Building a Better Vendor Ecosystem

Author: Michael Feldstein
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In my last post, I wrote about at a high level about the new e-Literate:

Think of the organization as having two parts. The first part is dedicated to spreading understanding. e-Literate has been doing this from the very beginning. The Empirical Educator Project (EEP) can be thought of as a social, IRL extension of e-Literate. I think of this as “spreading the gospel,” but the business-speak for this part would be “media and events.” There will be the blog, the summits (which may evolve into a conference as interest grows), a podcast, and other logical extensions. I will have more details to share on this, including a way to pay for the expense of expanding this work that I think will actually do net good rather than harm, in tomorrow’s post. One does not get rich from education media and events, but if they pay the mortgages of the people working on them, that’s just fine.

The other half of the business is to help organizations implement the knowledge and effective practices that are brought forward in the first half. Everything published through e-Literate and EEP will be contributed to the commons via a Creative Commons or open source license. But sometimes organizations need help implementing these ideas, or they want context-specific coaching. So the rest of the business will provide a combination of workshops and consulting that help apply and extend just about anything covered in e-Literate or EEP. I do have significant ambitions to grow this part of the organization, largely because I think it’s an important way to grow impact.

In today’s post, I’m going to make good on the promise of describing my plan for paying for the “spreading the gospel” part of the mission. Here’s the short version:

Vendors are always trying to get me to write good things about them. They know my word is valuable because people believe I will write good things about vendors if and only if I think they are true. By definition, I can’t take their money to write good things about them. That would defeat the purpose. Which means it becomes ever harder to cover authentically good work as the demand for attention increases and I have no way to pay for the cost of the time to cover that news. In fact, in the old consulting model, a lot of good work that we knew about was hard to cover because the way we learned about it—namely, through our paid consulting with the vendor—created a conflict of interest.

But what if vendors paid not for good coverage but for help in becoming better collaborators and contributors, particularly with non-customers? And what if there were a kind of peer review mechanism to help vet their success at becoming better collaborators and contributors? And what if they got coverage for free based on that success?

That’s the new model in a nutshell. Now I’ll break down where it came from and how it works.

The past: An origin story

Back in the early days of this blog, when I was just some guy working at a university writing about stuff that was on my mind, I didn’t think or write much about vendors or business issues. Sure, I was frustrated by the teaching tools they were providing, but I didn’t think much about the organizations themselves, how they ran their businesses, or the dynamics of the markets.

Then Blackboard decided to sue Desire2Learn for patent infringement. I didn’t know anything about software patents, either legally or economically, but this sounded at first blush like it might not be a good thing. So I started asking around. It turns out that when you work in an academic environment it isn’t too hard to learn stuff about just about anything. Pretty soon I knew more than I ever thought I wanted to know about patent claim construction, patent thickets, different ways that patents can be challenged, and so on. The more I learned, the more concerned I grew. And the more concerned I grew, the more I wrote about it.

When I started writing about the topic, only a handful of people were reading my blog. But then a weird thing happened. Matt Small, Blackboard’s Chief Legal Counsel, started arguing with me. In public. The next thing I knew, an Associated Press reporter was at my door with a photographer, and my picture was in USA Today. My readership skyrocketed. My public arguments with Matt Small continued literally for years, and with them, my readership continued to grow. Blackboard had made themselves the most hated company in ed tech and I became known as the little guy who took them on.

It started off as an accident, but once it had happened, I felt compelled to continue. Nobody else was doing that kind of accountability work in ed tech until Phil came along, and it was important work. Importantly, it sometimes got results. The bigger I got, the more likely companies were to behave better when we poked them.

That said, there are two aspects of this work that I don’t like. The first is the collateral damage. A blog post is a blunt force instrument. Companies do dumb or harmful things for a lot of different reasons, and some educators tend to be very reductive about their vendors and the people working at them. Sometimes that damage is a necessary evil, but I’ve come to appreciate that a sharp-elbowed vendor accountability piece is not something to be written lightly. The potential for good has to outweigh the potential for harm, and that’s often a tough calculation to make.

The second aspect I don’t like about the “cop on the beat” role of e-Literate is the opportunity cost. Every post I write about something that somebody shouldn’t have done a missed opportunity to highlight something good that we should be doing more of.

Put these two problems together, add in the problem that none of the time on this work is paid for, and it feels like e-Literate could be doing a lot more than it has been to foster a new economy in ed tech. One where good behavior is rewarded. And the funny thing is, ed tech companies try to make contributions all the time. Their efforts are generally ignored, dismissed, or simply not noticed.

There are many reasons for this. One is that many of these companies are not skilled at making contributions in ways that are helpful to educators and likely to be noticed. Another is that many educators have trouble thinking about vendors as complex organizations that can do a mix of good things, bad things, and neutral things all at the same time for reasons other than some evil master plan. There are others I could list, but the net effect is that contribution and collaboration are not reliably effective methods for vendors to increase their brand value in this space. So they do less of it than they could and don’t work as hard as they should at getting better at it.

