Sales Lessons for Education Entrepreneurs

I am well-versed in the challenges of education selling – also known as The Procurement Process. For over four years I ran Parent University. After that I worked for the leading education action tanks in the US. And I still run one of the largest EdTech meetup groups in Silicon Valley.

Edupreneurs encounter a multitude of wise conversations at meetup groups, education hackathons, industry conferences, education publications, and just about anywhere education experts and EdTech enthusiasts congregate. But the one thing you are guaranteed to NOT hear is actionable guidance on how to sell. You will find plenty of advice on navigating the procurement process, procurement policy recommendations and the like. When it comes to selling, investors aren’t much help (in fact, they’re probably a distraction). Mentors and education thought leaders will urge you towards product focus (Make something that teachers and students love, then it will sell itself!). Your peers aren’t likely to help you move the needle either.

Mentoring and modeling for tactical approaches to education selling is a crucial topic about which there is a deafening reticence. The way you figure it out is … by figuring it out! How inefficient is that? And where does that lead you?

Most EdTech entrepreneurs do not have a background in sales – especially complex selling. The reality of education sales that is most often bemoaned is that there are too many stakeholders to navigate – each of them, seemingly, with veto power over purchasing decisions related to your product. If this is the anthem you’re singing – selling in education is SO hard – chances are you’re making excuses. Plenty of people are selling complex products into nebulous organizations with labyrinthine procurement processes. Learn from them!

My problem was that I didn’t even realize there were models out there that I could look to and imitate. SaaS companies are one such great example. Now that I work for such a company, and am learning a boat load about penetrating hard-to-crack organizations to try to sell a complex product with a rigorous selling process, I’d like to share a few simple lessons learned.

The first thing to note is that there is a process with clearly defined steps, or stages, of the sale. At my company we have a set number of stages. Within these stages there is a heap of nuance. And at different times in the process you focus your energies on different elements. For this post I’ll share with you six points of focus for addressing your qualified leads (perhaps another time I can write more about sales pipelines and getting leads into/out of your funnel).

  • Be systematic – You need to have a process, know your value proposition, what you’re selling against, etc.
  • Identify a catalyst – Does a school have an initiative that aligns with your service? Did they win a grant? Have staffing issues?
  • Find your champion(s) – Who has a pain point that your product addresses? Who sought you out? Who will guide you to other contacts within the org?
  • Have multiple touch points – Don’t just reach out to one person. And don’t reach out to them only once or through only one medium. Email, call, Tweet, InMail them.
  • Know who the economic buyer is – This is a huge trap: If you talk to 1,000 champions but none of them have the ability to buy your service or are unable to influence the person who can then you are wasting your time. Flee this org!
  • Follow up and follow through – Sounds simple, right? But when you do get a response, be sure to follow up. Start delivering value. Ask them for other contacts. Work this lead. Move them to the next stage!

These six bullets just scratch the surface of selling into complexity. A surface I didn’t know how to scratch as an EdTech entrepreneur because, in part, I came from education (not sales!). I knew the surface was there. And I tried to claw the hell out of it. But I just did not know how to break through. In the time since I’ve put Parent University to the side my personal mission has been to do just that – break through by developing a deep understanding of how to build a sales process, a sales organization, and the operations, management and leadership to grow a venture that can have meaningful and measurable impact…and share that with others.

I’m hoping to bring some of these lessons to life both here and to the group of Edupreneurs in our Meetup group. If you’re interested in learning a bit more come check out our next event. Zuora has provided our Meetup group with a unique opportunity for folks in the education industry – complimentary passes to their upcoming Subscribed Conference in San Francisco. For folks who don’t have experience with a sales background or deep business modeling experience, this is an opportunity to get some rich and wide-ranging exposure to building your business from some of Silicon Valley’s leading CEOs, CFOs and other execs. This is particularly apropos for those running a subscription business. Lynda.com will be there. If they think they can stand to learn something, I’m sure you can too!

If you’re interested in attending, RSVP via this link. Or shoot me a note.

Feature image by GotCredit.

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