Jess Gartner is the CEO and founder of Allovue, an education resource planning platform for K-12 schools and districts that empowers educators at every level to allocate resources to best support the needs of students. Allovue’s flagship product, Balance, contains applications to analyze school budgets, track and forecast expenditures, identify trends over time, and plan for future capital investments.
Q. Share with us your transition from Baltimore school teacher to ed tech entrepreneur.
A. After I finished teaching in 2012, I took a brief detour through the world of venture capital where I think I caught the entrepreneurship bug. That environment helped me connect the dots in terms of how we can make financial management and analysis in education more efficient. I left my job at ABS Capital and decided I was going to start this company. It was actually a rather impulsive decision. I did not have a business background, I did not have a engineering background, and I did not have a finance background. So, making the decision to start an education technology company building financial software was a pretty big leap of imagination. But I felt incredibly passionate about my vision and the impact it could have both at the administrative level as well as in teaching and learning in schools. I decided I was going to make it my full mission in life to bring together the best and brightest minds in education, technology, data science, and finance to bring best in class financial innovation to the education sector.
Q. What role did AccelerateBaltimore play in this vision?
A. It pretty much all started with Accelerate Baltimore. Very early on when I had the idea for Allovue, I started talking to Neil Davis who at the time was the vice-president at the Emerging Technology Center, or “ETC,” in Baltimore. I found him to be a very approachable, friendly person that I knew had a lot of experience with emerging businesses. I floated the idea out to him and to Deb Tillett who is the president of ETC. They were incredibly supportive. They suggested that AccelerateBaltimore might be a way I could help parse out the idea, get some financial and mentoring resources, office space and other business resources to get things off the ground. So, I applied for AccelerateBaltimore in December of 2012. It was purely concept at this point. I don’t even think I had a good napkin sketch at this point.
I sent in the application and we pitched to a panel of people from the business and education community as well as some people from the Abell Foundation who fund AccelerateBaltimore. It was a big shock and surprise that we were accepted to the 2013 cohort. At the time I had quit my full-time job but picked up about four other part-time jobs in its place that allowed me the time flexibility but also allowed me to pay my bills and my mortgage so that I could eat and stay alive while I was trying to get this off the ground. I was hustling around all day and on the weekends. I was doing photoshoots. I was showing real estate listings. I had rented out my house. My goal was to use the $25,000 seed investment we got through AccelerateBaltimore and to bring on designers and technologists to build out the prototype so we could start raising a more significant round of capital to build out the team.
Q. In January, Allovue won the pitch competition for the ed tech startup at the LearnLaunch initiative. Tell us about that experience.
A. For the past three years in Boston, an accelerator called “LearnLaunch” has hosted an annual conference that brings together a combination of educators, ed tech companies, and ed tech investors. It’s a really great environment for having rich conversations and there is a wide variety of options in terms of speakers and workshops and networking opportunities. One of the feature events of this conference is the pitch competition in which startups from all over the country, maybe the world, can apply. They selected 12 to come to compete, including us. Winning was a really exciting experience.
Q. How did Forbes discover you?
A. One day last November, someone from Forbes reached out to me. I thought it might be a joke or spam; it’s just not every day that Forbes comes calling. They wanted to confirm I was under age 30 because I was being considered for the 30 under 30 feature. I filled out a survey and sent in a picture. I did not know I had actually been selected for the list until it came out. That was the first week of January. A great way to kick off 2015 and exciting validation for the team as well as the work we’re doing.
Q. What are your biggest challenges?
A. The education market can be a challenge because it is a big institutional sale. It’s often a long process. That can work to your advantage and it is also a bit of a detriment when you are starting out. It can take a long time to break into a district or state level contract, but the flip side of that is that once you do, they tend to be multi-year contracts. So, you have a long time to prove your worth to your customer and keep them as happy customers, hopefully forever. It is a challenge, but there are some ways to work with education administrators to help move that process along faster and try to get people using the product before you go to a full sale. But I always say that this has obviously worked for the giants of the industry like McGraw-Hill and Pearson and Scholastic and Blackburn. It can be done. It just takes a lot of patience and persistence.
