“Steve Jobs has a quote saying, ‘you can’t connect the dots looking forward.’ And I don’t know that back when I started in tech in the mid-90s that I had any idea I’d be where I am today.” – Jennifer Larson
Jennifer Larson has worked with school leaders in the K-12 industry for over 15 years. Through it all, she’s focused on school communications and parent engagement strategies.
Much of it was through her company Hive Digital Minds. Jennifer is the CEO.
Through working with schools, she noticed a need to help schools better communicate and share information with parents. That realization led to the creation of SchoolBzz, now the company’s flagship product.
The platform helps schools share information with parents and allows parents to customize how they get information.
From software to schools – and back again
Jennifer’s journey into education technology started on the tech side. “Steve Jobs has a quote saying you can’t connect the dots looking forward. When I started in tech in the mid-90s, I didn’t have any idea I’d be where I am today.”
She attended college in California, then worked for a small software startup. This was during a time when the software industry was gaining serious momentum.
After moving to Colorado and starting a family, Jennifer connected with passionate local educators. That hed her down the path of working with charter schools and consulting with school leaders for over a decade. She brought experience in technology and business to this work, and also eventually earned an MBA during this time.
Throughout all of her projects, Jennifer has focused on startup environments and marketing/communications.
Scratching an itch and starting a buzz
Eventually, Jennifer’s experience as a parent led her back to the tech world. She was frustrated trying to keep up with school information for four kids. This met with her experience in consulting with local Colorado schools, and soon the idea for SchoolBzz was born.
“At the time our school was sending emails, all the teachers were doing classroom websites, but then some teachers were recognizing parents weren’t going to the websites, so they started using messaging apps,” Jennifer explained.
Like many founders, she thought, there must be a better way.
She then pursued a feasibility study to evaluate the market and other solutions that existed for the problem. Today, SchoolBzz is in its third year of rolling out its platform to schools to test it and use it.
“We’re constantly doing focus groups with the school leaders to make sure that we’re meeting their needs with how we deliver the platform,” Jennifer said.
By continuously conducting research with parents who use the product, the company has unlocked insights about the most important needs. For example, notifications, smartphones, and social media apps are the primary driver of school communication for many parents.
“So making notifications a key part of our parents strategy was something that we recognized early on,” Jennifer said.
The team has focused on developing partnerships and integrations with learning management systems. These include Schoology and an in-progress partnership with Google Classroom. This will reduce the number of tools teachers and parents use to communicate.
Jennifer Larson reflects on starting a K-12 EdTech company
Like other American K-12 EdTech entrepreneurs, Jennifer has to navigate a fragmented market. What works in her home state of Colorado might not work in Florida or New Hampshire.
When it comes to building awareness and finding schools, Jennifer and the team started blogging early on. The goal was to create a conversation around the importance of school communication and parent engagement.
“We’ve consistently pushed hard and been very intentional about our communication strategy,” Jennifer said.
In the early stages, the company leveraged existing networks, contacts, and referrals. Jennifer notes the importance of face-to-face time, especially for a small company. Building relationships is essential for developing pilot programs with schools or districts.
Another challenge of K-12 EdTech companies is determining the best person to interact with in a school. SchoolBzz tries different sales strategies to determine who is the decision-maker vs. who is the influencer. In the past, the company has encountered educators excited about bringing SchoolBzz in. Later, it came out that they didn’t have the necessary leverage to make it happen.
“Maybe that parent or teacher could be a good champion, but we need to look at a different angle as far as how we get the school on board. That’s part of the learning and building out of your sales strategies,” Jennifer said.
When companies get the buying process right, they ensure schools use the product, so it can make an impact.
Similarities between schools and startups
Many view schools and startups as near opposites. However, Jennifer notices similarities between opening a school and starting a company.
- Planning: Both involve getting concrete about goals and clearly communicating them to potential users (or families.) A solid plan is required for building initial awareness and community.
- Customer research: The “customer research” Jennifer used for starting a school resembles that of a startup. “When we were starting up our charter schools, we would go into the parks and do surveys,” Jennifer said. “We held local information meetings. not really that different from what we do on the sales side for starting a business, going to meetups and networking events.”
- Fundraising: Charter schools apply for grants to help with startup costs. This is increasingly common for EdTech startups, too.
- “Emotional rollercoaster:” There are times of celebration when things go well, and times of stress when challenges arise.
With all that said, Jennifer notices an opportunity for schools to help students experience the process of iteration. This is an essential skill for building businesses.
“That concept of iterating is so important,” Jennifer said, “and I don’t know how much opportunity students get to iterate on an idea.” Her children have entrepreneurs for parents, so they get to witness the process first hand.
Through working with charter schools and starting companies, Jennifer has found a way to make an impact on schools. So maybe if anyone can help bring a needed change to the world of education, Jennifer Larson can.
Check out these links to connect with Jennifer:
- Connect with Jennifer Larson on Twitter
- Visit the Hive Digital Minds website
- Visit the SchoolBzz website
Want to hear another interview with an entrepreneur on a mission? Check out Ruben Harris, CEO of Career Karma, on community, accessibility, and mission