SMART BEYOND ITS YEARS Born in Lafayette, a young education tech company is maturing at a national level.

by Christiaan Mader

Firefly Digital’s Mike Spears

In the tech world, the wunderkind is a common beast. As a successful millennial web developer, Casey Bienvenu is thus relatively unremarkable. Sure, he was building websites for beloved Lafayette restaurants in middle school, but with today’s coding tools that’s not exactly proto-genius innovation. Bienvenu, now 29, has separated himself from his peers by carving out a place in a niche education technology market perhaps not the most obvious choice for a once-ambitious and brainy teen. Since going full-time five years ago, Bienvenu has built his Lafayette launched platform Smart Choice into a dominating force in the market segment, now helping some 4,000 schools nationwide manage applications for more than 3 million students.

Smart Choice Technologies, a school choice and application management software company, is as much a product of Lafayette’s own Schools of Choice program as it is a boon to it. Bienvenu, a graduate of the Academy of Information Technology at Carencro High, developed the software as a side project to his class work. Seeing a need to digitize the schools of choice application and lottery management process, which randomly assigns students to specialized academies, Bienvenu coded a program that allowed parents to apply to several academies at once. With the stroke of a few keys, he dug LPSS out of the pen-and-paper doldrums and provided an efficient means to managing mountains of applications fairly and equitably.

The nifty fix caught the attention of officials with nearby East Baton Rouge Parish Schools, on the hunt for an easier way to manage their magnate application process. And then Evangeline Parish schools called. And then came calls from schools across the country: Baltimore, Md., St. Louis, Mo., Orange County, Calif., and Anchorage, Alaska. Even the Houston Independent School District, one of Smart Choice’s largest clients, was stuck using paper applications before contracting with Smart Choice.

“We were very fortunate that the LPSS Schools of Choice system was here in our backyard,” says Bienvenu. “To have them here, I was able to see what their needs are.”

By allowing parents to apply online, Bienvenu’s platform eliminates the mystery and mismanagement that accompanies the paper application process. In order to comply with federal equal education regulations, systems like Lafayette’s Schools of Choice program assign applicant students to schools by lottery. Mixed with prioritizing factors installed to promote school diversity, like race, military service and economic status, the school system’s lottery has to account for several compounding variables while randomly and fairly distributing students around the system — a sophisticated problem when dealing with several thousand applications.

Therein lies the convenience of Bienvenu’s program — a sorting hat, of sorts, armed with algorithmic fairness that keeps parents happy with their options and school board lawyers out of the courtroom.

Smart Choice has achieved this runaway success through strategic partnership with Firefly Digital, a Lafayette-based web development and digital solutions company that hired Bienvenu at 16, based on the strength of the young web designer’s portfolio. Firefly served as an incubator of sorts to Bienvenu as he worked nights and afternoons after his classes in Carencro.

“I wasn’t even sure I could hire him. I thought he was too young for me to be able to pay him,” says Firefly’s chief executive officer, Mike Spears.

Bienvenu built websites with Firefly, but since Smart Choice’s launch in 2003, Spears has shepherded Bienvenu’s concept through the process of acquiring new clientele, installing Bienvenu’s system and providing day-to-day customer service. Five years ago, Bienvenu left Firefly to work full-time on Smart Choice and remains the only full-time employee. Firefly is still the exclusive marketing agent for the platform and provides Smart Choice with service, sales and installation labor.

Contracts for Smart Choice’s typical clientele, which range in size from single-use charter schools to metropolitan school systems with dozens of member institutions, command between $40,000 and $250,000 per contract. Bienvenu and Spears have eyed the emerging Common Enrollment market, developing software for massive school entities that collect charter and conventional district schools into a single, unified application process. Those contracts can fetch between $500,000 and $1 million a piece.

After years of “bootstrapping it,” Spears says Firefly and Smart Choice are currently courting outside capital, expecting to add 50 to 100 employees in the next three to five years. No longer an adolescent startup in the education tech market, Smart Choice is maturing into a serious player in its industry.