How Iuri Melo co-founded SchoolPulse and CoPilot
In 2017, St. George, Utah, suffered the loss of seven students to suicide. In fact, throughout the state, there seemed to be a disproportionate increase in suicide completions, including eight students in Herriman High School alone. At that time, I was busy running my own private practice as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), with a particular emphasis on working with adolescents.
Justin Keate, principal at Desert Hills High School in St. George, reached out to me in the hopes that together we could do more for students. He had just lost two students to suicide and one to accidental death. His alarmed statement to me was, “I have to do more. I have to be more proactive instead of reactive and find a way to check in with students on a regular basis.” That was the moment of inception—the moment when the idea of SchoolPulse began to take shape into what it is now, the best text-based student support service in the United States.
After some initial brainstorming meetings, I met with my friend, Trent Staheli, a software engineer and successful entrepreneur. He immediately liked the soul of the idea, and together we decided to launch our first version of SchoolPulse at Desert Hills High School. The secret sauce behind successfully reaching teens was text. I created the psychology behind the texts, and Trent developed the infrastructure that made everything possible.
Our initial product was a simple check-in tool. We would send one text to students per week, asking them to rate how they were feeling on a simple scale. As students answered, they would receive automated responses meant to validate and suggest tips and skills to improve their well-being. We worked under the assumption that “whatever is measured improves over time.” Additionally, we hoped to provide the school with data that could possibly inform their future interventions regarding student wellness.
At that point, I was running my personal therapy clinic, where I supervised other social workers looking to break into private practice. Trent was pursuing his Ph.D. in Scotland while being involved in some of his other companies. As a result, the next couple of years brought some very limited local growth, as I was busy with my practice, and Trent was busy with his own businesses.
In 2020, we added a personal voice to SchoolPulse. Instead of automated responses, we added real, trained professionals who interacted live with the students. We also expanded to three messages per week. Our focus grew from gathering student wellness data to becoming a mechanism where we could deliver extraordinary psychology to students while also providing an enthusiastic and respectful voice for them to receive encouragement, support and problem-solving—the result was extraordinary!
We could visibly see the impact text messaging was having on students and parents. The anonymity of the platform created a safe, non-threatening and incredibly accessible platform for students to celebrate their successes while also sharing some of their personal challenges.
Trent used several algorithms to create a “sentiment analysis tool,” which allowed us the ability to evaluate the effectiveness of our team’s interactions with students. The data was clear when students interacted with our Positive Interaction Team (PIT), their sentiment levels would rise 50-60 percent. These were staggering results that communicated the power that connection (even over text) can have on our general well-being and the power that a kind, gentle, understanding and respectful voice can have on our immediate wellness.
As our confidence grew, so did our vision. We raised money, and Trent devoted more time to programming our product. I left behind my private practice and began devoting my efforts to growing the psychology behind SchoolPulse. We picked up Justin Lund, an entrepreneur and a long-time friend of Trent Staheli, to lead our marketing efforts, and we began to pick up momentum.
In 2022, we hired Colby Jenkins as our first CEO. Colby, a Special Forces Green Beret, immediately saw how our platform could positively impact the lives of veterans and active service members. A study released in 2022 found that as many as 44 veterans die on average per day from suicide. In addition, active military individuals were also experiencing record-high suicide rates throughout the country. From the moment of inception, we knew that we would be serving veterans and active service members due to their tremendous risks and challenges. This was the time, and Colby expedited this added focus to our service.
Our goal was to build on the success we were experiencing with teens and to replicate it with adults, veterans and active service members. Our push has led us to school and district partnerships in 25 states and over 100 schools. We’ve also started serving veterans, active military members and their families.
Part of our great challenge in growing has been to keep our focus flexible but not overly broad. Since our idea could literally splinter into 1,000 different pieces, the concern was that we would lose some of our effectiveness instead of focusing on the verticals that would allow us to grow financially more directly and responsibly. As a result, we’re staying committed to our initial push to develop and grow SchoolPulse and to the development of CoPilot and not adding any additional focus areas at this time.
We’re deliberately narrowing our focus to ensure our actions are always focused on ways to generate revenue so we don’t become dependent on capital raises that dilute our shareholders.
"The time is right. The cause is great. The impact is visible and encouraging. In the midst of a mental health crisis and on the heels of a global pandemic, SchoolPulse and CoPilot are perfectly poised to deliver an optimistic and evidence-based tool to teens, veterans, active service members and adults."
Our vision is fantastical—we seek to bless the human family. Our mission is to proactively deliver the most dynamic and successful psychology directly to individuals while providing them with an affordable, accessible and real caring connection. Our objective is to encourage and compel joy. This is done by delivering our systematic stream of positivity, optimism and the best cognitive and behavioral strategies available.
