Co-Written By: Eileen Rudden, Partner, LearnLaunch

Melissa Pickering, Founder and CEO of iCreate to Educate, which was recently acquired by UK-based distribution partner HUE, shared her approach to building her company’s revenue via partnerships with the LearnLaunch community during a LearnLaunch webinar a couple weeks ago. iCreate to Educate is a software app that gives kids a simple way of creating animations to explain science concepts. It is a supplemental product that is integrated into existing curriculum.

She started building a fan base for her animation product in 2010 by being active on Twitter and empowering teachers to become her champions. She ran teacher workshops and encouraged participants to run their own workshops. Melissa was able to reach the early adopters, but needed to figure out how to reach a broader market to continue to build revenue. When she surveyed her customers, she found that more than 50% had learned about her product from another teacher.

Her go to market strategy in schools was simple: get teachers to try the product for free, create teacher champions and have them urge their school leaders to buy a site license for the school. For most schools, this money fell within their discretionary budget and resulted in sales. With a 5-person team, she was able to build a presence in the U.S. K-12 school market and then expand internationally into the direct- to- consumer market.

In order to reach a broader market than early adopters, Pickering partnered with Kaplan salespeople. She found that she needed to focus on what the sales incentives were for the Kaplan reps so she could convince them that offering this relatively low-priced product would help them meet or exceed their quotas. Going to conferences and modeling demos with sales reps was the most effective way to get the reps up to speed and to help them become more confident. Monthly check-ins helped keep sales reps up to date as the company rolled out new features and bug fixes.

Pickering recommends that entrepreneurs with a digital product seek a complementary physical product that their software offering can be bundled with. For example, the Klutz books imprint of Scholastic was a great lead generator for iCreate to Educate because Klutz mentioned iCreate’s product in its books, which encouraged parents to buy the product for their children.

A camera distributor in the UK approached Melissa with the idea of bundling her product with the camera. iCreate helped to sell the camera, and the camera helped iCreate reach the European market. The successful arrangement eventually led to the acquisition of iCreate. As a way to enter new markets, Melissa recommended providing a white label version of the product to a partner with a complementary product in exchange for a licensing fee.

When Melissa noticed that people were downloading the product in Australia, she attended international edtech conferences BETT in London in order to identify an Australian distributor. She also found distributors in Singapore. Through this process, she also discovered that there were additional funds in the after school market, where teachers were eager to introduce animations and other hands-on activities. After school funds and special projects were often overseen by local non-profits, as well as prize and challenge competitions.

Melissa found that it was more effective to partner with small and medium size businesses because they were able to move fast, as opposed to partnering with larger publishing companies. Although publishing companies have large salesforces, it can take a lot of time and meetings to progress towards a deal. Smaller partnerships were also more successful in terms of increasing revenue because the companies were willing to devote more of their own resources to the partnerships.

The biggest challenge might be where to start in terms of finding partnerships. Pickering recommended checking out the list of sponsors and exhibitors at conferences like ISTE and BETT, two of the largest edtech conferences worldwide. For more specialized products, she suggested NSTA for science distributors and the IRA for literacy distributors.