It’s not that the Rapid Tools market is a bubble, it’s a bubble machine, with thousands of little fragile bubbles all floating out and popping within seconds of their creation. Most of these tools and VLEs have the longevity of a fruit fly.
Tools buyers as false starters
I once worked with the CEO of Linguaphone, one of the biggest companies in the languages learning market. They sold CD-ROMS and online stuff to teach you how to learn French, Spanish, Italian, whatever. One day he confessed that that his real market wasn’t language learners at all. Their marketing term for their customers was ‘false starters’, people who wanted to learn a language, buy the product, get started, then crash and fail. He whispered that he had made millions from selling shelfware to people who didn’t learn a damn thing.
Is it the same in the rapid tools industry? Are the buyers, by and large, false starters? Are they being sold the illusion of quick and easy quality content, then get hit with the fact that it’s not so easy? On the whole, I think this is the dynamic in this market. Making these tools has become easy, selling them darn impossible. With sites and blogs galore publishing Top 100 Tools lists, is there any other market where there’s more tools, one for one, than clients? With the price point low and cost of sale high. It’s damn difficult to make money here.
Word doesn’t make you a novelist
A hammer doesn’t make you a carpenter, Excel doesn’t make you an Accountant, Powerpoint doesn’t make you a good speaker... I could go on, and often do, but you get the point. The question is, does this market, its buyers, and investors, really get this point? What percentage of the overall task becomes more productive with most rapid tools? Less than 5% I’d say. Most of the real effort is in design, graphics etc.
Quantity not quality
Templates for screens and questions are fine, but this leads to the Powerpoint problem. The end result is usually a series of mind dumbing, stab-point, text heavy, clip art rubbish. It traps you into a page-turning, manual on screen model, when many of the learning tasks demand more, much more. Just as the e-learning market was starting to produce a broad canvas from simple through scenario-based up to simulations and games, it plunges itself into a quantity not quality model.
With rapid production, as soon as you need images, the clip-art clowns come out to play. Sure you can clip-art away, and infantilise both content and audience, but don’t pretend this is serious learning. I’ve seen medical e-learning programmes dealing with chronic diseases and terminal illnesses clip art the subject to death (sic). Health and safety, compliance – you name it, someone will clip it, trivialising the subject.
Lord Privy Seal
Or you can Google image search and come up with a series of disjointed photographs. The BBC used to have a Lord Privy Seal rule when teaching people about editing. When mentioning this person, you don’t simply show a picture of a Lord, followed by a picture of a WC then a seal. Image to noun stuff is hopeless. They had a point.
Graphics is a skill and most people don’t have this skill. A few cheap brushes and a paint-set doesn’t make you an artist. It doesn’t even make you a basic and competent graphic artist. So why should a basic authoring tool and a graphics package make you a competent content designer?
How do you monetise Rapid e-learning?
Model 1: Communities ain’t cash
OK, let’s create a community. Fine, if you want some dodgy stats to impress investors, but not if you need to generate income. Communities are largely free, fickle and feral. It’s damn difficult to get them to pay, they’ll jump ship at the drop of an ad and take more than they give. Communities are the domain of not-for-profit ideas, like Wikipedia. Crazy strategy. High risk, low reward.
Model 2: Tools as Trojans
Some use their tools as a Trojan horse, leading to real revenues with real margins. Typically, it will be a door opener, with all the baloney about how you’ll be able to make this stuff yourself with little or no previous experience or skills. Then, when you buy it, realise that’s not on, you come back and get them to do it for you. And by the way we’re a licensed reseller for this, that and the next thing. A ‘going nowhere quickly’ model. Low risk, low reward.
Model 3: Forget tools, go bespoke
Some realise that the best solution is to simply make stuff. Sell on the illusion that’s it’s a quick DIY solution, then do it for them. This is Kineo’s very successful model. They’re a bespoke e-learning company with a stripped down process. They never meant to be bespoke, but that was the only way they could make money. This, in my view, is a reasonably smart model. Low risk, medium reward.
Model 4: Sell out
Tools need a brand along with the money, geographic reach and marketing expertise to market and sell that brand. The only people who think this is easy, or cheap, are technical people, often the brains behind the tool, and people who have never run a business, which is almost everyone in education, training and development.
To cut to the quick, to be successful you need to sell your company to a bigger player and ride on the back of their ‘suite’ of tools approach and their clout on global branding and marketing. This is what happens to good tools. They get bought. Selling out is the way to success, usually to a global software company. This may be the best and only way to making lots of moola. High risk, high reward.
Model 5: Go it alone
Model 5: Go it alone
Ok, you’ve developed your tool and want to make money but don’t want to do any of the above. You’re a pure tools player. Problem is, no one’s ever heard of you and getting them to listen costs cash. Disastrous model. High risk, certain failure.
Don’t get me wrong, good tools are good things, but how many tools does one need in this market? People have short memories. We had dozens of LMSs and LCMSs and VLEs emerging around 2000 and by 2003/4 the market had consolidated into a few winners Saba, Blackboard etc. This was consolidation by attrition, not acquisition. In my 25 years in this industry, I’ve seen hundreds of tools created with 99% of them ultimately dying a quick, sometimes painful and lingering death.