5 Lessons in 5 Years - Growing an EdTech Company
I’m Alefiya Master, Founder and CEO of the five-year-old company MAD-learn -- an educational technology company that exposes students to Mobile App Development with the design thinking process. In my first five years, I have uncovered five pillars that helped our team become the successful EdTech company that we are today. Five pillars, if you will, that have become our foundation, what we rely on and need to remember as we grow into the future.
Pillar 1: Who You Are and Who You Are Not.
One year into launching MAD-learn we realized that we had not done the work of figuring out what our product can actually do for students and specifically why it was valuable to them. We thought we knew, but we were wrong. The reality is – you can’t be all things to all people. We needed to focus and narrow the universe down to the kind of schools and grade levels where we could have the biggest and most profound impact.
- We thought we were able to help students do A (learn how to code), when in reality we were helping students do B (learn the design-thinking process focussed around technology creation, and develop the 4 Cs needed to do so successfully in any setting). Our messaging and marketing had to align perfectly with our impact.
- Our team didn’t have enough exposure to our students: how they were interacting with our program, and what they needed to be engaged. As a result, we weren’t inventing what needed to be invented. We were creating what we thought would be best for them in a vacuum.
This helped us realize our First Pillar: Always know and remember who you are and who you are not. We needed to know and be proud of what we were helping students accomplish, and toot that horn louder than we thought possible. Realizing some of these harsh lessons helped us focus, find harmony, and build trust with the customers with whom we now work. Now, it is most fulfilling for us as a team to work in places where we know we can make a difference, where we can offer something that is truly valued by the leadership and teachers, and where we can interact with and hear directly from students to help us plan the future of our program.
Pillar 2: Clean and Lean Organizational Structure
MAD-learn was born out of the first EdTech company I started. For several years we ran both products under the same umbrella. Teams were spread across both businesses; goals and responsibilities were shared,but most importantly mind-space was shared. We tried to talk about both products to everyone we met. While this can be the right approach for larger teams with adequate funding and resources, for a lean, startup company, this ended up being very difficult in the short run, so we created a new approach:
- Focus on ONE business, P&L, team, and products fully. When your mind is focused on solving one problem as opposed to five, your success with solving that one exponentially increases. We spent time and money on our brand, what we stand for, and what our in-person and digital voice is. We really stepped into today’s MAD-learn with this transition, and it helped us focus on our core mission.
- I became good at identifying what I was not good at. I learned and layered on skills that I didn’t have (but wanted to have), and found team members to fill in the gaps that still needed attention. While I naively wanted to be perfect at everything, relying on others allowed me to be proud of the things I did well and to grow into new abilities, one step at a time.
- We became scrappy—and I mean scrappy in the best sense of the word. We only hired and grew team members who were mission-critical. We became lean, forcing ourselves to figure out strategically where to spend our time and how to hold each other accountable
The focus, energy, and pride that all of these changes brought the team were instrumental to the success we saw in the years that followed. Our Second Pillar emerged: Clean and Lean Organizational Structure. Having your organization (school, district, company, team, whatever your organization is) structured in a clear and simple way fosters greater understanding and accountability for reaching mission-critical goals. I don’t believe in complex, hierarchical org charts that demand a level of seniority and status every step of the way. Flatter, more organic working groups are what has worked best for us so far. Am I a fan of the beauty and simplicity of small, flexible teams? ABSOLUTELY!
Pillar 3: Team Sync
Our third pillar is our Team and the flow that can be generated when the right people come together for the right reasons. Customer churn and dissatisfaction taught us about big pivots that we needed to make in our early company years. My inability to keep a large stable team together taught me even more. We had a challenging phase of what I would call a “team exodus”. We upsized, downsized, and finally right-sized our team. In our effort to find the right set of team members, we gained sight of what was really important:
- Find and build relationships with team members who care about the mission of the company in addition to their job. For example, our Director of Curriculum and Instruction has been with me from MAD-learn’s inception. When we found each other on LinkedIn, he was a history teacher turned middle school administrator who had the passion and desire to have kids learn in new ways. After five years into working together, it's clear that geographical location was inconsequential when passion and desire to learn are ablaze.
- Be flexible to different work styles and timelines. Our Marketing Coordinator recently moved back to her hometown in Ghana and the global and geographically dispersed nature of our company has allowed for her to work effectively from back home. Sure, there will always be a few folks who take advantage of freedom and misuse that, but cater to and create culture around the best in people, not the worst. On our team, everyone knows that they can and should take personal time off whenever they want to and work from home when they need to, as long as goals are being met and the rest of the team is set up for success while they are gone.
