The BeWE Learning Journey: Pricing & Sustainability
Learn how, when, and why we went from fully-free content to our current pricing approach, and why we believe it could be one of the most important moves we make on this mission we’re on together: the mission to reweave social, emotional, academic, and global learning in a captivating way.
The mission to help you(th) love learning about self, others, and our world — with compassion. To help you(th) on the journey from head to heart.
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The BeWE Learning Journey: Pricing & Sustainability
Hi. I’m abhi. I’m writing to share the story of how and why we went from fully-free content to our current pricing approach, and why we believe it could be one of the most important moves we make on this mission we’re on together: to reweave social, emotional, academic, and global learning in a captivating way.
The mission to help you(th) love learning about self, others, and our world — with compassion. The mission to help you(th) on the journey from head to heart.
Before we begin, I think it’s really important to note that this journey didn’t start with some magical idea. Often we hear people share thoughts like “Wow, what an amazing idea this was! How did you come up with it?”
There was never an a-ha moment. This mission and product, just like the evolution of our pricing, has been a constant exploration and evolution for more than a decade. In some ways, more like two decades. The only magic a-ha moment that really happened was a realization in college (after being told this throughout childhood, when I’d try to decide my own way of doing things) that actually listening and learning alongside teachers and students — while sharing the big vision with passion — is the key to making this mission happen. It’s a WE thing.
the early experiments
In 2010, I taught social entrepreneurship at The Park School of Buffalo. This is the school I attended from K-12, and it was amazing to see the school embrace bringing these important topics and conversations to the K-12 level.
Students loved the learning and the concepts we were focusing on, but the program wasn’t sustainable and it definitely wasn’t yet replicable. At the time, the curriculum was a curation of things we were doing at the college level where I was studying social entrepreneurship, cultural anthropology, and some mix of international affairs and education stuff (at Northeastern University).
There were significant challenges we needed to overcome:
- Deep Engagement: What we were curating was mostly business case study type video content. They didn’t have the highest production value, but more importantly they weren’t human, and they weren’t designed for classroom use. I saw a few students, the ones who were most passionate about social change, dozing off during some of the videos. The videos just had too much talking. No whoa factor. No magic sparking. It wasn’t something that could be used early in life, and it wasn’t something that could adapt for anyone.
- Academic Integration: Teachers weren’t able to use this stuff. It was a blast for our group, but wasn’t something other teachers were able to join in with. After all, they had actual academic stuff to teach. “How in the world will farming in India or clean water in South Africa fit in to math class?” How would a teacher use this every day?
- Accidental Prescription: If we want a more empathetic, compassionate, beautiful world, we’ve got to listen and seek understanding in all aspects of our life and our learning. The content we were curating was important, but it was also sharing a very specific narrative in a very cognitive way. We wanted to encourage deep wonder and desire for understanding, not “knowing”. Curiosity before/over judgment. Heart based feeling and thinking.
attempting to curate content
There’s a lot more story in the middle — like our team fundraising by starting a marketplace for socially, environmentally, and ethically responsibly sourced goods, and selling magical milky-way infused cookies to raise funds — but that’s for another set of posts.
I moved to India with this deep feeling, almost a calling: “We have to make this curriculum something that can work for anyone, anywhere. The only way to know we’re doing that is to actually test it in very different environments. In person.”
A lot of people told me I was nuts. I’ve gotten very used to hearing that. I’m also allergic to nuts, so I giggle a bit each time I hear it. I’m giggling now, too.
We started that summer by creating what we called modules (like this, though on our first early early platform, and with a different vibe). In college, we always asked this question of “why did it take until now to start learning about the world in this deeper, structured, social change focused way!?”. These modules were our attempt to start making the concepts K-12 ready.
Curated videos with our own ideas for lesson plans, discussion ideas, writing exercises, and more. We curated because we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, and thought there were so many people creating content — let’s just curate it well.
We started experimenting in all kinds of classrooms with all kinds of teachers. It was a blast, because we were so tiny that we could focus on one teacher at a time and really deeply listen and learn. As teachers and kids tried things, we got feedback, turned around a new edit, and tried again.
