Building a business in the education world is not for the faint of heart. Add in the mix of media, research, along with public discussions for the greater good, and it can become even more challenging to turn such work into a company. However, one entrepreneur is changing the narrative, and she’s found tremendous success in a short time.
LeiLani Cauthen, founder of the Learning Counsel, noticed something unusual coming down the education pipeline. Through her previous work as a publisher for the Center for Digital Education, she found countless numbers of technological apps that were about to flood the education market. And, through her findings, she opened up a national discussion about the shift in digital curriculum which turned into a business, media outlet, and research institute.
Technology is a rapidly changing and fluid force in the world. However, in education, understanding and implementing it throughout a school district can tend to move slowly, and can cause confusion even among the most tech-savvy.
The Learning Counsel has set out to clarify this national discussion surrounding digital curriculum transitions. They have an audience composed of 215,000 Superintendents, tech and instructional administrators, curriculum specialists, thousands of publishers, and interested education enthusiasts.
They also put on an average of 30 events a year, with approximately 1,300 attendees across the country. Since 95% of their attendees are administrators from schools and districts, they have an incredible impact in the education space.
I had a chance to speak with Cauthen about her work in the edtech field. In this interview, which has been edited and condensed, we talked about how and why she built the Learning Counsel, how she’s helping to navigate the confusing world of education technology, and where the Learning Counsel is going in the near future.
Robyn Shulman: When you decided to create the Learning Counsel, what problem did you solve?
LeiLani Cauthen: I worked for over twenty years in B2B publishing, most recently as publisher for the Center for Digital Education. I began noticing the abounding growth of digital learning apps, sites, courseware, and technology of all kinds amassing a tidal wave about to crash the tranquil shores of K-12 schools.
There were several startups already knocking on my door down to get press coverage for their apps, so I had one of my staff members do a count, and there were over 7,000 companies including innumerable startups in edtech.
Shulman: And, as we both know, education can move slowly in all areas.
Cauthen: Yes, I knew that superintendents were used to slow deal-making with one of a handful of big publishers to purchase textbooks and materials. Purchasing tends to move once every five years or so in mass adoption cycles, after which they could relax for a while.
Shulman: You identified a problem before the emails and phone calls landed at the schools.
Cauthen: Yes, I knew they were going to be swamped by the masses of start-ups clamoring for attention. I foresaw that possibly, a mere ten minutes after schools purchased their thousands of iPads or Chromebooks for every student in their care (a trend already making headlines nationally), that they’d be getting calls and emails from every app publisher coming out of the woodwork.
Shulman: How did you think education leaders would respond?
Cauthen: That swamping would present school leaders with a kind of complexity they had no familiarity with, and the implications for student learning were just too momentous to allow them to wander precipitously into failure.
Shulman: Is this when you decided to start the Learning Counsel?
Cauthen: Yes, at the time, we were still in the midst of the lingering great recession. This issue left both me and my friend (and current business partner) Dr. David Kafitz, a former superintendent of schools in North Carolina, without work and strapped with paying mortgages and supporting our families.
Shulman: Can you tell me how you got started?
Cauthen: We began from a small home office in Sacramento, where I live. David and I cobbled together $5,000 for expenses, and we declared ourselves in business.
Shulman: How did it go at first?
Cauthen: Almost immediately, we began finding some success.
Shulman: What did you focus on in the first stages of the company’s launch?
Cauthen: After many long-distance calls, we settled on initially working to bring strategy and a view to the digital futures for schools with a roadshow for which we could sell sponsorships. The idea was to have edtech vendors with skin in the game to foot the bill so school district personnel could attend these roadshow events for free.
Shulman: How did you find success so fast?
Cauthen: I was able to secure some very nice initial sponsorship from companies like T-Mobile, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and others. Using my connections in various cities, I promised our sponsors an opportunity for show and tell, while the Learning Counsel provided additional value to school leaders by teaching strategy and discussing the true state of digital educational change.
Shulman: You found a win-win?
Cauthen: It appears to be a winning combination. All the events have been provided free to educators. In just over two years, the Learning Counsel grew to 215,000 readers and participants.
Shulman: Can you tell me how you’ve grown?
Cauthen: Executive administrations are sending large staffs from countless districts and schools to our live meetings now. Many events have sold out. Even though finances were tight (and continue to be), the Learning Counsel pulled a profit from year one.
Shulman: How do you identify the current and ongoing needs of a market as diverse and seemingly static as K-12 education? Were you able to find commonalities to address?
Cauthen: From the first year, we were able to identify the needs of school administrators to understand the technology transition. After speaking with many district leaders, we were able to recognize that most had a pattern they followed. It was uncanny how many similarities there were in this process between districts of all sizes and geographic diversities.
