The image above is probably looking familiar to a lot of people working in edtech right now. This particular image shows the website traffic stats for Mangahigh where my brother works in the dev team. Thank you to the team for allowing me to publish these. They have also shared with me their new sign up statistics. These are new account signups per week since January:
1/1/2020 - 44
5/1/2020 - 163
12/1/2020 - 136
19/1/2020 - 175
26/1/2020 - 204
2/2/2020 - 233
9/2/2020 - 401
16/2/2020 - 204
23/2/2020 - 332
1/3/2020 - 368
8/3/2020 - 694
15/3/2020 - 2735
You can see how these statistics might look really exciting for a company. Mangahigh has always done a pretty steady trade. I have known of them since 2011 when seeing a school present at a conference about using their maths games. They are really good for primary all the way through to secondary school students for reinforcing many maths concepts. So it is great to see so many people signing up now that schools are "closed" (except for the key worker children of course) and parents are turning to online resources to support their children with home learning.
But there is a side of these statistics which requires some caution too. Mangahigh are one of many edtech companies who have very generously made their site completely free for schools, parents, and students during school closures due to COVID-19. These huge numbers of sign-ups are, of course, a side effect of that generosity alongside an unprecedented time for us all. Providers of content such as Mangahigh, 2Simple and their Purple Mash platform, Twinkl resources and so on, are all "winning" at the minute with huge sign-ups as they have all started providing their resources for free. It's a true reflection of the wonderful world of edtech and the community within. It's a small world and I have known many of these companies for a long time and know that putting the students and schools first would have been on obvious decision for them all. They would not have taken any persuading to allow this free access to all.
There will no doubt be upsides to this generosity in the long-term for these large established companies as they have great resources and more people will see them and then hopefully some will continue with them when this is all over and they start charging again. Not everyone will - school budgets are still tight - but some will. That alone has led to some backlash from teachers and headteachers who think this is all a big marketing ploy. And yes OK...I am not going to say that there isn't a back-of-the-mind hope for all companies that there will be a good outcome for them later although I know that is not in the front of their mind at all as they are worried about the path ahead themselves as we cross into the utterly unknown.
And I have a worry...and it is a big worry. We must not underplay the intense pressure being put on these companies and the many other edtech and education providers who are offering free resources during this time. They are coping with their biggest ever influx of new customers, while they are also trying to cope with everyone working from home for the first time...AND they will also have staff shortages due to those who cannot continue to work at the moment for a variety of reasons.
It is also highly costly for the companies who are seeing these spikes in usage. For those not in the edtech or tech worlds: every bit of server usage costs £££. For those companies who now need much bigger servers (much of which is hosted remotely and paid for by the size and speed and reliability) are actually forking out a lot of money to keep schools online. They need to do this otherwise these spikes in use will mean the sites crashing completely and even their paid customers will lose connection to the resources. They are also having to hire extra resources where they can staff-wise to quickly create extra help resources to replace the usual in-school training they offer to new schools.
Therefore the expenses of these companies has just sky rocketed. Yet their income and potential income for the coming weeks (/months/a year??!!) has just plummeted through the floor.
These are also big names above. Companies who are generally stable and have enough current subscribers to help keep their staff paid and their offices paid for even though they are all at home. Out there are also smaller and early stage companies who now are seeing a whole wall of panic. I know of companies who have only recently launched after years of creating their products and services. This summer term should be for them the first time they start earning money as they would be selling to schools after the April budget ready for schools to roll out the products in September. For those companies this year is now another write off after the 2 or 3 or 5 years they have been building all their hard work for nothing already. For those who recently got investment they will now have investors (many not in education so do not "get" this time) breathing down their necks demanding they still try and sell to schools.
Imagine how that will play out. Schools are dealing with plenty of issues. Yes Edtech has come to the forefront in learning terms BUT they are deluged with offers of free resources from all and sundry. There are blogs going around with lists of 300-400 companies with free resources. Some of these are always free (but there is of course monetisation happening somewhere for those who are not charities so that is likely to mean giving away your data or seeing adverts pop up or later finding you need to pay to keep your information even if you don't have to pay now) but many are also just making their product free for a limited time during the current climate.
