(Photo by Marianne McGinley via Lokalphoto.com)
Technology didn’t come first for Ortus Academy. Instead, it was a mission of money and finance education. As CEO Aaron Velky put it, “We built a business to solve a problem.”
Stressing the importance of financial know-how to a person’s future economic stability and setting out to make education about money engaging, the Towson-based team found an audience with students for its in-person programming in Baltimore. It has worked with 1,400 students in 30 schools. And they found growth working with college students and adults.
But as more requests were coming in — including from outside Baltimore — they found themselves having to say no. For an impact-minded business looking to make social change, Velky said they decided the ability to say “yes” became part of the strategy. That meant expanding nationally.
To do so, they built a tech platform. Called The Money Club, it’s launching with videos, mini-games and step-by-step guides. It employs an eight-level course that is centered around “financial intelligence.” Velky said it’s a different take on financial literacy. While they aren’t against that field and its aims, he said they want to challenge it.
“The problem has evolved, and therefore the solution needs to evolve as well,” he said.
The company is looking to grow adoption among families, schools, youth organizations and financial institutions. With a team of nine and a stint in Conscious Venture Lab under its belt, the company has raised $270,000 to date. Velky said they are currently raising another round as it turns a focus toward growth.
"You've got to be confident in your product, but you've got to be mindful that the users are ultimately in charge."
The platform is centered around the same principles as the in-person lessons: helping a person to understanding the mechanics of money and personal finance, as well as how decision making and a person’s approach can have a role in their economic mobility.
“A lot of our platform buildout and our approach to this has been, ‘What can we build that magnifies our impact, leverages us better and ultimately helps the audience that we want to serve in the way they’re learning?'” Velky said.
They found success leading in-person classrooms and discussions, so they sought to bring that to the platform through videos. Yet it wasn’t a matter of simply putting the courses online. For one, there was a matter of condensing 45-minute lessons into several-minute videos. But it also meant taking an approach that was best suited to the technology platform.
Alongside instruction, the videos include interviews with guests and other coaches, and the courses include some reading. Money Club also includes content to train teachers or others to lead a discussion following up on those lessons.
“The student is learning from our online course individually and then coming to a classroom they have a discussion about learning,” Velky said. The mini-games help to further “connect the dots” for a student, Velky said, and step-by-step guides offer a chance to try out these concepts in real-world examples.
“Ultimately what we want is someone to experience Money Club as a community and so our technology is really intent on facilitating dialogue and building trust,” Velky said.
For the team, the yearlong development of the platform brought lots of learning about the software, the content and, ultimately, the process of building. It was a continuous cycle of going back to their own community of customers, volunteers and others who would potentially use it.
“The hardest part of any entrepreneurial venture is the ratio between assertion and listening,” Velky said. “You’ve got to find that balance between the two. You’ve got to be confident in your product, but you’ve got to be mindful that the users are ultimately in charge.”
With feedback, they could make changes to better fit the audience. It meant lots of testing and pilots along the way, and developing a process for doing so that directly incorporated customers.
“So rather than focusing on a product we focused on a really good process knowing that the product would be better because of that. That is worth its weight in gold,” Velky said.-30-
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