In a recent conversation with consultant and educator Carl Hooker, the EdTech influencer had a recommendation. Focus on relationships with schools and districts — not sales.
That’s always sage advice, but how can you apply it in this specific moment? How can you start building new relationships that lead to happy and committed customers? Hooker said the answer begins with three steps:
Many schools are flush with cash right now. That's thanks to successive waves of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. (There is one more wave of ESSER funding to come in about a year.) Right now many schools are figuring out what to do with their share of the latest disbursement, which was more than $120 billion.
To put that into perspective, the federal government provides E-Rate funds to schools. They're used to pay for telecommunications technology. E-Rate funds are only $7 billion for the whole country each year. WOW.
“It's actually what we should have been getting,” Hooker said, “if they want to have a supportive and strong infrastructure and educational program across this country." But, it is quite a windfall relative to the funding schools receive in a more typical year.
We will likely be in a more typical year, with regards to funding at least, soon enough. These funds will not last forever. They expire in 2024, so the next 12 to 18 months are key if you want your buyers to include you in that budgeting.
Administrators are aware that their time to use these funds will run out. If there's one thing they know well, it's use-it-or-lose-it funding that evaporates if they don’t allocate it within a particular time frame.
“We have to allocate stuff,” Hooker said. “Otherwise it's gone in our minds. If we don't do it, someone's going to come take it from us.”
Time-constrained funding is pervasive in education. That's why Hooker says, “I tell companies all the time to think about long-term contracts with upfront costs. If you can do a three-year or five-year deal with it all upfront, a district would love that. It means that they aren't paying yearly for the next four years or five years. And as a company, it's great for you because you get a quick infusion of money.”
Right now is a good time to, for example, give schools 20% off if they pay for three years upfront, according to Hooker. Schools get a tool that will provide value beyond the current funding cycle. Meanwhile, you have three years to make your product indispensable before it comes up for renewal.
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All this federal money does come with some strings attached. One of the bigger strings is that schools must spend at least 20% of this funding on tools and programs to address learning loss. Schools are going to worry that at some point they’ll be audited to ensure they’ve been using the funds properly.
“Are you giving people a way to track how they’re using your software?” Hooker asked. If you can’t help them prove your product fits into their learning loss funding bucket, they are talking to someone with a similar product that can.
Providing tracking is all well and good. But, you have to get your foot in the door. Then you can convince your buyer they need whatever you’re going to help them track, right?
Hooker said that when he made purchasing decisions for schools, he began with the educational or instructional need he was trying to fill. Then he tried to get a feel for how companies are helping educators address it.
“What I would do is like a bake sale or a bake-off where I have four or five companies come. I bring in trusted people,” from around the school Hooker said. “Have them come in and be a part of an all-day bake sale where they actually see the companies going up against each other.”
It’s clear why this is helpful for schools, but there’s an upside for the vendors they invite as well.
“Listen to the feedback,” Hooker said. “If you're a company doing that and you don't win the bid, you're still going to get valuable resources. They're giving you insights about why it's working and why it isn't working, whatever that might be.”
“When I do sign the deal on the dotted line, I hope that you don’t disappear,” Hooker said, adding that he saw this way too often as an educator. “They will say, “Oh great, you signed for my curriculum. $1.2 million. I'll see you later. You'll see me in three years. Nevermind that it doesn't work on your device because, oh, I forgot to tell you, we were flash-based back when that was an issue.”
Hooker said that a connection at the companies he partnered with was so important he’d try to get personal numbers from his contacts.
“I had people's cell phone numbers and I know you're not supposed to do that necessarily,” Hooker explained.
“But I needed to know that when all my smart board technology wasn't working, that I could text my rep and say, ‘This is a disaster. Who do you got?’ And they're like, ‘I'll find someone to get over there and take care of it for you.’ Having that kind of commitment, I don't care that you charge even a little bit more. I will pay a little bit more if I know that you're a part of a regular deal where you're going to be coming in and taking care of me and helping me out. That's a huge part of that relationship”
The tangled funding and policy layers from the federal, state, and local levels can make working in education a real headache. It can also present unique opportunities when you’re pitching your products.
Hooker points to Illinois’ computer science initiative and New York’s new digital learning initiative as standards to be embedded in everyday classrooms as examples.
“Some of the teachers are a little bit scared and freaking out about it,” Hooker said. “But if you have a product that can help with that, you know, that's when you come in and say, ‘Hey, I know you guys passed these new state laws. Here’re some ways that we can help you with that.’ And that's knowing that kind of lay the land. It takes a lot of work and a lot of research and it may end up being $0. But those will hit much better I would say, than blasting everybody with an email.”
Any time he’s going into a new school, Hooker said he spends time learning about the school community and culture.
“I spend at least a half to an hour, if not more, doing some research as to what has been in the news lately,” Hooker explained. “What is the school? What are the initiatives posted on their website? What are their missions? What are some upcoming things that they're working on? Be excited when their football team wins big.”
They’ll know you were digging around about them. But being genuine and excited about them helps to start building the relationship educators want from their vendors.
If you know someone local to the area, ask them for an introduction.
“If I'm a leader and someone says—a friend of mine who I trust and respect, a colleague—says, ‘You need to listen to this company,’ I'll take the call. It may not lead to a sale, but at least it's the foot in the door that could lead to a sale,” explained Hooker. “It's finding people that you trust or knowing people in the area that you can make those connections to. That's huge for companies that are trying to go in blindly.”
There’s plenty of money out there right now for products that improve teaching and learning, but there’s a lot of noise in the market as well. Break through it by understanding their current challenges. Let them know you’re a partner here to help them address those for the long haul.