What is the problem you are trying to solve? What is your proposed solution? What is your value proposition? Who are your customers? What is your revenue model? Are you a for-profit or a non-profit? Who is the end user of your product? Who will pay you to use your product? Are you sure you’re not crazy?
These are just a few of the questions I’ve encountered a lot over the last year from fellow teachers and entrepreneurs, friends, and family as I’ve diligently worked on my latest venture: Open Source High. Or was it Mission Physics… wait, no, it was Mission FisX… then wasn’t there a What the FisX too? Yes, this online education project I’ve been cooking up has gone by many names. Is it an online high school where students are the teachers? Or is it a peer-to-peer learning community powered by student-made video lessons? It’s hard to say exactly what I’ve been creating. Sadly, I realize that I’ve spent a lot of time, money, and energy and I’m pretty sure I haven’t actually helped any of the people I intended to. Namely, the students. Have I failed? If I sum up all that I’ve done over the last year in terms of a pass/fail grade, I can be pretty certain that I haven’t succeeded. But have I failed? The answer is no – to fail means that the game is over and I’ve lost. And this game is far from over.
I find myself repeatedly going back to the first question posed above: What is the problem I am trying to solve? This is the single most important question of all. It is the source of all the emotional energy and motivation that goes into building my edtech venture and should be the question that guides every single decision that is made along the way.
What is the problem I am trying to solve? Unfortunately, I have a tough time answering this question. And I’m not alone. Many entrepreneurs run around developing products that are not really solving a problem – or at least that don’t solve a significant enough problem that someone will pay for the solution they’ve developed. To address this problem, the Lean Launch Pad startup curriculum was developed. The curriculum (just google “Lean Launch Pad,” it’s a free course on Udacity) focuses on doing customer interviews – lots of them. Talk to your future customers (lots of them!), find out their problems, see if they would use your product, how much they would pay for it, have them test it, and find out if they really even give a shit.
If I’m trying to fix our education system, do I interview students? Or parents? Or teachers? And will these people be honest with me? Will students’ answers be biased because I met them through their teachers or their parents? Will they see that I am genuinely trying to help them and give me real answers or will they look at me as an “adult”? Shit – am I an adult? If I interview a parent, will they give me a real answer? Will they give me the truth as to how they would behave in a situation – or will they tell me how they wish they would behave? Or how they want me to believe they would behave? Will teachers view me as a threat or as an ally? Will people give me disingenuous answers in an effort to be polite? Am I reading too much into this? Things get real messy when talking about children. Who knows what’s best for them? Do they? Do their parents? Do their teachers? And when it comes down to it – do I really give a damn about anyone’s opinion but the students?
As a startup entrepreneur, we get emotionally attached to our ventures and often find ourselves building products for ourselves and then assuming that other people will want the same problems solved that we do. This can be exemplified by the eccentric inventor in his basement hammering away and creating weird widgets to solve unique problems all around the house. Finally, a vacuum cleaner that walks around the room on its own – thank the heavens! A light switch that I can control by clapping – at long last! And if you have a strong marketing team, these seemingly unnecessary widgets can make you a fortune even if they’re solving trivial problems.
A famous quote from Henry Ford says, “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That’s a great quote that’s often used to justify the seemingly ignorant act of not listening to what your customers ask for and instead pursuing what you believe is a genius vision. I feel confident, however, that there is a need for change in our education system, and many would agree. But who is it that is asking for this change? Parents? Teachers? Students? Again – each has different issues with the way things are, has different ways they’d like it to change, and has a different influence in the outcomes.
Again I repeat to myself: What is the problem you are trying to solve?
If I can identify the real problem in a sweet little sentence, then I can generate solutions to the problem, evaluate them, test them, and choose the best one. I could even ask other people, “hey what do you think of this problem?” And then get their thoughts and collaborate on how we can solve the problem. But it’s hard when there are so many issues to deal with.
Is it the curriculum? Do we need more STEM? Or art? Or history? Or language arts? Is it the standardized testing? Is it school violence? Is it socioeconomic disparities? Is it students with special needs like those with attention deficit disorder or autism? Is it the dropout rate? Is it the cost of higher education? Is it teacher apathy? Is it student apathy? Or parent apathy? Is it the overload of administrative tasks distract teachers from teaching? Is it a limited budget for advanced technology or basic classroom supplies? Is it the teacher’s pay structure? Is it tenure? Is it summer vacation? Is it that we don’t focus on teaching students skills for the workforce? Or that we don’t prepare them to be educated voters? Or that we push them too hard? Or too little? Is it the damn cell phone’s they’re always twittering on? Or maybe the music they listen to? Ah – it must be the dress code!
What is the problem you are trying to solve?
I believe – at a fundamental level – the problem is very American: it’s about freedom of choice. Students do not have a choice. All of the things I mentioned earlier are problems. But the fundamental problem is that we, as adults, teachers, entrepreneurs, politicians, governmental officials, and human beings – we are making choices for them. And forcing them, by punishment of law, to follow our orders. Yet at the same time, we all collectively agree that we don’t know what the best way to educate our students is. It seems a little fucked up to force our students to participate in a program that we ourselves don’t even believe in.
So yes – the problem is choice. Students have no choice. They have no voice. They have no rights.
Before I come across as too anti-authoritarian, let’s compare education to vaccinations or the death penalty. I haven’t done enough research on the topic of vaccinations to have an authoritative opinion on it, but the popular consensus seems to be that if you are anti-vaccinations, you are stupid. I’m not supporting this stance, just repeating what seems to be the mainstream view on the issue. Let’s say, however, that we are 99% certain that vaccinations are the absolute best thing in the world for a child. So we make them mandatory. And we believe we’ve done well, because we’ve saved this child and we’ve saved everyone else who could be made sick. And 99% of the time we would be right. But – 1% of the time we made a horrible mistake. And anti-vaccinators are willing to stand up on a soap box and say, “we shouldn’t force people to do something if it’s not 100% certain we are correct.” Maybe they’re wrong, that seemed to be the popular opinion. Ironically, the death penalty seems to be a less controversial topic. Should we have a system in place that is 99% effective, even if 1% of the inmates end up being executed unjustly. Some would argue not. And even if 100% of the inmates on death row are guilty of their crimes, some would argue it still isn’t an appropriate solution.
Now look at our education system. Is it even close to 99% perfect? Is it appropriate to force our students to participate? It seems… lazy. And, much like vaccinations, let’s recognize that the consequences of our actions on these students can and will have a global impact.
So after spending over a year talking to teachers and parents trying to find out what the problem with education is and how to solve it: it’s time to spend more time talking directly to students. And to find out exactly what it is they want. Maybe I’m right that a peer-to-peer platform is the solution. But I will find out what they want. And then I will build it.