There’s a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm around K12 edtech companies in 2021. This is partly a result of the disruption wrought by the pandemic as schools were forced to adopt new technologies overnight in an effort to move to emergency virtual learning. Edtech went from being a nice-to-have tool to a must-have necessity and demand spiked. It also stems from the fact that digital tracks in schools were put down in the 2010s with broadband adoption in schools reaching 99% in 2019, ready access to inexpensive devices led by Google Chromebooks, and the emergence of cloud computing as a platform that allows entrepreneurs to reach countless users almost instantly (no more packaged, shipped software necessary).
With the convergence of these macro-trends in K12, we have predicted a technology revolution in schools for years and it now is upon us. But is the technology revolution due to these macro-trends alone or is there more to the story? I argue that there’s more to the story and that innovation in go-to-market models is the big reason why. To set the stage, allow me to reflect on where we’ve come in K12 B2B in recent years.
Earlier in my career, I was a VP of Sales, Marketing, and Business Development across multiple SaaS companies during the 2000s that served education institutions — both K12 and Higher Education. We built and sold software that served teachers, administrators, and staff and it was sold top down into schools and districts. We met with administrators who approved the purchase and then we introduced it to end users and trained them across the school or district. To market the software, we attended conferences and other events, sent emails, and made phone calls to set up meetings with administrators.
This process got the job done, but frankly, it was a slog. We made countless outreach attempts to set up meetings with school leaders and, typically, just a tiny percentage of them were successful in getting a meeting and even fewer were successful in securing a sale. It’s hard to set up sales meetings with school leaders who don’t really want to be sold in the first place. We long searched for faster, more efficient ways to engage with customers and we made incremental improvements, but no major breakthroughs. We kept at it and over a period of many years we amassed thousands of school district customers through perseverance and massive investments in marketing and sales. In my operating days, we built several successful businesses at scale, but again, it was a slog. This was the era of marketing- and sales-led growth.
Good K12 businesses were built during this era and there are good businesses still being built with this model. But as we look across the K12 landscape today, there are numerous businesses who’ve grown to serve tens of thousands of schools, hundreds of thousands of teachers (even millions in a few cases), and tens of millions of students in just a few short years. On top of that, these transformative companies amassed these customer bases with relatively modest investments in marketing and sales. For companies like Seesaw, Nearpod, Newsela, Remind, Pear Deck, Duolingo, Kahoot!, and others their scale is not just a result of the technology macro-trends of the 2010s that I mentioned earlier. If the sole reason was the technology macro-trends, then why isn’t every startup in K12 reaching massive scale?
I believe there’s a more fundamental reason why these companies have unlocked this explosive growth in such a short amount of time: It’s because they’ve figured how to delight a large number of end users (teachers, students, parents) with products that are consumer-friendly, frictionless to adopt, and create instant value. In a nutshell, the emergence of successful product-led growth (PLG) models in K12 is replacing marketing- and sales-led growth in many of the fastest growing companies. These K12 entrepreneurs have essentially built products that sell themselves by developing products that users can activate, use, and get instant value at no cost.
So, for K12 entrepreneurs interested in unlocking this explosive go-to-market model (and who wouldn’t be?), let’s look at the conditions necessary for this type of explosive product-led growth. Here are five conditions that need to exist for a successful PLG model:
- A large “n” or addressable universe of end users who can use your product. There are ~3.7M teachers and ~55M students in K12 in the U.S. and many more internationally. Ideally, the “n” is large enough for you to amass 100,000 or more users in a single year. All the most successful PLG companies in K12 focus on a user base with a large “n.” Seesaw, Pear Deck, Nearpod, and Newsela focus on the teachers and students while Remind focuses on teachers and parents. If the “n” is large enough, you can activate 100K or more users in a single year and still only engage a small fraction of the overall market. I would argue that the “n” is not large enough for a PLG go-to-market strategy with school administrators. For example, there are about 140K school principals in the U.S., which is too small for you get the kind of PLG adoption needed for massive scale.
- A great onboarding process. Every product’s onboarding experience is different, and it should be. In general, the most important elements of a onboarding experience are shortening the time to value, leading a user to their aha moment, and getting them to activate faster. In K12, Kahoot! is an example of a great onboarding process. Kahoot! has a simple sign-up process (with optional Google, Microsoft, or Apple SSO) and then you go instantly to entering a PIN to play a game or to create your own. For most users, the aha moment comes quickly as one plays the game, answers fun questions, and learns new facts. For more insights on creating a great onboarding experience, check out this Appcues article.
- A delightful experience for the end user. Like a great onboarding experience, a delightful user experience takes many different forms across different products. Some of the best ideas for creating a fantastic user experience include incorporating behavioral design and new technologies, gamification, and the creativity of your team. A great user experience is simple and intuitive and the interface itself appears to anticipate our needs. In education, Duolingo provides a delightful user experience. It’s a gamified learning platform where all visual and game elements are part of a fun, meaningful user experience. All elements are designed to help turn learning into a joyful and exciting experience. For more insights on creating delightful user experiences, take a look at this article.
- Tapping into viral growth by empowering users to share the product with other users. For some products, viral growth happens naturally with products whose value is enhanced by sharing with others. Essentially, when virality is baked into the product, you’ve got a built-in growth advantage. Some of the best examples are Slack, which powers internal communications in organizations, and Dropbox, which provides cloud-based file sharing. In K12 edtech, Remind and Kahoot! are excellent examples of products that users love to share with others because they get more out of the product when they share it. For other startups that don’t have a baked-in reason to share the product with others, product leaders can develop referral incentives such as product payment credits or discounts, unlocking additional features, or an exclusive experience for sharing the product with other users. Referral incentives are more effective when both the referrer and the recipient are rewarded for taking action. It’s not easy to do, but when you discover it, viral growth is a huge advantage for companies, because it’s free (or close to it) and compounds. It creates a flywheel — more users will bring more exposure, which in turn will bring more users. Companies that have developed great referral incentive programs include Google (Google for Work), Uber, and Airbnb. For more insights on how to develop a world class referral incentive program, check out “9 Best Referral Programs That Went Viral & Helped In Exponential Growth.”
- Access to data. The best PLG companies are serious about their data. You’ll want to plug in a data tool that tracks sign ups, activations, usage, viral growth (the metric is called K-factor), and more. They are also relentless experimenters. You’ll want to conduct A LOT of experiments. PLG leaders are constantly running A/B tests to try out different ideas and interpret the results to inform future product development. In my experience the A/B testing mentality is especially important as entrepreneurs work to move beyond offering a free end-user product to paid conversions. This is a topic we can explore in a future post.
As much success as we’ve seen recently with PLG companies in K12, I believe it’s still early days. I think we’re going to see more and more companies come to market in K12 with product-led growth, and those that figure out how to do it well will be among the fastest-growing, most impactful startups in our space. If you haven’t brushed up on PLG and what it takes to build a product that sells itself, I encourage you to take a closer look. For more on this topic, check out “Product-Led Growth: How to Build a Product That Sells Itself” by Wes Bush. It’s a pragmatic, actionable book on how to create PLG from the ground up. If you’re running a PLG company in K12, I’d love to hear about any lessons learned that you’d like to share.