Mill member Ansley Fender, Founder and CEO of Atlas Solutions, is no stranger to risk. She’s been a homeless teenager, a classically trained violinist, a pregnant grad student, a small business owner, and now she’s a non-technical founder of a software as a service (SaaS) company that streamlines grant management. All of these experiences have shaped who she is today, and prepared her to compete in an arena where women are underrepresented and underfunded.
Ansley’s startup, Atlas Solutions, provides end-to-end management of the grant and government contract funding cycle from finding funding, tracking budgets, and generating reports. Through accounting software sync, onboard chat, document storage, and calendar management, Atlas reduces administrative time and costs and streamlines collaboration for funding recipients and between recipients and their funders.
In October of 2020, Atlas received $20,000 in pre-seed investment from Elevate Ventures’ Community Ideation Fund and is currently running a pilot with MVP software developed with those funds. The path to get that point has had many twists and detours.
“I was a homeless teenager, so the drive to hustle started really early. I was taking care of myself at 14, 15. You learn to deal with the cards you’ve been dealt. I lived with friends, I still went to school, and I maintained straight As.”
Growing up in Florida in a family of musicians, Ansley trained as a classical violinist—including during periods of homelessness. “My dad understood that I needed an outlet. So the violin lessons never stopped.” She laughs. “That’s such a musician thing. ‘I don’t have a place to live, but I’m going to my violin lesson this week.’”
Her music brought Ansley to Bloomington to attend the renowned Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. After injuring her hand, she was forced to switch degrees. Heartbroken, but ever pragmatic, she transferred her credits into an arts management program at SPEA.
“Music is very high risk—arguably more high risk than starting a company. Thousands of violinists graduate every year, and there are only a couple of hundred positions available in orchestras worldwide. So I actually de-risked myself by leaving music school.”
After finishing her undergraduate degree, Ansley started on a masters of public affairs in public finance. When she got pregnant, she left school and started doing the work that would eventually lead her to found Atlas.
“I was looking for something to do while I was staying at home with my daughter, and I started doing books for nonprofits. That quickly spiraled into a full-blown business, and then from there it expanded into small businesses, startups, and other entities. But I kept seeing this recurring issue of grant management.”
Having children only reinforced Ansley’s lifelong drive to make sure she never found herself homeless again. Taking a steady job might seem the safest course, and Ansley tried that. But working for someone else lacked the creativity she needed for herself and the freedom she needed as a mother—especially when she became pregnant with her second child. She was determined to forge her own path. “I was five months pregnant when I quit working for someone else. And by the time my second daughter was born, I was making the same salary, but as a self-employed person.”
“Outside of Bloomington, I don’t know that it would have worked. Here I was, a very pregnant person trying to sell organizations on my services. And they took a chance, despite seeing that soon my time would be at a premium. We all made it work.”
In her work with nonprofits, Ansley saw that as much as 30% of grant funding was going to administrative costs. “So you get in this vicious cycle of, ‘We need to apply for more grants to pay for the admin on our other grants.’ One client had about $2 million in grants, and one person who works 40 to 50 hours a week, with her assistant and me, to try to manage them, and it still was barely getting done. I thought, ‘Well, okay, let’s try to automate some of this. What are the major pain points?’ And that’s really how Atlas’s features came together.”
“Atlas is industry-agnostic grant management software. The few things out there now are specifically for nonprofits or research institutions. We’re aiming to take a bite out of all $2 trillion worth of annual grant and federal contract funding.”
Atlas’s advantage will lie in seamless, complete support from procurement through tracking and all the way through to final reporting and closing off the grant. For procurement, Ansley’s team is building a grant-finding tool powered by machine learning.
“Manually searching funding databases takes hours and hours, and the return on investment is painfully low. So what we’re going to do is flip that. Users will fill out a survey with demographic information about their organization, and we’ll use that information to crawl funding databases, find funding, and predict likelihood of their qualifying. Grants and contracts over a specific threshold will automatically be emailed to the user.”
If the organization qualifies for the funding, they can apply; if not, they’ll provide feedback to Atlas to improve the machine learning algorithm.
“On the tracking and reporting side, we’ve identified siloed software as the biggest problem. Finance departments use one tool, and the programmatic people are using totally different software.” These systems don’t communicate with each other, and users find themselves operating on different timelines. The accounting deadlines for financial reporting, for example, may not align with the program schedules for executing work to meet grant milestones. The resulting conflicts cost precious time and hard-won dollars to reconcile.
