Questions with Presence Founder & CEO Reuben Pressman

Over the past year, Presence celebrated our third birthday, endured a re-brand from Check I’m Here, and settled into a new office space.

One of the best ways to understand how far we’ve come and understand the potential of our future, was to spend time in an informal interview with our CEO and Founder, Reuben Pressman.

Note: We started off laughing about how we weren’t wearing any shoes and how cookies are baked daily in the office, for optimum productivity ?

Here we go!

Company foundation, where it all started

Q: What inspired you to start Check I’m Here/Presence?

A: It was a few things. I’ve been programming since I was 10. I’ve always had a love for technology.

When I was younger, I walked into my dad’s office and asked him how to make a website. He said, “I have no idea, leave me alone.” [laughs] I left his office, and was determined to figure it out on my own. After that, I taught myself how to code and loved how I could solve difficult problems with simple tech. I’ve always taken that approach to whatever I’m trying to fix. During my undergraduate career, I was in the Student Government Association (SGA) at University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus where I became passionate as a student leader about getting other students involved.

I wanted to help market events and departments that we were allocating funding, and ultimately understand the answers to the questions,

“How are we marketing and encouraging students to get involved? How do we know if it’s working?”

We had to start answering these questions to start understanding departmental effectiveness, how to set measurable goals, and have attainable benchmarks. From a student leader and SGA perspective, we were allocating 2.5 million dollars, we were trying to market and get more students involved, and helping organizations and departments, so understanding effectiveness is so important.

There is so much data around academics and a lot of it was digital: assignments submitted and attendance in class, I noticed there was lack of tracking data in the student affairs and non-academic sections of campus. I soon realized that a lack of data wasn’t just a student leadership issue and it extended into my student affairs roles at the university.

When you think of the now popular Square technology, it was actually years old technology- Square didn’t come up with it – they just created a better experience with it. We asked ourselves, what if we did the same thing at university and colleges? So we started there, chatted with institutions, received feedback and validation, won funding from pitching competitions, and at that point had hundreds of ideas of what we wanted to do. With this software idea, we were most excited about the outcomes, the larger impact, and the problems that this software would solve in student affairs and higher education. Since, we created a simple software solution, and that’s what we’ve always stuck to as we’ve iterated it over the years.

Q: Describe the beginning stages of Check I’m Here and how it evolved.

A: When we first started Check I’m Here, our first pitch was Eckerd College, now a campus partner. Eckerd was the first who agreed to look at it and I remember it was a mix of student affairs and information technology people. We had no marketing materials, nothing really built out, and didn’t dive too much into safety and security. We learned a lot, fast. We originally adapted our company branding blue color from Eckerd.

We thought of our name the night before a startup pitch competition around midnight. I was about to pitch the idea and needed help thinking of the name and I remember someone shouted, “Check I’m Here!” and our team was searching for available domain names at the same time. After that, we never looked back on the blue color, the name, and the brand we started to build.

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Check I’m Here’s first office at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida

Q: What process did you go through to re-brand? How did you choose a new name?

A: We knew ‘Check I’m Here’ wasn’t going to always fit: it’s seemed elementary, hard to remember, and hard to say over the phone, and knew we had to change it.

We got the whole team together, went through a Creative Methodology Process (CPS) I utilize for brainstorming, and went through hundreds of names. We thought of theories, philosophies of what we wanted to be, what our company stands for, and also considered our future features and what we aim to build for the higher education community.

We wanted our name to represent the campus partner journey and the student experience on campus. Not just attending an event, but being in the present moment, learning from it, and participating in it. We felt Presence was all inclusive of that.

Pieces of advice for student affairs professionals

Q: What’s one piece of advice you would give student affairs professionals looking to on-board Presence?

A: As you’re speaking about the Presence platform, working with it/us, and bringing it on yourself, view it and frame it as a solution not a product.

Look at companies who are solely focused on mobile. They think mobile is the answer. Mobile is not a solution in itself. Accessibility, portability, those things are a solution and mobile might be a tool or channel in reaching those goals. For us, we have a range of different channels – we have a card-swipe transactional component, a mobile component; in that it reflects a portal, then we have all of the web pieces. As you’re getting buy-in, talking to people, presenting it, remember that Presence is a holistic and deeper solution, and the product is just what drives that solution.

