A conversation on fundraising and school directory with School Zone

Welcome to the school zone school fundraising ideas podcast. We interviewed top fundraising and resource companies to help you find a solution to your next school, fundraising or school resource need. Are you ready to simplify the search? Now, here’s your host, Matt Miller.

Matt Miller:       Hey. Hey, school zone audience. Matt here, once again. I’m excited tonight to have a really neat guest in the school zone with me. Niru Mallavarupu. Did I get it right?

Niru:   Yeah, it’s Close, its Mallavarupu

Matt Miller:  Mallavarupu. That’s great. Niru Mallavarpu. I, I’ll get it right doggone it. Anyway, I got a chance to meet Niru at the Philadelphia PTO Today expo here a couple of weeks ago and was very, very, very impressed with her company MobileArq, and had to get her on the show to talk about what they’re doing, how they are simplifying communication within schools and a whole herd of other things with their app that they’ve developed. So Niru, uh, introduce yourself and give everybody a little background on you.

Niru: Yes, hi, everyone. Thank you, Matt, for having me on the show. I’m very excited to be on this. So, a little bit about myself. I started off as a technologist and I’m still a technologist so I haven’t changed my lineup work, but in the early days did a lot of programming on the server side. I worked in, you know like, pioneering startups that introduced the web server technology when the internet was born & the first web server got bought by Sun Microsystems and we did a lot of pioneering work in transactions and all of the Computer Geeky stuff and I was in Silicon Valley then, and working 14 hours a day. And then I moved to the New York area, uh, with my family and uh, I was doing a lot more open source stuff, managing open source programming, uh, based on open source work and several startups again.

And more recently as a mom, um, I felt like I was at least stretched, you know, trying to keep on top of my kids’ activities in and out of school. And in those days, there were no smartphones by the way. They would just flip phones, then I would be stuck on a train and not be able to communicate with my daycare or  the caregiver that I was running late. But I was stuck on a train for an indefinite amount time. Then I felt like I needed to have the contacts of other moms in the community really. It takes a village to raise a child, but it does really, you need the support of many moms and all the teachers and partners in the school. And I felt there was a huge gap, you know. So that’s how I came to do MobileArq.

Matt Miller:  So, you were obviously challenged with maintaining a schedule and keeping track of the kids and all of that. So how did that translate to, okay, I’m going to build an app and I’m going to provide it to schools? I mean, how did all that happen?

Niru: No, it didn’t happen overnight. I can tell you that. So yeah, that’s a great question. So, I was actually managing all of these websites for the company, on behalf of my company, managing websites for Wellesley College and financial institutions. I was running all of these projects, and then I realized I was always trying to find out when that emails upon emails which get hidden about some rehearsals that change for my kids or some practice that was canceled or something else that happened in school or some field trip or some [indecipherable]. We had two or three things to keep track of and then I realized that how come these people don’t have a website where we can get everything in a central place. So, the first thing I did was I actually drew out a website for my PTA because they were managing most of these activities, whether it was after school programs or whether it was field trips and connecting with teachers, getting teacher appreciation gifts, whatever it is, your place, school play,

and all of the sports activities where of course in a different circle. So, they need a website where we can manage everything centrally, and of course, I would always be called back a pink eye or something and never find someone even to have my son for five minutes, you know, before I came back. And so, I sat down with the PTA, and we just drew it on paper, literally. I drew a website for them on paper and this is what it will do for you as that. And it will be a central and this is amazing. This was like five, six, seven years ago. And uh, they’re like, if you can do this, we would love to have it. And so that’s how I got started. And eventually that we had in fact a discussion forum on the website where people could go and post, hey, what’s going on?

Or what’s the homework, or I have some play tickets that I don’t want to use, and again, someone, if someone wants to have a things like that, which in those days there was not even a Facebook group. So, this was how people, people needed some way to communicate. So, my local school PTA and me, we worked together, we developed this, and we had all of the moms sign up on it, it has to be secure, and eventually, I found more schools that needed the, not just that, but they were like struggling. I found my school and other schools to produce those printed directories. I’m showing Matt my printed directory book that I had in those days. This was my go-to for finding any parent or teacher in the school that contacts whether it was for a class party, you know, or just to find out when does the school close early days, you know, on early closing on certain days and, or who is in their class.

And so they were struggling, produced this book. They were using literally all kinds of old fashioned tools to do this, you know, like maybe this is not really ideal. They were manually typing in everything. They were getting all by paper from parents. Uh, it was a huge job for them, and the larger the school I found the more work because entering 3000 parents and getting all of them to get that information was such a challenge. So, I ended up doing uh, I said, this is really my expertise. I do databases really well, so I grabbed the opportunity and I developed an online directory and then eventually I felt like, in fact the very first version was a mobile and online, so it was working on my phone and, um, on the computer, so people could go in on the computer, and then came the management side of it, right? Some someone I’m not going to be adding families as they can, keeping it up to date

These paper directories go out of date even as they get presents and you can have to put it around my neck so that I don’t lose them.