Eventually this led to the creation of all kinds of lesson plans. We landed eventually on 1 page lesson plans: short lesson plans that were guidance for how to use various parts of the modules in everyday classroom learning.
moments of magic
One day, a teacher shared that their students were so curious about the people in the video they saw.
“abhi, what about the farmer’s story? It’s great to learn about the organization and broader topics, but what about the people? How can we learn about them?”
What magical feedback. This struck a deep chord, as it’s what mattered most to us, too. It’s what brought meaning to our learning: having the opportunity to live with and learn directly alongside humans in places as diverse as Boston, Cape Town, Buffalo, Managua, Bali, Accra, Tamale, and Kpalime.
The classroom case studies were great for our cognitive understanding, but the real passion and connection and desire for more learning came when we learned through people’s real stories. We had been trying to find content to curate like this for quite some time.
We had also recently created a little experiment in our Business Module called an “learning journey”. So we created and shared a few more fictional “based on a real person” stories like this with teachers, to see if this might help bring more meaning to student learning.
These were an instant hit. It was really the first time we had ever had consistently “YESSS” feedback. We grew a set of fictional stories that teachers were trying, and the feedback was always so inspiring. And it was extra fun for classrooms because there were math and literacy problems woven into the stories. Students could now practice “real world math”, and teachers loved that the math could be discovered by students along the way.
creating original content
We kept rolling along, listening and learning. The feedback kept coming as we dug in. Here’s what started coming in next:
How might we make the videos more engaging, too? These stories are cool, but could we do this with videos, too?
What about real stories? Like, the real people who these stories represent?
Our students can’t understand the words in the curated videos. The person talks too much, or too fast. What can we do about it?
Oof. The learnings from 2010 and all of college started coming back fast. We HAD to figure out a way to make all of this more real. And we simply couldn’t find these kinds of stories, especially that were designed for the classroom. We were going to have to make them. Somehow.
So we did. Eventually — after talking to dozens of storytellers — we met a videographer crazy enough (Odi is amazing) to give this assignment a shot. The assignment was essentially:
“We’re going to make human narrative stories. But without any words. No narration. No talking. Just visuals and sound. We want to ignite curiosity and connection and compassion and desire for understanding, and we don’t want to tell kids what to think. We want to help them feel. To experience. We want deep conversations to start and to come from the heart, not the head.”
Then came I Am Ghani:
I cried when I watched this for the first time, and still do sometimes now. The magic: so did teachers. And like 80 other people we showed. We paired his video with three stories and three lesson plans that we created. The whole time we filmed, we brought our ethnographic mindset to the table. That’s why Odi was the perfect storyteller to experiment with. We often were having conversations something like this:
It had to be real. Can’t be scripted. Has to be actual data and real moments from his life. Has to be real questions. Has to be meaningful. Has to not only feel real, but be real.
It has to be a way for people to — as one of our pioneers Sue Totaro says today — “walk alongside” the person. To really connect at a deeper, emotional level. This has to be the content that can really open our hearts and minds to ourselves, to one another, and to our environment. That helps us on the journey from head to heart.
and then there were 45
The feedback on this story of Ghani wove together well into the big picture vision: it IS possible to create a world where we all practice empathy, critical thinking, curiosity, creativity, collaboration, understanding, and other important magic from a super early age, every single day, and everywhere.
It is possible to create content that inspires this kind of desire and deep commitment to learning about ourselves, one another, and our world in a way that leads us to make positive change with our hearts and heads guiding us together.
Between I Am Ghani in 2015 and March 2018, we created 45 (ish) videos paired with 3-4 stories and lesson plans each. We learned a TON or two, we asked tons of questions, we iterated, we drank chai, we played soccer in our apartment, we worked on sleeper buses overnight, we learned from tons of teachers, and we worked with diverse world class storytellers and truly amazing writers.
The people we brought together along the way were learners — people who really just wanted to build the most useful, inspiring, amazing stuff possible.
Because, well, kids. Kids.
