Making the Most of Capital
A not yet true story of how Lean helped one startup
Tucked within the walls of an inconspicuous building off of Liberty Heights Avenue in Baltimore lives a true gem of Maryland’s entrepreneurship community. Conscious Venture Lab runs an accelerator program here for purpose-driven startups who epitomize the principles of conscious capitalism.
It was here that I had the pleasure of reconnecting with my former coworkers, Josh Massey and Gabe Bustos, to learn about their company, Ortus Academy. Ortus teaches money management and financial intelligence to 5th-12th grade students with a proprietary and hands-on money game they call NumisMatters.
During our conversation, they shared with me the inspiration behind the company, the tactics and strategies that have gotten them off the ground, and I was blown away by the benefits that have come from their purpose-driven approach.
As we were nearing the end of our conversation, I wanted to know what was next in store for Ortus now they they’ve completed the accelerator program. Josh shared that his Co-Founder Aaron was actually in Philadelphia as we spoke seeking capital for their growth.
“As successful as we’ve been running our program with volunteers from the community, the model has also become a constraint,” Josh described. “If we got a call tomorrow for a contract in Seattle, we’d be hard pressed to fulfill it without having to drum up a contingent of volunteers from a community we have no connections with.”
Their strategy, Josh described, is to redevelop the mechanics of NumisMatters into a tech product that removes the requirement of people to run it. Essentially, they want it to become an application that the kids can interact with directly.
To be honest, I was surprised to hear their strategy given how integral the volunteers have been to their success thus far. Gabe and Josh both described the interactions between the kids and coaches as magic. That being said, I understand how the current model could make it difficult to scale.
In the days that followed my conversation with Gabe and Josh, I couldn’t help but wonder what I would do if I were in their shoes. I imagined what it might look like if Lean principles were used to address the challenges that Ortus now faces. What the story could be if I sat down with Josh and Gabe in a year to do a follow up interview.
What follows is the not yet true story that they shared with me one year from today.
An Interview One Year from Today
“We got the investment!” Josh exclaimed.
I had asked him and Gabe what the biggest difference was between now and when we last spoke one year ago.
“It wasn’t the largest amount we were offered, but it was the right investor for us. She believes in our mission, and she believes in us.”
When we had last spoke, Josh told me their plan was to spend the investment on redeveloping NumisMatters. I was curious, how has their path compared to the original plan?
“Ortus isn’t my first startup, so I’ve been in the entrepreneurship community long enough to know what not to do,” Josh responded. “Far too many startups suffer from the ‘innovators bias’ where they believe in their idea so strongly that they end up developing a product that customers don’t actually want. The last thing we wanted to do was to sink our entire investment into an app that the kids didn’t love playing.”
Ortus had followed a Lean approach far before they received their angel investment. I remembered Josh telling me last year about how he and Aaron got started. They first developed their MVP (Minimum Viable Product) using Excel and tested their very first game on a group of friends. They used the feedback from that beta program to iterate the product, and continued to test and iterate NumisMatters with each subsequent program they ran.
“A lot of startups understand the importance of the Lean principles of experimentation and validated learning,” Josh told me. “But too many founders give up on them once they’ve found their first signs of traction. Lean doesn’t only apply to early-stage startups and it isn’t meant to end after you get off the ground.”
So how did they continue their Lean strategy after receiving their funding round?
“When we decided to redevelop NumisMatters, we understood that we were introducing two big risks,” Gabe explained. “We also knew that before we spent the entire investment on a complete product build out, we needed to test if our assumptions were true.”
Gabe went on to share that the riskiest assumptions they had identified were that:
Replacing human interactions with technology wouldn’t detract from the student’s experience or learning outcomes.
Replacing paper play money with an electronic banking system would be feasible and understandable to the kids.
So Ortus set out to test those assumptions the same way they did when they first started. They built a new MVP.
Testing the First Hypothesis
They knew it would take some time before they could build a product that would completely replace their volunteers, so they thought about how they could start testing in the interim.
“We focused on the money component first.” Josh explained. “Without a person behind the table exchanging play money with the kids, we would need to implement an electronic card system equivalent to a debit card. We wanted to test how the kids would behave with a card in their hand instead of cash. Would they understand how to use it? Would they be less motivated to do well without the tangibility of cash?”
Instead of spending their investment dollars to reinvent the wheel, Ortus looked for products that were already available that they could easily swap into their existing game. They ended up choosing Monopoly’s Electronic Banking Edition as their first test which contains plastic cards that are inserted into simple machines to run simulated debit transactions.
“The kids loved the idea at first,” Gabe shared. “There wasn’t any excitement lost because they thought that using a debit card like the ones they see their parents use was even more ‘real’ than the colorful play money we were using before.
