After the remains of Hurricane Fran struck in 1996, two Frederick County parents were caught unaware when schools let out early and their children were dropped off at neighborhood bus stops without their knowing.
So the parents, who were colleagues at a Germantown data technology firm, devised a bare-bones Web site to alert Maryland parents of unexpected school closings. Those two founders have since moved on, but Craig Croson and Ian Warshak now run Schoolsout.com as an emergency-notification service for almost 300 schools systems, day-care centers and organizations nationwide, many in this area.
What began as a free community service is blossoming into a business.
Last year, the Web site had 7.7 million hits and about 300,000 subscribers for the e-mail alerts, Ian says. The e-mails remain free, he says, because he and Craig didn't feel comfortable taking money for what had become a longtime public service. Starting in 2005, however, they began charging for text-message alerts to cellphones, mostly to begin defraying their own expenses, Ian says. A text-message subscription costs $19.95 for 12 months.
Their company, NotiSys LLC, is now turning a small but growing profit, Ian says, and grossed about $90,000 in revenue last year. NotiSys also runs a new Web site, TheCampusWire.com, which charges schools $3 per student to send alerts via e-mail, text message or a recorded phone call to all parents for a year. Schoolsout.com remains free for schools, but notices go only to subscribers.)
Snow days aren't the only draw. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2002 Washington area sniper shootings both prompted huge jumps in the number of schools signing up, Craig says.
The private Bullis School in Potomac encourages parents to pay for text-message alerts, says Todd McCreight, Bullis's business officer.
"It's the only way they can hear from us instantly on a cellphone in the event of an emergency," he says.
Keeping technology working during bad-weather crunches has been a chronic challenge, Craig says. That's where Ian came in. In 2001, four years after Craig took over Schoolsout.com from the two Frederick County parents, the Web site began crashing from overuse during storms. Ian, then a Texas A&M University computer science major interning at the tech firm where Craig worked, offered assistance.
Now 28, Ian helps run NotiSys from his San Antonio home, where he also works as a software development consultant. Craig, 46, who lives in Waynesboro, Pa., answers parents' e-mails -- up to 400 daily during a storm -- in the evenings. He works full time as a communications test engineer in Germantown.
They are still working through kinks, such as servers blocking e-mail alerts as potential spam, and Craig says he has yet to recoup the $75,000 he's invested over the years in server costs, software and equipment. Craig says he's hoping to attract investors or larger companies interested in acquiring the service, so that he and Ian can afford to work at it full time.
Meanwhile, Craig says, "we get hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from parents thanking us. That kind of keeps you going."
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