So I ended up developing something that was more up to date and handy and parents updated their profile themselves. Everyone would see you change your job, your email changed. Then the old email that stuck in this book, but you have an updated email on the online directory or your phone number changed. You move, things happen, and you know, everything got updated. You have a new nanny. You can even add that information in this, uh, in this phone directory. So that’s what we did this mobile app. And as we did that, we found more schools contacting us saying, “We need this, you know. I, I spent 100 hours per school year trying to get this done, and, and by the time we get it out, it’s November.” Some people got it out in March; by then, it was approaching the end of the school year is ready for the next year; by then, it’s out of date because there’s a new class coming in, new grade.

So there is a huge problem just around this. But then, we found there are more problems that the PTA is the backbone of many public school systems, and they do a lot of fundraising. In our school, for example, the school had become too small, and there were too many new families that moved in, so we needed to add an extension, and PTA was the one which went to the Board of Ed and fought for it and got an extension done. They got, the budget allocated from our taxes, of course, but still, you have to get it validated for that. They did that, so fundraising is a huge job for PTA, so you can see it has already moved and then from another site app for the directory and then now the fundraising issue and membership dues, people use to pay membership dues for the PTA either to get the directory or even otherwise.

So the many problems that that needed to be solved before. And the PTAs came back to us and said, you did this, but we still need to do that and that, that, so that’s how this has grown into the platform that it is today. Um, we do provide membership management and fundraising. You can set up online stores, sell anything, spirit wear, you can sell lunch tickets and uh, you know, if you have any kind of fundraiser, you can put it up there and collect money, you know, from parents easily. They can pay, right here, and it goes to their PayPal. Um, and you can also get things like school information. We have a lot of attention to security and privacy of the parents because you know, that’s a huge issue. As you know today, this is a very critical for our parents to feel comfortable using the software.

So is the program or the app, is it normally, is this something that interfaces with the existing systems that the schools have, or is this outside of all of that? Do those communicate together? Is this something that is, is normally a district decision or is it a, a school by school administrative decision? Talk us through a little bit of that.

Yeah, so we have actually said the districts that you said, and the way that happened is they wanted to unify for all the parents because parents usually belong to an elementary, a middle and high school because they have kids of all ages and they don’t want to have to do different things at different schools. In one place, they can get everything, and then there are also some things called PTA Councils, which are like umbrella organizations, which we have on PTO or PTA councils and they basically collaborate for all the PTAs in a town will collaborate and they, they do things together similarly. Um, so we do, how do we work with the district now? There is a huge thing with… ok now people, there is a law in many states that the district, right, though they have the data they cannot, the school district cannot share the data with… So, what did PTA council does in this case where they have to work with us and they get the data from the district because they are parents managing this, and they have access to it, and then they will provide us the data through the, uh you know, through the district.

So it’s not directly from the district but it does in some cases the district share it, and in some cases, they will not. But we do have very strict laws by the way, we have a contract that is testing one of the distinguishing features about MobileArq because we have a 30 page contract, which really is most of it is how we protect the data, what are the FLAs involved, and many of our other competitors have a one page disclaimer that they hold no responsibility for any of anything that happens with it. This is also because we worked with some towns in Connecticut and other places where data security and privacy was literally, you know, the most important thing to them, you know, it didn’t just come about, out of nowhere, but of the town lawyers and having these concerns about, what would happen in case there was a leak.

So we are very strong about that. And uh, you know, some districts transfer the data and have this all these programs to convert, convert all the student information, so let’s say your public school, right, is a district, so they have data from the public school system, but our system can convert that into whatever format needed to produce this app. Now many, many vendors don’t provide that. You have to manually type it in or do something like that. They can give it to the vendors in an Excel format, but MobileArq has a program that converts all student information to data into our format. We don’t require the PTA to pipe in. Now, there are districts where they will absolutely not give any data and the way that works is parents would come and we provide a link where they come in, and they will enter the data, I mean online and to store and the directory gets those in the backend, and so we have many ways in which we can handle the data.

Matt Miller:  So, in other words, I guess every parent has their own login, every administrator of a group or an organization who would potentially be updating, uh, things about their club or their organization to make sure that that communication is available to all the parents involved. Um, I mean, I guess everybody’s kind of doing that using their own phone or computer. Um, depending on what they’re responsible for.