And we aren’t just saying, “Here’s this tool, go use it, goodbye.” You work alongside our Happiness Experts [customer service], Campus Development team, and Software Development team who work closely with each other day in and day out. Each team member has student life experience, ranging from residence life to student government to, who have joined our team locally here in Florida, but mostly from other places in the country (Missouri, Boston, and Montana).

Developing the Presence company culture

Q: How do you encourage the Presence team to develop culture? What does building a company culture look like from a CEO perspective?

A: Building a deep, meaningful, company culture is something that really interests me.

We’re not just building a product or solution, we’re also building out a team that understands pain points of student affairs professionals day-to-day.

For example, especially in the higher education world, people always point out why inclusion and diversity are such large topic areas in student affairs and why people aren’t focused on ‘bigger problems’ that society often puts forth. Students are going through such a transformational period during college, and really the only adults, mentors, or people they interact with are student affairs professionals and their professors. Those people need to be equipped with knowledge of diversity and inclusion issues; our team needs to understand where they’re at individually and be open-minded to others’ views.

We strive to continually understand those values and how we can weave them into our software. Student affairs professionals are developing the future leaders of the world and conversations around inclusion and diversity are a higher priority.

Our culture overall…

We tend to be what’s always coined as very ‘startup’, very fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants and figuring it out as we go. When we have an endless list of things to figure out, but only a limited amount of time, especially in resources at a startup, I have to prioritize the things I want to solve quickly. It’s more of, “we’ll figure it out when we need to,” and need to keep going to get projects done. That’s as best as I can describe it [laughs]

Q: What do you say to employees who are stuck on projects or new ideas?

A: People always come to me asking, ‘what’s the right way to do ____ ?’ And I think people struggle with this, and in reality there is no ‘right’ way, for us it’s more practical than principle. It’s more of: what’s the best thing or way?

A slogan that’s developed is, “Nobody knows what they’re doing” comes from the idea that when you’re creating new things, in a new place, with new people, there’s no roadmap, no guide, there are no rules to what that is, the people in that space are very much figuring it out as they go. Everything in the world is created by people. Nobody really knows much more than anybody else unless they’ve done it more. And just because they’ve done it more doesn’t mean they’re better at it. It just means they’ve done it more. It’s like the fallacy with the 10,000 hours in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which explains that if you take 10,000 hours doing something, it only means that you have more experience doing it that way.

The other motto is: “As long as you’re kicking ass, we don’t care how you do it.” This aligns with our company benefits. We have flexible hours, unlimited vacation, the flexibility you have being in our space (doing laundry, bringing your dog to work), some people enjoy being the office more sometimes than their own home, not to mention the location is great in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida.

Q: What’s your favorite part being the CEO of Presence?

A: Seeing everything develop from day one.

I reflect on our journey specifically at our Monday all hands-on meetings where we talk about how everyone’s week was and what they’re most looking forward to in the upcoming week. It’s cool to be a part of a team that is just as passionate as I am about the people that we help. We all care so much to solve these real problems in student affairs.

If Presence didn’t exist

Q: If Presence didn’t come to fruition, what would you be pursuing as a career?

A: If before, it probably would have been some other type of company solving some other issue. That’s what I enjoy doing.

If this stopped right now, what would I go do? I’m really passionate about investing and giving other startups and communities built around entrepreneurship, especially with technology, although not restricted to. Particularly when it comes to diversity in entrepreneurship, I plan to get into that after this.

I’m really tired of ‘first world problems’. For example, the app Yo raised 1 million dollars from The Valley. When you download Yo’s app, you can notify other people who have the app. The fact that they could raise that money seems silly to me. I understand it: it’s a new way to think about notifications and platforms. It’s become really powerful to where you could ‘yo’ a radio station and get an instant response back with what song is playing – you can get ‘yo’s’ when your packages arrive – it turned into a notification as a service platform. My question is, what is it really solving? It’s valuable to someone, but is it really solving world issues?

To me, I want to go look at how to solve access to clean water, how to solve hunger, animal poaching, and human trafficking – you know, solving issues around basic human rights.

Surprises in leading a startup

Q: Looking back on the past three years, what surprises came up for you while leading a startup?

A: How hard it is to hire.

That’s a nationwide issue right now, the unemployment rate is roughly at 4%. Most of those people are out of the age to be hired, their skill sets aren’t what we need, or they don’t want jobs, for example, they’re retired. The people looking to hire, are hiring people who already have jobs. There’s not a huge pool of people waiting around. From a startup perspective, wages impact that too. It’s hard to compete with corporations that can hire and raise wages just to be able to on-board people. We are competing with people who are looking for jobs in Silicon Valley where the minimum starting salary could be a quarter of a million dollars.

