Administrators in our K-12 education system are using more digital tools than they ever have before. Often times these tools help students do classwork remotely or provide faster access to more information. In 2013, Jeston George saw that districts needed a technical solution for better communication within their schools, as well as more effective way to market their schools. This drove him to build a better platform, simply named: Thrillshare. George had been an entrepreneur at heart for some time, managing successful marketing businesses prior to founding Apptegy.
In fact, his more recent direct marketing business grew until he reached a modest exit in 2011. “It was at this point that I was really interested in software. The startup thing was different from what I had been doing and got me excited,” he said. Shortly thereafter, George started setting up web projects and taking on different ideas, one of those ideas being the beginning of Apptegy.
Apptegy provides school districts an elegant brand identity inside highly functional websites and mobile apps powered by their proprietary Thrillshare application. Marketing isn’t something that our grandparent’s K-12 schools likely had, but as George explains, the times are changing.
“The role of the superintendent has changed,” said George. “They’re now more like the CEO’s of private enterprises in that they’re competing for students.”
School choice is a hot topic these days, with a mix of public, private, and charter schools all competing for students and dollars. According to George, it’s not just about your school having a mobile app; it’s about your organization having a mobile strategy. The platform is great for communicating cancellations or athletic event details, but is uniquely exceptional at providing schools a way to communicate positive student outcomes and achievements via a mobile application. “We want to be a tool in this new world that educators live in,” he said.
As is the story with many successful startups, Apptegy was bootstrapped in its early days; meaning funds to run the business came out of the founder’s pocket and early revenues, and paychecks were mostly non-existent. “I was fortunate enough to have some funds from my previous marketing businesses, and in 2013, I started to build what is now Apptegy,” said George.
As things progressed, George knew that he was coming to a fork in the road. He could have easily built a stable lifestyle business, growing modestly and employing a few people along the way. “I had done the small thing, and wanted to take on the risk, raise some capital, and build a larger more impactful organization,” he said.
This led to Apptegy taking on its first round of funding in 2015. To make sure they had a complete understanding of their market, they put serious effort into validating, and in-validating, other markets analogous to the K-12 space. “We explored the market with other organizations and chambers, but it all came back to K-12,” said George. “There is a somewhat limited number of higher education facilities in the region, but there are about 250 school districts in our state. I knew I had to go out there and create sales from scratch, and the deeper I got into it, the more I realized how large of an opportunity existed in the K-12 space.”
As they took on their first round of funding, George knew he had to move from freelancing out of his house and into building an actual business. There wasn’t much of a team assembled at this point, and that’s when he looked to the startup community for talent. “My first hires were a mix of referrals, past clients and local entrepreneurs.” George mentioned Sean Ruggles, David Allan, Josiah Brann and Casey Mikula as instrumental team members in the early days.
“I just needed smart people so we could start figuring this thing out,” he said. “At first, we weren’t moving super fast, but were really figuring things out.” George takes genuine pride in his team and cares deeply for every member of the Apptegy family. It’s evident just in speaking with him.
“Enterprise sales, in general, can be tough, and selling into governmental institutions is extremely difficult. But for whatever reason, we figured out the sales piece quick,” said George. In an environment where six month sales cycles are the norm, the Apptegy team was able to trim that process down to 35 days. Once their initial funding was secured and the team assembled, George hammered down on the gas pedal. “Because of the aggressiveness, we were able to get real momentum early on,” he said. Success with a slow growth model did not seem appetizing to George anymore; he had a much bigger vision for Apptegy.
Working for a high growth company can be exciting, but it can also be a grind; that’s why George felt early on that taking care of his employees was a priority. “Culture is something that is very important, but something I think is misunderstood,” he said. “It’s a buzz word, and not enough sincere thought is given to it. You’ve got shareholders, employees, and clients, and we made a decision to never sacrifice one of those groups for the betterment of the other two.”
While culture is a point of pride for Apptegy, it took continual introspection within the organization for them to get it to where it is today. “We tried early on to define our core values, and after some time decided ‘that’s not us.’ So, we looked at it again, and only late last year did we truly codify what are values are today. We built a culture of thoughtfulness and performance, and that’s why Apptegy is a community of people that all really care about each other,” said George.
One of the most poignant points George made about Apptegy’s culture was around the work ethic. “You should love the people you’re around here, but this should be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. It’s about balance,” he said. Whether it’s health benefits, discretionary time off, or travel stipends for tenured staff, George’s employee friendly policies allow his team time to recharge and feel valued. This balance allows him to push a high functioning team while making sure they avoid burnout.
When asked about the future, George chuckled and said, “You know, I don’t know. We run the company in a very aggressive and growth-oriented way. We’re fully realizing the opportunity we have, and it keeps getting bigger and bigger. One overarching goal we have is to be in thousands of school districts in 3-5 years, and I know we can achieve that.”
While plenty of hard work lies ahead, George is rightfully excited about Apptegy’s bright future.