What do entrepreneurs do that you could do if you work in education? Part 1: Ideas, concepts, tools

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Literacy and numeracy is a tough business to work in due to the increasing demands of… well, everything.

I have a conference workshop coming up soon and I’m going to argue that one of the things that has worked well for me (in terms of daily survival) is training myself to think and act more like an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs have to live with risk and uncertainty. They also have to make decisions based on incomplete information. And then there’s the fact that sometimes you just never get a return on your investment of time, energy, and other resources.

Just like a lot of us in education…

But also, entrepreneurs approach the world through quite a different lens to educators and bureaucrats.

This change in how I think has helped me with my teaching, my approach to course development, and with my business overall.

Keep in mind, I’m not against student centred approaches and all of that goes with that. I’m firmly on the side of student centred approaches and these are central to what we teach and how we work with our students.

What I’m on about here is taking stock of what I do and looking for what is going to help me stay alive and hopefully thrive in my work. So let’s get us-centred for just a minute.

Given that some days it feels like a knife fight, you might wonder why you (or I) keep on working in education. The answer has something to do with making the world a better place and changing people’s lives.

But that aside, here are some of the things that I think entrepreneurs do that I’ve tried that make my work in education better for me. I’m not saying that they’ll work for you. But they’ve worked for me.

Each of these sounds kind of simple, but it’s taken me years to understand what they mean for me. Feel free to adopt, adapt or ignore.


  • The customer: This is not as simple as it sounds in education. I know who my customers are.
  • Business model design: I know what’s under the hood. I know how revenue is generated. I’m very clear on how my business model works and how the components fit together. And by implication I know how the components can be taken apart, remixed, and put back together again.


  • Design thinking: I have my own version of this but when it comes to developing courses and materials, maintaining them over time, and updating them – I have very explicit processes including brainstorming, prototyping, and iteration. This allows me to create content that is dynamic and evolving.
  • Systems thinking: Over time I’ve designed a very effective system for managing the professional development and training that we deliver. In a nutshell, there’s a list of over a hundred things that have to happen from student enquiry, through the training process, up to when we digitally archive a student’s file after graduating… and these have to happen for every single person regardless of when they start. I have another system for understanding our quality assurance processes and others for teaching and explaining key concepts and various aspects of our training.

Tools and apps

  • Project and task management: I use a cloud-based project management software application to run all aspects of student and learning management. It’s highly customised and means we can work from anywhere with a small team. The software runs the system. And it’s scalable and I could duplicate it for other courses if I needed to.
  • Cloud based productivity tools: I use Google Apps now for all email, word processing, and most spreadsheets. These tools work across all devices and platforms and I’m not chained to any one computer, device, or physical location.
  • Other digital creative tools: This is a relatively new area for me. Here the tools move away from productivity and into graphic design and audio visual recording. I have a drawing tablet and stylus that I use for illustrations, a microphone for recording audio, a camera for video, and a range of different software applications for editing, mixing, and mastering various kinds of digital media.

I’d be interested to know what works for you. Let me know in the comments.

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

6 thoughts

  1. Hi Graeme,
    Great stuff. I think you’re at the forefront of this thinking in the NZ education sector.
    We must catch up – see you at the Symposium next week.

  2. Hi Graeme
    I was interested to read that you knew who your customers were. When I was a primary school principal, a long time back!, I had to identify our customers for some government body. The immediate identification was of the students. Then I thought, hold on, we have parents to answer to too, and the BOT, and ERO, and the Ministry of Education as well as other bodies. So who were my customers? For an entrepreneur it would be whoever pays (the goods or service receiver are less so unless they paid). So for a school would that be the MOE or perhaps the tax-paying parents? Your thoughts appreciated…

    1. Hi Jan. You’ve just illustrated the point that I want to make next week in my workshop…! Thanks! The thing is that it’s actually really complicated and the more you dig the more you realise how many layers there are. Your students and parents are definitely a kind of customer. But let’s say you’re in a public school… they aren’t paying fees. Parents are when they pay taxes. But the MoE is the one that’s paying you to create value. If you just sell widgets, it’s a simple transaction. In education it’s hardly ever simple. Great analysis and comments. Thanks again…! Cheers, G

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