- Huge markets (e.g. $355B in post-secondary revenues in 2008-9, split $267B in public, $19B in private for-profit, & $69B in private not-for-profit)
- Accelerating penetration of technology (e.g. online education growing at 10-15% annually)
- Proven new learning models (e.g. Knewton’s adaptive engine)
- Unaffordable and clunky legacy systems
- Prior investor success (e.g. Blackboard IPO, Wireless Generation / NewsCorp acquisition, SchoolNet / Pearson acquisition)
Highland has invested in several education technology companies to date, including 2tor (which I have discussed on this blog before). The reason we have gathered the conviction to invest in these startups has a lot to do with the above list, but also depends on a more subtle observation.
Education is an inherently viral activity.
I will explain with an example. Last Thursday, I taught a class at Dogpatch Labs in NYC entitled “10 Mistakes First-Time Founders Make…but Don’t Have To.” 30 students signed up via Skillshare and sat through an hour or so of my talk. (For those of you unfamiliar with Skillshare, it’s a neat community built around the teaching and learning of anything.)
How did those 30 students find out about the class? Well, after creating my class on Skillshare, I tweeted it out to my ~2,700 Twitter followers. Within 24 hours, I had sold out. In the process, each of those 30 students was required to register for Skillshare.
In short, I essentially used my network to acquire 30 new users for Skillshare, any of whom could go ahead and teach his own class to 30 of his friends in the future. So, there you have it: virality.
Education is viral because of the strong social ties between teachers and learners.
At its most basic level, education requires someone to teach and someone to learn. Sometimes a teacher in one context is a learner in another, however, and vica versa. Other times a learner learns from more than one teacher. Sometimes a teacher teaches another teacher. The list of ties goes on from here.
Since, at a given moment, each public school teacher has 20-23 students, and each student has 5-7 teachers (my estimate), the reach of an individual teacher through his students is at least 20*5 = 100 other teachers. With even a 10% conversion of those 100 teachers, a service growing virally within a school can get 10:1 leverage on its teacher acquisition. With the same conversion, Skillshare would get 3:1 leverage in my above example.
By and large, the venture industry has woken up to education technology because of the collective realization that viral customer acquisition, which has worked so well in other industries like group buying and casual gaming, can work its magic in the classroom too.