Ian Barker is the Founder of Symtext, a Toronto-based start-up. Symtext’s core product and service is “Liquid Textbooks” – in use at UCLA, San Diego State University, and by publishers like Oxford University Press Canada. I asked Ian to provide his view of the “start-up” experience in digital higher ed.

KCH: Let’s start with the basics. What is a Liquid Textbook?

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IB: The Liquid Textbook is school-branded technology platform used by higher education institutions to assemble and distribute custom digital learning materials to students. The content is permission-managed and includes textbook chapters, cases, videos, links, self-authored materials and the like. Students within each course using the platform access their materials within HTML5, social e-readers. The platform is mobile and supports use on iPads, Android tablets and laptops: One interesting feature is that annotations added on one device (e.g., iPad) appear on all other devices in real time. We provide a variety of billing and authentication tools so that schools can select, for each course, how students will pay (if at all) and direct them to the right courses. We offer training and support for school personnel so that they may create Liquid Textbooks themselves. It’s an important way for campus stores, for example, to differentiate themselves in a meaningful way from “generic” online booksellers.

KCH: Vendors have occasionally expressed frustration with colleges and universities; claiming they are timid about testing new products and services, and that the sales cycle can be unnecessarily long and expensive. How have you managed to get around these challenges?

IB: We have experienced this firsthand. I don’t think there’s a magic bullet. We experimented a great deal with our business model, essentially searching for the right place to “dock” Symtext within higher ed institutions. Pricing has a lot to do with it, as well. We don’t charge a lot for the platform, which avoids needing many levels of decision making and approval. And we don’t set retail prices for Liquid Textbooks, schools do, so we’re very compatible with schools’ policies and procedures.

KCH: In a post I wrote earlier this year (“Content Strategy”), I suggested that higher education needs to develop “content strategies”. As the sources of content becomes more varied, and the opportunities to reduce costs greater, the need for a coherent institutional strategy for acquiring, financing and managing content becomes more important.  From your vantage point, do you see any evidence of this approach to content emerging in higher education? Is leadership on content strategy coming from individual academics, bookstores, libraries?

We see direct and growing evidence of organized thinking around content management. It’s a crucial point: the extent to which schools want to implement and manage multiple platforms from multiple publishers is limited. The challenge, it seems to me, lies in institutions implementing enabling technologies while allowing faculty free reign over materials selection. So, “coordinated”, but not “centralized”.

KCH: Interest and investment in the education industry is growing – both K12 and higher ed. How has being based in Toronto influenced access to investment? What advice do you have for other start-ups?

IB: At best, being based in Toronto has been neutral. Education is a different beast: it’s seasonal, revenue is “lumpy”. Specialists in education investment are rare and I think it’s critical to bring in the right investor partners – people who understand what you’re doing and can lend practical support.

My experience may not be typical and I hesitate to offer advice . . . Having said that: 1. There is no such thing as an “average startup”. It’s like asking for the average of an apple and an orange. The point is not to confuse what you read on blogs or press releases with what you need to do to make your unique startup a success. 2. To the greatest extent you can, develop product and generate sales before raising money. The raise is just a signpost on the way to success, not an object in and of itself, so if you can get to product and revenue before raising you stand a better chance of locating the ideal investment partner. It’s an obvious thing to say but I think it’s really true. 3. Last thing: Persist! Entrepreneurship has a lot to do with learning and reacting on the fly, over time. You have to be able endure setbacks and disappointments and keep your eye on the future, while simultaneously adapting and refining your business based upon new data. None of this is easy, you need to possess a very strong will.

KCH: Textbook publishers are important partners for Symtext. How has their thinking about working with new business models changed during the past few years?

There isn’t really a one-size fits all answer to this question. Every publisher worth their salt is aware of the need for change but their capacity and willingness to change is extremely varied. I think two things are happening now, though. The first is that, as a rule, publishers are more open to considering alternatives. That’s a relatively new development. And the second is that we’re seeing a giant, transformative, tech-driven wave approaching higher ed and higher ed publishers. It’s manifesting itself now in the form of large numbers of new tech companies and a wide variety of technology solutions to consider. It’s therefore critical for publishers to experiment as widely as they can to see what works for them. If anyone is interested, I wrote a chapter on this very subject for a book published by O’Reilly earlier this week, entitled, Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto. Here’s a link to a free version of my chapter.

Find Ian on Twitter @ianbarker.

4 thoughts on “Ian Barker of Symtext: The Education Entrepreneur’s Experience

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