What educators can learn from entrepreneurs

scott kim
4 min readNov 24, 2022

If you want to make big changes in the world of education, don’t limit yourself by taking on the mindset of a traditional educator. Take on the mindset of an entrepreneur, willing to do what it takes to rapidly scale up a multimillion-dollar business.

Most education change-makers that I’ve met come from either classroom teaching or university-level academia. Classroom teachers are overworked and underpaid, while academics are rewarded for focusing narrowly on impressing a small number of colleagues. Both are accustomed to working within multi-year funding cycles where progress is slow and incremental.

Here are four self-limiting beliefs that often cripple education changemakers, and what to do instead.

Limiting belief 1: I must serve everyone equally

Teachers are put in the position of serving whatever students they’re assigned, which is a difficult and noble challenge. But when you’re growing a business, it’s okay and in fact essential to start by serving the people who already know they need it…these are the people who will seek you out and don’t need to be convinced. If you try to serve everyone you will become exhausted and not develop the momentum to build a thriving business. Here’s a video I just published on this topic.

ASK YOURSELF: who most needs what I offer, and is able and willing to pay for it? What would make my offering irresistible to these people? As Brian Chesky, founder of Airbnb says, it’s better to build a product that 100 people love than a product that a million people kinda like.

Limiting belief 2: I must struggle to make ends meet because education doesn’t pay

Of course, it’s challenging to earn a living in education, but there are ways to do it. There’s been a huge upsurge in for-profit YouTube channels that serve up educational content to audiences eager to watch it. These well-researched documentaries are far more engaging and personal than conventional documentaries and are a clear sign that there is a big hunger in the world for better education. And as a side effect, they are having a big effect on conventional schools, where teachers weave YouTube into their teaching.

Start with the premise that in order to affect the world, you do need to build a viable business with a strong team. Two great examples of profitable companies doing good work in education are Age of Learning and Brilliant. Both of them pitched their ideas to investors, to get millions of dollars in financing. They both recognized a need within education that would make a viable business, then created a product that could scale.

Age of Learning’s flagship product ABCmouse offers a complete, well-designed curriculum for 2–8-year-olds that kids enjoy using at home. Age of Learning works both financially & educationally because it charges the people who can afford it (parents subscribe to the service), and it gives away its service to those who can’t afford it (including all schools and libraries).

Brilliant works because it serves adults with a clear need for education (career advancement in tech and engineering), and is designed to be both entertaining and effective. Founder Sue Khim started Brilliant because she noticed that people were already turning to YouTube to upskill, and she wanted to deliver a better product to serve these people.

ASK YOURSELF: If you had to pitch your idea to a Silicon Valley investor, how would you convince them that you have a hot business?

Limiting belief 3: Change is slow, so I must settle for making slow progress

On a national level that certainly has been true. But I’m sure you’ve seen individuals change when they have a new experience of mathematics as a meaningful, fulfilling activity. I’m impatient and want to see change happen much faster than the glacial schedules of school boards, textbook publishers, and policymakers.

I’m inspired by the rapid success of James Tanton’s Global Math Project. He hit his goal of reaching a million students not long after launching. Living in Silicon Valley, I know what it means to operate at startup speed.

ASK YOURSELF: If I had to reach my goals in less than a year, how would I do it?

Limiting belief 4: I must do everything myself

Teachers are often under-supported and isolated from each other, which breeds a mentality of going it alone. But the fastest path to big impact is to lead a team and form partnerships with allies. I’ve decided for myself that the best way for me to have an impact is to support others and connect people with each other, so that’s what I’m doing by writing this article.

Take the attitude that there is plenty of support in the world eager to help you if you tap into the right energy reserves. When I started the math game program Math Monday, I tapped into the under-used resource of parents who wanted to volunteer in schools so they could participate in their kids’ education, learn about fun math games, and enjoy teaching kids.

The good news is you don’t have to do it all yourself. Sesame Street, the most influential educational effort in modern times, happened because educational TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney, who had the vision to use TV to reach inner city kids, met Lloyd Morrisett, an executive at Carnegie Foundation, who had the means to fund Sesame Street.

ASK YOURSELF: If I wanted to affect millions of people, who would I want on my team, and what organizations would I partner with?

If you are an educational entrepreneur interested serious about making rapid progress and having a big impact, check out our training programs for innovators at gamethinking.io. We can help you get there faster.

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scott kim

I’m an innovation coach at gamethinking.io, puzzle designer, ambigram artist, and math education evangelist. Connect with me at http://linkedin.com/in/scottekim