My original expectations were: we can raise money and hire people. Actually, no, it isn’t that simple. It seems easier to on-board campus partners than it is to on-board people to our company and support them.

Kayley: Any more surprises?

Reuben: I’m always surprised when our campus partners are doing cool things with our software. It’s neat to hear about things that people weren’t expected to necessarily use for a specific task, or it’s original intention, but they’re using it and it works great for them. Then we get to tell other campus partners about it.

Dealing with competition

Q: How do you deal with competition in our market?

A: It’s good to know about our competition and see what they’re up to from time to time, right? We serve the same audience.

We very rarely let competition impact our decisions, because we have our own philosophy and they have theirs. I think for companies who have been in the market for a while, there are people who have only had them as an option, and haven’t had the option to even choose.

That’s what business is. People always creating different types value for different audiences, that care about different things, doing them in a variety of ways.

We don’t allow competitors’ decisions impact us, besides being aware of them.

The future of tech

Q: What do you think the future of tech looks like at colleges and universities in the next few years?

A: Well, the university and college market always seems to run a substantial amount of years behind. And I think there are many reasons for that.

Technology in the ‘real world’, or the traditional world outside universities and colleges, has been accelerating at an extremely fast pace. The university and college market is going to start feeling the effects quickly, if not already.

The other trend I’ve seen is smaller niche products. I don’t think those fit into the ways institutions like to buy or like to think about their products, but because technology has become so much more accessible, we have all ages, a variety of people getting involved with programming, tools, and everything that is out there. It’s a trendy thing right now. Entrepreneurship is this amazing new frontier and profession people are going after versus falling into.

MOOCs will and have become more mainstream and I think we will continue to see alternative ways to learn online.

The institutions that play along with the future of technology and stay progressive, will see success. The institutions who aren’t, well… I’m not sure how much longer the traditional method of institutions will last.

Even in the last 10 years, the generations that are now attending colleges have had more access to information than anyone ever imagined. If students are curious about something or want to learn something, they probably already have, or know how. Institutions are starting to move towards skills you can’t necessarily look up and learn on your own which ends up being the types of skills you learn through involvement in student affairs. Institutions who empower, encourage, and embrace students affairs will come out on top.

That’s where we fit in and what we’re passionate about: learning environments that promote soft essential skills.

Q: What are some challenges institutions face when on-boarding new technology?

A: Change is the biggest. Technology brings change. People in general are not good at managing change especially when they’re not in control of that.

When it comes to technology and changing processes, a lot of software will only be successful when people are completely bought in and taking advantage of it. Utilizing big data and process automation are all things institutions want and need right now, that requires people helping to collect data, analyze it, or help organize it with different lenses. Having people bought in at each stage of assessment or data collection is probably the hardest part about on-boarding.

On our end, that’s why we’ve built out our Happiness Team, to provide a stronger helping hand with strategy in addition to product support.

Q: What do you think tech will physically look like on a campus in the coming years?

A: I think we can use Home Automation as an analogy, like IOT, smaller more niche and focused, embedded, and so smart it learns behaviors.

For example, your doors unlock automatically, they lock when you close the door. Your lights follow you, the temperature adjusts based on who is in the room and based on the environment… your appliances know your schedule, your fridge orders food for you when you’re out, it’s endless at this point.

The parallel is maybe it’s not a front door opening, but a tutoring center. You start considering things that can be more automated like tuition, financial aid, advising, or student activities, or residence life – Roompact as an example – another example is a local company called Knack who focuses on peer-to-peer tutoring, something that could be more effective than a traditional tutoring route for specific students.

We will see way more personalization, creating high touch environments.

Institutions with tens of thousands of students it’s impossible to reach all of them, but with the right technology, the right buy-in, the right set-up, a high touch environment can be created. I think that’s where education will be successful.

Your Thoughts!

Do you have a question for Reuben? Ask and share it with us @HelloPresence or @ReubenPressman and we’ll do our best to answer it!

Kayley Robsham

About the author: Kayley Robsham is the former Community Engagement Manager at Presence, the complete student engagement platform. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

Check I'm Here is now Presence. Learn more about this change in our blog post here.