Kids are the future. And they are our best bet to really guide us all to a better world. They deserve the best. So we poured ourselves and our donors’ money into making the best stuff we could imagine. Today I found this note to myself from back then:
Enough with the mindset that we should make content cheaper and more efficiently for classrooms. That we should prioritize efficiency over quality. We are talking about humans here. Little ones. Impressionable ones. Humans who are flooded with high production value garbageall day.
We need to SHOW young people that there is a beautiful world of potential out there and that we can come together to pave a new path forward. We need to make AMAZING content that has them at the edge of their seats in school, looking up these empathy-encouraging videos on their phones on the way home, reading about them before dinner, because they want to learn about a new person and their perspective and their dreams and struggles and joys. That is the fire we have to light in humanity, and if and when we do, these youth will lead us to the world we all dream of deep inside of us.. far beyond our cognitive awareness can imagine. Youth will lead us to a world where our societal structures reshape and reweave to make beautiful change possible where we thought only slow-moving bureaucracy could exist. When we all feel and connect with our hearts and our heads, we make anything possible.
and making great content for kids costs money
Between 2014 and today, we’ve fundraised just about 250k trying to make all of the above and more happen. It’s a whole lot of money, but also not that much when you zoom out and think about creating 45 high quality videos and a whole lot of stories and lessons in 10+ countries for 4 years while engaging with over 1000 teachers. We’ve made modules, lesson plans, stories, videos, and videos showcasing classrooms in action. All original, and all with tons of perspectives and types of humans inputting their energy and love.
We’ve been scrappy.
Why: We’ve wanted to make this stuff “free forever”.. since, well.. forever.
Personally, I’d just love it if we could have kept this content free for everyone for eternity. My heart says that feels right. I believe education is a fundamental human need and desire, and when education is truly pure it is not only a right, but also something that should absolutely be free so that anyone anywhere can access the stuff that helps us deeply open our hearts and minds.
But I’ve had hard reality checks along the way. In the moment, I and we often thought these things were fun and even magical beyond the stresses they added on us (I have lost most of my hair in the past 4 years). Though it’s obviously not sustainable, and obviously not the best way for us to do our best work and contribute our whole selves and our potential.
And, to really make the vision possible, it’s going to take so many more stories and so many more classrooms engaging with this content and so many more aspects to our website — and so much more depth and breadth and quality upgrading for the content, too. It’s not just a marketing phrase we use when we say early in life, every day, and everywhere. We see these three layers as essential to really make this movement happen in the deep and wide way we believe is possible.
Simply put, we need to sustainably move beyond facing the kinds of challenges we have in the past.
- We’ve run out of money before.
- We’ve had to borrow money. A few times.
- We’ve had to let go of people because we couldn’t pay them.
- We’ve had to not hire amazing talented vision-and-culture-aligned people more than a dozen times because we couldn’t pay them 2k/month. (I still make about 1500 after tax.. or before tax? Can’t remember.)
- We’ve had opportunities to accept donations that would steer us away from our core mission a bit, which we don’t want to do and then chose not to do.
- I’ve slept on easily more than a couple hundred couches and floors (and a closet, once, and sometimes backyards and at least a few hallways) in dozens of cities across the world for the past 4-5 years both because I’m stubborn and don’t like spending money, and because we didn’t have the money to rationalize renting something in the expensive cities we often need to be in. (It was awesome. I loved it. And some of those couches were SUPER comfy. Though it was also challenging and more draining than I realized, as I didn’t stay in one city for more than a couple weeks for about 5 years straight.)
- We’ve taken calls in bathrooms, gym studios we’re not members of, and basically anywhere you can imagine.
- We’ve worked on overnight buses or red eyes to try to save money on housing while saving time to output a story.
- We sold fair trade chocolate and tea and jewelry and awesome laptop sleeves from Ghana and toys from Honduras to try to build a revenue stream.
- We sold cookies with milky ways in them to raise money. (And because they’re incredibly tasty. We ate a lot of them. And our friend Gabrielle just makes magic in kitchens.)