The results? We prove our system every hour of every day with thousands of messages as evidence that our systematic nudging tool raises the tide individually and collectively at schools. SchoolPulse is innovative, fresh and hands-on, but schools are not always friendly to innovation and hands-on interventions. Schools have become highly politicized arenas where numerous agendas are constantly locked in conflict. Concepts that focus on social and emotional wellness are well-received in some states and repudiated in others.
We noticed that schools are fearful when leading out and trying new things. Schools and districts often glance “sideways” to see who else is using SchoolPulse before they even explore how our platform can systematically raise the climate and culture in their school, in addition to enhancing the wellness of their students, which has been proven to positively impact their ability to learn and excel academically and socially. Early adopters of SchoolPulse are critical to our success. Nurturing those relationships and staying top-of-mind is essential to the present and future success of SchoolPulse.
Schools and districts are not quick sells, and for the most part, are not fast-moving organizations. School boards and risk-management teams must vet our content and address the fact that our professional team is chatting with youngsters. Our sales cycle is long, persistent and relationship-based. Even though our primary focus will remain on procuring schools and district deals, we’ve also started selling directly to parents to shrink that sales cycle and increase profitability.
Our margins are razor-thin with schools but more manageable when sold individually to parents and other organizations. This has spurred the launch of CoPilot, which uses the same technology and philosophy but is adapted to reaching adults who are veterans, active service members, faculty and parents.
There are many uses for SchoolPulse and CoPilot, and part of our challenge is to spread ourselves evenly and ensure our limited energy and resources are aimed where the highest potential sources of revenue are. Our objective is to grow responsibly. Even though there is a real possibility to raise additional capital and grow faster, that is not always the most sensible and realistic thing to do.
Responsible growth can be challenging. I’ve come from a simple private practice model of getting paid hourly for each individual session. It’s been a successful 20 years, but this new model has literally turned my world upside down. Changing my pay to a modest wage plus commission has been terrifying—it is terrifying.
The experiment is ongoing, with Trent and Justin Lund (teammates who are more familiar and experienced with these models) doing their best to encourage my confidence and support my and Colby’s efforts as the primary salesmen in our company.
Selling innovation in the ‘real world’
Innovation is attractive, and around the right circles, it can spark recognition and accolades (not that those things ultimately matter). But in the real world, when you are attempting to push a service that’s different and new to the marketplace, innovation doesn’t bring feelings of trust and certainty. Thus, we have found that all our purchasers are innovators and “out of the box” thinkers.
Striking a balance between what is familiar and how our particular service can do what others services also do—and then pushing the envelope and enhancing their vision to see the potential our service unlocks in their schools and individual students—is paramount. Our offering is sometimes met with “sounds too good to be true” exclamations, which we have found can trigger resistance and an unwillingness to walk down this “unknown path.” Instead, they revert to their familiar yet less-effective strategies.
Don’t get me wrong, every effort on the part of schools and districts to improve the mental wellness of their students is remarkable, and I applaud it. Still, there is a good, better, best category to everything in life, and when we present them with the best, it almost falls outside of their target zone, and that’s where we meet their reluctance.
One of our objectives as a company is “to be discovered.” We realize we are just a couple of connections away from experiencing a potential tipping point. Thus, we have done everything we can to invite news channels, newspapers and other publications that can act as an accelerant to becoming more visible and attracting those with a personal experience and passion for enhancing the mental wellness of students, parents, veterans and active service members.
This approach has been effective and yielded critical relationships with organizations and connectors. The great irony of having something truly life-changing and life-saving—and yet, having that something be in the shadows, undiscovered—is what we’re attempting to avoid. Media involvement allows us to bring precious light into our efforts, with the hope that others will recognize the good that is possible and join us in our efforts to spread it.
The time is right. The cause is great. The impact is visible and encouraging. In the midst of a mental health crisis and on the heels of a global pandemic, SchoolPulse and CoPilot are perfectly poised to deliver an optimistic and evidence-based tool to teens, veterans, active service members and adults! Our objective is to proactively deliver the best positive psychology skills and strategies, which will, in turn, encourage a “happiness advantage” in every individual, thus encouraging a more successful interaction with the academic, professional and social world surrounding them.
Teens and adults open 98 percent of what we send them. We have the most listened-to podcast for teens in the nation. Less than 1 percent opt out of our service. It’s time for us to evolve beyond a culture of reactivity and mental illness and instead focus on proactively building every child and adult’s psychological fitness and mental wellness.
SchoolPulse and CoPilot represent a systematic, sustainable, accessible and cost-effective way of doing exactly that. SchoolPulse and CoPilot are simply doing what everybody already knows is the most effective way to instill long-term change. We require little effort (proactive); we are prevention- and education-based; we are systematic (our texting nudges are our secret sauce); and we provide a real human voice that is non-threatening, enthusiastic, respectful and caring.
The personal connection our team members (Positive Interaction Team) nurture is the real heart of SchoolPulse and CoPilot and the primary reason for the extraordinary outcomes we are experiencing throughout the nation. So, come and find us!