As with many startup founders, Rayford Davis‘ inspiration for his own came from someone close to him. Davis’ niece has special needs and he noticed that her school wasn’t supporting her academically to the degree that was needed. She’s one of nearly 7 million students in the U.S. with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) plan, a required document designed to meet a child’s individual needs and set goals for the school year.
“My wife is a school psychologist in the same school district,” says Davis. “Over dinner my wife was able to coach my sister on her rights as a parent, as well as on the process in how my sister could be collaborative in the process. Following that coaching, my sister approached the school and she got the support she needed from them. My niece is doing incredibly well now academically.”
But how many parents have access to a direct line of counsel, like Davis’ sister did, to help support their special needs child and navigate the complex IEP program? Not many, shares Davis.
After validating his idea within his close circle of friends, Davis met his co-founder Dana Lee and together, they started doing customer discovery by meeting with families at coffee shops or his home. Exception-ALLY was born.
The edtech platform helps parents skip the often-expensive special education expert and helps them feel empowered through an often-intimidating process, and provides them with a voice about their child’s education.
The machine learning platform offers an individualized parent learning plan based on questionnaire answers and provides suggested development goals, targeted strategies, and ways to collaborate with the school’s IEP teachers and staff. Currently, the Flashpoint graduate team is working on raising the remainder of their angel round while participating in the inaugural cohort of Atlanta’s Village Capital Pathways program.
Davis shares more about how he pivoted his target audience, the disconnect within many public schools’ IEP programs, and how their product allows parents to finally have a voice in their child’s future.
What’s your pitch?
ExceptionALLY is like TurboTax for special education. Before TurboTax, if you were filling out your taxes, you either hired a CTA or you went to Walmart and got the book and did it yourself. In our situation, the school buys ExceptionALLY, provides it to a parent, and it guides the parent through the special education process in a way that’s simplified. It’s not in educator speak, it’s in common person speak. At the end, they get a customized action plan that actually helps them navigate through the process.
What problem are you solving?
Before, the parent never had a voice. What educators will say is, “Parents know what they want to say but they don’t know how to get it out”. Or parents may say it, but the educators don’t hear it because the educators are in their educator mindset, they can’t hear the parent in the parent voice. Same thing on the opposite side, the parents are hearing the educators, but the educators are speaking in clinical language and acronyms that a parent doesn’t understand.
To get to the IEP, you still need the educators and the parent to collaborate to create the individualized education program, but now, the parent is equipped to actually be a contributor. What our product does is allows those members of the team to collaborate. It allows them to hear one another. It’s literally like using technology to trick the people to get on the same page.
Once you validated your idea with close friends, how did you start doing customer discovery?
We started doing customer discovery ourselves, just reaching out to parents and meeting parents at a coffee shop or inviting them into my home for interviews. Turns out, quite frankly, we weren’t doing it the most effective way. But we didn’t have it nailed when we got to Flashpoint because the customer discovery that we did wasn’t necessarily using the most appropriate mechanism. I actually think that Flashpoint’s mechanism is one of the best ever.
Going through Flashpoint and doing the customer discovery and the way that they coached us, we had to really hone in on the parents of children with special needs and that pain of going through the special education process. Then we had to figure out how we can talk to as many as possible. So we would find them in Facebook groups, Twitter groups, we would find them advertising for support that they needed on Craigslist. That was one way that we found parents to talk to them.
We would put up ads and say “Can we be helpful?” and parents would call us and we’d ask one small thing and they would bare their souls. They would tell us everything about their family, their child’s situation. They would cry, whether it was in person or on the phone. They would call us back with ideas. They would refer their friends.
What were the trends and pain points you found through these surveys?
What we found out was that parents felt misinformed, they felt sometimes attacked, and they felt alone in going through this process. They didn’t know where resources were. We would talk to the other side of the fence — the schools — and they felt very much under-resourced and overwhelmed. Schools meant well. Special education educators had a retention rate of half of general educators. Why? Because the paperwork demand is so heavy. They find they’re not spending their time as much doing education, but doing compliance and paperwork, let alone dealing with parents who, because of their situation, might be unfocused, might be emotional, and aren’t experienced in the process the way educators are.
The IEP document can be anywhere from 25 to 45 pages long. And to develop this IEP, parents have to go through a meeting that has anywhere from seven to fifteen people literally sitting on one side of the table and the parent’s sitting on the other side of the table by themselves. The whole process feels like it’s very much a tribunal, if you will. It’s intended to be collaborative, but it just doesn’t feel like that for the parent.
So our insight at ExceptionALLY was can we build a technology that can create a more collaborative environment for both the parent and the school? One, we need to provide parents the most relevant information for them and their child’s situation so that they can be informed members and an equal part of this team, if you will, and at the same time, provide a tool that helps them focus in a situation that can also be intimidating and emotional.
What kind of resources are included in the action plan provided through ExceptionALLY?
There are three steps to the action plan. The first step to the action plan is a curated learning plan for the parent. These are our proprietary articles that explain to the parent the IEP and the portions of the IEP that are relevant to them based on their child’s exceptionality.
We’ve commissioned them. We have subject matter experts in the different exceptionality, so dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and autism spectrum disorder. We cover about 50 percent of the IEPs that are enforced today and we’re trying to cover over 90 percent by the start of next school year.
Then after a parent has gone through our product, they are delivered suggested development goals and accommodations. So it’s important to understand what an IEP is. The most important parts about the IEP are what’s called development goals. These are where a school and a parent align on what are the goals for where we want to get this child by the end of this year. The accommodations are what are those things that we’re going to do differently for this child [versus] a typically developing child that goes to our school.
What’s your revenue model?
The schools buy the product. Right now we’re in pilot mode, where we are selling pilots to schools from now until the end of this school year. Then we plan on selling them on annual licenses starting in the beginning of next school year. We acquired over 300 users in MVP and beta tests and recently launched pilots with Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School and Westside Atlanta Charter School.