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The Embedded EDU Startup
April 3, 2013 - 9:00pm

Do you work for an embedded EDU startup?

An embedded startup consists of a dedicated team working on a new business within a larger organization.  The dedicated team is formed in a conscious effort to avoid mimicking the culture, organizational structure, norms, and assumptions of the larger organization.

Embedded EDU startups can be found in academia, in publishing, and in technology companies.  For-profits and not-for-profits.  Mid-size organizations and multinational conglomerates.

The best book that I know describes the motivations for spinning up an embedded startup and the impact that a dedicated team can have is The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble. 

This is one of those books that contains no case studies or data from the education world, but yet teaches us a huge number of essential lessons.

In Trimble and Govindarajan's formulation, the larger organization is called the performance engine.  The performance engine is optimized for efficiency, productivity, quality, and continuous improvement.  What the performance engine is not good at is creating products or services that are fundamentally different.

In my career I have had three opportunities to participate in the launch and development of an embedded startup.  The first was when I worked for Britannica, helping to start the dot-com education division in San Francisco.  Next, I was part of the team that started Quinnipiac University Online.  Today, I am fortunate and blessed to have had the opportunity to work with a team that started my institution's first graduate blended degree program.  

There are many advantages for working in an embedded EDU startup.  A few of these advantages include:

Funding:  I have never had to max out my credit card or ask for loans from friends and family to start my new business.  I've never mortgaged my house, dipped into retirement savings, or emptied the kids college funds.  All of these actions come with the territory if you are going to be amongst the founders of an independent startup.  How many of us are able to take the financial risks of going into debt (and perhaps living without a salary) to do our own startup? Anyone fortunate enough to work in a startup environment (which is a blast) without dipping into their own wallet for the privilege should count themselves lucky.

Resources:   In all the embedded startups that I've worked there has been been the resources of the larger organization (the performance engine) that we could access.   The biggest resource is of course all the people in the larger organization, the shared staff.  My experience has taught me that the success of an embedded startup depends on the strength of the relationships that are built with colleagues in the larger organization.   I always keep in mind that the only reason that I'm able to work within an embedded startup is the resources and opportunities created by the people in the performance engine.   We rely on the expertise and skills of the people that we partner with across the organization.  This is particularly true in educational technology, as so many of the services and technologies that we rely on are enterprise and campus platforms.    

Security:  I've never gone into an embedded startup thinking that my job was at risk if things don't work out as planned.   This is the complete opposite of the expectations and experience of anyone starting or joining an independent startup.  If the business does not work out as planned then you will be looking for a new job.   At the schools and companies that I have worked the embedded startup is always treated as a disciplined experiment.   The goal is both to learn and to be economically viable.   The transfer of information across groups is important and valued.   Having some measure of job security (of course nothing is ever 100% certain) provides a good foundation to take risks and try new things.

I'll never get rich working in an embedded EDU startup.  No stock options.   No equity.  All of the hours and the multiple roles and the stress of an independent startup without the exit strategy.  That seems like a fair trade-off for the opportunity to work with a small and dedicated team on a project that I am passionate about.

Can you enumerate any other advantages (or disadvantages) of being a part of an EDU embedded startup?

Have you ever or are you now working in an embedded EDU startup?

What has been your experience?


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