Product Push at BETT 2016

I used to enjoy BETT.  But in recent years, as I’ve focused on the startup sector and sharpened my business development thinking, I’ve started to see Europe’s biggest EdTech Fest through a different lens.  And I’m concerned.  I’m concerned that too many of the edtech companies that show up at BETT are questionable role-models for the new crop of EdTech startups.

I work with quite a few EdTech startups and one of the biggest challenges I encounter is getting founders to recognise that creating a successful edtech business is not just about implementing a good idea.  In fact, the tendency of founders to want to create edtech products to realise their vision is often the first thing I need to challenge.  I don’t challenge it because I don’t understand the importance of new ideas in education.   The reason I work in the edtech space is because I’m passionate about the power of innovation to drive change.  I challenge it because ideas and products don’t drive change unless they are mobilized as part of a sustainable businesses.

Innovative edtech products may be great, but they’re not great if there aren’t enough people to pay for them. Then you’ve got a product, but no business.   You’ve got an idea manifested in product form, but no impact.    Too many founders I’ve encountered spend a huge amount of time, energy and money manifesting their ideas in the form of edtech products only to find out that they have no idea who wants it and how they are going to sell it.  It’s easy to be critical of these founders, but it’s difficult when you see how catastrophic this mistake can be for individual founders.

Which brings me back to BETT and why it is starting to concern me.  To it’s credit, the BETT  organizers have started to showcase startup talent in a new area called BETT Futures; but the vast bulk of the show is packed with established edtech businesses.  When I say “established” I mean they appear to have been around at least a couple of years and they obviously still have enough money to pay for the (rather expensive) BETT stand.  You might imagine they are the models of what the startups in the BETT Futures area will become.    But as I wandered up and down the aisles, it became clear to me that a surprising number of these “businesses” were not really operating as businesses.  They are idea promoters pushing their products in the hope of finding enough people to buy.   They obviously had access to enough money to afford the stand and present themselves for review, but I came away from many bemused how they they were ever going to last.

Which brings me back to edtech startups.  There is concern that the edtech space is a growing bubble full of companies that will never make any money for their investors.   That may or may not be true.  If if is, many investors will lose their money.   But investors know that.   I’m more worried about helping startups not lose the limited money they have.   But here the whole industry and shows like BETT hardly help.  The simple fact is that not enough edtech businesses understand the business side of EdTech.