Nate Bronstein is the founder and CEO of SmartTrack, an education start-up focused on helping schools optimize their inventory and asset management systems. Nate is also a former teacher, having taught in North Philadelphia for several years. As a teacher, Nate was able to see first-hand how schools struggle to ensure that their resources are best used to serve students. In this piece, we talk to Nate about the time and money schools can save by upgrading their asset management systems.
Thriving Schools: Nate, how does one make the transition from Philly classroom teacher to the founder of a startup focusing on school inventory and asset management?
Nate: Well, you’re right, I taught for several years in North Philadelphia. And I would say inventory management is part of that first-year teacher hazing that we all go through. You do it at the beginning of the year, again at the end of the year, and it’s a huge headache. So my team and I have experience with this first-hand. When we dug into the problem further, we realized that no one was doing any work to fix it. At the same time, there were several national controversies in the news where millions of dollars in school resources had been misplaced. For example, about 6 months after we decided to get involved in the space, Philly itself found a city block’s worth of textbooks and 5 grand pianos that had been misplaced in the basement of district headquarters. So all of these things were happening at the same time, and we realized there was a problem to be solved.
Thriving Schools: Wow – 5 baby grands! And I thought our supply closet was bad! Do you have any other anecdotes for us that really drive home the importance of this work?
Nate: There’s another case from Memphis Shelby County where 55,000 pieces of unique equipment, each valued at more than $5,000 a piece, were found to be missing. I’ll let you do the math there, but clearly that’s hundreds of millions of dollars in misused funding. More generally, though, it’s been found to be the case that the average urban school misplaces about $18,000 worth of resources each and every year.
Thriving Schools: These are really shocking stories because we know that misplaced resources are resources that aren’t spent on our kids. What’s the best statistic or measure you can give our audience as to the importance of having an inventory or asset management solution in place?
Nate: We’ve found that schools who go from not having a solution in place to implementing something are able to reduce their average loss by 75%! We’re working with a school right now who we found to be misplacing about $40,000/year in resources. And at that level, that’s close to a starting teacher’s salary! But again, this is the reality that most large urban schools face each and every year.
Thriving Schools: How does this happen? What are the different ways these resources are being misplaced or unaccounted for?
Nate: To some, the surprising part is that “theft” represents only a very small part of the problem. The majority of the loss occurs from procurement overlap – a simple lack of understanding what a school has. A lot of principals end up ordering curriculum sets only to open a closet door in the middle of the year and find them untouched. We like to say that the pen-and-paper method of inventory is our biggest competition. And when that’s the case, these types of errors are going to happen. As a side note, the pen-and-paper method for inventory management is often a Title 1 requirement. And the forms used in this process are tucked away in some vanilla envelope and never actually used to assess what’s on hand. They’re really only there in the event of an audit so a school can say it did its job.
Thriving Schools: So let’s talk about the SmartTrack solution! How does your company propose to fix this problem and save schools money?
Nate: We designed our technology to be as simple as it could possibly be! When you turn our software on, you start with a camera screen that will quickly scan any barcode or alpha-numeric tag that you often find on things like: technology, computers, curriculum sets, books, musical instruments, and more! Any book or computer that has a barcode is automatically scanned in. And there’s no extra tags to be placed on equipment – whatever’s there, we can use! In fact, we use the same optical recognition software that an ATM uses at a bank to scan in the digits of a check. Once the asset is into the system, we can start attaching valuable information to it, like the asset’s location, the user of the resource, or any other pertinent details (like quantity, quality, or condition). Going back to the pen-and-paper method – we’ve found that when done correctly, it can take up to 20 hours of teacher time each year. With our solution, schools will save about 75% of that time as well. And in the process, school leadership gets a sortable, digital inventory list that can easily be used to run inventory checks or complete audits.
Thriving Schools: And how does this translate into savings for a school?
Nate: The biggest way in which schools are going to save money is that they now have an accurate picture of what’s actually on hand. So when they make purchasing decisions, there’s going to be as little overlap as possible. Furthermore, after having a system in place like this for over a year, you start to get information back about where resources tend to go missing. And so school leaders can create additional systems to start addressing those problems.
Thriving Schools: This all sounds so logical and straightforward. What are some of the reasons that more schools haven’t adopted a solution for this?
Nate: We’ve found there are 4 main reasons. The first is the up-front investment in equipment. Traditionally, companies in this space have required you to purchase and keep track of additional pieces of technology. Now, if a school is already having problems keeping track of its resources, managing additional scanners and barcodes might not be the best place to start. The second problem that schools experience is that the process seems to be complicated. As you would imagine, most inventory and asset management solutions weren’t developed by educators and they often require specialized training and staff. The third reason is that many vendors require you to buy a whole host of other services or add-ons that you don’t need. And finally, the overall cost of a solution can be very expensive. A lot of companies in this space charge per asset scanned, which as you can imagine, increases the cost of implementation very quickly.
Thriving Schools: How does SmartTrack address these challenges?
Nate: Very simply! We designed our system to cost no more than 10% of the savings realized by a given school. We’re the only solution out there that has a model like this! That’s because we are truly dedicated to giving schools a significantly greater resource capacity than before we come in. Our average cost per school is between $500 and $2,000 a year, and that amount usually decreases by about 20% each year. But like we mentioned before, because many schools are losing in excess of $20,000, our partners are often recouping 90% or more of that!
Thriving Schools: Can we hear about some of the schools and districts you’re working with and the savings that they’re realizing?
Nate: Here are a few examples I can give. A middle school we’re working with here in Philadelphia discovered $40,000 more in their budget by doing responsible inventory and asset management. And with those savings, they were able to create an art program that’s unrivaled in the city. They were also able to purchase a kiln and they put extra savings toward building a new computer lab. We’re also doing inventory for the Virtual Academies here in Philadelphia, tracking the 600 or so laptops coming in and out of its doors. Before, it was all paper-records – when a laptop came in, they’d have someone write down a serial code, name, laptop number, and more. And then they’d go back to an old list, cross-check to see if it was the same laptop, and verify this by hand. Our process allows them to have more accurate records, search laptop histories by student, and save a significant amount of time in recording this data.
Nate wanted our audience to know he's more than happy to jump on the phone and talk with schools about how they can get set-up with SmartTrack. He can be reached at: Nate@gosmarttrack.com