Teachers and headteachers are already starting some backlash too. Some who currently pay for subscriptions are demanding they now get it for free as others are getting it free. Some are saying that every company giving away freebies are somehow in the wrong for trying to capitalise on the situation. I do not want to share my views on those as I understand where they are coming from to an extent...but I do know the companies and know that they are genuinely doing what they feel is right for the time. And I also know that for many smaller companies this could send them under. That is a big worry for me. Some of the smaller companies and newer companies are no less worthy of a long career than those who are bigger. They have some wonderful products. Usually that would become evident in a couple of years. But for many they will fold this year. It will not be fair. It will not be the ones who deserve to fold just because their products are rubbish. It will be any who just got really bad luck with the timing.
Even the bigger companies may end up laying off staff after all this. They absolutely will not want to but it may become necessity. People with lives, and families, and homes to pay for. Whatever you think of the world of paid for edtech, these are people. Potentially people you taught in your school once. People who really love being in education in their own ways. They are not here for the money. If they wanted loads of money they could make it much easier in any other (and I mean ANY other!) industry. Gifted games developers. Intelligent customer service providers. Talented designers. Excellent technical support staff. Knowledgeable sales people who have learnt about education over the years despite never being on the front line. Imaginative marketers who tell stories that warm hearts.
Not every company can afford to make their product free. Even if the product is ready they simply cannot afford the level of staffing required to take on an extra 2,000 customers in one week in the way that Mangahigh is ready for. They do not have the teams of staff ready on the phones to handle the calls from all those new customers who will need tech support and training. So they will just try and still keep plugging away hoping to make a sale. Schools will mostly ignore them as they are looking at all the shiny free stuff instead.
There will be big winners in the coming months. But I am really worried about the losers in this race. They ran just as fast....someone just chucked a roadblock in their lane and it wasn't their fault. I hope the lovely edtech community can help pick them up and support them to limp to the finish line even if it takes a while longer.
I have seen a number of adverts for jobs with start-ups and they all want something called "start-up mentality" and I am afraid I need to burst that bubble - it doesn't exist. Nor should it. If you hired everything you want from "start-up mentality" it will destroy your business.
Firstly let's look at some of the things people expect to be part of this "start-up mentality" and what each of those will actually look like in business.
1) You want someone who loves your business/product as much as you do. I get that this seems dreamy. But you cannot expect to hire someone who loves it as much as you, can you? You need to develop that love within the role. Imagine your business is your baby. That's how it feels, right? You grew this perfect baby and now you need to hire someone to take as good care of it as you do. So you want a baby nanny. That is fine. But they won't arrive loving it. It's your job to create an environment that allows them to fall as much in love with your baby as you are. A nanny does not want to look after, let alone love, a toddler who kicks and bites and screams all the time because you aren't helping enough with discipline. If you want them to love your baby you need to work at it too. You can't just dump it in front of them and leave them to it unless you have already made sure the right scenario is in place. From a business perspective that includes being very realistic about where your product or business is at. If you are needing to launch something that isn't perfect yet then be honest about it. Don't try and blag your way through. And if you are too close and have your rose tinted specs on, listen to your hires when they tell you there are problems. And fix them. Then they will start to love your baby as much as you because they have become part of the nurture group themselves.
2) You want someone who will work all the hours under the sun to get the job done.Now any business, at any stage, can expect employees on a salaried wage to pitch in and work late when needed. If you have a big launch coming up, or an investor meeting, or a trade show...etc etc... then you can expect to rally the troops to add some extra hours for a week, maybe even two, to get things perfect. They will run on adrenaline and get the job done. Then they can experience the high of finishing and stepping back to see the fruits of their labour. That's absolutely fine, expected even, and helps to add to loyalty if you then reward it. Show your appreciation by bringing in pizza and doughnuts, or having a night out to celebrate, or give everyone a day off in lieu as thanks. Whatever you want to do to show you get that they have sacrificed their personal lives for this and they did it. Even if it wasn't perfect (cos you maybe overestimated the timescale or their capabilities) but reward what they attempted. HOWEVER, what you cannot do is have a team of people who will constantly work long hours. It's not sustainable. If the stress level hits a high for a week but then peaks and drops back after achieving an aim that's like the reward you get in a computer game. It's healthy stress. But an ongoing expectation or too frequent use of that goodwill and adrenaline becomes unhealthy stress. You are going to burn out your workforce.
