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Lessons That Matter: Five Takeaways From a Virtual Accelerator and Its Start-ups

About this time last year, I was talking with a couple of colleagues about some of their most pressing business challenges and opportunities. The ones that might not be the focus of their work today, but that sometimes keep them up at night; plus changes they saw coming in education and wanted to be a part of and, more importantly, accelerate.

About this time last year, I was talking with a couple of colleagues about some of their most pressing business challenges and opportunities. The ones that might not be the focus of their work today, but that sometimes keep them up at night; plus changes they saw coming in education and wanted to be a part of and, more importantly, accelerate.

As the head of Future Technologies, it's my job to think about emerging technologies that consumers are starting to explore. In addition to creating new learning prototypes, the team fostered partnerships with co-working spaces, incubators and edtech start-ups. We've always been big fans of collaboration and believe the biggest challenges, especially in education, should not be solved alone. The rise of MOOCs and alternative learning methods reinforce the important role technology holds to the future of education - including the value of connecting with the best minds in the edtech community.

From these conversations, I knew Pearson could help drive positive change in education by creating our own accelerator programme; one that would allow us to connect innovative start-ups with Pearson divisions to address specific challenges and opportunities being faced within the business. This led us to launch the Pearson Catalyst for Education accelerator program in February 2013. After receiving over 200 applications, we chose the six most promising start-ups who could help build solutions alongside the Pearson teams and share in Pearson's commitment to improving people's lives through learning.

This is what we've learnt:

1. There's no such thing as "done"

Consumers today expect their digital products to be constantly updated and enhanced. So it's important to test a new product quickly, solicit customer feedback and iterate, as opposed to waiting until it's "complete", by that point, it will be too late and out-of-date. Over the past several years, Pearson has been making the shift to digital - in fact, more than 50% of our revenue came from digital products in 2012 - which makes this approach to product management and development even more critical.

2. Best innovation comes from collaboration

We launched Pearson Catalyst for Education because it supports our ambition of being more open and collaborative. We realized that new ideas and approaches can come from both outside and inside your company. And the program surpassed our expectations. It provided valuable insight into the minds of entrepreneurs; and collaborating with the startups enabled us to focus on specific challenges facing our industry. Start-ups are often unencumbered by history or precedent, and they can use this freedom to their advantage as they develop new solutions. They have helped to introduce new ways of working - to become more agile, faster.

3. Find your niche

Whether you're launching a new product or developing an accelerator programme, it's important to find your unique way of standing out from the competition. When we launched Pearson Catalyst, we knew there were other programmes out there, but we also knew that we could offer something different - deep industry knowledge, a global perspective and network, as well as access to Pearson sponsors and mentors who are passionate about learning. For instance, the Catalyst start-ups have been able to get great insight into our global supply chain, which can be very valuable when you're a start-up looking to scale your business. The programme also goes beyond just giving advice; the start-ups have been able to partner with Pearson to create real products and pilot them with our customers.

4. It's all about execution

Throughout the programme, we ran multiple mentoring sessions with the start-ups on everything from business development to raising capital. What we heard repeatedly was that the most valuable sessions were the ones that were tactical in nature - how does a company develop a killer positioning statement; what are the specific opportunities to partner with Pearson and reach more customers; and, generally, how can start-ups balance PR and social marketing efforts with all of the work of building a product and running a business. Next time we run the program, we'll look for more ways for our Pearson experts to engage with the start-ups while continuing to give practical feedback and advice on both their pilot projects and businesses overall.

5. Create a community

To wrap up the program, we brought together all of the start-ups and Pearson sponsors in San Francisco to demo their pilot projects. There was an instant rapport among the participants, as they started to exchange ideas, experiences and challenges about launching an edtech company. Although there are benefits to running a virtual accelerator, which allows companies to stay grounded in their home cities, next time around, we will definitely look to bring together participants together at the beginning of the program. This way they can learn as much from each other as they do from us.


What they've learnt;

1. Never stop asking questions; especially to your users The Catalyst programme exposed the start-ups to Pearson's edtech industry experts who have years of experience with launching new products and connecting with customers. The start-ups were able to draw on their expertise and sense check their business decisions. "You need to truly understand what your customer's 'real' needs are, and what gets them motivated - even if that motivation is not directly connected to your product. Find your top 100 users, get to know them and build for them" Dr. Jeremy N. Friedberg, Partner & Co-founder, Spongelab

2. Understand your market landscape. There are a lot of edtech startups out there, all working hard to build products to help evolve the industry - so the question is: where do you stand out? "Get to know your core customers really well but also, get to know your competitors. Don't just assume you are solving an industry problem - it may have been solved before, or your customers may not like the way it's been solved. Do your research and plan for every outcome before you get started." Jay Goyal, Co-Founder, Actively Learn

3. Keep your focus on tangible results. Entrepreneurs live and breathe their companies. Make sure that the time, money and long hours of hard work (and more hard work!) are well spent - make smart choices and remain focused on your outcomes. "Running a startup means that you'll have to wear multiple hats and prioritize your efforts - it's impossible to do everything. What we're learning is that it's most important to put your resources toward activities that are going to produce results - no matter the size - rather than simply showing a lot of activity. Ethan Linkner, Co-Founder, VP Operations, VLinks Media

4. Choose the right accelerator for your startup. There are many different accelerators and incubators out there, but it's important to find the right one for your business, factoring in your industry and the stage of your business - for instance, do you have an idea, a product, existing customers? All of these aspects will help guide your decision. "Pearson Catalyst mentors have such deep knowledge of the education market. When we started Pearson Catalyst, we knew we had a product that students liked and found useful, but Pearson's particular accelerator programme is helping us to reach more them - and that's exactly what we needed at this phase of our business." Julienne Lam, Co-Founder, ClassOwl

5. Be open, but stick to your guns Accelerator or otherwise, be sure to hold on tightly to your original inspiration. "You're going to receive a lot of advice from a lot of people, but try to look at the underlying reasons behind their advice, other than the advice itself. And then process that information carefully and remember why you got into this industry in the first place." David Kim, Founder, Ace Learning

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