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Winner Spotlight: Edbacker’s Gary Hensley Reinvents PTA Fundraisers

Julia Reinstein

Gary Hensley is the creator of Edbacker.

Gary Hensley is a parent as well as a former teacher. The fact that he’s held both roles led him to discover missing pieces in the education system. That discovery led to the creation of Edbacker, a platform for parents with a larger mission around connecting stakeholders. The startup won the education category of D.C.’s Challenge Cup and will go on to compete in the Challenge Festival in May.

Hensley spoke about that win and the experiences that preceded it.

So, tell me about Edbacker—what problem are you disrupting?

Edbacker is PTA made easy. You’ve got lots of PTAs throughout the country who do lots of stuff, from fundraising to volunteer signup to directories. It’s essentially like a small business. They need a tool that consolidates all that activity into one platform. So we do that, and we make fundraising transparent, easy and social. Then we give them all the underlying support so they can basically make this volunteer job as easy as possible.

Where did you get the idea for Edbacker?

I had sold a previous company to Pearson and over those five years I got to see some of the trends. I saw one of the trends was online giving, which was kind of exploding—not really in education, but everywhere else. I bought a Pebble watch and saw they raised $10 million in this short amount of time in comparison to going to my daughter’s PTA fundraisers. It was that stark contrast between those two methodologies. I thought, there’s got to be a better way to do that. So we started off with fundraising as the entry into the market, but then as we got to know our customer, we thought, wow, there’s really so much more to this puzzle than just fundraising and lots of ways to make this job easier for PTAs.

How has your background as a teacher influenced you as an entrepreneur?

I know what it’s like to sit in that seat. I know what it’s like to be a teacher and the struggles that they have. I know what it’s like to be in that role. So, I think it helps me understand the customer and understand what it’s like to be in that environment. I think that’s the key to a successful software product—you’ve got to understand how your customer operates. Teachers are teaching all day. They don’t have time to fundraise or tweet out stuff. They’re pretty much consumed by their job eight hours of the day, and you’ve got very little time to do anything else. That understanding, and how important parents are to the equation, really made the product fit very well with our customer base.

What successes have you had so far?

We launched just before the last Challenge Cup. In that shift from really school-based to really parent-based, one of our huge successes was $150,000 raised for a capital campaign. They completely renovated an entire science classroom at an elementary school. Helping the parents do that and really seeing the project take off was a huge success for us.

We’re also about to announce some big partnerships, we finished our funding recently, and we won the Challenge Cup. It’s just been a whirlwind of activity over the last two months. It’s been a great year.

Why did you decide to compete in Challenge Cup?

We got runner-up last year, and that wasn’t good enough. So, we came back to go at it again. It was a good decision.

You’ve got six months till Challenge Festival. What do you plan to do with that time?

Now, it’s about traction and revenue. Our goals over the next six months are to leverage all that momentum to scale within Virginia, and then expand from there. We want to get to 1200 PTAs over the course of the next six months and have a much better traction story to tell at the end of that than we do right now. That will be the true test.

What advice do you have for startups in the education space that are just starting out?

I’m not really one to give advice to people, because I think everyone’s journeys are a little different. But, I can say that you have to persevere through the challenges of a startup. And there will be many. Sometimes it’s those moments where you can’t get your funding and you start to really examine your business and say, what is it I’m doing that is not making sense to the market? Iterate on that.

1776 was really helpful to me during that time. My wife passed away in January, and I had to take a break from pretty much everything. I actually went to the labs program during that time and just reexamined a lot of our assumptions about the business. It made all the difference. If I hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t have competed in Challenge Cup. We wouldn’t be where we are today. Life’s going to throw you a lot of curveballs, and the business will as well, but take those opportunities to take that in and just listen, figure something out and persevere through it. If you do that enough times, you’re going to be successful.

Julia Reinstein