Sunday, February 1, 2015

Charter Sales

There's a great Steve Jobs clip I've used before. In it, Jobs offers his explanation of how the bean counters end up in charge of a company.

The basic principle is simple. Initially, a business prospers based on its ability to make stuff or provide a service, and the better they do stuff, the more money they make. And for a while, doing stuff better pays the bills and makes the profits.

But eventually doing the stuff doesn't increase the revenue stream, because you've pretty well hit all of the market you can hit. The product has attracted all the money it can-- on its own.

At that point it's up to the sales force and the bean counters. To keep the revenue stream thriving, you need people who can push sales in new markets and fiddle with the money. You need marketeers and accountants to run the company. The people who create the product are not so important, because making the product better will not make the business more profitable. Put another way, you can only drive so many sales by being good at your product. After that, you can only drive more sales by being good at selling.

It puts the sales people in charge, and that immediately starts to destroy the product, because the sales-oriented management turns to the people who actually create the product and says, "Never mind making products that work well-- I want a product that we can sell. Our market research says that people really want pink flying weasels as pets, so stop whining and get in there with that pink spray paint and staple some wings on those weasels. Of course it's bad for the weasels and the customers, but we have sales to make today. We'll worry about tomorrow the next time the sun rises."

It's a model worth understanding when considering charter schools. A company that makes computers or cheese-curlers or hamster shoes will take a while to get to sales-over-product stage, but a charter is bean counter ready from day one. From the moment it opens, the modern charter's main business is not education-- it's sales.

We've seen this repeatedly. The K12 cyber chain has been plagued by lawsuits that turn up former employees who complain of a company that is focused primarily on making sales any way it can. K12 has been particularly notorious for churn-- just trying to get new names on the roster faster than the old ones struggle and give up. At one point, K12 operations in Ohio were posting a staggering 51% rate of churn.

K12's mission creep was so great that even cyberschool supporters were bothered. Houston Tucker was the company's marketing director, and he left saying, "The K12 I joined isn't the one I left."

K12 is a striking example of the charter's need to market above all else, but they're hardly an anomaly. A public school without a marketing department is like a weasel without wings, but a modern charter without a marketing department is like a weasel without food

Just google "charter school marketing vp"-- Charter Schools USA, KIPP, Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools-- over a million hits come back and even if we assume that only 2% of those are actual charter school marketing jobs, that's still a huge number of people in charter school sales. And that's before we get to people like Eva Moskowitz-- would you say that Moskowitz is more about providing pedagogical leadership for Success Academy, or about fundraising and marketing for the chain. Certainly the budget for marketing at these schools is stunningly large. A similar quick-and-dirty search for public school marketing officers came up empty.

When modern charter and choice advocates extol the virtues of competition, they're really demanding that public schools meet them on the field of combat where marketing and advertising are the tools of battle. And if public schools go to meet them there, schools lose regardless of the outcome. It's the triumph of the sales department and bean counters over product people, the rise of an education system that thinks of itself as an industry and which is far more concerned about marketing than educating and which thinks nothing of stapling onto weasels.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent description of why the "business model" doesn't work as applied to schools -- with schools, putting the bean counters in charge and degrading the "product" is precisely the opposite of what should be happening!