Niru:   Yes, they, they have a, they can be on a private cloud. But what happens is we give the administrators a link. It’s a very – think of it like they have a closed room of their own, you know, where their data is stored and the, these school administrators, right, can go in and add a family, edit the family, do whatever they want with it or hide some fields and not show some their contacts, and the parents can also do that in their profile. They can say, I want to share my, um, you know, now it’s a great time, but I don’t know if you can see this, but if you’re, if they edit their profile, right? They will – first of all there’s always a login decided which is remembered, which is great. And then they added their profile, and they can see the contacts, right, and the contact details, they can say I want to share it with everyone or no one, so it’s as simple as that. And so, they can say, I don’t want to share anything. They can be completely excluded or social from the directory.

Matt Miller:    So if a school says, man, like my friend Kevin, who’s one of our franchisees have my company actually went by your table and uh, he and his wife got really excited about your guys’ program for their school. They’re in the Philadelphia area. Um, if they wanted to bring your, your app, your program into the school, what’s the process by which they do that? How much time does that take? Um, you know, that type of thing.

Niru: Yeah, so usually we reply shouldn’t take very long. Once everything is decided on our end, it’ll take less than two weeks, not even two weeks, maybe a week to get it all set up. But the first processes you get approval from your district if it’s at a school that goes to the principal, that decision and uh, the, so the PTA usually collaborates with the principal and the superintendent and then once they, and the technology officer, once they all feel comfortable, they say, yeah, this is just an Xyz district, so why not, you know? And they, we have a lot of proof, you know, already we have 72 schools that are using this. So, once they feel comfortable and we give them a demo and all the privacy and security features and it’s approved, then they just decide on when they want to roll this out. Uh, they’ll sometimes it’s during back to school

So they’ll say September 3rd. As soon as the school reopens, we want open this up or they may even open it up early from some districts they work, the parents are in the back-to-school mode right from August 15, so we want to open it up for membership collection and all of that and on August 15th, so then they’ll have a go-live date. Uh, but before that we’ll test it out with the PTA. They understand how it works. We have a lot of literature already on how parents should sign up, what should be sent as a marketing email, and how this is marketed, and getting parents to engage in it. Once the links are out and all of the marketing emails are sent out, it’s very easy. Parents just click a link, and it takes two minutes literally to sign up, and they see that.

Matt Miller:  So, is there a cost associated with this? Or, or, or how does all that work

Niru: Yeah, there is a cost, so, we, the cost is basically it’s an annual fee because we have to do a lot of transitioning every year of the data as kids move in to various classes or families move in and out. Um, so we charge based on the number of families in the school system. So let’s say it’s a single school, 500 families there is a certain cost to it. Our pricing right now is uniform, and it’s shown on our website. You just have to go to the pricing on our website.  This is mobilearq.comhttps://mobilearq.com.  And uh, we can also put the links in this podcast, if, uh, anyone, uh, is interested in contacting us. You can also contact us at support@mobilearq.com. We also can set up a free trial for you for like two weeks to just try out, or even a month. And once you’ve tried out, you can then you get a good feel for it, and you can see what are the features you want to take and use, you know, you may not want to go with all of the PTA need to send out group emails, newsletters, print directory in one click and collect payments and monitor the print reports of that, e-commerce. Um, so depends, maybe they don’t want to use all of it. They can use some to start with and then, you know, and then progress and move on to other features that they want to incorporate within the system.

Matt Miller:    So as Niru said, guys, you can go to Mobilearq.com, https://mobilearq.com.  They’ve got some cool testimonials. They’ve got um, some images of the app and a lot of other details there. One of the things, Niru, you talk about on the website, um, is, is at least one case study, if not a couple, was schools and fundraising. So how does that, is that just incorporating the e-commerce platform into whatever else that they’re already doing for fundraising, or, or talk a little bit more about that.

Niru:  So, then – there are two types of fundraising that we have seen. One is the standard asking for membership dues, and they can do that when they, uh, sign up. There is a way where it is – we can couple of the sign up and the membership dues in the app so that once they, once they come in and sign up immediately they’re asked to pay their dues, and it is collected right then, and there, and once they pay the dues either online or promise to pay it offline, which is by check, then they get an auto-login link in the email, in their email, so they just click on that and they’re into the directory. The other one, like I said, is the whole e-commerce platform where the PTA can host literally any fundraiser, other than maybe auctions, you know, this is not for really auctions but for let’s say selling a graduation t-shirt, whether it’s a school play, whether it’s school lunches. A lot of schools in our system, they collect money for school lunches and [indecipherable] and selling for the spring or a fall fundraiser, right.

