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To Build the Next Big Thing, Walk Before You Run

For all the talk of fast-growth startups, true innovation often comes after years of thankless work. Consider the ed-tech space as an example.

For many entrepreneurs, building the next big product or service is the goal, but it’s rarely the result.

You see, there’s a disconnect with how we talk about technology and building companies and how true innovation actually comes about. Oftentimes, creation is incremental--and success is almost never overnight.

Take my own experience, for example. MapQuest (I was a co-founder way back in the day) was just the next technology in a multi-year journey, which applied our collective map/tech underpinnings. We started with putting maps and directions on PCs for the auto clubs. That morphed into CD-ROMs, which at the time were a major advancement in the distribution of large amounts of data. Then we dabbled with products for the Apple Newton (stop laughing, look it up), which forced us to crunch a lot of data and software into minimum CPU and storage components. Eventually, we would take this intellectual property to this new medium called the Internet, where we branded our offering MapQuest.

So if you’re anything like me, you’ll embrace the fact that we’re all just building atop something else and just start somewhere. I was reminded of this in our last round of investments at The Startup Factory this past fall.

We're all pretty aware of the rise of applied technology around the education space. The advent of MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) is a game-changer. I'm excited to see how these courses change how people learn, both around the world and in my backyard. There are huge opportunities in this field for sure, but as is true with most things, there’s more to it.

At the risk of getting too deep in the weeds, programs such as Coursera, Khan Academy, and Udacity are focused primarily on the delivery of courses (by definition a MOOC only references distribution) with a healthy nod to a richer format of course development. But they continue to ignore the needs of the teacher/instructor.

Software for instructors, such as Blackboard, sells to administrators instead of teachers and thus focuses more on the administration of teaching. Desire2Learn, Moodle, and Canvas didn’t really blow up the business model even as they innovated using a software platform vs. the paper platform.

The Second Wave

The initial wave of education startups is now being followed by a second wave that focuses on the instructor. These companies recognize the importance of the instructor in education and represent a major opportunity for these new companies and their investors.

Great instructors research and create courses from a variety of source materials. Great instructors research and incorporate more effective ways to teach. Instructor-focused startups are finding ways to facilitate more effective and efficient course development and delivery.

The great news is that there's more course material and content than you could ever want for any single niche area of expertise. The bad news is that there aren't instructor-focused platforms that truly leverage that material.

Check out Trinket (full disclosure: one of our investments), LearnZillion, BetterLesson, and TopHat Monocle to see what's happening in the category--and what you can learn from them about building the next big thing.

Last updated: Feb 28, 2014

CHRIS HEIVLY | Managing Director

Chris Heivly was a co-founder of MapQuest (which sold to AOL for $1.2 billion), sole managing director of 77 Capital (a $25 million venture fund), and an executive at five software companies. Currently, he is one of two managing directors of The Startup Factory, a seed investment fund making 10 to 14 new investments per year. A national writer and speaker about startups and startup communities, Heivly is also the founder of the Big Top Job Fair.

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