Sycamore Education’s first line of code was written in 1991.
“We started really small,” said Glen Ellis, founder and CEO, Sycamore Education. “I was the coder, and my wife was the salesman.”
Ellis said that originally, the small team never had a plan so they ended up just doing it, a way that Ellis seems to run his business endeavours across the board.
“We never accepted any investors, capital or private equity,” said Ellis. “So we basically bootstrapped it, which makes us a little bit different than most technology companies.”
The idea for the company began when Ellis started volunteering at his children’s school, trying to bring more technology into individual classrooms.
“I had been in corporate America for 25 years,” said Ellis. “I had written software for big companies like H&R Block, Union Pacific, Sprint and First Data. It just wasn’t satisfying me anymore.”
His first years were spent setting up a computer network and getting computers donated. After he had the computers set up, he started looking at software.
“The school couldn’t afford anything, so we started developing something at night,” said Ellis.
Today Sycamore Education is a complete school management system. From attendance records to school news, calendars, events, grade cards, assignments, tuition, lunchroom, childcare and donation management, the application has everything you need to run a school, according to Ellis.
“I hate modules and that’s how our competitors sell their product,” said Ellis. “From day one, when we sold it to a school, they got everything.”
Moving to Fremont (on purpose)
Originally from Kansas City, Ellis and his wife picked Fremont, Nebraska, to set up shop when Ellis took on the company full time in 2004.
“My wife always loved the small town,” said Ellis. “We originally had no ties here, but the roots are getting deep now. We love Nebraska.”
After selling their product to 30 schools throughout primarily the Midwest, word start to spread about their business and people started to take notice.
“Growing the company took time, but the entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and we figured it out,” said Ellis.
As the company grew and started gaining employees, it went from being housed in a small bedroom in the couple’s house to half of the living space in their house, when Ellis finally decided to build a garage for the business.
“I thought it would last us a couple years, but it lasted us nine months,” said Ellis.
The current business is located in an old three-story Victorian house in the heart of Fremont.
“It’s a real neat environment,” said Ellis. “The basement is a coder’s dream.”
Homegrown tech talent
Ellis’ oldest son, Brock Ellis, went to college at Midland University in Fremont and studied education, thinking that he wanted to be a high school teacher.
“During my third year I got into a high school classroom and hated it,” said Brock. “I ended up dropping out of the education program and I went to work for the family business.”
Brock started at the company working in sales. Soon he started taking 15 minutes at the end of each day and taught himself how to code by reading books. Eventually his 15-minute study sessions turned into half days, and the family hired someone else to do Brock’s old job, allowing him to recruit other people and train them to program for Sycamore Education.
“Soon we just started repeating that process over and over, and we now have nine developers because of [Brock],” said Ellis. “None of them have a computer science degree, but they all can code.”
The Fremont advantage
Ellis said that they pay the coders well, but it ended up saving them a lot of money by teaching the developers themselves, in comparison to their competition who are hiring out of places like Silicon Valley.
“We have such an advantage living here,” said Ellis. “We’ve even started recruiting high school seniors. We’re very active in school-to-career opportunities.”
Ellis said the team looks for students that want to stick around in Fremont to help grow the technology ecosystem. Today the team is made up of 31 employees, and platform is used in 43 different countries.
The success of Sycamore Education laid the foundation for Ellis’ latest project, the Fremont Creative Collective, a 30,000-foot space occupying the old May Brothers building that the family plans to turn into a startup hub in the heart of downtown Fremont.
“There’s a couple different reasons why the Creative Collective was formed,” said Ellis. “I am a proven entrepreneur with a desire to help, and I think we have an awesome model here [with Sycamore Education’s training programs] that we can kick into overdrive and really impact Fremont.”
Mel Lucks is a regional freelance journalist and former intern for Silicon Prairie News and AIM.