Spotlight on NJ Tech Startups: Revelstone’s Mark Nelson, Part 2

Photo: Mark Nelson of Revelstone Photo Credit: Revelstone
Mark Nelson of Revelstone | Revelstone

In Part 2 of  this interview with Mark Nelson, the COO and cofounder of Parsippany-based Revelstone discusses the company’s Web product, Compass. Nelson details how N.J. municipalities and counties are finding out about and using Compass, a platform that helps them track, measure, benchmark and compare their operational performance.

Revelstone was founded in 2010 by Nelson, CEO Kenneth Wolf, CTO Rob Gordy and a silent investor. In 2012 the startup joined the prestigious Code for America accelerator in San Francisco, where it was a member of the first class of companies accepted into the not-for-profit civic incubator.

Now the startup is gaining traction in its home state of New Jersey, having signed up some 25 towns including Barnegat, Franklin Lakes, Medford, Morristown, Princeton, Roselle and Somerdale. While the company has been bootstrapped until now, it is investigating a Series A investment. Part 1 of the interview can be found here.

How are municipalities learning about your product?

Besides peer-to-peer recommendations, we have several sales individuals who are pounding the pavement, doing it the old-fashioned way. We also use social media tools, webinars and other communications methods.

We held a customer day on Fairleigh Dickinson University’s campus, bringing all our customers together for a day of best-practice sharing. They talked about how they delivered services and were collaborating. It was a phenomenal day.

What kinds of towns in New Jersey and elsewhere do you serve?

The towns range from very small municipalities to some very large towns like Woodbridge, with 100,000, with the vast majority in the 10,000-30,000 range in population size. While we are based here in New Jersey, we also have customers in Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

What makes your product different from what is available to managers today?

Analytical management isn’t a new concept. The private sector has always managed with data. Large cities like New York and Baltimore have always managed with data. But what we’ve built at Revelstone is a lightweight, affordable version of that same system New York City uses. It’s also easy to use.

What kinds of services are the towns tackling first?

The biggest spend for most towns falls into two areas: the police force and the department of public works. For the police, very often town managers look at overtime, how effective the police are and crime data. A lot of local municipalities don’t have a lot of crime, so they look at efficiencies in areas like traffic stops. They are not setting goals, which is against the law, but are making sure the police are doing their jobs. There is an age-old discussion in policing about having a “right-sized” force. The police department always wants more officers, but they cost municipalities a lot of money in retirement and benefits. One of our customers used our data at a town meeting in order to present facts on whether that town needed to increase their police force or not, for example. They were able to conduct a data-driven discussion.

Millburn, New Jersey, one of our earliest customers, is measuring some public works problems. The sewer manager’s job is to make sure that the pipes are flowing properly and there are no issues. When it rains, sewers may have water infiltration, and there is certain maintenance that must be done to the filters. Millburn is using Revelstone to track the flow and the rain that goes through the pipes using a complicated engineering formula. After tracking [them] for about three months, the town realized they needed to do some maintenance, during which they found a valve that was about to break. The system saved Millburn from a sewer main break and costly repairs.

Millburn is also tracking power line outages using the system. When a large ice storm struck in October 2011, the police department had to sit out[side] for three days to protect the public from a downed power line, because the power company couldn’t get there. These kinds of deployments are a big cost to the township, but the expenditure can be recouped from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other relief organizations. In that storm they didn’t have data to track those hours, but when [Superstorm] Sandy came along they had the information at their fingertips, to be used to recoup costs. Millburn has created a warehouse for relevant data they might need in the future.

What is in your basic product? Can you customize it?

We provide our catalog, which includes 500 metrics from construction codes to road maintenance. These are metrics municipalities can benchmark against other communities. However, customers can also add any metric that they want to the platform, and [they] can keep these custom metrics private. Every municipality is not the same. One municipality might have an overtime issue; another may have a quality issue. We guide our customers, as they ramp up, to think about the challenges, the problems and other events they want to manage. As you can imagine, this changes over time.

How does customization work?

In January we were rolling out a police module in one municipality, and we asked the police chief, “What keeps you up at night?” His answer was gun permits. We didn’t have a metric in our platform about gun permits. However, now in New Jersey and all throughout the country, people are buying guns at record levels. It is burdening the police departments, who must perform more background checks to issue permits than they ever have before, in accordance with their state and county regulations. We developed customized metrics around gun permitting.

What’s next for Revelstone?

Our growth pattern will be very much state-by-state. Municipalities work in groups, and they want to benchmark and collaborate with their peers. We are ultimately building a community. We have a handful of customers in the other states, and we will continue to build our business in those states first.

We are also looking for funding. The four founders have seeded the business ourselves over the past several years, so we didn’t take outside investment, but we are now investigating a Series A investment.

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