Houston Edtech Startup Solves Houston ISD's $30 Million Problem



Mesa Digital, a Houston-based edtech startup founded by recent high school graduate, closed their first deal with the largest school district in Texas.

The Story

Anyone who remembers their time in high school can recall the first few weeks of school being a string of “throw-away” days. Students get added or moved and classes switch rooms, all while teachers are tasked with the role of quasi-sitters as stretched administrators work through the hundreds, and often times thousands, of student schedules. At what cost does this downtime come at? About $29.4 million in waste per year across Houston Independent School District (HISD), according to Mesa founder and CEO, John Kennedy.

“In HISD, there are over 1,800 students per counselor. In Florida, 47% of high schools don’t have a counselor -- they don’t have someone that’s making sure that kids are getting placed in the right classes. There’s a real structural lack of administrators across public schools across the country,” Kennedy explained.

“Instead of districts trying to find money to fund multiple counselors for each campus, they can effectively buy our product at the cost of two counselors for the whole district on a per student price,” John Ruff, Mesa’s Chief Evangelist, added.

The idea for MesaOnTime, Mesa’s flagship product, was sparked during a serendipitous encounter at the monthly Houston Startup Demo Day.

“The demo that I pitched took an ESPN box score and turned it into a full written recap of the game, like something you would see in AP or the news. John [Ruff] happened to present right next to me and we met and began talking about ways we could take my idea and implement it with data from ScribeSense, the startup he was working for at the time,” Kennedy recalls.

Ruff spent his first few years out of college teaching at a local middle school through Teach for America. From there, he was recruited to Austin-Based edtech startup, ScribeSense, where he served as their Chief Growth Officer and began pursueing his MS in Secondary Education from Johns Hopkins University. While Kennedy’s age is often a point of focus, Ruff approached the opportunity to join Mesa with the same caution he would with anything else.

“From experience, I know that Houston ISD doesn’t normally purchase things district-wide--it’s a rare occurrence, because they like to give individual schools the power to purchase. Seeing interest from the client side and seeing John [Kennedy] deliver on those promises were key components in why I felt comfortable being able to jump over. I wasn’t nervous about the fact that he was 18, I was nervous about the same things I am with other projects I’ve worked on. Are we going to be able to develop on time? Are we going to develop a quality product? Those are the same questions I would ask a developer twice his age,” said Ruff.

Since launching, Mesa has received a great deal of support and mentorship from the greater Houston tech community.

“Part of the reason I’m such a big fan of Houston and I feel so appreciated here is because it’s very results oriented. I feel very lucky to part of a group that doesn’t care about what I had or hadn’t done. They’re more interested in what I could do--and that doesn’t feel abnormal here. I got several meetings because of, not despite, my age. There were a lot of people that just wanted to see a young person succeed in this environment,” said Kennedy.

By January 2018, Mesa OnTime will be implemented in all 56 high schools in HISD, the largest public school district in Texas and the seventh largest in the nation.

“Too often you hear about companies building solutions for problems that don’t exist. But this was a real problem that existed and that the user brought forward. So it’s been great to see, in addition to the user coming up with the problem, that it’s been validated at the highest levels.” said Ruff.

For now, Mesa’s main focus is to ensure the roll-out for HISD goes as perfectly as possible. In the coming months, they plan on seeking other local districts to test onboarding timeline. By spring of 2018, they will being targeting districts across Texas and then move towards districts in neighboring states.

Interested in learning more about Mesa? Check out their website at mesa.digital or contact John Ruff via email at jruff@mesaedu.com