- We dumpster dove for bagels and juice. Mostly out of choice, I guess, but it saved money too.
The list goes on. Really. It goes on for quite some time. If you’re ever curious about more of the story behind the scenes from our past, or want to connect on your experiences, please reach out ([email protected]). This stuff is incredibly fun and I am committed for good, though it also has been incredibly hard and still remains challenging. Connecting on these kinds of challenges is always helpful and meaningful to me.
money is fuel for this movement.
When I was 20, I wrote a business plan to raise $3.1MM to build a social entrepreneurship center at Park School. I was going to drop out and build an amazing community for social entrepreneurship at the K-12 level in and with my school and in Buffalo.
We didn’t raise the money. Raising money is hard. It stayed hard through the years. I’m not great at asking for money for something that isn’t super tangible and easy to understand. I loved selling chocolate, because you’re about to eat what you just handed us money for. But it’s hard for a foundation to trust a young team with funding to make a vision happen that is really, really hard to pull off. They need to see we’re committed, we’re not going anywhere, we’re ridiculously persistent, and that we simply won’t give up on this no matter what.
It’s also hard to raise money that we love. Often money steers people and things. We want to know the money we raise is for the exact work we do and the things we learn teachers, kids, and schools really need. We don’t want to find ourselves in mission drift someday making other kinds of content or focusing on some side programs because that’s part of the deal we made to access some source of donation funding.
We want to stay pure and super super focused. In short, we want to focus on the needs of teachers and students, not donors. When those things align, it’s a beautiful thing. We’re grateful that the funding we have raised to date was from humans who are very aligned with what we do.. people who trust our care for learning and adapting as we grow to make sure we’re always doing the best things possible for kids.
In not raising money over the past years in the way we dreamed of for Better World Ed, my mindset moved more and more to “how much awesome can we do with a scarce amount of funding!?”.
That worked out until March 2018. We learned a ton that we wouldn’t have learned had we not scrapped, and we had a community of over 1000 teachers sign up to use the content over those years. It was all free, and we had amazing donors sponsoring our lives and flights and food to create all of this content and to learn with teachers. It was a beautiful thing, really.
this movement relies on WE. the more money that comes from WE, the better.
Several mentors and advisors and peers have said to me over the years (each section is paraphrased from my notes):
abhi, my dream for this thing is that someday the globally minded teachers and schools of the world are not only using and loving this stuff, but are the ones backing you. Alongside you, reaching the rest of the teachers and youth in every corner of the world. If you have people putting their money down, especially in a profession where they are severely underpaid, it’s a statement to the world that Better World Educators want to see change in education. That they believe in this stuff.
Schools and teachers contributing to use this content also holds you focused and accountable. It gives you a new level of focus. You get to focus on the needs of those you care most about, especially because their money is now on the table. You don’t have to fly around meeting potential donors and worrying about if any of them are going to try to steer this away from what you’re learning is the core key direction. You get to stay laser focused.
You don’t have to worry about accidentally focusing more on what funders think should happen. Your funders are your users now. You get to do what so many nonprofits often lose sight of — you get to focus all of your energy on listening and learning and ensuring you’re building something that moves forward the mission you live for alongside those you’re building it with and for. You don’t have to go build some thing and test it with users here and there and make sure it’s a fit for them. You’re doing all that LIVE. All. the. time. And anyways, you already do that.. which is why you haven’t been raising enough money. So just ask those same folks you spend all your time with to pay. It’s like a co-op, and you get to be accountable to and report to your community of core “users”.
You get to build the dream product — higher quality content, more variations of content, the mobile experience, the interwoven stories with a really fun user experience.. the everything — not just a spreadsheet of stories that grows at a few stories per year. You get to truly build this together alongside the teachers and students and schools you care about. You get to build the thing that truly captivates kids in and out of school.. to win over their time every day. And you get to move fast, without spending time focused on fundraising from folks who might not actually understand what classrooms really want.
