Mosquitos and turtles: how to fund great education projects
I was first up to speak, after the Minister, at NESTA, that’s Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society (they’ve lost the Big Society as it turned out to be so minuscule it fell out of the policy briefcase and no one can now find it). He looks uncannily like George Osborne, not surprising, as he’s yet another Eton, Bullington boy, and made a couple of interesting points and announcements. 1) Public sector risk averse but can't now afford to be. Needs infrastructure of support 2) Social Innovation Camp will support up to 72 tech based social ventures. Wayra Ultd will support 30 digitally focused start-ups. Was he sincere? I doubt it – he left early.
The room was rammed, not even standing room, and we had some excellent case studies of ‘social good’ projects in health, local government and coding, also some interesting views from investors. It was all good stuff and I applaud everyone in that room, as they’re actually DOING STUFF.
But the danger in these events is in settling into a sort of London luv-in. As soon as I hear the words ‘geek’ or ‘hackathon’ I reach, like Goebbels, for my gun, as I know I’ve entered the dated world of techy-yesteryear. I bumped into my old Head of Programing, Brian Rodway, on the train back to Brighton, he works for a games company that made £35 million profit last year – don’t call him a geek. He hates the ghettoization of coders and coding.
Mosquitos & turtles
I’m here because I have a foot in both camps: private and public sector. I’ve run, helped and invested in private sector companies but, having cashed-in, I turned my attention to do some public good in the education sector in a large charity.
Let’s start with a distinction. First, there’s what I call MOSQUITO projects, that sound buzzy but lack leadership, real substance, scalability and sustainability, and they’re short-lived, often dying as soon as the funding runs out or academic paper is published. Then there’s TURTLES, sometimes duller but with substance, scalability and sustainability, and they’re long-lived. With any luck they’ll be around for decades.
So, what’s a funder like NESTA, Nominet, Education Foundation, Omidyar or UFI to do? First avoid creating large pools of cash that breed mosquito projects with open calls and long-winded application processes, Second, don’t just open your doors and windows to mosquito bids, go looking for turtles – they’re more secretive and bury their eggs in the dark – but they’re there. Be selective.
Note that MOSQUITO projects need not be small, they can be huge AND short-lived. Molenet, NHSU, BBC Jam, many JISC and EU projects (not all) in online learning, are largely mosquito projects. Doomed to succeed in funding but fail in execution.
Crossing the chasm
My point was that crossing the chasm requires some characteristics that are often missing in public sector funding in the education market. Too many projects fail to cross the chasm as they lack the four Ss.:
Senior management team
Sales & marketing
There are two dangers here. First, understimulating the market so that the mosquito projects fall into the gap as they fail to find customers and revenues. This is rarely to do with a lack of technical or coding skills but far more often a paucity of management, sales and marketing skills.
The other danger is overstimulating the market with large projects that stop real innovative projects from evolving and bridging the gap. The danger here is that the large dollops of cash go into too much product development and not enough market development.
There’s another danger and that’s bogging projects down in overlong academic research, where one must go at the glacial speed of the academic year and not the market. These projects lose momentum, focus and, in any case, no one pays much attention to the results. As the old saying goes, “When you want to move a graveyard, don’t expect much help from the occupants.”
Either way a serious problem is the lack of strategic thinking and a coherent set of sales and marketing actions. When people think of ‘scale’ they think of technical scale, but that goes without saying on the web, it’s a given. What projects need is market scale. What is your addressable market? Let’s take an example – schools. Where are the budgets? Who are the buyers? Who will you actually sell to? How big is the market? Do you realise that Scotland has a different curriculum? What market share do you expect? Who are your competitors? Answer these questions and you may very well decide to find a proper job.
We need to distinguish between noise and hard-nosed reality. Ghettoising social good through abstruse language and labels is not the point. You can call it ‘Impact funding’, but what’s needed is evidence of impact. Targeted funding and real impact is the point. One sign of the ghettoization, is that despite the fact that I invited the audience, at the start of my talk, to speak to me afterwards, as I’m a Trustee in a charity with £50 million to spent on tech projects, not one person came up to me and asked me for my card. When you network, speak to people you don’t know, not the people you know. That was a missed ‘sales’ opportunity for many in the room. It may be the case, and I’m not saying I’m certain here, that sales and marketing courses is what’s needed, not geekfests and hackathons.
I have to congratulate Katie and the folks at NESTA for organising the event. There’s a lot of energy, talent and entrepreneurial spirit around. There’s also some great people around in NESTA, Nominet Trust and other agencies. There just has to be a more efficient way of speed dating companies and investors to make things happen a little faster. Finally, I apologise of anyone feels that I’m completely off the page here, but I was asked to give my opinion based on my personal experience and that’s what I did. I've focused on the potential problems as that's what we need to avoid.