A successful referral culture for your edtech company can support growth a lot. Here’s how.

Graham Forman
5 min readNov 5, 2020
Image courtesy of Fauxels via Pexels

As a longtime operator and investor in education, I’ve spoken with many edtech entrepreneurs serving schools and districts across the country who are struggling to connect with new prospects and customers. The COVID pandemic has exhausted teachers and administrators and overwhelmed them with daily tasks. They have far less capacity to discuss exciting new projects and initiatives, which is what startups depend on to fill the top of their sales funnels. Not only is it difficult to reach prospects, but it can be detrimental to your brand if you’re filling up email inboxes and making phone calls when schools are overwhelmed with product offers. Some Superintendents are asking solution partners to just stop with the outreach.

While growth is challenging now for so many startups, edtech entrepreneurs can tap into proven, actionable tactics that both protect your brand and drive real opportunities into the top of the sales funnel. One of the most effective approaches is to build a successful referral culture with your organization.

What is a successful referral culture?

Culture is what people do when no one is looking. For there to be a successful referral culture, referrals must be part of the company DNA for all customer-facing roles. Having a referral culture means that all customer-facing roles (product, customer success, marketing, and sales) have the training, resources, processes, and leadership support they need to feel comfortable asking for referrals every single day. It means that company leaders set expectations that seeking referrals will be a key part of daily interactions with current customers.

How do you create a successful referral culture?

Creating a successful referral culture requires a sustained effort from the leadership team and for all customer-facing personnel to feel empowered to seek referrals. Some members of the team (e.g., sales) will be eager to seek more referrals, while other members of the team who may interact the most with current customers (e.g., product and customer success) may find it uncomfortable to ask for referrals because they don’t want to impose on the customer or distract from their focus on service and support. To create a more comfortable atmosphere with a customer, I suggest reframing the referral conversation as a desire to share the mission of your company with other partners rather than just a request for business introductions. For example, “Edovate Capital’s mission is to back the best impact-focused entrepreneurs who serve K12 schools and districts. Do you know of anyone else we should talk to?”

A first step in creating a referral culture is to set expectations with members of your team around how to ask for referrals. Here are actionable ways to do that:

  • Ask for the referral and make it easy for your team members and your customers. Offer to write the introduction for the referring customer. Develop a brief referral playbook that includes short messages for phone calls, emails, social media, etc. that the team can use.
  • No one can match the referral presence of your founder/CEO. Have them sit in on one meeting per year with as many customers as you can, especially with happy customers. The founder/CEO’s role is to ask for referrals once you’ve validated that the customer is realizing value from the product/service. Referral requests have more weight behind them when the founder/CEO is doing the asking to a C-level contact on the customer’s end.
  • Make the ask very simple and specific. I’m a Techstars mentor and I periodically get emails from their team that say, “Can you introduce us to one entrepreneur today?” It’s so easy and specific that I respond each time by making one introduction.
  • Know the networks that your successful customers operate in and ask for specific referrals to others in that network. For example, if you serve a customer that’s a member of the Council of Great City Schools, ask that customer for introductions to some of the other members. Get specific about certain school leaders you’d like to meet that are part of the network, then ask if they know them and would be willing to make an intro. I’ve seen founders put together a wish list spreadsheet of names/organizations where they’d like intros and share that with happy customers.

Second, it’s about building trust with customers that you’ll treat those referrals with great respect. You can accomplish this by:

  • Setting the expectations early, let the end-users/decision makers know that’s how you operate. Tell them that you’re working every day to share the mission of your company and that you’d welcome referrals once the customer has realized value from your offering.
  • Give presentations to customers on exactly what you do with referrals when they provide them. Give them peace of mind that you won’t just cold-call them or spam them.
  • Reward customers who give you referrals. Send them a thank you note with a small gift that reflects and reinforces your brand identity, give them a discount on a future renewal, or provide them with some free service. It’s also a good practice to extend a referral benefit for the person (or organization) that you were referred to as well once they sign up with your company.

Finally, there are some easy ways to imbed asking for referrals automatically into your customer touch points. For example, include something in your email signature like, “Did you find <our company> through a colleague? Please let me know who to thank.” The moments right after your customer has first signed up for or renewed your product or service is another opportune time to ask if they know others who would be interested in your mission.

In conclusion, now is the time for all edtech entrepreneurs to get creative in sourcing more warm, top of the funnel opportunities. Developing a successful referral culture in your organization can be a game-changer for growth during a difficult time. I’ve spoken with entrepreneurs who are getting 50%–75% of their new revenue through an intentional referral program incorporating many of the strategies and tactics above. Make it your own so that it represents your brand, but building a successful referral culture will drive growth now and for many years to come.

If there are specific approaches or tactics you take to generating more referrals, I’d love to hear from you.



Graham Forman

Serial edtech entrepreneur turned impact investor. Founder and Managing Director at Edovate Capital. #edtech #edchat #education #startup #innovation