“There was a problem, though. Even though the kids loved using their cards, they easily forgot how much money was in their account. Every time they went up to a station, they had to ask a volunteer how much money they had before making a decision about what to do with it. And at the end of the game when they turned their cards back in, they didn’t feel the same sense of accomplishment as they did before when the kids would compare their wads of cash with their friends to see how each other did.”
There was enough support for the concept of a debit card system, but they needed a way the kids could follow along. So Ortus iterated. They introduced a leader board, and after every round of play, the balance of every participant’s bank account would be displayed on a TV they set up in the room.
The idea worked like a charm. Not only did the kids know at all times how much money they had to work with, but the competition that arose from the leader board motivated them like never before to make better decisions.
Ortus knew there was more work to do to transform the Monopoly system into a more scalable and fully integrated system, but the experiment gave them the confidence that further dollars spent on that effort would be dollars well spent.
Prototyping Using Low-Code Apps
They turned their attention to the next assumption. Ortus wanted to see if the students would be able to navigate through the game themselves by interacting directly with a touch screen instead of a person sitting behind a table.
For this experiment, they took a novel approach. Instead of hiring a software development company to build out a custom-coded MVP from scratch, they chose to utilize a low-code platform called Quick Base.
“I remember how successful Quick Base was when we worked at greeNEWit,” Gabe recalled. “Before we used Quick Base, we were pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into a proprietary software we called gREATESST which turned out to be anything but great. When we switched to Quick Base, we created a far better app in a matter of months for 15% of the cost of gREATESST. I suggested that we try something similar to redevelop NumisMatters.”
“Gabe’s suggestion was nothing short of game changing for us,” Josh continued. “We were able to build our MVP with Quick Base in just two months that allowed the kids to perform simple actions like checking their bank balances and choosing the dollar amounts they wanted to transact. When we wanted to make a change to the app, we could do it in minutes rather than the weeks it would have taken with a software development team.”
More important than the money they were saving was what Ortus learned once they launched the new app.
“The kids immediately behaved differently,” Gabe described. “Without interacting with a person, the kids acted like nobody was watching. It was like they were trick-or-treating from a bowl of candy set out on the stoop of a house where nobody was home.”
“Their decision making became more short term and opportunistic,” Josh continued. “The overall scores actually went down. We tried multiple improvements in the app to provide better explanations of the assignments and give guidance on how to make good decisions, but nothing we tried had any significant effect.”
Ortus realized that without interacting with the volunteers, the decisions the the students were making in the game lacked real meaning or consequence to them. They credit Quick Base not only for allowing them to discover this insight quickly, but also for saving them from spending huge sums of money on a custom-coded solution that wasn’t going to work.
The Ah-Ha Moment
Looking for further understanding, Ortus turned back to a tried and true tactic of Lean - customer interviews. However, instead of talking with the students, they decided to talk to their volunteers. They wanted to discover what it was about their interaction with the students that wasn’t able to be replicated with the software.
What they discovered surprised them.
They learned from their volunteers that the kids that seemed to do the best in the game weren’t the shy book worms that had the best test scores. They were the extroverted ones that loved talking to the volunteers about how they were making their decisions or about how much money they had.
In short, the kids that bragged did the best.
As it turned out, the kids were most motivated by the feelings of importance and satisfaction that they received from an adult. As long as Ortus was able to figure out a way the kids could get that feeling, perhaps the app strategy could work out after all!
They repeated their experiments with the Quick Base app, but this time with some non-technical iterations. First, they doubled down on the leader board. They let the kids exchange the money they earned in the game for prizes, and they gave out cash awards to the students who did the best.
Next, instead of having their volunteers role play with the kids behind a table, they moved them to the front of the stations to engage more with the kids. They told the volunteers to ask the kids how they were making their decisions rather than simply asking them what they wanted to do. The open ended questions encouraged the kids to think critically (and to brag) while the app did the work of navigating the kids through the mechanics of the game.
The effect worked like magic. The kids’ enthusiasm returned, and their scores increased to levels higher than they had ever seen.
“Even though we haven’t been able to remove the coaches from the game entirely, we’ve still made real progress towards making the program more scalable,” Josh told me as our interview was coming to a close. “The game takes fewer people to run and much less training, meaning we can lean more on school staff and PTA volunteers rather than doing the recruiting ourselves.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re extremely encouraged thus far. By staying on a Lean path, we’ve saved ourselves from making poor decisions, we saved a ton of money, and we gained insights that we never would have learned otherwise.
“Our investor is happy. We’re happy. But most importantly, our students are doing better than ever!”