Accidental Entrepreneurship: What I know now that I wish I’d known then

By Emma Heeschen

I am not an entrepreneur by trade or by training.  I’ve been a teacher and a principal, but my professional life has been lived deep underneath the layers of bureaucracy that cover our public schools.  Product market fit? Nope. Single vendor contracts and centrally allocated budget lines. The concept of fitting the product to the customer doesn’t apply in most public school settings—whether you conceive of the “customer” as the students, the parents, or the teachers. There is no such thing as a “need to have” product or service.  You take what you get because you have to. You just eat your broccoli.  Kindergarten through twelfth grade.   

A little over a year ago, I had an idea.  I was sitting at my desk deeply immersed in the Twitterverse (procrastinating), trying to understand how teachers were using technology in their classrooms.  Twitter is where tech-friendly teachers hang out about 50% of the time as far as I can tell.  So, there I was, lurking around, learning about education technology and being generally underwhelmed.

Long story short, I had a light-bulb moment, where your questions and wonderings seem to magically come together in a form and a shape and suddenly you have the magic that I now know is called: A Product.  My idea was to create an online learning management system that was user-driven and somehow externally validated.  Users (learners) would develop learning maps and pursue learning experiences and then be able to show their learning through badges.  The system would recommend new experiences for them, put them in touch with a user community that could share expertise and give them a way to show what they knew.  There were a few companies who were just beginning to build platforms based on similar concepts, LearningJar, for one, had just won SXSWedu and LAUNCHedu and were, at the time, in an edTech-focused incubator year in Silicon Valley.  I managed to get one of the founders on the phone and she loved my idea.  I was full of hope and excitement and set about recruiting my team, classmates of mine who had slightly different skill sets and who I loved working with.  We entered the HILT competition (Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching), won 50k, and we were off to the races.  It had been about 30 days between glimmer of an idea and check is on its way and I was feeling great.  In other words, I was overwhelmed by… Optimism bias.

If I, post- Lean, could go back and talk to my one-year ago self, this is what I would tell her:

1: Minimum Viable Product Means: Minimum. Viable. Product.

A year ago, when my team realized that it would be impossible to build our whole vision from the ground up with the time frame and the capital that we had, we decided to both build and buy in order to create our vision.  We ended up with a clunky, two-part system made up of D2L’s learning management system (which is the basis for the LearningHub) and our own software, which you can see here. We couldn’t test hypotheses and we didn’t bound uncertainty at all.  We were absolutely wedded to our vision, and we would cobble together whatever it took to get as close to it as we could.  We made a list of Need to Have and Nice to Have features for our developers.  You can imagine which side was longer.

2. No matter how much theory you read or how many professors you talk to, you cannot plan the outcome. 

Over the summer, I talked to professors, I read, I did all of the things that I had considered to be due diligence.  I was deep in the throws of Optimism Bias Part 2: Planning Fallacy.  As a predictable result, I saw confirmation everywhere once we launched in September and didn’t pivot early, when there was more of a chance to do so.  You can’t plan what is going to happen, you can only figure out what you are going to look for and how you are going to measure it.

3. A captive audience is not the way to solve the uncertain demand and long development cycle problem.

Getting consumers, in this case, students, stuck in a commitment to a product while you iterate can turn people away.  They have to be able to vote with their feet or they feel trapped and not listened to.  Think about a subscription that you can’t cancel for years—every time it shows up on your bank statement, you’re a little bit more furious.  Same with a product that doesn’t do what you want and you can’t replace.  There is such a thing as having a customer set that is too constrained.

I’m not completely giving up on my idea, it’s not yet time for it to perish, but I know that I need to isolate my hypotheses, bound them, and sequence them more clearly in order to re-define a minimum viable product. 


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