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Driven by demand

Classroom Technology Solutions is doing more with less in the modern classroom.

By Wendy Bautista

What started with a 2-foot-by-2-foot square metal ceiling projector mount has turned into amultimillion dollar business that supports the K-12 classroom teacher’s need for technology. Classroom Technology Solutions Inc. (www.ctsed.com) not only fills that initial need, it builds upon it by finding and filling ongoing requests for more related products.

Working together

Business partners Walt Mischley and Cy Marshall have known each other for years, having crossed paths many times throughout their separate careers, but it wasn’t until August 2008 that they decided to work together.

Combined, Mischley and Marshall have more than 40 years of professional experience in both technical and teaching environments. Mischley, who was a teacher for several years after graduating from San Jose State with a master’s in history, mainly focuses on marketing and field operations, while Marshall, who has spent most of his career in technology including working for Bell South, the Air National Guard in its electronics program, and most recently for Gateway Computers, focuses on product development and the operational side of the business.

“While working at Gateway, I was part of a team that was developing what they call 21st century classroom technology products,” says Marshall. “I developed mounting products while I worked there and when Gateway got out of the commercial computer business and sold it off, I was able to keep the manufacturing relationships to those products.”

They were both working in real estate and joke that they were retired, but admit  they were not “really retired,” when Marshall started receiving phone calls from people wanting to know where they can get the mounting products. “That’s when Walt and I started talking about a little hobby to keep us occupied,” says Marshall.

That little hobby now occupies a lot of their time with 70-hour work weeks, working on weekends, a staff of 22 people, an ever-growing product line that can be found in the 48 contiguous states, and revenues of $2 million in its first year, $5 million in its second and projected revenue of $10 million this year—with north of $15 million, already accounted for, in existing contracts alone.

Mount up!

And to think it all started with a projector mounting product. The mount itself is a 2-foot-by-2-foot metal square plate that can accommodate an audio-visual projector and essentially take the place of a ceiling tile in the classroom. A safety wire made of aircraft cable attaches onto the plate and is then placed up and over part of the building structure, where a slip ring will lock it in place so it can’t come loose from the ceiling.

The plate is painted with an eco-painting process known as anodic electrode position. The plate passes through a number of baths, and then goes into a tank that has acrylic paint suspended in liquid. An electrical charge is applied to the plate and the paint adheres to it. After which it gets lifted out and placed into another tank to wash off any excess material—which go back into the painting process—and then the product gets dried.

“By design this process assures us that the entire plate gets covered—there are no missed spots,” says Mischley. “The underside, the crevices, everything is covered so there is no chance of rust or chipping paint. Especially when dealing with schools, we try to keep the ‘green’ in mind to support their concerns for the children’s well-being.”

Building a business

“What’s interesting is when we started, our original plan was to manufacture a couple of products and then get them distributed to resellers across the country,” says Marshall. “But we found that to be a lot more of a challenge than we had anticipated.”

When they didn’t get the traction they wanted, they decided to pick a market area and market direct. They made a list in a specific area, did an email blast with a flier and sent it out that morning. By the afternoon, orders were coming off the fax machine.

As they were answering the requests for mounts and dealing with more people, they started getting asked if they also sold the projectors that went on the mounts.

“At the time the answer was no, but we decided to look into it and found that maybe we should,” says Marshall. “Then as more time went by, our customers said they would also like it to be hooked up, so we looked into adding the wiring and found that that would also be beneficial.”

“The next biggest thing that happened was we started winning contracts,” says Mischley. “We went from buying a hundred products at a time to buying containers full. These are multimillion, multiyear contracts with major school districts in the Southeast.

Mischley says one of the most important aspects of the contracts was it made their vendors and suppliers take notice, which placed them on their radar screen as a company to watch—and it didn’t hurt that it helped with pricing.

“Our prices went from ‘single unit’ to ‘high volume,’ and the vendors started bringing us customers because obviously from buying a hundred of something to buying 4,000 of something, it changes things,” says Mischley.

The start of something new

“We don’t go out and find a product and take it to the school and try to convince them that they need it,” adds Mischley. “Customers drive our product line by letting us know what they want and or need.”

Marshall continues by saying, “The set of customers that we’ve developed will come to us and say, ‘This is what we are looking for and these are the projects we want to do, what is available and how can you help us?’ and we’ll bring them up to speed with what’s new or try to find solutions to what they need or want.”

From there they started adding or manufacturing other products such as projector screens, wireless tablets, document cameras, DVD players, anti-bullying software, Internet security, as well as a line of speakers that fit in the ceiling which are incorporated into the sound and audio visual systems in a classroom —all at the request of their clients.

“We’ve now taken the mount products and bundled them with other manufacturers’ product(s).  These bundled solutions provide greater value to our customers, give us a competitive edge and have allowed us to expand our business,” says Mischley.

“Essentially, what our clients were telling us was they would like to have a one-stop shop, and now we basically offer them a technological classroom in a box,” says Marshall.

Building from a box

“We design everything around ease of use, functionality and speed of install,” says Mischley. “With 95% of our business in that K-12 market, these elements are essential.” But in the beginning, the install speed was missing from the equation and was called to their attention by their customers and it needed to improve.

An average install, where the technician took all the equipment, tools, wires, and products with them to the field, opened packages, assembled the items, installed the units and then checked to ensure it was all working, would take more than two hours.

