The education technology market has seen dramatic changes over the last few years. COVID-19 dramatically accelerated the adoption of online learning – and just as quickly, the return to the classroom forced districts to reevaluate their tech usage. As the education market evolves, it’s critical for EdTech founders to stay ahead of the curve.
We sat down with Lane Rankin, a visionary leader in the EdTech space, founder of Illuminate, which sold to Renaissance, and board member of Education Advanced, LinkIt, and ParentSquare, to get his insights on the current state of the market. As a former teacher and principal with over 30 years of experience in education and technology, Lane brings a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges facing EdTech entrepreneurs and school districts alike.
In our conversation, we’ll cover:
- Striking a balance between online and in-person learning
- Navigating a challenging budget environment
- Differentiating in a crowded market
- Adapting to different markets and regions
- Identifying sales motions that work in EdTech
Let’s dive in.
“Folks are going to have to show value,” Rankin notes. “If they had some cute little tool that was really more focused on online and doesn’t translate very well to the classroom, they’re going to have a hard time because we’re back to living in a classroom world.”
Striking a balance between online and in-person learning
During the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and districts were forced to fast-track their adoption of education technology. Now they’re stepping back and working to hit the right balance between online and in-person learning.
Lane explains: “COVID really did push districts into, oh my God, how do we teach online. What products do we need? What systems do we need? How do we actually make that happen? Now, districts are really saying, okay, we’ve got all this stuff, but what’s really working now? And now that we have kids back in the classroom, how are we going to change the way we were doing things before?”
Now that students are back in the classroom, districts are looking at the places where traditional learning works best, and the places where tech-enabled learning can shine. “I think we’re also seeing districts saying, it’s nice being back in person with kids,” Rankin explains. “Pencil and paper do work well in certain situations, and face-to-face time really is important. Kids should have hands-on time and be outside and not just stuck to their computers all the time. It’s all about trying to come up with the right balance.”
Going forward, founders need to ensure that their solutions can work well in a face-to-face environment. “Folks are going to have to show value,” Rankin notes. “If they had some cute little tool that was really more focused on online and doesn’t translate very well to the classroom, they’re going to have a hard time because we’re back to living in a classroom world.”
“You better make sure you’re adding value because that money going away is coming again, you know, and it’s coming quick. 2025 and 2026 are going to be some really interesting years.”
Navigating a challenging budget environment
In a post-COVID world, education budgets are more stretched than ever. Lane cautions: “Budgets are definitely going to get constrained again, and districts will definitely be starting to evaluate, okay, what’s really working.”
As budgets tighten, it’s essential for EdTech founders to demonstrate value – and that means building products that support core educational functions.
“Anything that is core to doing business in a school district is going to be something that they can’t get rid of,” Lane explains. “Anything connected to data and doing business day to day in a school district is going to be part of this core. Anything connected to the core curriculum and student learning is also going to be core.”
As Lane notes, it’s important for founders to take the long view and understand the cyclical nature of EdTech budgets. “On budgeting, this is probably the fourth wave I’ve seen in education, as far as like, oh my God, we have so much money to shoot, we have no money.”
But as Lane notes, prosperous times will return – and companies that deliver value will be in a position to take advantage. “You better make sure you’re adding value because that money going away is coming again, you know, and it’s coming quick. 2025 and 2026 are going to be some really interesting years.”
“One of the things I tell my folks all the time is that when we’re talking with districts, principals, superintendents, assistant superintendents, whatever, I want you guys to be the biggest educator in the room.”
Standing out in a crowded market
Differentiating your product is crucial for gaining traction in a highly competitive market. Lane notes, “There are thousands of vendors. Which, you know, is awesome, but it’s crazy. And they’re all trying to grab the attention of folks that are busy. So how can you stand out from the rest and break through the noise?”
As a former educator, Lane’s key to success was simple: understand the real, on-the-ground challenges that educators you’re talking to are facing. “One of the things I tell my folks all the time is that when we’re talking with districts, principals, superintendents, assistant superintendents, whatever, I want you guys to be the biggest educator in the room.”