Another element of working people too hard all the time is actually that you create an inefficient business. If you expect people to show their "loyalty" and "start-up mentality" by working over and above their contracted hours time and time again then they start to do too much "busy work" so that you see them work, rather than just doing an awesome job in half the time. Effective systems and processes are essential if you want to grow any business. You cannot scale 70 hour weeks. So don't start with them. I work with so many start-ups who hit a plateau due to an inability to scale what they currently do. Most of that was created back when they had "start-up mentality" and were "winging it." Don't wing it. Start with great systems and processes from day 1. Act like you have 200 employees from your first hire. Make sure paperwork and every bit of detail is logged correctly. Buy in systems which are designed to help with everything from finance and invoicing to customer service. Make sure employees use great databases from day 1 even if there is only one customer on them so far! An experienced hire can do more in 8 hours with good systems than a winging it inexperienced start-upper can often do in 16 hours. Make it efficient. It's key for growth.
3) You want to hire them cheap and train them on the job. Well of course you do. Who wouldn't? And there is a lot to be said for a keen graduate coming straight in with bounding enthusiasm and no real cynicism and it can work out well. But it's harder work for you too. I am not saying don't hire cheap and inexperienced. But if you do, be prepared to put in the hours yourself on mentoring them properly. They will not stay with a low wage if you are not topping it up with your attention, time and TLC. They need also to have some good quality training outside of the business. Send them on industry relevant courses. The more people you can get on your team with industry standard experience the better. So either pay more to hire them or take people on who are willing to go get the training if you pay for it. If you build a business without industry standards (even if you have to pick a similar industry as no-one else exists in your niche) then your systems and processes will always be that bit more haphazard and this will impact growth when you hit critical size and scale.
4) You want them to be part of the "family" and enjoy the "bantz". This one is a bit icky. I am reluctant to say it is a male-dominated thing but it mostly is when I think of teams where this has halted their progress. I work in tech mostly so it might be just there but there are often a couple of "lads" who built a product at their house and are now scaling. They have worked together for the last two years with no-one else. They probably went to uni together. Sometimes they are even related. So they are happy to sit around working in their boxer shorts together. And yes, they sometimes then expect their new hire to not mind them doing that still when they book away days and conference trips. That's the extreme. But even the other end of this scale are inappropriate jokes in the office "because we know each other well so we never take offence" which leaves your new hire out in the cold not knowing whether to just leave or to report you for inappropriate working conditions. This same attitude also leads even some sizeable companies to hire in their own family into high up positions without warning staff and this can create tensions. No matter who in your family has supported your start-up, or how skilled they might be and perfect for the job, everything must be transparent and no-one should feel they are the outsider. If you cannot maintain a professional relationship in the workplace then you will not be able to scale your business effectively without some hefty bumps on the road when disgruntled employees realise they are treated as second best for having the wrong DNA.
5) You want to hire people who are agile and flexible to go with the flow. Again that's fine to a point. But anyone should be like that at work if it means being ready to move quickly when needed. That has nothing to do with being a start-up. Every job requires times when people need to think on their feet, or be prepared to drop everything and change tack when something isn't working. In the start-up world make sure mostly that you aren't mistaking 'having no real focus or direction' for agility. It's not the same thing!
You don't want start-up mentality to grow your business. You want FTSE100 mentality from day 1. Act like you are already in the big leagues. Otherwise you will struggle to ever reach them. Get the right systems in place, create proper processes before you hire people (or hire someone experienced enough to create them) and then hire experienced people or train up graduates or apprentices effectively.
Even nannies get to go home at the end of their shift. And they get a good wage! If you want your baby to be well looked after then hire the right people, ignore the "start-up mentality."
Jodie Lopez is an ex-primary teacher who won multiple awards for her use of technology in the classroom. Since leaving the classroom she has worked for multiple education technology businesses, from the multinationals to the one-person start-ups. She uses her teaching experience and her previous life in sales and customer service to help companies to bridge the gap between edtech businesses and the classroom.