During the past 25 years, the Educational Technology Sector (‘EdTech’) has experienced significant investment and growth. Today, the market seems to be consolidating or slowing down. The question that arises is, can these companies be successful? Or why aren’t they as successful as they projected? To help us tackle these challenges, we have the insights of David Shafer, Chief Entrepreneur of Cognia.
With over two decades of entrepreneurial and leadership experience, David Shafer is a prominent figure in the business world. He excels in strategic and tactical leadership, consistently driving the development of new companies and optimizing leadership teams. His expertise spans diverse industries, including education, television, feature films, entertainment, and banking. Reflecting on his journey, David compares building a new organization to having an unseen companion only visible to yourself. He explains, “The trick is to find the first few who can see your invisible friend and can grow to be as passionate about it as you are. Finding those people, your co-founders or early leaders, was critically important in my successes and, in reflection, critically obvious in my failures.”
David Shafer’s Career
David’s career journey has been far from conventional. As far back as high school, David seemed disruptive and often found himself in trouble. This wasn’t particularly pleasant for his parents, who both taught in public schools. His behavior often had him in detention; in 11th grade, he faced impeachment from the position of class vice president, and as a senior, his peers elected him ‘Class Clown.’ During his undergraduate experience at Millersville University (Pennsylvania), David was on and off academic probation, at one point taking a semester off due to a few minor engagements with campus law enforcement. He did manage to found a new fraternity on campus (which remains in operation today) and eventually graduated. Today, he continues his education at Harvard Business School and, unlike when he was younger, actively participates in lectures, a change fueled by two factors: (a) perhaps some maturity and (b) the appreciation of the power of learning.
David’s career journey began in broadcast sales due to an internship at an NBC television station. He saw the salespeople driving expensive cars and seemingly always in a rush and decided that was a good place to start for him. While becoming a top performer very quickly, it wasn’t long before he pivoted into the start-up space. He quit being a salesperson for his initial venture, Frontline Education. This early ed-tech company was co-founded with two other individuals that grew to serve over 12,000+ school systems and were acquired for $1.1 billion in 2017. Another noteworthy achievement was leading the introduction of the Skycam™ aerial broadcast camera system. This innovation revolutionized the coverage of aerial sports and has since earned numerous Emmys and 2 Academy Awards.
In 2009, David ventured into a different realm—the banking sector. Sabadell United Bank was formed by acquiring and revitalizing several failed community banks in South Florida. The role he played was the strategy for the organization to be proactive and grow fast. This effort proved highly successful, resulting in the eventual sale of the bank for $1.03 billion.
In 2017, after continually hearing how teachers were leaving the profession, he established Kadem Education and recruited several top educators and researchers to seek a way to help. The company launched the MyVoice platform, a formative/ongoing application that captures critical aspects of how teachers feel inside—enabling opportunities for improvements and retention. Presently, he serves as the Chief Entrepreneur for Cognia, Inc., a 125+ year-old global nonprofit school evaluation and improvement company that selected him to work closely with their CEO for strategic components, acquisitions, and partnerships. He states Cognia is somewhat like a 100-year-old start-up led by one of the most innovative people he’s ever met.
Exploring his career and success is one thing, but he credits his effectiveness mostly to his failures. Having a ‘failure is not an option’ attitude seems great, but the reality is failure is learning—and learning is advancement. ‘Failing forward’ is how he approaches his work now and continues to lead with a ‘servant leadership’ mentality.
Outside of his business ventures, in 2022 David recently co-authored “Leading School Culture Through Teacher Voice and Agency,” highlighting the research that supported the MyVoice program. Additionally, he has served three terms as a publicly elected school board director in the Philadelphia suburbs. He has been engaged with various nonprofit and community organizations, including executive board positions with the Boy Scouts of America and the YMCA.
While David’s experiences span various industries, his true professional passion is supporting teachers and improving schools. This commitment is deeply rooted and potentially influenced by his upbringing. Amid a diverse range of business pursuits, his most significant impact becomes clear when it pertains to enhancing education.
Nurturing an Environment of Productivity and Shared Commitment
When it comes to maintaining motivated and productive teams, David offers a distinct viewpoint. He believes that the real solution lies in the initial selection of team members. He states, “Focusing on keeping people motivated is actually treating the symptom vs. the problem; I’ve found if you select the right people in the first place—who truly care about the company’s mission—then keeping them adequately supported and compensated is all you need to provide.”
Once the appropriate team is in place, effective and open communication becomes vital. Ensuring that team members feel empowered to bring forward ideas, continually challenge the status quo, be engaged, and comprehend how their efforts contribute to the mission is crucial. This open connection keeps their motivation and productivity high. David has noticed that when a group of committed people has a growth mindset and is willing to continually learn, amazing advancements occur. Whether it’s in accounting, project management, development, or sales, the entire team remains united due to their shared dedication to the organization’s mission.
Beyond the Finish Line
Concerning hobbies and interests, David’s pursuits have changed over the years, but he has always been active in sports and competitions. He finds enjoyment in endurance sports, having completed seven full marathons so far and over 20 half-marathons. For most of his career, his personal time was focused on being involved as much as possible in raising three active children involved in sports and theater. Today, with his kids either in college or graduated, he can be found golfing, traveling, or tailgating for the Philadelphia Phillies and Eagles.
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
David shares a couple of pieces of advice drawn from his decades of firsthand experience.
- Be hyper-focused on the Problem: How much time or money are you able to save your clients with your new thing? Is this a problem they consider serious? Is this a problem that is well known?
- Keep Everything Simple: Communication must be tight. If it’s a complex problem, explain your solution in simple terms. I’ve seen far too many ventures struggle or were invited in to help due to their lack of simplification.
- Don’t plan too far down the road in the beginning: Getting everything right in an emerging business simply never happens. Build projections and modify them often—especially in the beginning. Knowing where and how your innovation may best be used needs time and exploration.
“We either win or we learn.”