- Always focus on and empower collective thought, feedback, input, and expression. It takes longer. But the results outweigh the time spent by a factor of 1000. Hire people who can identify problems that you don’t even know exist, not just people who can help solve problems you already know need to be solved. If the entire team can work together to come up with many solutions to a problem, picking the best way to execute it proves that we are building a company whose contributors can take pride in their work and will never stop serving its students. Our product development team has done a phenomenal job figuring out how to bring all of our ideas together into what is best for our teachers and students every step of the way.
With our third key pillar, Team Sync, we have been able to move mountains in a very short timespan. Without it, we faltered, spun unnecessary cycles, and made little headway. Our team is absolutely one of the biggest and most instrumental pillars of our company. It is critical to remember and remind myself that attaining Team Sync is not a one and done job – it is something that requires constant attention and deliberate, conscious, intentional effort for us to be successfully productive together. People will come and go, but Team Sync must always adapt and exist for the organization to remain effective.
Pillar 4: Customer Awe
We have learned everything we know about our industry, our product, our curriculum, our impact, and our potential, from our customers. The ones that love us AND the ones that don’t. When students finish and present their apps to get real, honest feedback, we get to share some amazing moments with students and teachers around the world. Here are a few of my favorites from the last 5 years (you can view them all on the “MAD-store” mobile app on your phone):
- 2014 - Rainbow Loom was created by a 5th grader in Melbourne, FL. She was one of our first pilot students to ever use MAD-learn, and she ended up creating an app that hit 100,000 downloads on iTunes and Google Play! http://www.floridatoday.com/story/news/local/2014/06/13/brevard-students...
- 2015 - Soccer Time created by a 4th grader in Atlanta, GA. He created his app as a “coach in your pocket” to help kids remember drills and practice even on days where they weren’t with their coach. He not only spent an amazing amount of time creating videos for his app, and creating all the content and designs that he wanted, he also pitched his app alongside students from across the state at a MAD-shark tank that we hosted for the US Department of Education EdTech Developer’s Tour.
- 2016 - Enough and iCare are two apps that came out of @coolcatteacher Vicki Davis’ amazing global app collaboration project. High school students from schools around the world collaborated to build #appsthatmatter. Such great inspiration for the potential that can be unlocked in our kids today when we give them opportunities to build things that are meaningful to them.
- 2017 - 2 Voices was the product of a History teacher in Canada allowing his students to create an app for a period in history that they learned about that year. These 7th grade students blew us away with their creativity and ingenious use of app templates to create a “choose your own fate” app about the Holocaust to experience such tragedy from the perspective of a 42 year old man or a 12 year old girl.
- 2018 - Lost in a Book is a book report app made by a middle schooler in Monroe, NC and is a great example of how something like app development (or any creation technology for that matter) can and should be used effectively to engage students with core content and allow them to experience it and dive deeper into it in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them in today’s mobile-centric world.
Customer Awe is what we live for. This is what keeps us going.
Pillar 5: Mentors, Friends, Advisors. Holy Crap to Hell Yeah!
There is no doubt that every entrepreneur believes he or she can build a product or a business to solve real problems. We tend to think we have all the skills and resources to go off into a cave and emerge with a solution that will immediately take hold and make a difference; a naivety that is far from reality.
I have been blessed by having people in my life who have helped and supported me when I needed it the most. People who have told me things like “you don’t have the experience that is needed to run a company” and others who have said “you’re a badass and you don’t even know it.” I have had some investors tell me I need to shut the business down because I’m a Pollyanna and others tell me they want to help me pump millions more into it. I have had team members say “you’re ineffective and you need to never manage people” and others say “I love working for you and the ideals and values that you bring to the team. You have such a strong and important voice that needs to be heard.”
An unexpected massive customer loss towards the middle of last year put our whole plan for the year in jeopardy. We had one of the most successful implementations with a few pilot schools at a district we were on track to expand. But it fell through at the last minute and we were left scratching our heads in bewilderment. For several weeks, I spent time brainstorming and talking with amazing friends, mentors, investors, and advisors to get outside my box. The result was ending the year having doubled our growth and impact - far beyond what we thought was possible! It’s not about how hard something hits you, or how badly you think you’ve failed. It’s about everything you do to bounce back from it.
Especially when it’s most difficult, failure allows you to uncover your blind spots and be better for it. Know that if you can figure out a way to bounce back and keep your eyes and ears close to market forces that drive the feasibility of your business, you can continue to move your team and your impact forward. Never forget how important mentors and advisors can be to your process of growth. You don’t need an Advisory Board to get advice. All you have to do is be willing to ask tough questions to people who have a little more or a little different knowledge/experience/understanding than you do. And then be willing to listen, learn, and act on the change that is inevitably needed to continue to grow your impact.
About the Author
Alefiya (@AlefiyaEdu) is an edupreneur, keynote speaker and founder and CEO of MAD-learn.