I have been making educational content for over forty years and I like to think I’m pretty good at it. I have even created a web site with over 3,000 online learning activities. So I was somewhat surprised when Barker Davis of AWE burst my bubble so easily. “You know,” Barker said to me, “everyone thinks they can create ALL their own content, and no one can do that.” Here I was with thousands of online learning activities, more than just about anyone else, and that got me thinking…mostly because he was clearly right.
Of course, I think he was right because I already have created the web site so that parents and teachers can create and share their own online learning activities. I realize that no matter how many online learning activities I have created (whether its 3,000 or even 30,000), over time that number will be dwarfed by what others can create and contribute to our sharing community. If only 1,000 parents and teachers create only one activity per week, that’s 50,000 online learning activities in just one year! And if you give people simple authoring tools, anyone can create online learning activities. If you enable them to create and join their own sharing communities, anyone can share. It’s really staggering to think of what the collective efforts of people can do. Thank you Barker for reminding me.
What I eventually came to understand was that the download aspect of both initial business models was the problem. Nobody wanted to inconvenience and grief of downloading and maintaining another player. Apple didn’t have that problem because they were able, from the start, to bundle the iTunes player with QuickTime and QuickTime was pre-installed on almost every computer manufactured. No one had to download the iTunes player, but everyone had to download the Flink Learning player. Even most of the people who purchased Flink Learning subscriptions didn’t know how to access the subscriptions they had purchased.
So…I am now embarking on my third business model: web-based subscriptions. Although the iTunes business model has expanded from music to mobile device apps, the educational software business has moved toward a web-based subscription business model. Parents and teachers want to send their children to a web site and play activities on that web site. For me, this has meant converting my thousands of activities and all of my unique authoring technology; this has not been a simple task. But, in the end, I have come to discover that few companies other than Apple can move the market; the rest of us have to respond to the market. And that’s exactly what my third business model does.
Friday, I met with a teacher who was having difficulty helping her students with phonics. She explained that problem is the children have difficulty with beginning and ending sounds. The teacher explained to her students that a beginning consonant is the first consonant in a word and an ending consonant is the last consonant in a word, but the children were still having problems matching the consonants with their sounds. Together, the teacher and I used FlinkMake to create an interactive activity providing her children extensive practice with beginning and ending consonant sounds.
It was great fun working with her, watching her smile as she was able to do something she never would have thought she could do. Here she was, creating educational software, and she couldn’t program at all! Even the graphics were easy because clipart is built in to FlinkMake. Another benefit the teacher valued: the activity provided immediate feedback without the judgment children often associate with their teacher’s feedback.
How could so many smart and experienced people ALL be so very wrong? I, like many others before and after us, thought I could ride Apple’s coattails. They had an extremely successful business model applied to music, one that was revolutionizing the music industry. Why couldn’t I replicate that business model for educational activities and revolutionize the educational software industry? Because Apple exercised complete control over the entire process, and I couldn’t. They made purchasing seamless, and I couldn’t. They utilized micro transactions and NO ONE else did.
So I did the next best thing; I worked with the next-best business model. If purchasing 99$ learning activities over the Internet wasn’t going to work, I decided to bundle hundreds of activities into 15-20 different subscriptions: K-2 Reading, First Grade Math, K-2 Phonics, Grade 1 Spelling, and so forth. Subscriptions ranged in price from $4.95-$19.95 depending on the quantity of activities. Parents and teachers could pick and choose which ones they want and purchase all of them at once. Their children would have the same great activities (and hundreds of them) and they would have an easier purchasing experience with a more common Internet product: a yearly subscription. It sounded good, but this business model was wrong, too.
On last Tuesday, I went to a school to work with a teacher. She was telling me about her problems teaching Math to a few of her students. The children were having some trouble ordering numbers. As we all know, numbers have an order or arrangement, for example, the number two is between the numbers one and three. The trouble children were having was understanding ascending and descending numbers. To help her students learn, I demoed FlinkMake to the teacher and showed her how she could create her own interactive worksheet on the computer. After a few minutes of tinkering, she was able to create a number of problems that we both thought would be beneficial to the children.
I thought the day was a success, having created something I think the kids will find fun and that will help them understand basic math facts. The teacher was excited to have a program that simplifies her job and I was happy to acquire a new customer.
I first started thinking about creating a business with thousands of activities parents and teachers could buy over the Internet in 2006. When I first started thinking about the business, I thought of iTunes as the perfect business model. We would sell activities over the Internet for 99¢ each. Because we had an authoring technology, we could create thousands of software activities inexpensively enough we could afford to sell them for 99¢. Micro transactions were considered to be the wave of the future and iTunes was a proven business model.
I share my idea with between 50-100 people, some just friends but most in the educational publishing industry generally and the educational software publishing industry specifically. Everyone, and I mean everyone, thought it was a phenomenal idea. “Why didn’t I think of that?” “I thought of that but I didn’t know how to make enough activities inexpensively to make it work.” I brought some friends on board with publishing experience to help with the business end of the business, especially business development and marketing. Together we got friends and family to invest in the new venture. We built the activities, we built the iTunes-like player, we built momentum. And we—the three of us and ALL the people who had told us we had a killer app of an idea—were wrong.
As I began to plan for our new web site, a friend of mine suggested I read the book, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. What a great book! It’s short, to the point, easy-to-read, clear, opinionated, and based on real research. It makes it clear that people do not read web sites; they scan them. People do not scan an entire web page; they scan only parts of the page. Most people expect to click something and everything that is clickable on the site must appear to be clickable. It’s amazing how powerful a few simple guidelines can be.
What I came to understand the more I thought about the book and the more I thought about the web site (it’s also true for life) is how important it is to decide the single most important thing for the site and to make sure that everything about the site reinforces that priority. For me, the choice was between getting people to purchase a Premium subscription or getting them to register for Free subscription. Although it is possible to do both, I decided to focus on the Free subscriptions. One reason, of course, is that the path for most people to a paid subscription passes through a free subscription. The other is that the worst case scenario with thousands of people getting free subscriptions is that thousands of people get useful subscriptions.