This week was split between attending the ASU GSV conference in Salt Lake City and meeting Edtech startups in New York. This time spent travelling meant a full week away from the day-to-day operations of Upstart, which can be a daunting prospect when there seems so much to do. Understanding the huge value of this trip comes down to weighing the difference between short-term and long-term goals.
The price of the trip was the delay of some short terms goals for Upstart. In particular, it delayed the build of the learning content for our new platform, which means our launch will be a week late. Balancing that out was the reward of exposing ourselves to the global EdTech market and learning some valuable lessons from veteran EdTech founders. I’m convinced that the long-term value of this trip will far outweigh the cost of attending, however, it’s not always easy to have that sense of perspective in the position that we’re in.
Finding that perspective is something that Leo and I are both working on. I feel that by understanding where we are on a more macro level, I’ll be able to let go of some of the anxiety that comes from trying to launch a startup. At times it can feel that you’re drowning under a mountain of work and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s easy to allow yourself to be trapped in a bubble as a founder, but it can be extremely detrimental to your chances of success. If you can’t look beyond your computer screen how can you get an accurate gauge on the market? Build connections with customers? Be part of a community? Or even take care of yourself?
A mentor of ours once told us that sustainable companies are built by sustainable people and I feel that gaining a sense of long-term perspective is crucial to putting that advice into action.
What we learned
The EduGrowth US tour was a bit of a whirlwind, with so much value packed into such a short amount of time. The most valuable aspects of the trip for me were being able to meet with a range of EdTech founders to hear their stories, hearing about the future of education at the ASU GSV conference and being able to see the size and scope of America as a market.
Hearing other founders stories is far better than asking for direct advice in my humble opinion. That’s why podcast such as How I Built This and Mixergy are so popular amongst aspiring entrepreneurs. Rather than asking founders to apply what they’ve learnt to what you’re trying to do, you can pull out the most important lessons by hearing the full scope of their journey. Usually, this leads to you finding answers to questions you didn’t know you had or unlocking new ideas that you can apply directly the things you’re doing.
Each founder that we met offered some extremely valuable insights, however, the broad themes of these conversations were:
- Building something great takes time: which means understanding that you’re on a long journey, not a sprint.
- Survival is the number 1 priority of any startup: the founders need to take every measure necessary to keep the wheels spinning, with a healthy dose of frugality when it comes to the financials;
- The founders need to set ambitious goals from day 1: otherwise its not really a startup, it’s a small business.
These stories were extremely valuable to help with that sense of perspective. All the founders had been through ups and downs, but that had the perseverance and the intelligence to keep moving forward. The result was that they were able to build some amazing companies that have drastically improved many people’s lives.
(Edugrowth meeting the teams from StartED, a New York based incubator)
The conference was absolutely huge with more than 3500 people from around the world gathering to discuss the future of education. My highlights were the startup pitches because it gave me a glimpse into the global edtech market and the American style of presenting (You can find my top 10 ASU GSV pitches here). Aside from the pitches, there were dozens of events with thought leaders from around the world talking about the future of education from K-12 schools, to higher education and lifelong learning. Some key takeaways for me were:
- The rise in digital credentialing as an improved way of recording people skills and achievements. The leading player in this space seems to be Accredible with its digital badge technology.
- An increasing trend towards using video games to engage young children with educational content. We heard the founders of Angry Birds talk about their new company Kaiken Entertainment, which aims to teach kids concepts such as physics through addictive games.
- A move towards higher educational institutions partnering with third party providers to deliver specific courses. We heard from a number of Universities that had partnered with companies such as FutureLearn to create new and exciting educational experiences.
(The EduGrowth teams at the front of the conference)
What changed for us?
The key realisation from this experience was to take more time to appreciate the journey that we’re on and to take care of ourselves along the way. Leo and I are in a unique position to many of the other teams having previous been through another 4-month accelerator program last year. This means we’ve been going really hard for nearly 10-months now working long hours without any serious breaks.
We’ve been putting a lot of pressure on ourselves at times, which certainly hasn’t been healthy. By realising that we don’t have to change the world overnight, we can approach our work at Upstart with a more relaxed and confident attitude. Also, reflecting on just how much we’re learning from this whole journey is important too. This helps reinforce the fact that whilst there isn’t a great deal of tangible value accumulating in terms of revenue, we’re still learning some invaluable skills that should help us long into the future.
The Plan for Next Week
After shaking off the jetlag it’s back to business as usual for the Upstart team. Our priorities at the moment are all focused around jumpstarting our project marketplace. Whilst I’m building out the learning content Leo is going to be focusing on marketing to students so hopefully once the projects are ready to launch we have a long list of eager students waiting to take part.
We also did manage to sneak a bit of time off in between meetings on the trip. Here are some of the best snaps:
(Isuru doing his best to help us navigate the New York Subway system)
(Ben getting some camera time at ASU GSV)
(Ria and I getting some culture at the MET in New York)