It was only a matter of time until social media came to day care.
Smartphone-toting parents at work are hungry for updates on what and how their children are doing in day care. PreciouStatus, a three-year-old Minneapolis start-up, has created a customized tool from existing technology to relieve their anxieties.
A day-care worker can take a photo or write a note about what a child is doing and send it to the PreciouStatus cloud so parents can see it on a smartphone app or e-mail. As a result, parents know instantly their child's mood, what he or she ate, and what he or she is doing at the moment.
"We send pictures to the parents, and it's almost like them being here with their children," said Jan Karrmann, who uses the PreciouStatus software in her Just Kidding Around Daycare and Preschool locations in Rosemount and Farmington. "The parents want to hear from us every day."
The software was dreamed up by former Best Buy marketing executive Julie Gilbert Newrai, 43, who became frustrated that she couldn't get through to her child's day care while her husband was hospitalized. PreciouStatus builds on basic consumer technology, such as text messaging or apps for online storage such as Dropbox, then adds customization and more security, she said.
"In early child care development, teachers are writing what the child did on pieces of paper," Newrai said. "We eliminate paper."
The software also keeps track of a child's medications and dietary needs and creates a digital photo timeline. It can also be used to notify all parents at once of something at day care.
Since starting in 2011, Newrai has raised $1.5 million in venture capital and angel funding and set out to conquer a diffuse national day-care market, where many potential customers don't know such software exists. Along the way, the software was adapted into elder-care software that kept families informed and a teacher-to-parent chat tool for schools.
Today the software is being tested by organizations as diverse as Champlin's Tutor Time day care (a unit of Michigan-based Learning Care Group that runs 900 day-care centers nationwide), the Minnesota Veterans Home in Luverne and the St. Cloud public schools.
"We have thousands of facilities using it, and the majority are paying for it," Newrai said.
Newrai's 31-employee company will need all those customers and many more. Because PreciouStatus charges customers a maximum of $149 a year per facility to use its software (it's free to day-care centers with 25 or fewer children), it will need tens of thousands of customers to be a big moneymaker.
Newrai has a reputation for being relentless in organizing and motivating people and for contacting customers personally. At Best Buy, she once talked her way into the homes of customers in California to ask why they thought home theater sales weren't going well.
"Julie builds networks like nobody I've ever seen before," said former Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson of Naples, Fla., who is an angel investor in Newrai's company.
Newrai, who is currently trying to raise another $3 million for the firm, is a riveting presenter. In one breath, she sums up her market by saying that the United States has 17 million kids in early child care, 38.6 million students in public school, 5.5 million kids in private schools and an elder care population that is increasing by 10,000 people per day.
In a second breath she says there are 73 million dogs in the country, a datapoint that will come in hand if PreciouStatus decides to market to dog kennels and pet hospitals.
"She's trying to be the first one to enter that market, get scaled up and dominate it," said retired Best Buy vice chairman Al Lenzmeier of Minneapolis, who advised Newrai and her start-up company. "I think it could be a home run."
But there are competitors. While Learning Care Group is testing the PreciouStatus software in five of its day-care centers, including its Tutor Time locations in Maple Grove, Blaine and Champlin, it's also looking at software from Montessori Compass of Philadelphia, MyChild of Evanston, Ill., and LifeCubby of Columbus, Ohio, said Will Spurgeon, Learning Care vice president of operations.
"We've been looking for more effective ways to improve communications with parents," Spurgeon said. "This software does exactly the same things we do today with pencil and paper."
The software is also a marketing tool, he said.
"It helps us deal with the overwhelming guilt parents have when they sign up their children for day care," Spurgeon said. "We do anything we can to alleviate that guilt and make parents feel good about the decision they've made."
The software also benefits schools.
"We see this as a means to provide quick, real-time communication to parents and guardians throughout the day," says Gary Ganje, director of technology and media services for the St. Cloud School District. "We deliver information that can be family conversation-starters after school."
The district is testing the software in three classrooms with children ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade. So far, school officials have been impressed with how quickly the company has customized its software to their needs, Ganje said.
Newrai says it's a long selling cycle, but that persistence pays off.
"We started talks with some of our biggest players two years ago, and only recently signed them up," Newrai said. " 'No' is not 'No.' It just means 'Not right now.' "