Four of tech’s biggest companies — Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon (a.k.a. the Big Four) — are moving aggressively into the education market. Beyond the potential of selling their products to a previously untapped trillion-dollar industry, there’s a chance to create lifelong brand fans by connecting to younger generations as early as possible via schools.
Does the increasing presence of tech giants in the education space mean that ed-tech entrepreneurs should simply give up and go home?
The answer is simple: No.
Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon are doing much of the hard work of blazing a trail through the difficult ed-tech terrain.
In fact, the time is now for ed-tech startups to double down and focus on delivering results. The Big Four are doing much of the hard work of blazing a trail through the difficult ed-tech terrain. For instance, they’re helping schools improve their internet connectivity, lowering hardware prices, building better device-management solutions and in general making the path clearer for those who follow.
Here’s how savvy, nimble entrepreneurs can make the most of the Big Four’s hard work.
Become a student of teachers
This may be obvious, but it can’t be overstated: Startups have the advantage of agility over the Big Four. Pick a unique idea, then iterate often and curate feedback weekly. You will not be successful if you assume you know how to make something teachers will like and never actually talk to them or observe your product in use.
Charter schools, in general, are much more open to having tech entrepreneurs visit their classes, and public schools have more layers of bureaucracy to deal with. Use relevant pedigree or your company’s mission to catch the attention of the school’s administrators. Be aware, however, that it’s hard to sell to charter schools, despite their being easier to experiment with.
No matter what you do, do it multi-platform
Since the Big Four are duking it out for dominance and every school district is different (with distinct technological preferences), a multi-platform approach is essential to driving widespread adoption.
Creating a company based solely on a single platform restricts your user base and puts your startup at risk of being copied and pasted by the platform itself. For instance, Hapara built a dashboard for teachers to share Google documents with students — a tool Google then recreated with Classroom.
Lastly, I would avoid at all costs becoming a platform-only business. In the hope of creating a positive network effect, startups often encourage other developers to use their platform to make their apps. This can be dangerous, as your success becomes tied to theirs. You first need app developers who make money for themselves before you can be successful yourself. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Clever has taken a novel approach by offering software that allows schools and districts to secure student data as they adopt learning apps in the classroom; they are effectively monetizing their service by solving an integration pain point for developers.
Leverage the Big Four’s distribution power
The Big Four are looking to partner with startups to create mutually beneficial relationships. A good first step is to be an eager early adopter of their technology and products (i.e., be the first one to use their APIs or implement their new features inside your apps), validating their own technology with your traction. Attend industry events, try to meet the relevant contacts at each app store and nurture those relationships carefully.
Make money or die
The Big Four have shown that they are willing to give a lot away for free to customers; Google Classroom, GAFE, iTunes U, iBooks author, Amazon Inspire, Office 365 for Edu and Skype in the Classroom all seem to be going the way of free forever.
More money into ed- tech — more than $3.1 billion in 2015 alone — is a win for entrepreneurs, not to mention students, parents and teachers.
With their arsenal of resources, the big companies can do this. Startups don’t have the same luxury, so don’t defer thinking about your business model. Even if you do not monetize right away, you’ll need a business model from Day One. Furthermore, don’t compete with these products. Survey the landscape and find something new to do, or at least a super-novel approach.
Be aware that if you start with a free product given to teachers and administrators, it may be hard to get them to pay for it later. I foresee a trend where most — if not all — education software is free, and ed-tech companies monetize mostly through paid content, services or premium features.
An interesting example here is Remind. For a long time, it has made "free" a core part of its messaging.
Recently, Remind announced a Slack-like product for schools, which will very likely have a paid component. Now, the company’s messaging is a lot more careful about how it words what is free.
It will be very instructive to see how Remind fares in its monetization efforts moving forward and how the educational community responds.
More money into ed- tech — more than $3.1 billion in 2015 alone — is a win for entrepreneurs, not to mention students, parents and teachers. The more entrepreneurs that focus on improving our educational system and expanding the minds of future generations, the better.
So keep your head down and focus on building great products — ignore the siren call distraction of pursuing M&A opportunities. The ideal situation is one where you’re being inbounded and not spending time taking meetings in hopes of speeding up an acquisition.
Guido Kovalskys is the co-founder and CEO of Nearpod, which helps teachers quickly create digital learning experiences to engage students in class. A former fellow and teacher at Stanford's d. design school, Kovalskys is a serial
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.