Q. Who are your entrepreneurial role models?
A. I look up to a lot of people in a lot of different fields. There are people who I look up to in the education finance world. I think that there have been a lot of researchers who work at organizations like Education Resource Strategies, which is a group that we have been partnering with, who have really paved the way on this field. In the technology world, I look up to people like Alexa von Tobel who founded LearnVest, who also works in financial analysis. She took something and put a little bit of a different spin on it in terms of providing a services element to financial analysis and planning. Of course, this is almost cliché at this point, but I look up to the giants entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs who are just doing extraordinary things and they make the impossible possible. I love the fact that Elon Musk just says “we are going to put people on Mars” and is not written off as a Looney Toon. I also love the work of Jessica Ladd. She started her work at Johns Hopkins and she has done a lot of work in terms of bringing technology innovation to sexual health. She is really helping merge the world of high tech and business with academia and health care.
Q. How do you identify, attract, retain the best talent to maintain the high standards for your brand?
A. I think culture and brand are a really important part of a company. Too often this gets dismissed as fluff. It is really, really critical to company growth. At the end of the day, the technology is secondary to the team. The team makes everything work. I am completely blessed to work with an incredible group of people who come from a diverse set of backgrounds: other teachers; finance and Wall Street; consulting; other product companies; district and state education. We all have a core set of values that links us and keeps us on the same page.
I always look for driven and self-motivated people. Startups move really quickly and there is no time or room for micromanaging. So we specifically look for people who are real go-getters and who are extremely passionate about the mission and vision of the company. That is of utmost importance.
Q. Is there a common thread among team members beyond drive and passion?
A. I think we are all nerds in our own special way. We are all super data-driven. We all have an appreciation for good design and good software. Perhaps most importantly we all have a tremendous amount of respect for educators and the work that they do. We see our role as making them as effective as possible in doing the best work for students. So, everything always comes back to what is best for students.
Q. Talk a little about Mint.com and the influence it had on your product.
A. It goes without saying that I am a total nerd and I have this eccentric interest in financial technology. I am not really sure where it came from. I like to say it’s in my blood because my mom did a lot of work with finance for non-profits and my dad was an engineer. I think I am truly the combination of both of their interests. In my personal life, I also have been fascinated with products like Mint.com and LearnVest which take a lot of financial data and make it visual and graphic and interactive for the every-day user.
When I was first starting to think about Allovue and talking to principals and seeing their budgeting and financial analysis process, I thought it was totally insane that I could get a more rich depiction and graphical data set of my coffee shop spending than a principal could get about their textbook spending or field trip spending or any other school level resource. That was where the seed was planted. This is not putting people on Mars. This is technology that already exists. It needs to be modified and adapted for a different industry, but I knew that the core technology was there and it was possible. It’s pretty commonly said that creativity is often just making a short connection between one idea and another or possibly just a new application of an existing idea. That is pretty much what we did with Allovue.
Q. Tell us about your favorite apps.
A. We’ve already established that I am a big nerd, particularly for software. I check my phone about 400 times a day, and I am completely addicted to Slack, which I think is one of the fastest growing software companies in the past decade. They have gone from zero to a billion dollar valuation in the past year. We use it for team communication. I think we have sent over 80,000 messages across it in the past six months. We pretty much live on that application so, I am constantly checking it. We have a combination of channels and direct messages that we use for team communication. We store our documents there. We keep all our integrations there. I am also pretty much addicted to Twitter. I like to use that to find the best spot leaders in education, finance and technology and the startup world. I am totally addicted to my e-mail application. I also am recently addicted to RelateIQ which is my new CRM. I pretty much get around everywhere on Lift and Uber when I am traveling now.
Connect with Jess on LinkedIn.