June 20, 2013

Follett Education launches venture fund, in case you want a digital sweatshirt or something


Nothing says ‘educational’ like twenty-something models with lockjaw.

Do you have a great idea you think you could sucker desperate well-meaning school admins into buying in bulk? An app about, I don’t know, math monkeys or something? Monkeys that do some sort of math? Something utterly mediocre that nobody would use unless they were forced to? Well good news my friend, the financial backer of your powerfully uninspiring dreams is here.

You may not have heard of Follett Education. Follett, according to their own site, is a scrappy little “family-owned bookstore provider.” No, they’re nothing so simple as a chain of stores. They “provide management systems, support services, and course materials to more than 1,600 independently managed campus stores.” In the K-12 range they provide (that is, sell) physical and digital content solutions to more than 70,000 schools” Folksy! This quaint little outfit rakes in $2.7 billion in revenue yearly.

Even if you don’t know the name, you probably know Follett. They’re one of the two companies (Barnes & Noble is the other) that in past decades converted your campus bookstore into a showroom for sweatshirts and mugs and those ubiquitous sandals with the little nubbins of plastic that stick up in the soles. Odds are they’re involved in the business of your local public school as well.

In large part, that is, because Follett also creates software used in libraries, schools and colleges. Some of their existing products include Aspen (“Aspen is a SIS, LMS, SPED and more”), and efollett.com® (“Browse our vast selection of apparel, supplies and technology”).

Now, Follett has announced the creation of a $50 million venture capital fund to help create “new technologies that have the potential to improve and even disrupt the way educational content is delivered and consumed.”

I don’t know about you but I’m pretty eager to see the sort of content delivery and consumption improvement and disruption potential this money will buy.

Follett has done a pretty good job of hiding the presence of actual educational materials in their software, on their websites and of course in their physical stores behind thick impenetrable walls of sweatshirts (search for James Agee, get suggestions for a folding tailgate party chair), but I wonder if they couldn’t make this more “disruptive.” Maybe we need an app that interleaves ads for etched commemorative shot glasses into the pages of your digital textbook? Maybe software to inject terrible startup jargon into every paper students write? An app with a little pencil as an icon? I bet nobody’s tried that yet. Or will some wild mind, some dreamer, bring us a new method—beyond our feeble undisrupted ken—of making actual books seem even more loathsome, mandatory, temporary, expendable, and in all ways inferior to those school-branded shower caddies up by the cash register? We can only hope.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.