Are you building a library, a coffeehouse or a bar?

One of the defining moments for many education startups is deciding what they want to feel like. Often, founders start by wanting to be a library, where students will go and learn things. That feels like the purest mission. After all, that’s the reason we started the company, right?

The problem with libraries is that people don’t like them very much. I don’t know about you, but there were very few times when I was in school that I thought ‘Awesome, I’m going to the library tonight!’ For those of you that did think that, well done! You probably also have finished all of the MOOC courses you’ve taken. For the rest of the world though, purposeful learning is work in the same way that going to the gym and lifting weights is work. In health, we’ve seen a ton of great ideas from SoulCycle to Peloton to CrossFit, where you do have to work hard, but there is also a community that you are joining.

As you might imagine, community is a much more important factor in retention and engagement than learning per hour or some academic metric. One of my companies, Primer, was started by Ryan Delk and Maksim Stepanenko. Their initial focus was a great place for homeschool kids to do cool projects and get the academic resources they needed to do homeschooling well. Initially they had some community onthe site, with chat groups around projects and things like that. But a few months ago, they implemented live groups to chat and work on projects together. Engagement and growth took off. It’s not that the students didn’t love what Primer was doing for them before, but by bringing kids together more often and more directly, they created a sense of place (like a coffeehouse) that people wanted to hang out.

On the other extreme for me is a company like StudyStream which was one of the pioneers in the live online studying space. When a bunch of kids made tik toks of the cute boys and girls studying together on StudyStream, there was a tidal wave of students coming in. It was the online equivalent of a bar. But of course the problem with bars is that they don’t have as much reason to be or differentiation. And there are a billion places to go to be social. So the founders have spent a lot of time and energy to move StudyStream back in the direction of a coffeehouse, where yes you can see cute guys, but you also get work done.

Is the coffeehouse always the right answer? I’m not sure. It certainly combines some academic notion together with socialization in a way that I think also makes for the best schools. But maybe we will see things that are 90% fun and just have enough learning to be useful too. You could probably say that many videogames, even though they are not explicitly made for learning, teach leadership, teamwork, and a bunch of other very good social-emotional skills as a by-product of play. Or that you learn a lot casually by watching movies or TV.

Whatever the right answer, I try to help my founders to be intentional about what they are trying to build.

Co-founder and CEO NetGravity, Rocketship Education, Zeal Learning, Dunce Capital. john@danners.org https://dunce.substack.com/