Technology holds the promise to help housing and residence life professionals achieve their goals and work with students in a more efficient and effective manner. Deciding what your needs are and what software to purchase, however, requires professionals to approach the purchasing process with intentionality. The ACUHO-I Core Competencies state that when reviewing potential vendor solutions, professionals should, “Establish departmental standards for evaluation of different procurement instruments for supplies, services, and equipment“ (p. 22).

Specifically when it comes to technology, there are now more housing and residence life software companies than ever before. Furthermore, many of these companies are new to the market. This can complicate the process.

For example, in the early history of Roompact, I would frequently be asked if Roompact was a “startup.” Because the term “startup” has no agreed-upon definition, I had a hard time with that one. It’s likely you and your colleagues all have different notions of a “startup” and its value. To some, “startup” might be synonymous with “small.” Others hear “startup” and think of large, successful companies like Uber and Airbnb. Wanting to avoid the question, “What is your definition of a startup,” I would typically default to, “yeah, kind of,” and pivot to talking about our company’s attributes.

Terminology may seem insignificant, but the ability for student affairs professionals to pose informed questions about a vendor’s business is an increasingly important skill. Don’t get caught up playing buzzword bingo. Instead, next time you evaluate an EdTech company—particularly one in its early stages of growth— try using the following frame:

  • Structure
  • Resources
  • Partnerships

Structure

Early stage companies are often unstructured, both in terms of personnel hierarchy and process documentation. This matters because a lack of structure can lead to inefficiencies and an inconsistent level of client support.

Questions you may want to ask include:

  • Do users have access to product documentation (e.g.; user guides, technical instructions)?
    • If the answer is “no,” ask about resources to help your team setup and use the product successfully.
    • If the answer is “yes,” ask to see it. Does it go beyond basic setup and include resources for continuous learning?
  • How does the company ensure a consistently high level of customer support?
    • What metrics are used to assess those outcomes?
  • Who is in charge of creating documentation and materials?

Companies whose central focus is client success will love these questions. You should expect to see support documentation. Companies may also have information about customizable presentations, webinars, and instructor-led trainings.

HBO's Silicon Valley

HBO’s Silicon Valley parodies tech startup culture.

Resources

New companies are often strapped for resources— financial and human. A wonderful buzz phrase is “We’re a lean startup.” It’s also wonderfully useless.

Cash is the lifeblood of any company, and many EdTech companies take on early investment from outside people or organizations. Outside investment, most often in the form of venture capital (VC), is a term you have likely heard (who else watches HBO’s Silicon Valley?!) and impacts the future of the company.

Before you partner with a company, consider the role of outside investment in the company’s ability to serve your needs long term. Inquire about the company’s current profitability and dependence on outside investment. Find out what strings, if any, are attached to that investment. (Commonly, when a company “gets funding” they must spend money in a specific manner and timeframe, e.g.; hire 5 sales reps in next 6 months).

Questions you may want to ask include:

  • Are you currently profitable?
    • If the answer is “yes,” ask for how long.
    • If the answer is “no,” which is a perfectly acceptable answer, ask how they plan to get profitable. (Hint: It should include client success.)
  • Have you ever taken on outside investment?
    • If the answer is “yes,” ask if they are comfortable sharing why and from whom.
  • Who owns the company?

There are many pros and cons to a company taking outside investment, and it takes time to evaluate the effect outside investment may have on a young company’s ability to serve your needs long term. Still, profitability and ownership give you a solid starting point for further evaluation.

Partnerships

Student affairs work does not happen in the vacuum. That’s probably obvious if your daily work includes interacting with colleagues across campus. Too often, however, we overlook the connections between the digital aspects of our work. Specifically, how the numerous campus systems “talk” to each other. It is crucial your EdTech partners have the appropriate technical capabilities to connect with third-party and (if necessary) homegrown products.

Questions you may want to ask include:

  • Do you have any third-party partners? (e.g.; housing management systems, judicial case management systems, student information systems)
    • If the answer is “yes,” ask about the data types (e.g. directory information, PII) passed between the systems. Also, ask about the frequency of data exchange.
    • If the answer is “no,” which is a perfectly acceptable answer, consider the type of partnership that might help your team use their product in a better way, and share that information with them.
  • Do you have an API (Application Program Interface)?
    • If the answer is “yes,” ask about costs associated with using it. This information should also be present in sales documentation.
    • If the answer is “no,” ask about manual processes (e.g. CSV file import).

“Integration” tells you nothing. Ask for information on specific “integrations,” costs to use the services, and associated technical documentation. When a company can quickly produce this information, it suggests the company has structure and has at least a basic understanding of industry expectations around data.

Concluding Thoughts

Working with a young company can be exciting and extremely rewarding. Roompact’s early growth was due in large part to our first clients. Their trust in us and our vision has enabled us to better support their work in return. The clients also benefited by having a strong influence on the design and future features of our software.

When it comes to new technology companies, don’t’ be afraid, as they have a lot to offer, but at the same time make sure you do due diligence when it comes to adding technology partners.

Additional Reading