Three University of Tennessee (UT) graduates have joined forces to move operations for a start-up company founded in Florida to the UT Business Incubator and use Knoxville as the base for a national product launch.
The company, named planetHS, was founded by Joe Hawkins, who earned three UT degrees – Bachelor’s in Accounting, Master’s in Business Administration and Doctor of Jurisprudence. Over the years, the Kingsport native founded more than 20 businesses in the technology, school fundraising, manufacturing and retail sectors. Hawkins’ latest endeavor – planetHS – was inspired by his interest as the parent of students at Allen D. Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, FL.
Local businessman Chuck West recently joined the company as Chief Operating Officer (COO). Hawkins serves as Chief Executive Officer (CEO), and former Tennessee football star Bill Bates assists with sales and sponsorships.
In an interview with teknovation.biz, West described the origin of planetHS, its evolution since the company was established, and the executive team’s plans for the national launch.
“Our base of operations is now in Knoxville where we have sales and support staff,” he said, adding that Hawkins remains in Florida. West is a former Chief Executive Officer of several local companies including MasterCraft Boat Company and National Services Associates, Inc.
As West described planetHS, it was clear that he is passionate about the company and the role that its product is seeking to address in facilitating communication among teachers, students and parents. He talks about how planetHS is a tool for enhanced engagement of parents in the schools their children attend.
“We are in many respects controlled social media for schools,” West says of the planetHS product that is provided at no cost to schools and supported through sponsorship sales. It is in some respects a cloud-based evolution of some aspects of the old Channel One. In fact, Terry Hummel, Scott Helbing and Denny Post, all former Channel One executives, are working with planetHS in various capacities.
Throughout the interview, West continually emphasized that planetHS provides school officials and teachers with an enhanced communications tool in a “controlled, secured environment.” He says that the product is particularly critical in those school districts where direct teacher-student communications is banned other than in the classroom due to security concerns.
“This leaves schools in a lurch as to how they are going to communicate with students,” he said and cited situations where athletic team schedules might change during the day due to weather conditions. “How does the coach communicate with the players?”
The idea for planetHS started when legendary Florida football player Tim Tebow was a student at Nease High School and Bates was a volunteer coach. West said that people outside Ponte Vedra wanted to see Tebow play, so Hawkins, ever the entrepreneur, started streaming the games live and providing an archive for future viewing. A little later, Hawkins’ daughter participated in video production at the school, and the father wanted to watch her show. Unfortunately, he could not without going to the school.
So, the “pay per view” video streaming service morphed into a much more robust, multi-faceted platform that allows teachers to better communicate with students and their parents about school-based activities using modern media in a school-wide community.
West explained that each school can customize planetHS to meet its needs, but there are some common elements. There are “communities’ that are established for each class and all extracurricular activities – from athletic teams to clubs. School administrators and teachers are able to control access through passwords.
PlanetHS allows those administratively responsible for each class or extracurricular group to do three things with all of those who are in that particular cohort – communicate important information like assignments, information and updates; organize activities through personalized calendars, and facilitate participation through video streaming and archiving and other program features.
Maryville High School is a planetHS customer and “power user,” West said, describing how teachers post all class assignments and expect that the assignment will be uploaded electronically. He says this is a good management tool for teachers who have to manage many papers over a school year. It is also a good way for parents to keep-up with their student’s work.
As a parent, West is particularly interested in planetHS’s ability to engage the parents. One example is a capability he describes as “our version of Survey Monkey” where, for example, school officials can poll parents on a particular topic.
“We’re on the fringe of social media, but have not crossed the line,” West adds.
The planetHS business model is based on both local and regional “sponsorships.” West says that each participating school can sell three-line sponsorship postings locally and keep the first $50 of revenue. The balance goes to planetHS which also has the ability to “upgrade” the local sponsor to a higher level. All of the additional revenues are retained by planetHS.
He explains that the company is selling sponsorships on a regional basis and will eventually do so nationally as it rapidly expands from its initial base of schools in Florida and Tennessee. With relationships that planetHS has recently struck with national associations of high school organizations such as DECA, schools in 32 states are now signed up for the program.
As far as reception by school officials, West says that he is very pleased with the reaction thus far. And, the company is working with the new East Tennessee Regional Accelerator Coalition.
“When I tell them at the frontend that it is free, the stress level drops quickly,” he says. “Then, when they realize that they may reduce their current expenses by dropping other services that currently require fees from the school, the school officials become even more interested. Then, when the fundraising capabilities for the school are explained, the compelling proposition leads to the school participation.”
One cannot help but recall when Channel One revolutionized the delivery of information to schools. Knoxville is now home to another company that is focused on revolutionizing how educators, students and parents communicate in this age of multiple platforms, mobile devices and robust social media.