So Call Me Celly: How this Startup Won over Oregon

So Call Me Celly: How this Startup Won over Oregon


Portland, OR-based Celly, a private communication platform, is rocking the perfect procurement scenario with a partnership announced last month with the Oregon Department of Education. The company has attracted attention, as Oregon's DOE purchased 100 premium individual license for a statewide pilot. Not so bad for a company that began a year and a half ago.

It's a dream scenario: You have a great product. You bring it to your local schools. They love it and they talk about you. News spreads. You attend Edcamps and meet some great people. Your name gets passed up the chain and boom--you’re looking at a statewide partnership with the Department of Education.

It's a match made in heaven Oregon for this seven-person company.

Who Is Celly?

Celly, was founded in 2012 by Russell Okamoto and Greg Passmore, both former software architects at VMWare. With support from the Oregon Angel Fund, the company aimed to “build the smallest tool that could make the biggest impact,” says Okamoto in an interview with EdSurge. With this mission, Celly was born to give anyone (including the Occupy movement) the power to create their own social networks.

The tool has found success in schools as a DIY approach to social networking. It allows teachers to create groups of students or parents and send out polls or engage them in class discussions, all through the power of text messaging. It has been used for a variety of situations, including administration and parent communications, sports teams, and field trips.

Fans of Celly love it for its flexibility and control. While anyone can create a group of any size, including students, it allows the group creator to choose whether they want the group to be for one-way alerts only, open to all comments, or curated. Curated chats give the group creator the power to check responses before they are released, thus giving teachers and admin more control over what gets shared.

What Happened

Celly’s road to the Oregon Department of Education began at an EdCamp. As the young company could only afford to travel and get feedback locally, founders Okamoto and Passmore attended as many EdCamps as possible, sharing their product and learning about the experiences their customers were facing.

At one of those EdCamps, Rachel Wente-Chaney, Chief Information Officer of one Oregon’s Education Service District, learned about Celly. She passed this info up to her boss, Steve Nelson, the Chief IT Strategist at the Oregon DOE who was responsible for negotiating contracts with technology services. At the time Nelson was in the hunt for a SMS gateway to add to the suite of services he offers statewide to teacher trainers.

Nelson had looked at a number of providers, but once Wente-Chadney identified Celly as a possible option Nelson found that it "was a cut above the competition.” What appealed to Nelson was the proctored supervision of the communication network, domain services, the visually pleasing and intuitive design, and the low cost of $5 per teacher.

What Will Happen From Here

The state has purchased 100 individual licenses and will pilot these with 19 part-time teacher trainers. The trainers will use them as part of the suite of tools they use to train other teachers. While Nelson cannot dictate which services teachers should use in their classrooms, his office “helps to facilitate their access to resources.”

The state’s approach to moving beyond a small pilot to a larger purchase starts with gauging demand. Nelson explains, “If enough people tell us they want a certain type of service, then we try it before we do a big implementation. We are looking for a proof of concept. When enough interest reaches critical mass, you refocus dollars around it.”

Before more Celly licenses are purchased by the state, they will gauge interest that develops out of their pilot. Should that interest grow large enough, Celly could see hundreds of licenses turn into tens of thousands.

Lessons to Learn

Okamoto admits that getting the state’s attention was a combination of both luck and “owning our own turf as part of our strategy.” Celly has focused its growth strategy on building and knowing local schools, districts, and state networks. Okamoto also points out that other edtech startups have yet to penetrate the Oregon market, giving Celly a competitive advantage.

For Nelson, supporting a local company also had its appeal. “As Oregon citizens we care about Oregon companies. Since, there were people out there that were fans and there were local references, it helped.”

While large-scale procurement continues to be an Achille's heel for many edtech startup, Celly's story offers an example of how EdCamps not only helps teachers--but potentially entrepreneurs as well.

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