Education, Tech, and Scale

Read an interesting post by Avichal Garg, cofounder of PrepMe. The gist was that many education startups have not scaled because their founders focused on the wrong market (middle class, well educated people as opposed to huge developing markets) and did not focus enough on keeping costs down. Delving in to the details, there are two quotes that caught my attention:

The first is “Digital, personalized learning online or tablet based, interactive, social textbooks aren’t anywhere to be found.” 

The second is “Don’t believe that building a better product will make you successful. Delivering something for cheaper will.” 

Garg mentions one company, Chegg, that is executing on the cost side very well. They are the “Netflix of Education” because they rent textbooks to students much more cheaply than they can be bought in a bookstore or online.Taking it a step further, I believe that there are a few products out there that are digital/social AND focus on low(er) costs.

One is Inkling – They develop digital textbooks for the iPad – the textbooks sell for the high tens of dollars, compared to $100-$200 dollars retail for many physical books. They are also social and interactive, taking advantage of all the iPad’s capabilities. It looks as though Inkling focuses mainly on undergrad textbooks, but there are also some HS level books there as well.

Another, similar company is Boundless Learning, which is a new startup here in Boston. They have focused on the most used freshman textbooks, and have, like Inkling, made them social, interactive, and cheaper than retail. My understanding is that they had a very successful launch this fall and are growing quickly. Once difference (I think) between Boundless and Inkling is that Boundless’ product will be available on other platforms – laptop, mobile device, etc.

So, what’s the point? Well, I think it is clear that digital, interactive textbooks DO exist. While Garg is right to point out that many education startups have trouble scaling, Boundless and Inkling follow his suggested path to success by focusing on low cost. Furthermore, like many successful tech companies, Inkling and Boundless will scale because their marginal costs are very low. Once their product is sufficiently developed, they can sell it over and over again very quickly and profitably.

It is a cliche that the education market is ripe for “disruption” (the link is to Rob Go’s series on Jargon). However, I think these two startups will only help the current system of education by making it more interactive and social – it is the textbook publishers who need to worry.

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