Having talked about how a sales approach (or at least sales metaphors) might help us improve MOOC effectiveness, it’s probably appropriate to talk about how a sales attitude might answer another nagging question surrounding massive online classes: how to make money off of them.
I’d like to kick off such a discussion with a confession. In the late 1980s, I started a business, something that would today be called a startup, but during that era was simply called a company. It was a publishing venture that leveraged new technology (the Macintosh SE + Pagemaker desktop publishing software) and a new entrepreneurial spirit in the air that grew out of the first generation of consumer high-tech.
Our business strategy was to create a book we know lots of people needed, print 10,000 copies and only afterwards find out if anyone would actually pay for them. Fortunately for us, someone did (although not traditional book buyers, which meant we spent many years working in an industry – employment, as it happens – we originally knew little to nothing about). And while our company eventually grew into a software and then an Internet business serving that same industry, it probably would have been wiser to figure out who our customer was and what they were interested in buying before mass producing a product for them.
If such an approach seems ludicrous in this era of startup sophistication, consider all of the Internet business modeled on an “eyeballs-first, monetize-later” strategy. Even within the small world of MOOCs, I’ve met a number of people excitedly working on products they know students and educators could benefit from, tinkering with and perfecting them, with “monetization strategy” relegated to spreadsheets that are dusted off whenever bills come due and new funders need to be sold on a venture’s future money-making potential.
I’m obviously exaggerating to make a point, but I don’t think it’s wide off the mark to say that the “build-the-product-you’re-in-love-with-and-the-money-will-follow” strategy I followed years ago is alive and well (even if product creation does not require finding a home for 200 cartons of books during the Internet age).
One of the MOOCs I learned most from during my One Year BA was Steve Blank’s How to Build a Startup course from Udacity. And Blank’s reputation as a seer derives from the central premise of all his teaching: figure out who your customer is and what they will pay for before building a company to manufacture and sell it.
While this might seem like a trivial observation, keep in mind that Newton’s laws (which we now teach to Middle Schoolers) were much harder to come by for Newton. And I think it says something about the mindset of the entrepreneur (many of whom create a business to bring their dream product to market) that there is still a huge need to teach budding CEO’s the importance of interacting with a vital segment of the real world – the people you except to hand their credit cards over to you for your wonderful solution – before bringing in the funders, building a factory and recruiting an executive team and salespeople.
And lest you think this “product-first/customer-second” problem infects only eager-beaver small businesses, let’s talk about how MOOCs got turned into businesses backed by tens of millions of investment dollars when:
(1) Some Stanford professors opened up a couple of courses to the world and were shocked to discover not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands of people interested in taking them
(2) Assuming that anything that spontaneously draws a six-figure audience must be worth something, these same professors formed for-profit companies (Udacity and Coursera) that would allow them to do good and convince investors that they would do well by backing their venture
(3) Institutional players got into the game with their own multi-million dollar investment into a non-profit (edX) that still needs to make money (albeit not necessarily fast-growth profits) to survive
(4) Everyone signs up millions of users, works morning, noon and night on perfecting their platforms and churning out content (which collectively equals “the product”), and then tries to figure out a how to make some coin (whoops, I mean “develop and implement an effective business model”) based on having drawn a lot of attention and a lot of users who have only demonstrated their willingness to get something for nothing
As I mentioned before, Udacity’s “pivot” consisted of realigning their business once business model experiments implemented after their product was released indicated that the market they hoped existed (college kids or schools looking for alternative credit solutions) failed to materialize. And Coursera’s Signature Track program (the only MOOC-related anything that’s generated seven figures) and HarvardX’s experiments with delivering paid-MOOCs through Harvard Extension are both post-hoc attempts to see if people who make up the bulk of the MOOC student body (older people who already have a degree) might be willing to pay for anything.
As with so many things related to business, there are no right answers, meaning neither Udacity’s pivot or Coursera and edX’s revenue experiments are wrong approaches in a world of so many “unknown unknowns.”
But if these companies were following Steve Blank’s advice (learned, one hopes, by taking his MOOC), they might want to spend more time asking their enthusiastic customer base what they might want to buy (as opposed to just what and how they want to learn).
I know it probably seems crass for educators to start thinking about students (or other educational entities) as potential paying customers. But if the alternative is the entire MOOC experiment failing because investment dried up before an effective business model has been discovered, it just might be worth adding some high-end sales talent to the team, even at the expense of “perfecting” a product which (at least with regard to this definition of MOOCs as ongoing experiments) will never be perfect.