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Catching up with Reuben Pressman: Tech entrepreneur learns to value a slower pace during Covid

Margie Manning

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To keep the remote workforce connected, Presence has done lots of virtual events, such as a cook-along to make cinnamon rolls.

The Covid-19 pandemic, with its social distancing and work from home protocols, can be tough on extroverts.

One extrovert, Reuben Pressman, founder and CEO of edtech company Presence, and Entrepreneur-in-Residence for the city of St. Petersburg, has learned to cope by adopting new work styles and ways to interact with both his employees and other entrepreneurs.  He expects at least some of those new strategies will become permanent amid a “new normal.”

Reuben Pressman

Presence, with software and data collection tools for student engagement at colleges and universities, closed its downtown St. Petersburg office when the pandemic began and the staff, including Pressman, have been working from home since then. That hasn’t hindered growth, as Presence continues to develop new products and add staff.

“We were already at a point before Covid that we were looking for new offices as we were outgrowing the current space that we have,” Pressman said. “In March, we made the move to go home and we have everyone working from home still. We don’t have a timeline of when to go back but we do plan to go back. We’re larger at this point than when we left and it would be tough for us to fit in that space. So we will be looking for new office space when we do go back at some point next year.”

The company is looking for tenants to sublease its space at 100 7th Ave. S.

Personal growth

Pressman set up a home office, but he confessed he has a hard time working alone. Instead of fully quarantining, he’s established a finite group of people with whom he has contact.

“A couple of those are the leadership at the company. I actually have my home office set up with two desks and occasionally one will come by and work from here with me directly. We’ll whiteboard some things out, or work on brainstorming related projects. That’s definitely helped,” Pressman said. “I felt more hectic before, versus being comfortable at home. Being here has allowed me to take my time with things, which is a personal growth thing.”

Communications have gotten more streamlined as well.

“You’re not able to spend a lot of time in a room with people so when you are doing business and doing meetings, they are more focused and to the point, which for me is a benefit,” Pressman said.

Presence has kept the remote workforce connected through virtual events, such as a cook-along with Celine Duvoisin at Valhalla Bakery St. Pete.

“She’ll put a list of ingredients together. Throughout the week the team can pick those up and then at the end of the week we spend two hours and she walks us through the recipe. We made cinnamon rolls once, and she actually walked the whole team through how to make it. We made it together over Zoom and ate together,” Pressman said.

He expects to continue to offer a flexible approach to working from home, even when the staff returns to the office.

Pressman also shifted his approach as the city’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, an unpaid role in which he make connections and offers advice for startup leaders here and those considering moving here. He works closely with J.P. DuBuque, president of the Greater St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corp.

“When a company is relocating, it’s important to have someone who is building a company and can give honest and open and transparent feedback and advice about moving here and what the pros and cons are,” Pressman said. “I am that for J.P. and for the companies moving here.”

Pre-Covid, Pressman would join the EDC on tours to other cities. Now he’s doing most of that work by phone or by Zoom, as well.

Still, culture is important for Pressman and at Presence.

“We’ve all loved the office. A major reason people join the company is for the culture and the team and being around each other, and what that does to drive everybody to build camaraderie. That’s been tough to create. Everyone is quite excited to go back to the office at some point,” he said.

New tools

Presence was founded on the idea that students who are engaged in school activities outside the classroom are more likely to stay in school, perform better and be more successful after graduation. That principle holds true now more than ever, Pressman said, and the company has developed new tools for connections in a virtual world.

Initially as campuses shut down in the spring and pivoted to online learning, the company developed software to help institutions deliver millions of dollars of CARES Act funding to students in need, created virtual on-demand content catalogs, powered online student orientations and created or fine-tuned other features.

Now that many schools have returned to in-person classes or a hybrid approach, Presence has added more features to its offerings, such as integration of its tools with Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

“There’s a range of institutions that are not back but even for the ones that are most of their programming is done virtually right now. That means they’re not checking students in on campus. They’re not able to track that engagement very easily and it became another big gap and convoluted process,” he said. “Our integration enables them, in real time as soon as the event is over, to pull in that attendance just as it would for the on-campus programs with our tracking.”

Presence rolled out a feature for a virtual orientation, a “choose-your-adventure” gamified orientation that first-year students can go through online on their own time. Presence also integrated its software with hardware from Transact Campus, which provides contactless IDs to more than 1,000 institutions across the U.S.

“We’ve had some great success stories, especially with the virtual programs. National Louis University, based in Chicago, increased their student engagement by three times using our tools after Covid,” Pressman said.

With enrollment down an estimated 5 percent to 20 percent in higher education, retention becomes a bigger issue. Presence’s core products, with data tracking and data analytics, help with resource allocation, Pressman said.

“Enrollment is down. Overall student body count is down. You don’t have as much funding to be able to allocate towards resources on campus and you have to make decisions as to what to cut and what to keep, or where to spend to make improvements,” Pressman said. “So having the data analytics from Presence makes it easier to make those decisions and figure out what’s most valuable to them.”

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