EdTech Champion Portcrash: Interview with Founder and CEO Maike Niemeier
If you want to change the sphere of early education for the better, you have a long and winding road ahead of you. Many edtech entrepreneurs and edtech startups jump at the opportunity this very minute, as traditional analog education methods and digital innovations finally overlap in the mainstream.
Hybrid approaches may help bridge the gap between old-school approaches and alienating teachers and other educators with entirely new digital learning ecosystems. With a strong focus on a positive user experience and storytelling, edtech innovations may even conquer the kid’s room.
In this CEO interview, we take a look at German edtech startup Portcrash, based in Petershagen.
1) Questions regarding Portcrash
Maike, please tell us a bit about what you do.
Hi, my name is Maike Niemeier, I’m 38 years old and founded my first company, an independent art and music school ten years ago. I still run it today and recently founded my second venture, Portcrash. What attracted you to educational technology and what was your pathway into the field?
My aim as an educator was always to teach my students in a way they can relate to. For example by incorporating music they were currently listening to or by using media they were familiar with.
I started using tablets and cellphones in my lessons and courses from an early point on and I guess the idea to start developing products that incorporate flexible digital components was just bound to happen at some point.
What drives you to continually advance your company?
Definitely my love for education. My goal for Portcrash is to combine digital and analog content for a well-balanced learning experience, tailored to provide children with the surroundings they need to gain knowledge in a light and playful manner.
If I can succeed in making education a bit more attractive for students, teachers, and parents alike, in the long run, I would be very happy. When it comes to business decisions, I aim to build a solid company with a steady and sustainable growth rate. For me, running a successful business is not about insane scaling and fast exits.
What is the unique appeal of Portcrash? How do you distinguish yourself from competitors?
We bridge a gap between the traditional education system, which focuses mainly on books, and the kids’ out of school learning experiences that much more often come from digital media.
A lean process to everything Portcrash helps us to be able to take into account what kids really like.
From character development and storytelling to our approach in multi-sensory design, the children always get a say.
We also work closely with several educators who help us to find out what is really needed in the field and run their own test courses.
Parents are always encouraged to provide us with feedback and we take their suggestions and wishes seriously.
Your learning system combines digital and analog content. Do you think this is the future of education and how do the two elements interact?
Ideally, it should be the future of education. I am a huge fan of digitalization but not at all cost. Children need real-life elements in education. Something they can touch and smell and essentially form an emotional and physical bond with. To teach them in a solely digital way is far too abstract.
We might be able to do that only when VR is so sophisticated that the line between reality and virtuality begins to blur. If that is a desirable outcome is a whole other question, though.
What do you consider your biggest success so far?
Definitely the positive feedback from our customers and their interest in our products. To see that children are having fun, that parents value Portcrash’s fun approach to education and that fellow educators are keen on teaching Portcrash themselves is a brilliant payoff for all the work we put in so far.
Are there specific milestones ahead you are working towards at the moment?
Our next goal is to have our apps market-ready and to continue building a solid customer basis for the learning system. We recently started collaborating with the Berlin-based EduHeros Club and are going to open a pop-up space called “The Future of Education – EduHub Berlin” in May where we showcase edtech products and offer a range of activities for educators, children and parents, alike.
We are also very excited and happy to be part of Didacta-Startups at Didacta 2018 in Hannover and to showcase our products at the Expo at Startup Camp Berlin 2018.
What are potential ways to support you?
We are an early-stage startup so every little helps. If you would like to support us in any way, you are always welcome to get in touch with us as we are always open to suggestions.
We are currently looking for app and game developers, investors, sponsors, affordable office-space and a steady supply of chocolate to calm our nerves. You name it – we are probably looking for it.
2) On Edtech in general
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge in the field?
I think the notion that tech products are not suitable as means of education is still very present, especially in Germany. Many fellow educators regard using apps, programmable toys and other edtech as an inferior form of learning and parents are often reluctant to let their kids use these kinds of products.
There is a lot of work to do here but I guess with the brilliant range of products already on the market we will get there given a few more years.
How do you judge the overall status and development of Edtech? Do you see it advancing at a good pace or do you think things aren’t changing fast enough?
The industry itself is growing fast and that is amazing. What is not changing fast enough is the acceptance of edtech as a fun and cool way for children to experience education in a light and playful manner.
Is there something you would like to change in the field of Edtech or our current educational system in general?
If I give you a detailed answer to that question, the interview will last for hours 😉 In short: Edtech is doing fine but the education system needs a lot of changing.
More room to explore, to experience failure as a positive process, to be creative, smaller classes, interdisciplinary learning, I could go on and on. Just take a look at e.g. Estonia, Finland, Denmark, they manage it well.
Why is now the time to start working in Edtech?
It’s a growing market with a lot of potential and people are starting to notice. If your heart is in education, you should definitely give it a go right now.
3) Concerning students and edtech enthusiasts
What characteristics and skill sets should someone bring to the table to have an impact on Edtech?
They should have a profound knowledge of learning processes and learning psychology. The best tech is useless if it does not appeal to a natural way of learning.
Edtech offers so much potential for making education better than it is but you need people behind it who know a great deal about pedagogy and have hands-on experience in the field. If you cannot teach you are likely to develop a product that does not work.
How important/valuable is the diverse team input for your company?
A diverse background in a team, for me, is essential in building the best product and come up with the best solutions.
Thinking outside the box is unlikely to happen when all members of the team live inside the same box. There is great value in people who tackle problems from a very different viewpoint than my own. It keeps me from not seeing the wood for the trees.
You started your own art and music school while you were still studying. How did this experience help you in setting up Portcrash?
Well, Portcrash is a very different type of company compared to my art and music school and the two founding processes differed a lot. Founding your second company is not less scary or easier than the first time around for the most part. What helped me a great deal though was the fact that I could rely on an established network.
Also, the fact that I knew the “basics” of all the paperwork and necessary steps to take to actually formally found a company in Germany helped tremendously. I’m also able to deal with the insane amount of working hours in a much better way than I was when I started the art and music school.
But, all that aside, I still go through the ups and downs of a founding process like everybody else. Including the occasional nervous breakdowns, panic attacks, night-sweats and the exorbitant intake of caffeine
What advice would you give graduates who want to join the Edtech industry or an Edtech startup?
Do it! By all means, get on board and do it.
What are your top 3 tips for other startups/founders?
- Hang in there, it’s a bumpy ride for all of us but never forget why you started in the first place.
- Don’t forget to eat and drink, it happens, trust me.
- Besides that: Work like hell!
Portcrash Founder’s Bio
Her love of education, space and pirates was essential in the development of ‘Rock the Boat with Cap’n Portcrash’ a learning system for cool kids aged four to eight.
Maike studied art and music pedagogy and English but decided to drop out of college and go all buccaneer by founding her own art and music school ten years ago.
Cap’n Portcrash has been her imaginary friend since 2003.
If you have come this far, you must really be into edtech startup interviews! We applaud this and invite you to check out our conversations with other thought-leading edtech champions like
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