ICYMI: PeakSpan’s K-12 EdTech Roundtable

PeakSpan Capital
8 min readJan 20, 2023
Recording: https://vimeo.com/781935446/da979edb71

PeakSpan is thrilled to share our first EdTech Roundtable Discussion (following the unveiling of our EdTech K-12 Landscape) — hosted by our EdTech Theme Lead and Partner, Sanket Merchant, and featuring three of our esteemed experts in the K-12 space: Courtney Reilly, Mindy Frisbee, and Dr. David Miyashiro. The full video can be viewed here, but if you don’t have time to watch, we have put together a shortened ‘Too Long Didn’t Watch’ (TLDW) piece that synthesizes the key takeaways.

PeakSpan has been incredibly fortunate to partner with some of the most influential leaders in the EdTech industry, hailing from different disciplines and segments of the broader ecosystem. They bring invaluable and highly complementary perspectives that help paint a vivid picture of the state of education (broadly) and the EdTech market as a whole. Below is a brief background overview of our discussion’s participants:

  • Courtney Reilly is the founder and CEO of Skillsline, a career readiness platform for students. She has spent many years in the education sector in finance roles and previously also served in a leadership role for the ASU-GSV Summit.
  • Mindy Frisbee is the Managing Director of Research & Strategy at InnovateEDU, a non-profit aimed at closing the opportunity gap by accelerating innovation in next-generation learning models and tools that serve, inform, and enhance teaching and learning. Prior to InnovateEDU, Mindy worked as the Chief Research & Development Officer at ISTE — a well-known organization that brings together a community of passionate educators and thought leaders who help shape the standards and best practices in terms of innovation in education with technology.
  • Dr. David Miyashiro is the superintendent of Cajon Valley School District, a 70,000-student school district in Southern California. David’s experience in EdTech dates back to 2004 as a pioneer in digital transformation leading deployments across numerous districts. David has been recognized as an award-winning educator and education leader driving boots-on-the-ground technology adoption.
  • Sanket Merchant is a Partner at PeakSpan Capital and leads our EdTech investing practice, which spans Pre-K/ECE, K-12, Vocational Education, Higher Education, and Professional Learning. He has 10+ years of experience in B2B SaaS investing with participation on 20+ growth stage boards in addition to extensive exposure to the broader HCM/L&D markets. He is also the father of twin 3-year-old boys who recently had their first day of school and only recently started their own academic journey 😊

Read on to learn more about the themes discussed at our roundtable, including questions, takeaways, and some of our favorite quotes!

Discussion Rundown:

Potential Recessionary Impact on EdTech and Budgets

Q: How do you think the forecasted challenging and uncertain economic environment will impact educational technology and budgets (particularly in K-12)?

  • If districts look at the problem of adding technology exclusively as an add-on to existing systems, then it may seem overly expensive. Instead, technology and EdTech can replace dated workflows (e.g. paper, pencil, textbooks) — all of which are manual and ever-cost-increasing — thereby delivering a cost and time-saving approach when implemented correctly.

Per Courtney: “It’s hard to shift that [status-quo] mindset, and so education technology and especially when it comes to Edtech that’s supporting what are not considered core areas continues to be seen as a nice to have… EdTech companies who can quantifiably demonstrate their impact in terms of cost savings or outcomes will have a much better leg to stand on when districts are thinking about cutting.”

Q: What do you think of the impact of this challenging economic environment on the timing of budgetary decisions — is it lagging, or when might you see the upcoming impact on procurement cycles?

  • The economic impact is yet to be fully seen (as of late 2022), but there’s broad recognition that it will be significant next year and/or in our near-term future.

Per Mindy: “Technology-powered schools and classrooms are here to stay… What’s really important is that those decision-makers and users, when it comes to teachers and students, are taking a more detailed look at what sorts of solutions and how it’s helping advance their goals, not just an add-on, not just an added tool.”

Utilization of External Funding

Q: How well do you think startups and entrepreneurs in the ecosystem are utilizing the influx of funding (i.e. stimulus, public, grant, etc.) on the back of COVID, and how might they best take advantage of these dollars, particularly in collaboration with districts?

  • District decisions come down to two important things:
  • 1) Existing relationships — i.e. who truly understands the needs of districts/schools, and who is driving these conversations
  • 2) Demonstrating solution impact — i.e. alignment to existing standards/practices, data standards, pedagogical standards, etc.

Per David: “The best vendors and Edtech partners before the pandemic were those that had relationships, good customer service, and leveraged other relationships that they had to gain access to district leaders and building leaders… After COVID, it’s really a good time to leverage relationships and partnerships through organizations like ISTE and CoSN.”

Success for EdTech on a By-Category Basis

Q: What categories of EdTech do you think are likely to be most resilient in the face of a challenging economic environment, and what are some areas that might have seen success on the back of COVID but may fizzle away or face difficulty sustaining their recent success?

  • Success is based on districts’ unique needs, but solutions that improve data / human infrastructure and directly enhance the teaching and learning experience are poised to succeed. Many solutions and devices brought on during COVID had rushed / poor onboarding and implementation processes that led to poor experiences at the user level.

