Seeking the Disruption-Seeking Missiles for Education Tech: Lessons from a VC
I took some notes from a Startl meeting in NYC, and here are the bullet points, per se, arranged by speaker, starting with:
Albert Wenger, Partner, Union Square Ventures
Didn’t know he was at one time president of delicious, a social bookmarking site that I know well, as I use it to organize my thoughts about what is relevant and interesting in the education and tech space.
Started with a quote he scrolled up on his web phone, and after joking that “there are three things likely to shake the knees of schools, and the first one is kind of boring,” proceeded to proclaim that “individualized instruction will become common, if not universal.” But get this. That’s from 1970, from a publication called Computer Utility for Higher Education, printed by University of Michigan.
So, why are we talking about this now? “The reason we think it’s interesting now is because … there’s this fantastic thing, you write a blog post, you publish, and it’s made available to the world.” Sounds like he’s been reading my post about distributed knowledge as a byproduct of groups on the web.
Based on this self-publishing ability on the web:
“There is no barrier between someone who wants to learn something and a teacher, potentially.” Check. Your knowledge universe is infinite, but also scalable by your own design, or by the design of people you entrust to work with you in your network. You are always a teacher or a learner, and sometimes both, because all of the tools are at your hands.
The teaching, the learning, and the accessibility models have all flipped. Gatekeepers have turned into flow specialists.
So what does that mean for Union Square Ventures investing? It means that they are not looking for the product that is being sold to the same groups of people within the same structures that currently exist. The soft message here was that it’s not like you are going to take what already works in education and do it better and cheaper, for education. It sounded a lot like to me that Union Square and other smart investors are looking for the product that might come out of nowhere, for some other thing, but would work for education. The disruption-seeking missile.
Craigslist, where I just purchased some nice armchairs, and Add One, which was a classified advertising program for the newspaper industry. Wenger pointed out that Add-One was a success for people that started it, but it was pretty clear that since nobody had heard of it, it was not something that was disruptive. It served a need, but did not penetrate or seek out a new audience.
Wenger said that entrepreneurs have to decide to “make this decision whether they sell into existing structures, and make revenues this way, or whether they try something radically different.” And then he said the thing that both excites me and keeps me wary. “We think that coming out of this will be the education equivalent of Craigslist.”
Education technology, as an industry, will have to go through some of the learning and growing pains that other venture capital-intensive industries went through. There’s going to be this curve where you are going to have to separate the companies that are just going for short-term revenue game, expansion in three years, and sell off, or realize a certain ROE amount, or the companies that are organized around a mission, serve a purpose and do so with such a radically different audience than expected that they will be giant killers in terms of the way traditional education operates.
I will talk about Terrance Robinson in another post, and you will see what I mean.
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