Plus, you LOVE spending time with teachers and students and schools. Now you get to do more of it. Don’t think of it as charging people for a product. Partner with them. Remember that they are investing not in some company trying to make a bunch of money, but in a not-for-profit organization that spends all of its time and money to research and develop amazing content for classrooms. It’s like a teachers’ dream come true, too. A win win. The perfect team — Better World Ed and a world of dedicated teachers.
BeWE pricing comes to life. Finally. After a bunch of resistance (from me, because everyone else thought it was smart).
After lots of simmering and lots of learning (and looooots of resistance from me!), this advice turned into our model. In April 2018, we introduced pricing and kept iterating on how we would create plans that felt aligned to our values.
That iteration lives at betterworlded.org/join, and we always love feedback. We’re more interested in making sure every classroom has access than we are in a specific exact pricing structure. We’re learning about this together.
As we launch our new product experience (it’s going to be way cooler than what you’ll see now) in April/May 2019 (update in May: it’s launched now and you’re currently on the new platform!), it will be because of and thanks to teachers and schools paying to use this content. We’re already seeing the fruits of our advisors’ advice (special thanks to Jordan Kassalow for pushing on this hard).
And as more teachers and schools (and parent sponsors) contribute, well, we get to do more. And we means WE, not a few people in a room making content for you. WE means you get to share your perspectives, your dreams, your feedback, and our team takes all of that in to try to make the most useful content in a high quality, effective way. It means WE get to learn from classrooms, learn what works well, what needs to improve, and how we can iterate to reach more and more classrooms in a meaningful way with increasingly amazing content.
The content and experience on BetterWorldEd.org today is still only 5% of what we want to do. We’re really only just getting started. Really. This mission is massive, so we’re going step by step together instead of trying to take on everything all at once. We already tried the latter. It’s hard and pretty counter-productive to our mission: learning on the journey is what’s helping us make sure this stuff is as good as it can be.
WE are working towards a world in which millions of students, educators, and parents experience content that inextricably weaves together academic learning with social and emotional development — through a global immersion across diverse cultures. Imagine bite size chunks of our content woven together that help students learn direct connections between their fractions practice problems and a farmer’s challenges and dreams.
Imagine being able to search “fractions”, engaging with a list of amazing videos/photos/word problems that are real world and even higher quality, and then choosing whether to keep learning about that country, topic, or academic concept or to move on to another one. An endless learning experience that’s seamless and weaves classrooms throughout the world — zooming in and out of big picture topics (think “SDGs”) and people’s stories. All in experiences of a few minutes or for hours, online or offline, and aligned to each specific user’s curriculum, approach, language, and age/learning level across a web and mobile app experience that can be led by a teacher or student. Where you can make a playlist for whatever you need to teach, choosing the countries and topics you want to focus on along the journey. It’s like Spotify and Netflix but for education.. for kids to learn about deeply meaningful stuff whenever they choose.
Imagine a world where youth grow up learning to see all human lives as equally beautiful and important. Where all youth grow up engaged, inspired, and curious, learning to change our world for the better. With global, social, and emotional awareness guiding their local and global engagement. To learn to be loving and kind — starting even in math class.
Learning to change the world can’t simply be a student’s “extra credit project”. We must weave the practices of empathy, global understanding, and civic engagement right into the heart of where youth are: school. Early in life, every day, and everywhere. As we crack this, the possibilities are endless for the widespread systemic change we dream of. With open minds and open, connected hearts, we can create an incredibly beautiful future together.
so by joining us and putting your money in the pool, we get to make magic happen together.
it’s really that simple. WE get to do this together, instead of our team always hunting down free food and couches while also fundraising, dreaming of focusing more on kids and teachers. WE get to focus on making the best content any of us could ever imagine.
WE get to imagine what’s possible together — effectively, efficiently, and while focused on everything that can light the spark and love for learning in every single human. early in life, every day, and everywhere.
with your contribution, WE get to make magic happen together. the BeWE team is all in, and we hope you will be too. let’s do this together.
let’s move from head to heart. for you(th). for peace.
to opening hearts and minds,
One last reason for our pricing and this Be WE approach:
Together, we can help youth execute on Lao Tzu’s advice: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
WE got this, humans.