In previous courseware implementation grants, the Gates Foundation worked to increase demand for these products by directly funding implementation at higher education institutions. With the Next Generation Courseware Challenge (NGCC) program, by contrast, the foundation turned its attention to the supply side: the courseware providers themselves.
Given that this grant was awarded to early-stage education technology startups in order to improve their products and scale their usage, the Gates Foundation wanted to provide each grantee the support necessary to ensure their success. Over the course of the program, three technical assistance (TA) providers worked with the grantees collectively and individually to provide insights on the courseware market, develop marketing plans, gather user experience feedback, and facilitate conversation and collaboration among the grantees. Through this grant program, the foundation learned important lessons about providing support to entrepreneurs and early stage startups.
Consider closely the stage of development and capabilities of partner organizations. All companies have capacity limits. Startups, which have smaller teams, tend to experience these constraints much more strongly than larger, more established firms. Considering the ambitious scaling goals of the NGCC program, marketing and sales were among the most critical areas to support in order for the grantees to succeed with their scaling targets. As the grant developed, the grantees realized they were not sufficiently staffed to make significant progress on these goals. As an example, while one TA provider was available to help grantees formulate high-level marketing plans, grantees often had little bandwidth for actually implementing these plans. To ensure grantees are able to benefit from the insight provided by TA partners, it is important to provide the additional capacity support necessary to put plans into action.
Be clear about the objectives and benefits of technical assistance resources. Given the rapid pace of the grant term and the small size of the project teams, it was critical to make every interaction with TA support as meaningful and useful as possible. Unfortunately, there were times when grantees were not not clear on the expectations associated with the TA support received. For example, some grantees found the market landscape analysis interesting, but were unclear on how to make use of the information provided to them. Likewise, the program’s efforts to develop a strategy for collective marketing– intended to help develop common definitions and goals to nurture and mature the entire courseware market– left some grantees wondering how they might apply what they learned to their own marketing efforts. Clear objectives for TA providers’ interactions with grantees and explicit discussion of next steps can help to make sure that grantees get the most value out of the support and advice they receive.
Give providers direct exposure to their audience. In product development, there is no substitute for hearing directly from potential customers. Funders can play a critical role in creating environments that bring grantees together with administrators, faculty, and students from institutions of higher education that represent the demographic of the students the program seeks to help. This can help the grantees get to know their audience and users from the start of the grant. NGCC grantees found it most helpful when the foundation or TA partners could provide more direct introductions to stakeholders at institutions to ease some of the stress around product marketing in this nascent sector. These connections can help familiarize these companies with the US higher education landscape, especially at the beginning of the grant period as grantees.
Leverage the group for knowledge sharing. The NGCC cohort benefited from the in-person learning opportunities, provided through bi-annual convenings. These gatherings helped solidify and build collective knowledge and instilled a sense of camaraderie and trust amongst the grantees. These events also enabled grantees to learn from external experts that were previously successful in the education technology market and gave them an opportunity to also reflect and problem solve together. To further extend this value, funders can create strong learning opportunities for grantees to share the evolution of their products and discuss similar challenges from a technical and market perspective. Early in the initiative there were concerns among the grantees over intellectual property and sharing of information. Many of the grantees saw one another as direct competitors. This was alleviated by the development of greater trust and a realization that there was a much larger opportunity in the broader market, well beyond the niche toe-holds that each of the grantees managed. Ultimately, some of the grantees were also able to connect on their own, providing additional opportunities to collaborate and learn together, faster.
Although technical assistance can take many forms, the principles of technical assistance activities that best support grantees are collaborative and targeted. A systemic approach to providing technical assistance to a cohort of grantees can provide the support necessary to achieve the goals set out for them.