Since many of the technicians Marshall and Mischley hire have Audio Visual installation experience, they were not without ideas on how to better the system and devised a way of pre-assembling the ceiling mounts.

All products needed for an order are unpacked, checked, and attached to the mount; the items get wired according to what will be required; the safety support cables are attached; and the completed unit is placed and ready for delivery—taking that two hours that used to be in the classroom installation and putting it to better use at the shop getting all mounts ready.

The technician then takes the completed unit into the classroom for installation and can now install it in about 30 minutes. “For the most part, the technicians are doing on the spot trainings, which is included with all installations” says Mischley. “The training is very important because it alleviates a lot of the problems on the back end and gets the user acclimated to the new technology on the spot.”

The technician writes the room number on each box tag and brings the box back to the shop, where administration will cut each tag from the box and record the information, serial number and product information and provide it back to the school for its asset management program.

Finding and funding

“While school and teacher funding is going down, the lower technology budgets are a plus for us,” says Mischley. “When we source our products, we don’t look at price or for a brand-name product, we look for functionality and for something we can put a three-year warranty on for the life cycle it’s going to be in the classroom, and we offer that to the customer. We also make sure that many of our products are from here in the states so the schools can qualify to use federal funds for products Made In America.”

“We have a lot of companies calling us to sell their products and we will probably expand our product offerings,” says Marshall. “For now, all of the vendors we settled on really work closely with us, but where there are holes in our product line and we have requests, we will source those.”

“I remember when the ratio in a classroom was 42 students to 1 teacher, then it went down to 25:1, then as low as 16:1, which then became the norm,” says Mischley. “Well, it’s heading back the other way again because of teacher budgets being cut. So when we do a product search, we have to do something that allows that teacher to do more in the classroom with less. That’s what drives the whole thing.”

The changing classroom

“In today’s classrooms, you have varying levels of teacher skills,” says Marshall. “We need to make sure we have products that get all of these different teachers comfortable with technology because the dynamic in the classroom is changing.

“With technology, there really is no need for teachers to stand with their back to the class. They can take the wireless tablet and be walking around or standing in the back of the classroom while still having all the functionality and interaction to teach a lesson and operate the projector,” says Marshall.

“If we can get that teacher untethered from that ‘back to the students’ mentality and put that teacher out in the class where they can sit alongside the student and show them how to do something, it creates a better learning environment and keeps up with what students are accustomed to.

“The problem a lot of schools have is the students have more technology in their hip pocket than they do in the classroom,” says Marshall. “We want to change that.”

Wendy Bautista is the editor of Advantage Small Business Magazine. She can be reached at Wendy@advantagebizmag.com or 904-536-2234.

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Business vitals

Owner: Cy Marshall and Walt Mischley

In business since: August 2008

Projected growth: “One of the first things to grow, and is still growing, was our space,” says Marshall. “When we started out, we had a 3,000 square foot mini warehouse and we quickly outgrew that. We moved over here to 25,000 square feet in August of last year and spent about a month and a half to two months painting and moving in and we’ve been doing the rest of the renovations as we can and as time and money permits.”

“This facility was just a box warehouse that had been sitting empty for about three years, so we’ve had to put a little money into it,” says Marshall. Some of the renovations include a briefing center, a showroom, a training room, conference room, reception area and lobby, a sales area, a soundproof test product area, a product assembly area, a stage for presentations, and a secure area for high-value products.

Some other changes include a change in staff. They’ve recently expanded their sales force, are looking to develop a marketing team with a director of marketing, and brought a graphic artist and web staff in house—with plans to expand to an online shopping cart.

Another area they are looking at is digital signage and bulletin boards. “Schools are starting to show real interest so they can push out bulletins, announcements, and menus, and even have interactive kiosks where a parent can come in and see what is happening and get a lot of information and not disrupt or tie up a staff member,” says Marshall.

“Most of the markets we’ve done were through emails and calling people on the phone and we’ve been really successful at it, but you can only get so far,” says Marshall. “Our next level is to build out a nationwide field sales organization.”

“The sales side is going to grow, integration side is going to grow, and all segments of the business are going to grow,” adds Mischley. “Vision wise, I want the mount business to grow.

“We are able to focus on other parts of the business because the mounting products are very profitable. That small square up there has allowed us to do all of the other things,” continues Mischley. “The business is built around that 2-by-2 square mount and that is what keeps us going.”

How you can do it

“Don’t be afraid to fail—even if it’s more than once,” says Mischley, who then adds, “As the saying goes, ‘There is no successful person that hasn’t failed.’ You better get into something you know and know all of the dynamics of it, you have to be debt free because I don’t think you can drive a business by amassing a lot of debt, and you better understand tax codes. The federal government makes it difficult so you have to understand how they make it difficult—not so you can get around it, but so you can get through it.”

“It’s more than doing something you like,” says Marshall. “I don’t care how much you like it if there is not market for it, it won’t succeed. I see so many businesses start up and they are passionate about what they want to do, but it’s passionate to them or a close-knit group they associate with. If there isn’t a general market, perhaps reconsider.

“You’ve just got to be smart about it,” adds Marshall. “You’ve got to know what you’re going to do, like what you’re going to do, have a market for what you’re going to do, and then you can go for it.”

“Oh, you have to go for it! Even at the stage we’re at now, I still want to go for it. Go for more,” agrees Mischley.


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