Ways for edtech startups to democratize access to international educational opportunities by placing the community at the core of the business model.
Founders and creators are increasingly looking to move beyond marketing to rely on a community as the fastest and often more affordable way to launch and scale up their products or solutions. For consumer-focused products that don’t offer deep-tech innovation, it’s essential to not just grow organically, but also enforce their defensibility by leveraging the advantages of the network effect. A study conducted back in 2019 found that nearly 80% of founders reported building a community of users as important to their business while 28% described it as critical to their success.
In 2020, the community operating system company, Commsor put forward their Community-Led Declaration, signed by dozens of companies including Notion, Public, Outreach, Deel, Lattice, Atlassian, calling “thriving community” a company’s “most valuable” asset and stating that “when done right”, the community can boost customer acquisition, retention, and provide crucial product insights.
Throughout 2021, the community has been a buzzword in the startup space across various industries, and edtech is no exception to the trend.
The traditional idea behind career coaching and college admissions counselling has always been a figure of authority mentoring others. While this model existed for decades, there is no reliable evidence it is scalable or efficient. Although coaching has reinvented itself in the progressively technology-driven landscape aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it still has the authority figure in its core and bases its product around the mentoring process.
One of the ideas behind StudyFree that I founded in 2018 was to challenge the traditional approach to admission consulting not only by digitizing the coaching process, but first and foremost by making the community, and not the mentoring per se, both the foundation and the main focus of the product.
We have managed to build a vibrant community of young professionals and students with fresh study abroad experience and leverage their excitement and strong desire to help and support others who are just at the beginning of this journey, by mentoring new students and hosting community events.
From my personal experience and the path of our startup, I can highlight four key values that a community-driven approach brings when applied to exploring study abroad opportunities.
The key idea behind the community-based model’s disruptive force is that it challenges the traditional business of career and educational counselling by breaking the established “superior-subordinate” model, offering equal treatment and experience built on trust vs. authority.
This makes sense not just from an emotional perspective, but at the practical level. When it comes to studying abroad, the admission requirements, paperwork, and other components change very quickly making it almost impossible to go “by the book” or even base your advice on an experience that took place years ago.
An engaged community of alumni who have just gone through the same experience or students who are studying abroad at the moment becomes a source of fresh experience and up-to-date information. Be it finding the right opportunity or submitting the documents or securing funds, connecting with seniors or other students to find out more and confirming the authenticity of the information helps save time and avoid pitfalls in the overall tedious process.
When it comes to studying abroad, admission success depends on myriads of factors from an academic score and professional experience to the ability to secure funds (or scholarships) and go through an often-complicated admission process.
Developing robust process management tools to match a student’s profile with the right program and streamline the admission activity is key to helping applicants go through the process seamlessly, without missing any steps or deadlines. This includes creating a database with a structured description of study programs and developing a scoring algorithm that evaluates the applicant’s profile, provides recommendations on enhancing it, and finally picks programs with the highest admission chances.
Once the choice is made, the crucial role of the platform is to assist students in preparing all necessary documents for admission making it a smartly automated and convenient process, with timely updates, straightforward access to mentors who can guide through the entire process, and ecosystem partners, including learning centres, customized services, and financial partners.
Source of content
Once students have access to the tool that simplifies their admission process and helps them navigate the uncharted territories, offering them quality, expert-grade content becomes a top priority. That includes valuable information that will guide them through every stage of their application, samples of necessary documents and helpful tips.
If built right, an active, engaged community will help address this challenge. Recent graduates who have gone through similar experiences may be creating UGC (user-generated content), offering their successful admission hacks and first-hand expert-level advice.
Becoming the owner of valuable, original content ensures continuous user engagement, impacting retention and other crucial product and business metrics. Who owns the most unique content (and creators), owns the audience and the market. Netflix, HBO as well as TikTok, YouTube and Instagram are great examples.
A journey towards studying and living abroad is not easy mentally, particularly for those being first-generation students as besides battling academic and financial hardships, they don’t always find enough support and encouragement at home.
The community-focused model allows providing such students with the necessary emotional support both at the start of their journey to maximize their chances of acceptance into a dream program as well as at the later stages, when they need a peer’s help in adapting to a new environment, understanding the local community and educational processes. Unlike in the case of traditional counselling models where mentors come from different, often more privileged backgrounds, have achieved their heights long back and base their experience on events that took place years back, a sense of equality and trust that exists between the members of the community of students and alumni who just gone through the same experience makes those seeking advice feel more understood.
Looking from a founder’s perspective, I see VCs and investors becoming increasingly excited about community-driven companies because people today more than ever are seeking community, because traditional marketing channels lose their grip (albeit becoming increasingly expensive), and also because these companies more often than not have better gross margins. VCs and investors in community-driven startups such as Lolita Taub and Greg Isenberg have pointed out that such businesses are a good bet simply because it is much easier for them to retain customers, as they initially assume a very personalized approach. Having engaged (and excited) users help spread the word, support others, creates additional value, and spins the marketing flywheel, often leading to lower operating costs and a more robust P&L.