UK Education Publishing Startups Struggle to Get Traction

In Feature Articles by Mark Piesing

UK education publishing startups face the dual challenge of first finding teachers within schools who want their product then hoping the budget exists to adopt it.

By Mark Piesing

uk flagJim Green, former Business Unit Director for Nelson Thornes (now part of Oxford University Press) and former MD, Collins Education, was drawn to get involved as a director of education publishing startup, Educake, for a number of reasons, including the fact that “when kids use it; apparently it’s ‘way better’ than the handouts that preceded it.” However, “the biggest single challenge is in getting the word out to teachers. It’s a very busy environment and selecting resources is but a small part of a teacher’s working life. There are also a lot of them (schools and teachers!), and they respond best to demonstrations and personal visits, which for a small company is both costly and time-consuming.”

It is he admits “very difficult” for a small startup like Educake to challenge the big boys, as “there are almost 30,000 schools in the UK. A large organization with a well-resourced sales and marketing operation will usually get further in the UK school market than a startup with an excellent product. The creation and development of excellent products is a great start but not a guarantor of success. At Educake we’re focusing mostly on the sales effort at present.”

Rob Butler

Rob Butler

Rob Butler, who runs the education blog FiendishlyClever and is the Deputy Head at a special school, prefers to use Educake Science over competitors like Kaboodle from Oxford University Press because of the way his students like to use it, the flexibility of the testing system and even speed at which they respond to his feedback compared to the big corporates, he doesn’t underestimate the challenges they are facing in growing the company.

“School budgets are expected to be cut after the next general election and so they are going to find it harder and harder to pay for Educake. This is not about the product, but the fact they are competing with the established big names and schools will be feeling the pinch.

“There are also no central mechanisms to reach all the Head of Science departments in the UK and so how do you get your message out? Mail shots often don’t reach the right people, so it has to be social media and exhibitions. You can also target individual teachers but this is starting to get expensive.”

Eileen Burbridge of Passion Capital

Eileen Burbridge of Passion Capital

For Eileen Burbidge, Early Stage VC for Passion Capital and who has an invested in ed-tech startup showmyhomework.co.uk, an online homework calendar, many ed-tech startups have two routes to market: one is to target the students, parents and teachers, and the other is to target the schools themselves. “Each route comes with a distinct set of challenges,” she says.

“If you target students, parents and teachers then you face the same challenges as an app maker does in trying to get in front of their audience eyes through ratings on the App store and reviews. If you are trying to work with schools you come up quickly against some pretty traditional procurement policies, different procurement cycles and the fact that some schools are in a group or consortium with their own policies.

“In schools, while you have to target the decision makers, over time what is more effective is having an individual teacher who is an advocate for your product, perhaps because they have used it already or someone else has told them about it. You may have to bang your head against the wall by going this way, but if you are successful it will repay the effort with some pretty magnificent conversion rates.”

Getting an advocate into the school can help you greatly, says Burbidge, “as you’re competing against large incumbent enterprises that may have contracts with the school dating back before 2007 and the unveiling of the iPhone, which changed the user experience people expect dramatically.”

About the Author

Mark Piesing

Mark Piesing is a freelance journalist (and teacher) based in Oxford, UK now writing mainly about technology, culture and the intersection between the two for some of the biggest brands in the UK media such as The Economist, Wired.co.uk, and The Guardian. He also contributes to Warwick Business School's Core magazine. WBS is one of the top business schools in the UK.