For ed tech startups, pudgy is better than lean, says Princeton Review founder

The “lean startup” mantra may prevail across most of the tech world, but ed tech companies might want to consider bulking up a bit.

So said serial education entrepreneur John Katzman on Wednesday, during an online conversation with the organizers of EdStartup 101, an open online course on entrepreneurship in education.

“One of the things I feel strongly about is that everybody pushes the notion of a lean startup,” said Katzman, who founded the Princeton Review, online education company 2U (formerly 2tor) and his current startup Noodle Education. “And I’m kind of in favor, especially in the education space, of a pudgier startup.”

Given the unforgiving and “heavy trust” nature of education, Katzman said, startups are better off assembling a good mix of people with deep backgrounds in education and business than following the typical model of “one guy with a vision and a bunch of [hard-working] twenty-somethings.” The latter model can result in a lot of wasted time and money but the former, he said, can produce a company with “both a soul and a clue.”

At a time when money is rushing into education technology – much of which is from investors with little education experience to founders with little education experience – Katzman’s point is well taken. Education is a different beast, with a denser set of stakeholders and a more complicated definition of success.

Depending on their business model and goal, not all ed tech startups necessarily need to put on some weight (and, interestingly, two of Katzman’s own angel investments, Clever and Boundless seem relatively lean). But Katzman’s argument is still an important reminder that not all best practices from consumer tech will carry over into ed tech.

In his talk (which is available here) he also identified a few areas of opportunity for ed tech entrepreneurs, including online tutoring, platforms that commercialize research in brain plasticity and services that bypass school districts to sell directly to teachers and students.

He also said that the rise of MOOCs (massive, open, online courses), such as Coursera, Udacity and edX, could open new markets for companies, for example in helping universities move to a “flipped classroom” model (in which students watch lectures and similar content on their own time and get more individualized, problem-solving-oriented instruction during class time). As faculty participate in MOOCs, by producing classes and recording instructional videos and lectures, they start to play an important role in creating and curating content, he said.

“There’s going to be a marketplace of companies working with schools to manage this huge flow of grade A asynchronous material and use it effectively to drive down tuition and drive up quality,” he said.

Image by Viktor88 via Shutterstock.