What Happened When A Digital Textbook Company Was Forced To Redefine Its Customers

By thinking differently about their company's ecosystem, from their customers to competitors, (and setting their egos aside) Inkling helped redefined the relationship of students with educational content.

When CEO Matt MacInnis started Inkling in 2009, he thought he had a revolutionary idea that was going to change the way students viewed textbooks.

MacInnis, who previously worked for Apple, knew the soon-to-be-launched iPad held great potential for the education market. Bringing a boring and bulky science textbook onto a tablet in an easy-to-digest format that incorporated quizzes and videos, would make learning fun.

The Industry That Didn't Want to Innovate

The problem was textbook publishers were slow to want to digitize their content. “They were still making a lot of their money off books,” says McInnis. To make matters worse, the small number of textbook publishers that made up the industry weren’t feeling the competitive pressures to innovate. Despite these challenges, Inkling continued to focus on their vision of digitizing textbooks, without realizing the infrastructure they had built was applicable to many other areas.

“We thought we were just building a system for digital textbooks--taking an existing textbook and producing it in a form that would work on an iPad and selling it as a textbook to students,” says MacInnis.

A Different Way to Learn

When Inkling took their technology beyond simply digitizing textbooks they discovered educational companies who were building adaptive learning platforms, search databases for reference materials and much more sophisticated beyond-the book kinds of products. “That’s actually where our technology shines,” says MacInnis. Today, Inkling applies its technology to all types of reference materials, from cookbooks to medical books for physicians.

“There’s a certain amount of hubris [in tech companies]. Thinking that you can ride in on the white horse with all the answers because you’re the technology expert. We were guilty of that,” admits MacInnis. While Inkling had a vision for the industry of digital textbooks on iPad, publishers soon made them realize the future of the market wasn’t digital textbooks on iPad, but adaptive learning systems that redefined the relationship of students with educational content. “It was a much more sophisticated vision for the future of learning than we even had ourselves,” says MacInnis.

Setting Ego Aside

This realization was a humbling experience for Inkling. “The reality is that [these publishers] actually did know their business better than we did, even if they weren’t as tech savvy as we were. We had to listen to the vision they had for themselves and find ways to support that vision with our technology,” says MacInnis.

The majority of Inkling’s revenue now comes from licensing their platform to publishers. “There was a core business model shift where we went from being about consumer retail to being about licensing software to businesses (the publishers themselves),” says MacInnis.

While Inkling had originally viewed textbook publishers as necessary evils, they now view them as partners, and while they originally pegged students as their customers they now realize the customer is the publisher. “We thought we were a B-to-C company. We’re actually a B-to-B company,” says MacInnis.

Bottom Line: Although it took Inkling three years to make this recognition and change the way their business operates, they now know in order to develop a successful, innovative company, you have to be open to embracing a new vision, one that deviates from your original idea. “You may have the coolest technology but if you don’t understand the customer as well as the incumbent companies do you’re still wrong,” says MacInnis.

Image: Flickr user Robert S. Donovan]

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