Can a Kickstarter campaign #saveedshelf? Interview with edshelf co-founder Mike Lee

Last week we wrote about the 60+ edtech startups that are in risk of becoming seed orphans and therefore face an uncertain future. edshelf, an imagine K12 alumnus, is on the brink of shutting down but its co-founder Mike Lee decided to make a last stand in order to buy some additional time and turn his startup around.

edshelf is a socially curated directory of edtech tools that aims to help educators navigate the huge choice of educational apps, desktop programs and electronic products based on recommendations of its community.

Since its launch in 2012, edshelf has managed to gather a core group of users who use the product on a regular basis. The community currently has over 15k members, mostly tech/IT administrators, coordinators, integrators, specialists, trainers, librarians and early adopters. The database covers over 4000 apps and products, 95% of which are ranked or reviewed by the community.

When edshelf co-founder Mike Lee broke the news that his co-founders and team already had to leave the startup and that he would have to shut down the site in early July, it was this group that started the Twitter hashtag #saveedshelf to gather support. Based on this Lee decided for a last attempt and started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.

Today with 13 days to go, the campaign has raised $12,343 with a campaign goal of $30,000. At first glance this it is looking not that bad but here is the catch: Lee will only receive the money from Kickstarter if he manages to raise $30k or more. If he doesn’t reach the campaign goal all the money pledged goes back to the funders and edshelf shuts down.

I asked Mike if he plans to set up a second campaign if he does not succeed on Kickstarter, maybe on Indiegogo where you have the option of keeping the money you raised without reaching the campaign goal. He told me that he hasn’t any plans to do so.

Of course, even if Lee and the edshelf community manage to raise the $30k it just means that he bought himself some extra time because the biggest problem that edshelf is facing is its lack of a business model. According to Lee this is the first thing that he will be working on. I asked him if he already has some ideas to get edshelf to break even and beyond. He told me in an email that the startup has already been offering sponsored listings in the edshelf Weekly newsletter.

As a next step Lee plans on offering premium accounts on edshelf to vendors, where they can manage their product listings, get basic listing analytics, etc, as well as sponsored listings in edshelf’s search results. He is also going to explore a possible premium “edshelf for Schools” product as some schools have expressed an interest in this.

What about charging users directly and create constant, recurring revenue? Lee states that

“I’ve considered charging for a premium service too, though I don’t know of any edtech companies that have done that with much success. Within the edtech ecosystem, the parties with the financial means are companies and schools. So far, I’ve had an easier time reaching companies than schools, so my near-term plan is to keep on doing what has been working, and multiply it. But since some teachers have expressed an interest, I’ll certainly explore a premium subscription service too.”

All in all finding the right business model will remain a tough nut to crack. Kindertown, another edtech startup in the review space was acquired last year, most likely because it wasn’t able to survive on its own. Common Sense Media which goes beyond apps and tools is supported by several foundations including the Gates Foundation.

Then there is the option of outside capital. Lee does not want to raise money from investors for the moment but manage to grow organically.

“If at some point outside investment can help edshelf grow faster, than I’ll consider it. In my opinion, outside investment is best used to help a company grow faster, not to grow in the first place.”

Right now the future of edshelf is still uncertain. With less than two weeks left and not even 50% of the money needed raised, Lee and his community have to go all in to gather the financial support.

If you want to support edshelf, check out the campaign on Kickstarter and share Lee’s story on social media using the hashtag #saveedshelf.


edshelf.com | Kickstarter | Twitter

Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at KirstenWinkler.com.