5 tips for school leaders thinking about working with foreign companies

Here are some things school administrators should consider when foreign ed-tech companies come knocking on their door.
By: | March 24, 2021
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Justin Reilly is CEO of Impero Software.

Prior to the pandemic, U.S. school districts were spending about $8.4 billion a year in Ed-Tech software alone and with the pandemic that number is skyrocketing. This makes the U.S. market especially attractive to foreign Ed-Tech companies.  If you’re a school administrator in the U.S., you’ve probably been approached by some foreign companies. When deciding whether to do business with them or not, the first step is to make sure they’ve done their homework. Not all foreign Ed-Tech companies are up to the challenge of competing in the U.S. market. It’s important to make sure the company understands what your district needs – and that they have the ability to meet those needs.

As a UK-based company, Impero Software began its journey into the U.S. market many years ago and our monitoring and management software is now used by more than 700 U.S. school districts. As a result of this early success, I’m often asked for advice and strategies about expanding into the U.S. market. We’ve learned some lessons along the way about how to meet the needs of U.S. school districts. Here are some things school administrators should consider when foreign Ed-Tech companies come knocking on their door.

1) What kind of expertise do they bring to the table? Foreign companies often bring insight and best practices from their experiences dealing with trends in other countries. This type of insight can be useful, especially if the trend is just on the verge of emerging in the U.S. For example, when the pandemic hit, the U.S. looked at what was happening in other countries such as England and Italy and their response to try to predict how the spread might look here and figure out how to reduce the impact as much as possible. In the UK, as it became obvious the immense toll the pandemic was taking on students’ mental health and wellbeing, we responded by creating a free solution to help schools record and track these concerns. We rolled it out in the UK in the summer, and because of its success there, we brought it to the U.S. this fall. We were able to use the insight gained in the UK rollout to inform the process here which was very helpful for our U.S. customers.

2. Do they hire locally, and will you be able to get face time with company reps? Look for companies that have invested in having a strong local presence and customer support team so you know you’ll be able to get timely support when you need it. When we expanded into the U.S. we quickly realized that selling in the U.S. was very different than selling in the UK. There is more autonomy among school districts in the U.S. and states have more local control. The way school districts are structured is different too. We had to figure out who was making the buying decisions for the school or district and understand their needs. We did this by getting lots of feet on the ground locally to talk directly to school districts about what they needed. We opened an office in Austin in 2018 and hired local employees rather than bringing in an entire team from the UK. This allowed us to go to more regional and national events and have more face-to-face time with our customers and potential customers. It also allowed us to provide additional customer support in U.S. time zones. Now, with the pandemic, it’s still important for companies to provide that personal contact with school districts, even if it’s virtual. Having local people on our team helped us understand the market and what U.S. school districts want, and ultimately helped us serve them better.

3. Can the company commit to meeting your local needs? Too often companies expand to new markets without adjusting their products to meet the unique needs of these new customers. This is a significant problem – and one companies might not even know exists until they starting to roll out the product with customers. When vetting a potential partner-company, get into the details about what your specific needs are and confirm that the company is willing and able to make changes to the product to meet the needs of your district. What works for a school in Europe or Asia doesn’t necessarily work in the United States, especially when it comes to technology. In our case, when we started talking to school districts in the U.S. teachers said they wanted a cleaner interface and an easier to navigate look. They wanted to be able to access larger images of students’ screens so they could better monitor what those students were doing on their devices, so we redesigned our interface to meet those needs. Also, Chromebooks are much more common in the U.S. so we adapted our software to ensure we could support these devices. These may seem like small changes, but details matter. Companies should do the research to make sure their product is the best it can be at roll-out, and then update it as needed for changing customer needs and new markets. If a company isn’t willing or able to do the research on the front end to make sure their products are adaptable, it may be best to look elsewhere.

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This philosophy also applies to compliance with local legislation, particularly data privacy laws. Foreign companies must ensure strict compliance with these regulations. They should also be on top of any changes in laws or regulations that impact the services they provide.

4) What kind of partnerships does the company have in the U.S.? If the answer is none, you may want to keep looking. It’s important for non-U.S. companies to have partners who have a good understanding of any U.S.–specific nuances that might be associated with using their product- whether they’re selling cafeteria equipment, furniture, or Ed-Tech solutions. If a company has a robust list of industry partners in the U.S., it shows they have taken the time to build relationships so they can understand the landscape of U.S. school districts and adapt their products accordingly. We are currently working with a wide array of channel partners such as Trox, SHI and Lockstep.

5) It is also important to partner with groups that can help you better understand your audience’s needs. For example, if a company sells accessible classroom furniture, they should have relationships with national and local disability advocacy groups that can provide insight on what U.S. students and teachers need, because it may be different than what their overseas customers need. In our case, this issue came into play with our keyword detection libraries, which are used to send alerts to school administrators if students type or search for words or phrases that could indicate concerns such as bullying or self-harm. Students use different slang words in the United States than they do in Europe. So when we were developing our keyword libraries for U.S. districts, we needed to find some local partners to help us make sure we were getting it right. We’ve partnered with groups like SafeBAE, Mental Health America, and others to help us make sure the keywords in our libraries are the ones U.S. students are using.

There’s an adage that foreign Ed-Tech companies have a 1 in 10 chance of making it in the U.S. simply because the U.S. already has a strong Ed-Tech market. Foreign companies must do a lot of legwork first to understand how to meet your needs. This is hard and takes a significant commitment. If a company hasn’t made that effort than chances they are not an ideal partner. When vetting them, administrators should be upfront about what they want and have frank conversations about whether the company can deliver. Be picky. Ask the right questions and set high expectations. This will ensure that ultimately teachers and students are getting what they need.

Justin Reilly is a former teacher with 15 years of global experience leading EdTech businesses to success. Justin currently serves as CEO of Impero Software, a leader in student safety software with offices in the UK and in Austin, TX. He has also served as the CEO of Mwabu Group, one of Africa’s leading EdTech businesses, serving schools and ministries of education in some of the most remote and unstable regions and as vice president of technology delivery and strategic partnerships at Pearson Education and CEO of Fronter AS, a provider of learning management systems. He works at Impero’s UK office in Nottingham.

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