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INNOVATION: Connecting Classrooms With CLEVR

author: Meghan Sheffield

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A passion for rural education earns this local software developer top marks.

ENTREPRENEURIALISM IS SOMETHING FEW US ARE DRAWN to, and even fewer of us have the nerve to pursue. Belleville’s Darryl Denyes had the draw and the nerve – and after 12 years of determination and perseverance, his educational software company, clevr, has a strong foothold in the marketplace.

Darryl Denyes’ pre-entrepreneurial career gave him the working knowledge that would prove essential to clevr. An educator who graduated with a Phys Ed degree, he moved through the ranks in rural schools in Bancroft and Madoc: vice principal, then principal, and onward to the school board office. Over the years, he began to see a gap in the system’s processes, and that’s when he felt the pull of the entrepreneur. He stepped down from his job – and steady income – at the school board, and, as he puts it “decided to take on a new challenge.”

That challenge revolved around creating a cloud-based communication software system that allowed educators and other educational support staff to centralize communications and individual plans for students. Traditionally, these communications would have been stuffed into a good old-fashioned folder, passed from teacher to teacher and school to school – a system that didn’t keep up with current modes of communication and was impractical for the people involved.

The software created by clevr tackles a problem that is unique to many rural school boards – the physical distance between schools, professionals and school boards. It bridges those gaps and creates a common forum for educators to develop strategies to support student learning.

The software also reflects Darryl’s experience working within the school system, and uses language grounded in the needs of its customers. “Educators are very committed individuals who document a lot of things, and sometimes aren’t connected effectively with each other,” Darryl says. “A given student may be receiving support from a diverse group of educators and specialists: a classroom teacher, a counsellor, a speech pathologist, for instance, who could each be implementing a particular strategy, without any sense of what the others are contributing.”

The path to clevr’s success wasn’t always easy and Darryl faced hurdles that he never imagined in his prior life as a school administrator. The early years were lean. In 2007, Kari Fraser-Park, a software developer Darryl knew from his days at the school board, joined the company. Both Darryl and Kari worked out of their homes, self-funding the project. Finding the capital for a software that hadn’t yet been developed became a chicken-and-egg dilemma: while money was needed to hire software developers, investors weren’t willing to contribute without solid development on the software. “There were definitely financial realities...” Darryl says. “The company was totally bootstrapped.”

While focused on building the software, both Kari and Darryl worked as consultants on the side, helping school boards implement technology in their schools. By 2010, they were able to move out of their home offices, and in 2016 they shifted to focus exclusively on the software service. They’ve since expanded into a larger office location on South Front Street in Belleville, and the company now has 16 employees.

“We needed to build culture for the team, and we saw a lot of value in being in the same space – collaborating on ideas, brainstorming on a whiteboard,” Darryl says. Keeping the whole team under one roof was key to handling the subscriber support services.

Darryl also credits his team’s sense of its own rural roots for clevr’s success and is the element that sets it apart from other educational software service providers. The team’s experience and understanding of communication systems allows them to deliver a software program to educators who want to focus on educating their students rather than learning complicated tech skills. “We can relate to and provide support for rural educators in a way that aligns with their needs,” Darryl says.

Another reason for clevr’s success is their use of cloud-based, subscription software, also known as SaaS (subscription as a service), an increasingly popular software delivery model that is used by the big players like Microsoft Office and Google. SaaS wasn’t as common in clevr’s early days but the company embraced the technology from the start. “It was a cutting edge design” that allowed the company to build on its success. Darryl notes that many of his competitors who didn’t use the technology “have had to do rebuilds to be able to meet the needs of a growing, cloud-based required environment” while others have simply gone out of business.

A growing start-up in culture in Belleville, spearheaded by QuinteVation, has been a boon to his software business. Darryl sees his company’s rural location as an advantage when it comes to sales, too. For the past three years, clevr has increased its revenues steadily and the plan is to continue at that pace. Today, clevr’s educational software is in use in five provinces. The company is looking to expand their product into eight provinces and into the U.S. market by 2020.

Since leaving the school board, “bootstrapping” through the early years, Darryl Denyes’ determination has paid off: he has developed a product that successfully addresses the needs of rural educators; his customer base is expanding and his revenues are growing. Through it all he’s maintained his passion for education. When combined with his entrepreneurial spirit and the support of a small-town, can-do culture, it’s a recipe for success.

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