eBooks, iPads, and the Kindle are changing the fundamental structure of the publishing industry. From a strategic perspective they are having the largest impact on the development and pricing of products. In other words it is affecting the “what” deeply. The “how” has not changed all that much, regardless of whether you are selling print and/or technology.
There are four fundamental strategies for a growing a company in the K12 sector because even in the best of times K12 is (mostly) a zero sum game. In 2008 I wrote a post about this competitive dynamic:
In normal times education budgets grow at 2%-5% a year. Most start-ups or new products need to grow at a huge multiple of that – 30% to 300% or even more. Mathematically in order for you to grow someone else is must lose out.
We are most definitely not living in “normal times” these days. Any growth strategy in today’s market is fighting gravity as school budgets are expected to fall next year after the stimulus has expired.
K12 Growth Strategies
How does a company go about “stealing” share from other players in the market? Below we look at innovation, distribution, acquisition, and diversification.
1. Innovation – This is the most obvious – if you build a better product people will flock to you while ignoring the tired offerings of your competitors.
The best example in the market today is interactive white boards which are now in over 60% of classrooms (70% is considered market saturation for most technologies). This has mostly happened over the last 5 years.
Since this platform is now ubiquitous a new innovation frontier is content for these devices like Saddleback’s excellent math programs.
PCI published our award winning PCI Reading Program – the first research based comprehensive program for intellectually disabled students in decades. It is designed for today’s Special Ed population, including a much higher number of students with autism. Tellingly it is a combination of print and software. This product line has seen explosive growth in a rough market.
Success requires a clear vision of market needs and how to apply new tools to those needs in an economically efficient way. Easy to say, really hard to do.
2. Distribution – Distribution is the achilles heel of all K12 start ups. If you have something innovative making more people aware of your innovative solution will drive new business. The problem is that there are 3.8 million teachers in the US and they are bombarded with marketing messages. Cutting through that clutter at that scale takes time and money.
The largest publishers have actually contracted their distribution networks in the last five years. They collapsed their supplemental teams into their core basal teams with the predictable result that the supplemental business has shrunk. There is a fair debate on how much of this shrinkage is falling demand on the customers’ side and how much is publisher neglect. What is clear is that the publishers’ actions have fueled the fire at some level.
This has created opportunities for mid-market players with niche distribution networks to fill the gaps at both ends – with their own products and as distributors for larger and smaller players. As I noted last fall:
“…[in the attention economy] access to expertise becomes very valuable and companies that can help their customers make informed, relevant, and effective decisions will thrive.”
An investor once asked me what it took to build a distribution network in K12. My answer was most definitely not what he wanted to hear – 10 years and a lot of patience. Most new companies don’t think in that kind of time frame but the survivors will all tell you that the trick was a long term bloody minded dedication to the challenge. There is no quick fix here.
3. Acquisition – Between starts ups innovating new learning technologies and mature mid-market companies seeking exits Education is a target rich environment for those seeking acquisitions.
The core challenge has more to do with investor expectations for returns on capital and the speed at which the education market moves. Due to the stickiness of education solutions once they are adopted they pay out nicely over a long period of time. Put another way – the payoff is there in this market but most investors are not patient enough to earn it.
Right now the larger publishers seem to be sitting this out but people looking to enter the market – like News Corp – are active. Private Equity groups are circling as well but many probably see education as a low risk hedge rather than a core investment. The VCs are quite active – but they are investing in small innovative start ups.
One of the more interesting plays may be marrying the playbook of the PE and VC camps. Leverage the distribution muscle of an established player than can reach across the market with the disruptive innovations coming from the smaller players through creative acquisitions. Culturally and operationally there are significant challenges in this approach, but the payoff if done correctly is a dramatic reduction in the time to market for innovations at a time of disruptive change.
4. Diversification – Another approach is branching into new markets. There are opportunities in corporate learning, education systems in other countries, tutoring, trade publishing, home schoolers, etc. for publishers who currently sell just to schools.
This mistake that may company’s make is underestimating both the changes in product design and the distribution challenges associated with moving into other markets.
Does your box say “program” instead of “programme”? At a minimum you will need a new box if not a complete page review and spelling update for the guts of your program if you want to sell it in the UK or Australia. Are you ready for the rough and tumble of trade publishing or corporate learning?
Moving into new markets requires sustained discipline as you learn the rules of the road and a willingness to invest over a long haul. If you are looking for a quick hit don’t waste your time on this approach.
If you are thinking about how to grow your business (rather than just holding on in tough times) then some combination of the four approaches outlined above is where you will probably end up. Your vision, access to capital, and discipline will determine what the right mix is for your company.
I’ve probably missed some obvious alternative to the four core growth strategies outlined above. Feel free to drop me an email or comment and we’ll update the list.