoored and fragmented. The “tribal knowledge networks” that existed for funding, market need, talent availability and “unfair advantage” had disbanded.

As online learning became more acceptable for institutions and individuals—and the only option for most—the ease of getting started created new problems for each entrepreneur. Thousands of companies born overnight meant many businesses were competing for attention online from busy decision-makers. Even savvy marketers found it difficult to cut through the noise, to stand out and attract customers. The competition demanded that innovators understand an increasingly complex landscape within which they needed to differentiate their solutions. It was easier than ever to get started; but it became more difficult to stay alive and navigate to a sure footing.

The “land” itself moved location and topography, as traditionally sticky relationships between innovators and educational institutions become mired in additional bureaucracy and anxiety about the future. This left many innovators and educators feeling misinformed, dated or disconnected. Aside from the innovators who happened to be standing in the optimal place when the winds changed, everyone else had to forget what they thought they knew and revisit what it meant to best serve customers.

A few years on, we are building new systems for entrepreneurial learning and networking. Instead of going to college to get a job, traditional students increasingly find or create a job that comes with college. Recently, for instance, Inside Higher Ed highlighted that the fastest-growing demographic enrolling in online universities like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University are traditional-age students. Online universities still serve working adults, but those working adults are increasingly traditional-age students pursuing entrepreneurship or choosing to do online degrees in technology while working.

These shifts have left others with a renewed focus on self, and freed them to increase their capacity to produce—the “startup of one” (i.e. creators). The creator economy has exploded, with over 200 million entrepreneurial creators now online, with each individual leveraging a diversified portfolio of platforms and business models. Although it takes six months before most earn their first dollar, 10 percent of creators make $100,000 or more, equivalent to the top 10 percent of wage earners in the U.S. Most creators learn how to build their businesses from each other, with each generation pushing the boundaries of content, business and self-expression.

As learners become more aware of the impact of their purchasing decisions, businesses are under increasing pressure to consider their environmental and social impact. This has led to the rise of social entrepreneurship, where businesses are created not just to make a profit, but also to make a positive impact on the world. We increasingly see these hybrids of incorporated form led by seasoned and budding entrepreneurs, funded by impact-oriented public and private resources, seeking to solve global and local learning challenges. They address problems that were either too big or too small for traditional kinds of companies.

The sheer volume of information available online can be overwhelming, and it can be difficult for edtech entrepreneurs to know where to start. This has led to the emergence of a range of online communities and niche forums, where entrepreneurs can connect with like-minded individuals and share ideas, advice and support. These communities—often in the form of accelerators or incubators—have become an invaluable resource for young or savvy entrepreneurs, providing a place to ask questions, seek guidance and find support. Rather than focusing on the right “data,” today’s environment calls for seeking the most fruitful “prompt”—the question that when asked of the community (or ChatGPT) results in the most effective response. Strong bonds are built in cohorts and like minded peers can call each other at 4 a.m. when the outlook looks bleak.

While traditional accelerators and incubators can be highly competitive, the new generation of inclusive programs are far more accepting, tailor-made for the participants involved and supportive. Programs like StartEd (where I work), as well as LearnLaunch, ProjectEd in the U.S. and many others globally now have more patient business models and nuanced learning experiences that recognize what it takes to solve painful and systemic problems in education.

Gone are the requirements of rapid growth at every stage of an edtech startup, which often lead to a sense of burnout and disappointment. We are seeing the emergence of a more collaborative culture, with entrepreneurs sharing ideas and resources in order to help each other survive—and succeed.