Higher EdTeaching & Learning Scholarship

Class Clowns: How the Smartest Investors Lost Billions in Education by Jonathan A. Knee


Class Clowns: How the Smartest Investors Lost Billions in EducationClass Clowns: How the Smartest Investors Lost Billions in Education by Jonathan A. Knee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was constantly shaking my head while reading this book. Or feeling like the emoji with a mushroom cloud bursting over my head. I’m not sure what’s contributing more to my incredulous reaction- the facts of the education business cases described in this book or the persistence of my naiveté when it comes to the world of investors and big business.

In this book, education business dreams are whirled around by sophisticated carnival barkers and millions of dollars are grifted and wasted. Multiple times. Often by the same barker. The author, Jonathan Knee, a Columbia Business School professor, details four cases of educational business ventures that fail spectacularly. Two of the examples ensnare two legendary investors- Rupert Murdoch and John Paulson.

As an ed tech entrepreneur myself, I learned from Knee’s analyses of the education industry and market and his final chapters that were devoted to success stories and the lessons he thought emerged from the cautionary tales and the thrivers. Yet, my own conclusions about ed tech entrepreneurship have been reinforced– that I would much prefer to continue to build and sustain my own business rather than getting caught up in the venture capital and never ending growth narrative that is relentlessly sold to entrepreneurs. As Knee must navigate in this book, there is a difficult tension in the education space between mission-driven desires to do good and profit-driven motives to tap into this huge market. And I think that tension is exacerbated on the investment track.

There is a big difference between doing good work and getting fairly reimbursed for it and trying to create a business model that creates value for disinterested investors. I feel more comfortable in the one to one transaction between me and my company and students, teachers and parents that we are building with Read Ahead, so I’m going to stick to my current path of bootstrapping incremental growth.

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Categories: Higher Ed, Teaching & Learning Scholarship
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