What do you do as an entrepreneur when the ground beneath your market keeps shifting? USATestprep, a company started by two former high school teachers in Georgia, knows the answer. The following four steps help companies thrive in the midst of market turbulence:
- Focus on your customers.
- Personalize your product.
- Leverage a distributed team.
- Secure buy-in.
Jay Eckard and Joe Winterscheidt, the teachers-turned-entrepreneurs who founded USATestprep, have recognized and implemented those steps. They told me that when they founded the company back in 1998, they saw a need to support students and teachers facing stringent state testing requirements.
They wanted to make these teachers’ lives easier and help students pass the new state tests in order to graduate, they said. And, considering how long ago USATestPrep began, these guys were ahead of their time: Schools back then had maybe a couple of laptops, and tech was not at all integrated into the curriculum. “Edtech” as we know it today wasn’t even a thing.
Jay and Joe forged ahead like good, scrappy startup kings. Joe wrote the content, and Jay did the application development. They worked as full-time teachers while they built the company on the side. And each served in many roles for the company.
Then, eight years in, they had enough capital to go at it full-time. Jay quit first and started running the venture full-time. Joe soon followed. They started with science content for Georgia high school students, since that was their expertise. Then they hired friends to write content in other areas. They held writing groups to produce more content. Eventually, they were able to hire their first employee, who now works as their VP of sales.
Here’s how USATestprep is dominating the test prep and educational content market in the southern United States:
1. Focus on your customers.
Eckard and Winterscheidt have always held to one key tenet in their work: Focus on supporting teachers, and the students will be better off as a result. Whether teachers like it or not, many states still use high-stakes standardized tests to assess student performance. USATestprep responds to this reality by giving teachers and students the tools they need to be successful in preparing for and passing these tests.
One way they accomplish this is by hiring mostly former teachers who, they say, “get it.” As they develop products, they ask themselves: “What would have been useful to us when we were teaching?” To answer this question, USATestprep tries to make test preparation and curriculum mastery processes smoother while making things a little fun for students, as well. So far, the founders’ bet is proving to be very effective in improving test scores.
Along with hiring mostly former teachers, the company also takes time to constantly reassess its market. “We do a big annual survey where we get feedback on our product [from teachers],” said Eckard. This survey provides the company with regular feedback it applies to its products each year as the company grows. The founders place a high priority on being responsive to educators’ needs in everything they do.
2. Personalize your product.
Customers love to feel that products are specially created for their unique needs. It’s even better if companies can actually deliver a truly customized product to those customers.
As mentioned, USATestprep has cornered the test preparation and instructional content market in the South. It’s done this in part through creating high-quality tools with teachers in mind. The other part is customization. “An incredible amount of effort goes into creating each review for each state,” says Eckard, USATestprep’s co-founder and CEO. “Every state has different flavors; many have their own version of the Common Core State Standards.”
The company specializes in matching national and local standards that respond to an ever-evolving educational landscape. “I really feel for teachers,” Eckard said. As the ground changes beneath those educators, with frequent changes at the state level, he says he often sees teachers seeking help.
“We’re on top of it,” Eckard said of those changes. The company is constantly updating hundreds of tests and building new ones. Its turnaround time for building a new practice test is about two weeks, which is quick in the edtech sector.
3. Leverage a distributed team.
Eckard and Winterscheidt know that the talent they need to grow their business does not all reside in the same place. So, they’re smartly leveraging a distributed team, mostly across the southern United States, to get the job done. They have developed their own portal for their content authors and hired freelancers to author content remotely.
This enables them to hire freelancers who are experts in niche subjects, like physics or South Carolina state history. The company keeps a core team together to manage its network of freelancers and edit content to align with its technical specifications. Like the best companies in tech, USATestprep has caught on to the need to broaden its reach to find the right talent for their business.
4. Secure buy-in.
Eckard has one key piece of advice for edtech startups out there: “[Teachers] have to see the value; it cannot be forced down their throats.” While the average teacher in 2016 is much more tech savvy than his or her predecessors back in 1998, there is still a need to ensure that teachers buy into edtech products as they strive to support student learning.
Building products with and for teachers helps produce this value in the product-development process. USATestprep has spent significant time developing its market in each focus state and building the necessary relationships along the way to inspire confidence in its product.
Eckard predicts that further changes in the education landscape will continue to “blow up the traditional model.” He sees agile companies like his own as benefiting from these sea changes by using tech to allow for even greater customization of curriculum.
The company is increasingly positioning itself as a “classroom partner” for educators, providing a wide array of classroom resources beyond just test preparation. Though test preparation drives the first look at its products, USATestprep is working to stay ahead of the curve by continuing to offer online support tools as everyday curriculum resources for teachers awash in new products and a changing regulatory landscape.