Scoring a Deal With a Big School District Is the Dream. But Is It Worth It?

Aug 02, 2019

Getting into large school districts, like those in Los Angeles or Chicago, is the stuff of dreams for many education technology entrepreneurs. The New York City Department of Education, the largest in the nation, covers 1,800 schools serving nearly a million students.

But it can also feel like a pipe dream, as the challenge of winning a contract can be as gargantuan as the student body.

Still, there are some simple tips to follow and tripwires to avoid, says Phil Weinberg. Before retiring this past June, he served in the NYC Department of Education for the past 35 years, most recently as its deputy chief academic officer for teaching and learning. There, he’s watched countless edtech companies try to figure out the best way to reach the right decision makers.

How did the companies that did make their way into New York do it? Weinberg will be sharing those stories as a coach at our upcoming EdSurge Immersion event in New York City on Sept. 13. Here’s a teaser of what it takes to reach large school districts in the Big Apple and the City of Angels—and everywhere in between. It boils down to three axioms:

Axiom 1: What you sell is not always what they need.

Leading your pitch with a narrow focus on the magic and wonders of your technology will fall on deaf ears. District decision makers get pitches around the clock, and those that promise quick-fix solutions to undefined problems are often the easiest to pass on.

First, show not what your technology is capable of, but that you deeply understand the needs, pain points and lived experiences of teachers and students. According to Weinberg: “Just like teachers need to know each of the individuals in their classrooms in order to be effective, an entrepreneur should really understand the needs of the district well before they make their pitch.”

It is also important to remember that edtech tools are usually paid for by public tax dollars, and that any purchases will be scrutinized to ensure that they meet the needs of students, teachers and administrators. Before going in with a pitch, know what the district’s strategic plans or priorities are. Is it to expand STEM offerings? Offer work-related learning opportunities? Provide additional professional development for teachers?

Only by doing the homework on those kinds of questions can one start to build a compelling case for why he or she should be taken seriously.

Axiom 2: If you don’t have the time, then make sure you know the magic number.

Trying to negotiate a contract with a large district can take a ton of time. According to Weinberg, even simply winning the approval to pitch your product to the whole district can take months.

In the NYC Department of Education, any vendor—selling technology or otherwise—need to be vetted by the Office of Contracts before becoming an approved vendor that is allowed to sell to multiple schools. There’s a reason for the stringent approval process: to ensure that no individual can influence the procurement process at the district level. The selection of approved vendors goes through a blind process, and needs to be approved by a committee.

Not every company can wait (or stay afloat) for that long. This is why Weinberg stresses that entrepreneurs thinking about New York City should keep a magic number in mind: $24,999.

That is the maximum that any school in the NYC Department of Education can spend on a product or service without having to go through the district’s Office of Contracts. Many companies had better luck pursuing individual contracts with different schools that were each under the threshold, recalls Weinberg. “Some of the most successful vendors did school-by-school marketing and were able to grow in the district without having to go through the Office of Contract. Instead of one district contract, they saw it as 1600 different contracts.”

That magic number varies depending on the district; knowing what it is can help you avoid months and months of jumping through hoops in vain.

Axiom 3: Know thy season.

District buying cycles vary around the country. Some schools have very defined fiscal years and time periods within which they have to make purchases; others have rollover budgets which allows them to not have to worry as much about timing purchases.

In NYC Department of Education, the fiscal year ends June 30. District officials prefer to make decisions about purchasing at the beginning of that cycle, in July. That means that to get on their radar in time, companies should time their engagement and outreach in the spring, around March or April.

So should you go after a big district?

There is no mistaking the value and significance of a big district contract. But this is not the only way to reach the masses.

Going straight for the top to win district approval can be a long, windy road—so make sure that you’ve got the time and resources for the journey. For those without those luxuries, there are other ways to get your foot into the door from the ground up.


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