Innovation and food trucks

I interviewed Matt Candler, the head of a design lab called 4.0 Schools, last week. This design lab is focused on education innovation, be it new schools, new technology, new operational efficiencies, etc.

Two decades into the charter school movement, many people who think about education innovation have the goal of opening a new school. It makes sense: change within existing institutions is hard. A successful charter can be scaled into a charter network, and hopefully achieve results at scale.

The problem, Candler pointed out, is that a new school is a very big and expensive way to test things. If something doesn’t work, you can certainly change course in the middle of the year (and new charters do this a lot) but you’re still steering a big ship. And if things go massively south, closing a charter (or seeing the kids leave for elsewhere) creates a lot of turbulence in kids’ lives.

Opening a school is like opening a restaurant. But in the food industry, Candler pointed out, there’s now a quicker way to test and iterate: the food truck. Got a crazy restaurant concept? A food truck is relatively cheap to start and test your ideas. If it doesn’t work, you can retool quickly with new menu items and a new coat of paint by practically the next meal. You can test different locations. Once you figure out what works, you can put capital into opening a “real” restaurant.

So what would the food truck equivalent be in education? It could be an after school program at a community center. It could be a one-week academic camp to cover spring break or the “camp gap” between the end of the school year and the start of most area summer programs. Given that a work year is about 2000 hours and a school year is closer to 1100-1200 hours at most, there are lots of potential hours parents might like academic things, but that don’t involve competing head on with the existing school reality. Test your education concept or technology during these food truck times, and you can figure out what works and doesn’t before you launch a school or try to get your idea into existing ones.

I realized, hearing this analogy, that I have a food truck equivalent in my line of work: blogging. Writing a book is a huge ordeal. Writing a blog post? Not so much (usually). If I have what I think is a great book idea, and I float something related on this blog, and nobody bites, that’s an indication that I could be in for a slog. On the other hand, if a post goes semi-viral, I see that I may be on to something. That’s worth putting a little more time and effort in.

What’s the food truck equivalent in your industry?

Photo courtesy flickr user BetterBizIdeas

6 thoughts on “Innovation and food trucks

    1. @Cloud- I wonder how pop-up labs would work. Probably someone has written about lean-start-up in science. It’s going to be more expensive (for many reasons) but I also wonder about ideas of renting lab space or an incubator of sorts creating lab space and then inviting prospects to tinker. An interesting road of thought to go down!

      1. There are a lot of regulatory considerations (both environmental regulations and regulations on the end product of biotech/pharma) that I think make it hard to contemplate something like a pop up lab. And those regulations are for the most part good and necessary, so I don’t think this is a case of government squashing innovation. It is just that biology and chemistry research is complicated and expensive!

        There might be a way for academic labs to serve that quick innovation role, but for the most part neither the academic funding system nor the academic reward system really encourages that.

        It is a tough (and interesting) question!

  1. going to send this to my single mom friend who has been wanting to open a food truck. some towns have exorbitant costs like for day permits in my town for a food truck it is $500 a day .. but it is a loaded town… and right now they are building 2 million townhouses so the person who moves that food truck around that area has all the construction workers the daycare y workers, the regular folks who work in downtown princeton etc.
    this pharma lab research question is also intereseting. I live in the corridor of j& j and merck and j&J has had a lot of turnover of late and people in and out of the company. one mom I know who worked there and got let go has started doing her own consulting work as a product developer and marketer (she thinks up the ideas for new consumer and pharma products) but her husband was telling me at a bday party this weekend that one of the issues say in them becoming rich doing the work of the big firms this way is the cost of research as you say here a pop up sort of lab.. universities can help with this or non profit incubators or perhaps government but in some cases then those folks own the patents.. smaller scale is good for parents too b/c you can take a risk without taking sucha big risk and/or test entrepreneurship at a more feasible level.

  2. In software, it’s easy – it’s engineer building something at home in their free time – mobile apps, etc. At work, we just have to get a “side business” cleared with our managers. And if we’re developing, say, a Windows Phone app, even better 😉

    For crafty stuff, most people start out with an Etsy shop – the barrier to entry is really low, and I’ve found that with some work, one can be successful. I’ve made five-figure income in a year from it doing it on the side, when I’m committed to it.

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