Niru:        Any of those or spirit wear. Spirit wear is a very common thing they upload all of, so you can have multiple stores and multiple products in any store; there’s no limit to it. And it can all be set up in less than five minutes each job, as long as you have images for every store and product, and parents can go in and, on their app, immediately was, can say I want the store to run from a certain date to a certain date or inactivate the store that they feel it’s not doing well, you know. So even membership dues can be set up at the stores, or class dues. Many people collect teacher gifts, class dues, all of that through this. And so far about $900,000 has been collected in all of those fundraising through MobileArq. And uh, so this, this is the part where it goes directly to their PayPal, this money, you know, whatever was collected through the e-commerce.

Matt Miller:  So do you guys have the ability to work with schools anywhere in the US who might be hearing our conversation? Is there any limitation there? And then, is there members of your, uh, your team that when a school says we want to do this that are literally training and stepping the school or the district through the setup process and all of that. I just know for me I have a fairly good idea about technology, (Yeah) but I still wouldn’t even know where to start with something like this and (Yeah, yeah) most of that way.

Niru:  So, that’s true. So, we do have people who train, but we have an entire YouTube channel that we supply to our, uh, incoming schools and we also included in, for example, if a whole 20, 30 videos which go through every little bite-sized video. So, let’s say password management: then there’s a video on password management, and I will give you the link to our YouTube channel. If you just type in MobileArq channel on YouTube, you’ll find it. There are – you’ll find all the videos that explained that. That’s a great resource because we also include those links and all the emails that we send out. So for example, if it’s, somebody had – it’s a very self-service type of system, so if you forgot your password, there’s a “Forgot Password” password link right there. Then you click on it, and it takes you through the steps intuitively, but if you have a question when the email comes to your box, you know with the new order log in link, there would also be struggling with your password?

Watch this video, you know, on password management, and so we tried to help as much as possible, but we also have, believe it or not, even these days, we have a phone, a phone line open for our customers, so moms in September through November, phones are ringing a lot because people call in saying this is the first time we’re doing this, how do we do something, and we’re helping them, and there’s also an email service, so they can send an email to support@mobilearq.com, and they get an answer within, within the day. So there are many ways in which we help, and also we train usually in larger districts, right? We have training for the PTA administrators.

We walked through them because they are doing a lot of, for example, I’ll share the link and some screenshots of the back end, which is the administration end. The administrators have a lot of flexibility in how they can manage families.

They can help out family. Somebody has forgotten the password, they don’t know to click that “Forgot Password” link, for example, the administrator can send them that link or the administrator can have them in various ways, you know, the email has changed. They don’t want to edit their profile, they can do it for them. So, um, administrators, we give them a walkthrough, and usually, I have seen in districts that have used us for over five years. They want them done is they have a system where by the time it’s April or May, the new directory chair or whoever is getting trained by the old directly chairs, you know, so they have a, it doesn’t take much. Maybe it’s just hour of like walking through of everything, all the features, and this way they have found a way to train themselves and each other and as they get better and better that, you know.

So it’s a bit of getting used to technology. I agree with that, but it’s very intuitive and the nice thing is, believe it or not, many of our screens have been designed by a mom, so we sat down with them. This was our user experience test. We would sit down with them and say, well, just click through and tell us what you feel about it can include security to you, like you know, that was the purpose of the and walk through with them and as we design screen we sat down with just the PTA moms and got feedback and made it easier and better. So the product is really tailored for this niche, and, uh, synagogues and other churches that are also, also find the software useful because it’s kind of like a community software trying to connect with each other or you know, sending the same fundraising happens in different communities, whether it’s a church group or whether it is a school group. So, but the PTA more central and the design of the software.

Matt Miller: Guys, I’ll tell you what – if you take a look at the software and get a chance to play around with it a little bit, it’s very, very clean. As she said, it’s very intuitive and um, there’s obviously a lot of technology has gone into this to make it that way, but the use of it is, is very, very smooth along the lines of any other app that you’d be used to using in your phone. And the power of it, once again, is the fact that you’ve got access to all that information right in one place. I can’t count the number of times I have something going on and I got to go back and track down an email or I or, or it’s written on a piece of paper or, or, or whatever. Well, with MobileArq you have the ability to have all.

Guys, I would just say once again – go to Mobilearq, https://mobilearq.com and check out once again this really, really cool app. And, of course, there’s contact information there if you want to get on the phone and get some questions answered. They also host regular webinars that you can be a part of if you want to learn more in detail about it, and, uh, man talk about an application that that perfectly fits into each and every one of our busy daily lives and can simplify that communication process big time for each and every one of us and each and every one of the parents within, um, the schools that we serve. Niru Mallavarupu, thank you.

Niru:   That was great! Thank you

Matt Miller:  Did I get it? All right!

Niru:    You got it right! What a fast learner!

Matt Miller:   Thank you for sharing and entering the school zone. And, uh, I’m just excited about the opportunity to spread the word about the cool stuff you guys are doing.

Niru:   Thank you so much for having me.