7. Finding Markets:
Like anyone starting a new venture, Justin and I had to overcome many hurdles as we tried to introduce our products into the marketplace. Philanthropic organizations provided us with funding to get started, but we still needed to create a sustainable business model. That meant we needed to find markets. The markets we identified included jails, prisons, and schools that served people who were at risk of going into jails or prisons.
As formerly incarcerated individuals with felony convictions, Justin and I faced challenges in breaking through to decision makers at the institutions where we wanted to sell the Straight-A Guide. I concluded my prison term on August 12, 2013, but I was scheduled to serve an additional four years on Supervised Release. At times, selling to “the system” proved difficult because of our criminal records. Still, we were committed to the work, sensing that our product would inspire more people inside to pursue self-directed paths of preparing for success.
On occasions when we broke through to decision makers, we faced another challenge. The corrections industry was becoming more professionalized. As such, administrators were reluctant to purchase programs that had not been evaluated as being “evidence based.” In other words, before considering a rehabilitative program for purchase, the administrators expected to see scholarly research showing a program’s propensity to achieve its intended outcome.
With the Straight-A Guide, we aspired to show participants that they could empower themselves and prepare for success in meaningful, measurable ways. Their key to success would begin with a commitment to leading a values-based, goal-oriented life. To the extent that they articulated their values, set clear goals, and moved forward in the principled way of the program, they would make progress. The course would inspire participants to reject the criminal lifestyle and develop stronger critical-thinking skills.
Through the Straight-A Guide, participants would contemplate their avatars and employ Socratic questioning techniques. We anticipated that such disciplined, deliberate adjustment patterns would assist the participants in becoming more resourceful. Rather than waiting for calendar pages to turn, or engaging in the types of thoughtless behavior that derails so many people in prison, participants would focus. They’d find mentors, they’d create opportunities, they’d seize or create opportunities to educate themselves. To the extent that participants committed to the Straight-A Guide adjustment plan, they would walk out of prison with a strong support network and confidence in their ability to thrive as law-abiding, contributing citizens.
Yet when making this presentation to the corrections industry, we’d frequently encounter resistance. Many would object that other people in prison wouldn’t be able to do what I had done, or grasp the Straight-A Guide. They wanted to see independent scholarly research showing evidence that the Straight-A Guide lowered recidivism rates.
We would face an enormous obstacle in providing such evidence. In order to gather the research, we’d need the following:
- We would need to contract with either a research institution or a university research department.
- We would need funding to pay for that research.
- We would need a test group that would allow us to administrate the Straight-A Guide program to a statistically significant group of people in prison.
- We would need each participant to take a “pretest,” showing their knowledge of the coursework we were about to teach through the program.
- We would need access to the answers they provided.
- We would need access to the coursework they completed as they advanced through the program.
- We would need the participants to complete their prison terms.
- We would need to measure progress the participants made after they returned to society.
- We would need to measure the success rate of participants who completed the Straight-A Guide and contrast those rates against others who were not exposed to the program.
Evidence Based Program:
To succeed as an evidence-based program, we would need to coordinate an evaluation with an accredited researcher. If the independent researchers had access to data, and their research revealed that participants in the Straight-A Guide program were more likely to succeed upon release, as compared against similarly situated offenders who did not go through the program, we would have the ammunition we needed to sell this program to jails, prisons, and schools across the nation.
Our problem was not only one of funding, but also of time. To gather the necessary data showing that Straight-A Guide programs lowered recidivism, participants wouldn’t only need to complete the program. They also would need to complete their prison terms, return to society, and refrain from violating the law for three years. Crossing the hurdle of becoming an evidence-based program would require significant amounts of capital. We would need to pay the necessary personnel who could conduct the study. We would need to fund the costs associated with opening meetings with decision makers. And we would need to collect data from participants who enrolled in the Straight-A Guide program.
Until we were able to obtain evidence-based research, we’d continue to meet objections from administrators that would prevent us from scaling the program. If we had resources to acquire the research, we anticipated a massive market. Although we didn’t have clear data on the total available market, we knew that the corrections industry consumed more than $80 billion each year. If reentry and recidivism-reduction programs consumed only 5 percent of that budget, the market would be a $4 billion per year industry. In such a market, we anticipated that if we could become evidence-based, The Straight-A Guide program could anticipate sales north of $10 million per year.
Despite the challenges, Justin and I succeeded in persuading several administrators to purchase our program. Since we lacked the research to validate the Straight-A Guide, we could not command a high price point. Instead, we offered the program on a licensing basis at $5,000 per year, plus another $2,500 for training. If an institution purchased a license to use the Straight-A Guide program, I would visit the institution to train facilitators on how to teach participants. They could use the program as a tool to build intrinsic motivation and prepare offenders for success. After the training, we would leave the institution with the video content, the literature, and the lesson plans. Institutions could then use the program as a tool to improve outcomes.
Our initial clients included the Washington State Prison System, Santa Clara County, The City of San Jose, Orange County School District, Los Angeles County Office of Education, Orange County Department of Education, and The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Those orders generated financial resources, but the costs associated with delivering our program proved to be too high. Our model of offering the Straight-A Guide at a low price point would only work if we were successful in finding hundreds of clients. Despite funding from philanthropic organizations, and funding from purchase orders, we lacked sufficient capital to cross the tipping point.
In order to grow, we would need more resources. We needed resources to purchase advertising campaigns that would bring us to the attention of more institutional buyers. We needed resources to purchase booths at conventions that served the corrections market. We needed resources to fund our travel costs and to hire staff members who could help us execute our plan. Inexperience convinced me that purchase orders would flow into our organization as soon as I created the product. As time passed, however, I learned how much I didn’t know about the challenges of launching a start-up venture.