Education companies should compete based on how much they contribute to education, particularly including how much they contribute to the public good. We haven’t created a world in which it is possible for them to do so effectively. That strikes me as a problem worth tackling. e-Literate is trying to do something about it via EEP.

The present

I realize that many of you are still trying to wrap your heads around exactly what the Empirical Educator Project (EEP) is. That’s OK. For the purpose of this post, you just need to understand this much:

  • It’s a project where colleges and universities share what they’ve learned and collaborate on projects to help their students learn, succeed, and thrive.
  • Knowledge shared in EEP is intended to be contributed to the commons via some sort of open source license and to be made as practically accessible as possible to as many organizations as possible.
  • EEP is, in many ways, a real-world extension of e-Literate.

EEP is also vendor-sponsored. In fact, it has a very particular and carefully crafted approach to sponsorship that is designed to help create an economy that rewards vendor collaboration and contribution.

Here are the principles:

Sponsors are vetted, not once but continually

I personally hand pick sponsors. I interview them before I accept their money. I have turned down sponsors, including high-dollar-value ones whose logos would have looked very good on the EEP web site. I have declined to invite sponsors back when their behavior has not lived up to expectations. The first step in establishing a new economy of collaboration and contribution is establishing a higher level of trust. I can only have EEP sponsors in the room that can demonstrate they are trustworthy.

Sponsors are participants

We refer to the vendors who support EEP as “sponsoring participants,” and we only admit sponsors who have something to offer in addition to money. The corollary is that sponsoring participants are not allowed to send sales or marketing people to the summit. They have to send product designers, executives, or researchers. In other words, they have to send people who are in roles that enable them to collaborate. Ultimately, we want our sponsors to contribute something. That is what they are there for.

For each company, there is only one price

There is no gold, silver, or bronze sponsorship. Nobody pays for a lunch or a lanyard or a program ad. You are either in or you are out. The only price difference is based on size. We have three bands based on broad ranges of company valuations—small, medium, or large. The price is the price, and it covers a year of sponsorship.

There may be ancillaries in the future—the one in the works right now is a podcast—but the core will always be one price based on company size with no distinction in the value received in return for that price, because we do not want to privilege large companies over small ones.

Credit is proportional to contribution

Becoming an EEP sponsoring participant in and of itself gets the vendor a few things:

  • Their logo on the web site to show that they are participating in creating this new ecosystem
  • My word to EEP network participants that the vendor has been vetted for participation
  • An opportunity to sit side-by-side with the participants at the summit and seek collaboration opportunities throughout the year
  • Help from e-Literate in finding collaboration and contribution opportunities

It does not buy them a single positive blog post on e-Literate. (Nor does it buy them protection from e-Literate’s watchdog function. The blog will continue to do what it does.)

If the participating sponsor makes a contribution under some form of open license, that will get coverage from e-Literate. I will be publishing several such posts in the coming weeks based on contributions from the recent summit. For the short term, I am vetting those contributions. As we grow, I intend to put in place a more robust review mechanism.

If the participating sponsor makes a non-proprietary contribution that is adopted by colleges and universities in the EEP network, that will get more attention on e-Literate because the adoption acts as a peer review mechanism. And if that adoption comes with some sort of impact measure, that will get the most attention of all.

Cost is proportional to value

The way we came up with the sponsorship costs is that, within each of the three company sponsorship size bands, we figured out roughly how much the marketing manager could sign off on without getting executive approval. Then we charged a little more than that. We are creating an environment in which vendors have an opportunity to prove that they are genuinely contributing to the betterment of education. They should be willing to invest in that future.

Some questions you may have

It’s pretty abnormal to have such a long post on e-Literate about we make our money, so you probably have some questions. I’ll try to anticipate a few, but feel free to ask yours in the comments section below.

  • Are you selling out, Michael? My answer on this one is the same as always. I’m the wrong person to answer that question. You be the judge. All I ask is that you watch my actions going forward and judge me by what I do.
  • Is e-Literate going to be all about EEP all the time now? No. As a matter of fact, I have a couple of posts coming up in the immediate future that are exactly the kind of analysis I’ve been writing for a long time now. But my writing has always evolved based on whatever I’ve been working on and thinking about. You may not have noticed it, because I haven’t always called attention to it. But it has. It’s going to do so again.
  • Does this mean you will only write about companies that are EEP sponsors? No, but it does mean that I have a filter for my already limited writing time. I ignore about a dozen press releases every week. That was true before EEP, and it’s still true now. I will write about good work wherever I see it. The question is really one of where I have time to focus my attention. Going forward, I am going to be focusing more of my attention on the work coming out of the EEP network, so I will be more likely to notice work being done there.
  • Do you really think you can change the vendor economy? Me by myself? Probably not. I have been surprised by how much I’ve been able to nudge it on occasion, but changing the whole darned thing is a pretty heavy lift. All of us together, on the other hand? Yeah, I kinda do think we can make it happen.
  • Can my company sponsor EEP? Maybe. Contact me and we’ll talk.
  • Are you going to be writing about your business all the time now? Nah. Don’t get too weirded out by all of this. I am more me than ever. I had to explain the changes and will return to the details from time to time when they are relevant, but e-Literate is still gonna e-Literate.

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