Per Courtney: “[We are] recalibrating how teachers and students use technology. We’ve really recognized how important those relationships between students and between students and teachers are, and so I think as we had been increasing the use of technology in the classroom, you saw more and more students spending time on technology as part of their classroom day. I think there might be less of that going forward and a rethinking about when students use technology, as vital as it is.”

Historical Success and Failure Amongst EdTech Startups

Q: Have entrepreneurs and startups struggle with connecting their value proposition to a value driver that matters?

  • Solutions need to show impact, need to be developed with input from users, and align with standards, as evidence and impact have historically been difficult to demonstrate.

Per Mindy: “It’s necessary to show how solutions drive towards [impact & outcomes] and are aligned with the best practices and needs from the end-user. Historically it has been difficult to show evidence on outcomes, and more and more short-cycle solutions are becoming available to help providers illustrate solution impact.”

Q: Have you noticed any trends amongst successful companies — whether they are specific roles, types of professionals/leaders, or initiatives they are leading that lead to product market fit, greater market opportunity, and/or product improvements?

  • Culture is bigger than any individual hires. To elaborate, cultures that prioritize consistent improvement, alignment with problems, understanding the customer, and consistent demonstration of return on investment (ROI) between implementation and outcomes will position companies for success.

Per Mindy: “I don’t necessarily think it’s about a person or a background or a skill set. I think it’s about a company’s culturethat prioritizes that ongoing conversation. It’s about the relationship, to really understand what are the challenges and is the culture of your company and your product strategy aligned with that ongoing conversation with educators and taking that and really applying it and making solutions that are driven by the needs and the contexts of where they’ll be used.”

Strategies for Weathering the Upcoming Storm

Q: In contrast to the obvious tailwinds that have accelerated EdTech with COVID, what are some of the headwinds that entrepreneurs and startups might be able to anticipate and adequately position themselves around as we head into 2023?

  • Just as schools and districts quickly adopted EdTech tools in the face of COVID, they are now starting to evaluate what is critical for learning processes and trim what is considered unnecessary as we return to more normalized environments.
  • Properly positioned, and, therefore, critical EdTech solutions should facilitate conversations and relationships between all stakeholders, remove teaching blockers, integrate into existing technology portfolios, and, most importantly, articulate how solutions align with the problems and needs of districts.

Per David: “The value proposition we brought when we introduced digital learning for this current school district was, if we do it, right, we’re going to see less tech, more human. So, introducing technology is actually going to enable more human interaction with individuals in small groups, and just-in-time instruction with kids. If we do it right in education, conversations between parents, students, and teachers will be so much more on point, and there’ll be so much more time for them because the blocking and tackling of teaching/learning/assessment could be done by a machine. So, the human part of it, the problem-solving part of it, and the relationship side can be the focus of the interactions.”

Q: What can entrepreneurs do to be prepared for a shift to more normalized procurement cycles in 2023–2024, whether that is a shift from teacher-led sales to a more top-down approach, or just anticipating the build-out of more stringent security, data, and integration requirements in a more developed procurement environment in 2023 and beyond?

  • We are going to see more collaboration between decision-makers, teachers, students, and everyone in between. Put simply, more voices are coming to the table, and the number of stakeholders involved in the decision-making process has increased exponentially in comparison to the days of old.

Per Courtney: “Educators and teachers have always been involved, but they are now shifting from users to critical consumers, and through this, they are gaining much greater agency in the decision-making process. This lends positively towards bottoms-up, freemium models that we have seen across the industry on the company side, whereas schools and districts can respond to this trend through professional development opportunities, income growth, and iterative school-wide conversations.”

  • The two biggest opportunities for vendors on the topic of soliciting teacher support include:
  • (1) Taking advantage of the summer offseason in terms of product education and adhering to teachers’ needs
  • (2) Trying to be creative in terms of connecting with teachers during the academic year. This can include TikTok, YouTube, creating communities of teacher advisors, etc.

EdTech’s Future Outlook:

Q: Where do you see the biggest opportunity and pain points over the next 24–36+ months in EdTech?

  • Various new technologies (AR / VR, machine learning, etc.)will play important roles in school systems — people can take advantage of these tailwinds by continuously pushing new technologies to the forefront and adopting an innovative mindset. One of the biggest challenges is staying up to date as a solution provider (including incumbents and emerging players) in today’s constantly changing environment.

Per David: “[I see] the Great Resignation as an opportunity and also a challenge, in terms of making work better for the people who work in education. I think the value proposition now is that all the solutions out there will make the work so much better, so much more engaging, and so much more efficient for teachers and anybody else in the building. But building leaders right now are too afraid to ask their teachers to do one more thing, but that one more thing is going to improve the quality of their experience. It’s an opportunity to make work better and make the job of teacher much more appealing again, because it’s been hard for the last three years. This is the opportunity to take the Great Resignation and make it the Great Reengagement of public education.”

A special thanks to Courtney, Mindy, and David for their exceptional contributions to this discussion and our broader EdTech Expert Community for their continued invaluable input and feedback. We greatly appreciate your continued collaboration, partnership and support!

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PeakSpan Capital

We are a leading growth stage investment firm partnering exclusively with disruptive B2B software companies.