“What I mean by that is you need to understand what is top of mind for them right now in their schools and districts. What are their big issues? And then how are you helping them solve those issues?” Lane explains. “So many of these emails are all the same. It’s too professional. Just be a real, authentic person.”
Building a real relationship with an educator means doing the background research to understand the challenges they’re facing – so you can speak their language. “If I really understand what’s going on in the world of an assistant superintendent right now, and I send an email and I use words that they’re using, knowing what they’re dealing with and how our solution is going to help them is how I can truly connect with them.”
“When you’re breaking into a new state, you don’t want to go after the big districts. You don’t want to go for the smallest, either. You want to try to go for those kinds of middle-of-the-road districts.”
Adapting to different markets and regions
EdTech founders who have early success sometimes mistakenly assume that their strategy will easily translate to other markets. As Lane explains, this is rarely the case. Understanding the unique needs of different markets and regions is critical for building a successful go to market strategy.
“Ohio is a very different market than, say, California, because they’ve got a ton of little districts and most of them are rural and they’re dealing with different issues. So, it’s a very different world in rural Ohio than in southern California,” Lane explains.
Even small details like how you dress can send a signal to educators about whether you understand them: “When I was presenting in Michigan, all these companies rolled in with like seven people all in their fancy suits, not knowing anything about the market, spouting their fancy sales speak,” Lane recalls. “I just rolled in like, hey guys, I used to be a principal, I understand you, I love you, I worked at a county just like this. If I rolled in there in a thousand-dollar suit, I wouldn’t get anywhere – but so many companies do that.”
Lane’s experience breaking into the Michigan market illustrates the point. “I had one of my people put together everything that they could find on Michigan and the state of education in Michigan. And literally on my plane flight to Michigan, I learned everything that was going on in Michigan,” When I demoed, I spoke their language.
When breaking into any new state, it’s critical to go after districts strategically. “When you’re breaking into a new state, you don’t want to go after the big districts. You don’t want to go for the smallest, either. You want to try to go for those kinds of middle-of-the-road districts.” This approach can help you build a solid foundation and reputation in the area, making it easier to expand further.
“Getting in with district decision-makers is tricky. That’s based on a lot of hard work and a lot of relationship building and a lot of trying different things to get in front of them with a solution that they really need.”
Choosing sales motions that work in EdTech
It’s critical to demonstrate that you understand the education market – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have skilled sales pros on your sales team, too. “We did a really good job at having a nice blend of true sales professionals and educators. I think that’s a really winning strategy,” Lane notes.
Connecting with school leaders is about showing you understand what drives them. “School people are in education because they’re mission-driven, purposeful, truly caring people,” Lane observes. “The people we’re talking to, they want to make a difference in the world – so connect with them on that. People connect with you when you’re a human, not when you’re perfect.”
Many EdTech founders try to get traction with teachers and principals, but in Lane’s opinion, focusing on decision-makers at the district level who are closely involved in procurement can be more effective. But, breaking into the higher-ups in school districts is a long game, Lane cautions. “Getting in with district decision-makers is tricky. That’s based on a lot of hard work and a lot of relationship building and a lot of trying different things to get in front of them with a solution that they really need.”
“But even though you’ve had success in a small market, that might not translate to other markets and it might not translate to the ups and downs of funding cycles.”
As an EdTech founder, you have to constantly stay in learning mode. “It’s really easy to think, oh, I have this figured out because I figured out this one market,” Lane says. “But even though you’ve had success in a small market, that might not translate to other markets and it might not translate to the ups and downs of funding cycles.”
With school districts returning to the classroom, many educators are grappling with the challenge of how to integrate digital technology into their classrooms. By understanding the real, on-the-ground needs and challenges of the educators, founders can deliver real value and position themselves as integral players in the education space. At Serent, we’re eager to work with innovative founders – and give them the strategies and resources they need to succeed.
Since 2008, Serent has worked with dozens of EdTech founders and companies. Serent’s Growth Team helps companies accelerate sales, break into new states, expand product roadmaps, and access hundreds of seasoned EdTech executives (like Lane), among other hands-on support and revenue-generating initiatives. To learn more about how Serent partners with EdTech companies, visit: https://serentcapital.com/k12-edtech/.