January 19, 2014
The entrepreneur

As a teacher, Jess Gartner saw first-hand the discrepancies in the way resources are allocated among schools and across districts. “Unfortunately, when resources are misallocated, that trickles down and has a huge effect on teaching and learning,” she said.

Gartner really wanted to dig into the administrative processes that went into allocating resources for schools. She was particularly interested in districts that have a decentralized funding system, wherein the school principals have a lot of autonomy — in some cases nearly 100 percent — over how funds are allocated for their schools.

Gartner had her “ah-ha” moment as she was analyzing the nuances in her spending at coffee shops on Mint.com, a consumer finance platform. She marveled at the powerful technology that could aggregate her financial data and provide her with analytics on her spending habits. It dawned on her that there was a much-needed opportunity to apply that technology to schools and their funding.

Gartner’s idea earned her a spot in the February 2013 AccelerateBaltimore program, a start-up accelerator run by the Emerging Technology Center. She left her job, got her first jolt of capital and started the first version of the product with the newly founded start-up, Allovue, headquartered in Baltimore.

The pitch

Gartner

“We are developing a suite of applications to empower educators to visualize, analyze and optimize their resource allocation.

“In many cases, school principals are overburdened. In addition to serving as the human capital manager, the cultural leader and the instructional leader of the school, many now also act as the chief financial officer. Of all the roles that principals have, resource management is an area where we can significantly leverage technology and find best practices to give principals a better picture of their day-to-day operational finances. This will allow them to adjust course as necessary, based on best-practices from peer schools and districts from other parts of the country that are doing things really well under similar challenges.

“We put a real premium on the user experience. A lot of administrative solutions for K-12 are ill-fitting modifications of solutions from the business world. They don’t always quite fit the specific needs and user experience for educators. We really pride ourselves on talking to the actual users of our system – like principals or district budget analysts or CFOs – and designing it in a way that provides the information that they need in the clearest, most efficient way possible so that they can spend their time making decisions rather than collecting and sorting data.

“We piloted our lighter version of the product for individual schools in September, and we are now building an expanded version for district-level offices that can be modified for individual schools. Allovue’s visualization tool lets administrators quickly see and understand their school’s real-time spending, funding, account balances, etc.

“Our biggest challenge right now is the fragmentation of the data that we will use to feed into our system. Districts use a variety of back-end data systems. How can we streamline and standardize the integration process to keep implementation costs down as we expand to new districts?”

The advice

Liz Sara, entrepreneur-in-residence, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship

“I think partnerships could be the short-term answer to your technology challenge.

“First, figure out what other school districts have similar infrastructure to the districts where you’ve successfully integrated your platform, and go after them. Then look for implementation partners who also operate in the education market and already have the contacts with school districts and skills to integrate your technology. Partners can help you cover more ground faster and be good door-openers for you and shorten your sales cycle.

“Set up a reseller network through the business development departments at those partner companies. Their incentive would be getting your technology into districts gets them more billable hours to implement it. Then work with the partner firms’ IT departments to make sure they understand how to implement your technology in school districts. They’d be the ones to do your actual implementation, setup and integration.”

The reaction

Gartner

“The reseller network is a great idea. The K-12 education market is notorious for long sales cycles, so if we can forge partnerships that help break down some of the barriers, that be will a huge advantage for us in terms of getting through the sales cycle quickly. We’re already talking to some firms who have done work around resource planning with large districts, and our software would complement their services well.”

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