Atlas will also provide budget versus actual reports by funding source, profit and loss statements by funding source, and federally compliant reports for recipients of federal grant and contract dollars. “The goal is that you can run these reports by funding source and then go into your accounting software and run an organization-wide report, and they will fit together like puzzle pieces. You’ll see exactly how that funding source feeds into your larger organization.”
“Very carefully!” she says. “There’s a big push now in tech. It used to be they wanted tech-heavy people: developers, coders, people who could build the software themselves. The problem was product-market fit wasn’t always at the top of the list of priorities. So you would have these really awesome tech solutions for a non-existent problem or for a problem that people really didn’t care about.”
Although the pendulum has swung to finding domain experts who understand the customer’s core problem, startups like Ansley’s still need someone who understands the technical side of the business to get funding and to refine the product. Most startups add a technical co-founder, CTO, or technical advisor who can translate the CEO’s vision of what the product should do into ones and zeros for someone to develop.
“I’m still looking for that CTO fit. It’s like finding a marriage partner. They have to be in it for the long haul, and they have to be as passionate about the software as I am. It’s like finding a unicorn. But I’m holding out hope.”
Founding a startup is 100% risk, Ansley says. The rewards are great if you make it big, but the odds are not in your favor. “An idea is nothing. It’s all in the execution, and there’s so much that can go wrong. The economy can go bad; you can get hit by a bus.”
The whole process is stressful, and Ansley makes no bones about that. “I am a proud anti-depressant med taker. It makes all the difference in the world. I’ve had conversations with other founders at The Mill about the psychological side and the mental health side of starting a company. I read an article not too long ago about a CEO who was leaving his position because his mental health had gotten so bad. All this plays into a larger picture of what it’s like to start a company.”
“Being a startup is not all about the fancy IPO or billion-dollar exit. It’s the antidepressant meds and homeless teenager stories. This the actual reality of being a CEO of anything, a tech company or non-tech company, whatever. You’ve got a baby screaming in the background while you’re trying to pitch.”
And she’s fine with that. “I’m totally cool with being a mom CEO,” Ansley says. “At the Bumble IPO, Whitney Herd, youngest CEO to take a company public, brought her baby to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. That’s amazing!”
In fact, Ansley’s winding life path has helped her develop a repertoire of skills that she uses today as a CEO. “As a violinist, the number of hours you’ll spend on a single measure, drilling it to perfection, is mind numbing. There’s spontaneity, but also muscle memory—and that’s the heart of a good pitch. You have to know exactly what you want to say, and you have to improvise, to react to the people listening.”
“Music school is known for being soul-sucking. ‘You’re not good enough. This is not good enough. I know you practiced 10 hours today, but it still sucks. You sound terrible.’ The startup world is super cut-throat, and it’s still nicer than that!”
“You get a really thick skin really quickly, and you get used to rejection. Being a woman in the tech world, you have to have an even thicker skin. About 3% of venture capital dollars go to female founding companies. 2020 was one of the biggest years for venture capital, and the share received by women-led companies went down. So we’re not doing great. Out of all the companies that have ever gone public, less than two dozen were female-led. It’s even worse for people of color or LGBTQ individuals.”
“As I’m trying to find a co-founder or a CTO, I would love to find a person of color or someone who identifies as LGBTQ. It might hurt my odds, but I think it’s important to have representation. It’s hard to balance all of this, to keep in mind what’s best for the company, and what’s also best for morality and my own personal beliefs.”
Ansley notes that having a token woman or BIPOC person on the team is not enough. “Their presence doesn’t mean that their ideas are going to be voiced and listened to. If you’re the only woman in the room, you might turn yourself into a wallflower, even if it’s not at all your personality, just for self-preservation.”
“But if there are two women, or two people of color, or two members of the LGBTQ community, then you feel safer. And that’s where ideas start to be discussed, and you start to think differently. That’s the beautiful thing about humanity. We all have completely different experiences and ideas.”
The $20,000 investment from Elevate Ventures allowed Atlas to develop the software currently being piloted to test the tracking and reporting side of the software. “I’m very grateful to Elevate,” Ansley says. “As a result of their press release, I started getting a lot of interest from startups and businesses who have received grants like SBIR/STTR from the federal government, which are a nightmare to manage. So now the pilot has turned into, how is grant management different across industries? How do the needs vary across industries?”
Atlas Solutions will raise an angel round later in 2021, with the goal of creating enough runway that Ansley can focus on Atlas full time for 18 to 24 months, and hire an internal tech person and another sales person. Atlas is also currently participating in nationally ranked startup accelerator gener8tor’s gBETA program.