We created a “change continuum” to describe the stages of their transitions.
Shulman: Can you tell me about that continuum process?
Cauthen: In general, they start with strategy, then tactics, and then they hit a wall of unsustainable growth due to the over-abundance of installed but not-integrated tech and human resistance.
Then, a need to discern analytics from tech, then a reorganization to be digital first, and finally emphasis on hands-on experience as a juxtaposition to more screen learning to keep schools relevant as physical places to attend.
Shulman: How has the education community responded?
Cauthen: Year after year, this recognized arc has proven to be accurate, building our acclaim and positioning the Learning Counsel as a sort of futurist for school leaders.
Shulman: You also offer special reports. Can you tell me about those and how they generate revenue?
Cauthen: We have created a series of special reports distributed nationally and used as workbooks in live events. They take a deep dive into this change process, providing practical steps used by districts to move from stage to stage successfully. These special reports are supported by advertiser revenue from many different edtech companies, and provide a predictable revenue stream to fund our growth. Research and white papers produced under the Learning Counsel brand have also grown our sponsorship revenues.
Shulman: Many entrepreneurs want to know how to find and connect with sponsors. Can you share some advice?
Cauthen: My best advice would be to have a story to tell as to what value the events bring to attendees. Far too often, the focus is on what’s in it for the sponsor only. No events truly succeed unless they are doing something well for the attendees. Sponsors must know that they have to provide value for the audience, which is not just their sales pitch or endless workshops. You have to be willing to walk away from companies that don’t get that key connection. The ones that do will buy an entire line-up of events, and other services, especially when they know they are one of a handful allowed into our events.
There is a lot of what I call “distractive fluff” in the market, events that are very obviously a parade of shiny objects without context, thinly disguised as places for superintendents to give product advice to the industry while hearing the usual-suspect speakers at a grand resort.
Shulman: Have you been able to find the staff you need to handle your growth?
Cauthen: From 2014-2019, business growth has added incrementally to staff. I know from experience that you are better off under-hiring than over-hiring. Creating fixed costs in a small business can hurt you and makes it tough to remain nimble so you can react to surprises.
That makes me cautious, but patience has allowed us to find some real talent, often right under our noses.
Shulman: And, you work with your husband as well?
Cauthen: Yes, David and I decided to ask Doug Cauthen, my husband, to join the Learning Counsel and run daily operations. It has been a great move, but financially, it was a little risky at first. In essence, it put all our family’s eggs in one basket, but it was the right move.
We have also been very fortunate to put together a very dynamic team, including key players in media, education, and technology. Many of our staff live right here in Sacramento, but we are a virtual company. Both my partner David and our lead writer and editor live in North Carolina. We also have a development team that all live in Ukraine.
Shulman: And the famous question, what keeps you up at night?
Cauthen: I am one of those CEOs who could easily answer the big “what keeps you up at night” question, but whoever asks had better be ready for a tirade.
In it all, what I know is that I have already done a heavy lift that moved learning forward responsibly in schools for millions upon millions of kids. I did that. I’m barely five feet tall, a woman, and a bit too friendly and intellectual to fit most profiles of properly dour CEOs. We have done that with no help from any investors and a lot of desperate and constant action, late nights and long flights. Without a doubt, I would do it all again.
Shulman: We’re seeing many entrepreneurs starting businesses mid-life. What is your best advice for them?
Cauthen: Don’t be afraid. Look out at the world with an intention to perceive what is not there. That is the essence of entrepreneurship; there are an infinity of gaps in the world. It’s important to look and not just listen.
Shulman: Can you clarify that statement for me?
Cauthen: What I mean is that you must listen with a questioning attitude because too many people will give you the opinion that nothing can be done about anything and you will fail if you try. From looking, you can also figure out what your real interest is, but you need to look widely. You may come from the lowliest beginnings, but you could start a new sort of grocery or home-cleaning service with no more than a website, which is a very inexpensive thing to do. Starting a company is not an alone thing, you have to find others, and you have to find clients. Mid-career people are better at knowing what they are good at, but young people have the ability to pour vast amounts of raw enthusiasm at anything. There are no barriers you don’t create yourself.
Shulman: What is next for the Learning Counsel?
Cauthen: We have a product we have been developing for several years now. We plan to release the enhanced beta version when our team attends ISTE, which is a large national edtech conference held annually during the last week of June. In a nutshell, it is technology that will help schools, vendors, and students all navigate the vast edtech landscape and modernize the delivery of learning, much the way Amazon has modernized the delivery of retail products.
Suffice it to say, we are very excited about this release and believe it will make a positive contribution to the world of education.