Visual Advance Systems Technology (VasTech)

Amy Every, Josh Vance and Ted Morahan. Three high school friends. In 1993, they became partners in a business that has consistently doubled in size every year for the last three---and they're still friends. Furthermore, Josh and Amy are husband and wife and recently became parents for the first time.

The company is Visual Advance Systems Technology (VasTech), a provider of staff scheduling software for a variety of industries, primarily within health care. VasTech's core product is "Nightingale," an integrated system developed for nurses but recently discovered to be applicable to the hospitality and event management industries as well. Ironically, a gambling casino that operates 24 hours a day has the same type of scheduling and staffing needs as a hospital. "It's making sure that people fairly rotate from one job to another and matching the skills and requirements of the people to the skills and requirements of the shifts they need to fill," says Josh. "What we have found---it's kind of an advantage in the marketplace---[is that] if you can do nursing, you can do anything. But the converse is not actually true at all. Nurses are the most challenging group so far."

Josh, the founder of the company, has a background in engineering, computer science and business, with masters degrees in business administration and electrical engineering. VasTech began as a moonlighting, shoestring operation out of his garage while he was working for a defense contractor.

Ted's background is all related to business. His undergraduate degree is in management and marketing, and his masters is in business administration. He worked in banking directly out of college and then for KPMG Consulting, where he performed systems, technical and financial consulting. He also has experience with numerous software applications and programming languages. In addition, Ted is a School of Nursing faculty associate at the University of Maryland.

Amy's degrees are in health care administration and nursing. "Usually, people start in nursing and then get a management or business degree," she says. "I did the reverse, which was actually a very interesting approach because I had sort of a business focus going into a clinical setting, which was different from most people."

While working as a clinical nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Amy saw how they were doing scheduling, how time consuming and frustrating it was, not only for management but for the staff as well. Josh had done physician scheduling for Duke University Medical Center and had said to himself, "There's got to be a better way to do this," and, says Amy, "it truly started that simply. We took it from there in terms of taking some sketch ideas to IT people at Hopkins and using them for alpha and beta testing. I think that's part of our success, having the direct connection between the users, the clinicians and the development people."

Of VasTech's 15 employees, five are nurses. "We all try to keep some clinical element," says Amy. "My background was in intensive care and oncology, so I might work once a month or a weekend once every three weeks." This way, the nurses are able to stay up to date with what is happening in the field.

Another registered nurse, Nancy Zimmerman, is also on the management team. She and Amy are primarily responsible for all implementations. The fifth member is Joe Matassa who brings a sales and marketing background to the table and serves as VasTech's marketing director.

In the beginning, the group did software development for several businesses here in Annapolis to bring in needed revenue. "Without that," says Ted, "we would have been in a lot of trouble." Josh notes that they were approached by an outside investor but resisted the temptation to go the way of the dot coms. "We're happy now," says Josh. "We don't have to answer to anybody."

With the Internet as their only sales representative, VasTech's second health care customer came to them from Dublin, Ireland. Due to their success with Mater Misericordiae, the second largest hospital in Ireland, Ted says, "We were international, basically, before we were national."

Interestingly, VasTech's software was used by Special Olympics Summer Games in June of this year, also in Dublin. "The planning for that event started two years ago," says Josh. "They have approximately 30,000 volunteers that they schedule across hundreds of venues throughout the city and country. They needed software that could manage those volunteers and put them in the right venues at the right time. Then they used the Nightingale system to schedule people within shifts in each one of those venues.

"The challenge was to develop something powerful, flexible, and easy to use," says Amy. "For the staff, it's all of those things. Via the web, they can actually put in their request for the dates they want to work, the days they want off, etc. Our system then takes all of that into consideration with the needs of the unit and automates the process to fill all the holes. That automation actually has a patent pending." Amy estimates that automated scheduling takes about 70 percent less time than manual scheduling. And with the time they have saved, nurses can return to the bedside. "The nurses' focus is supposed to be on managing patients," says Amy. "They are not IT experts."

About 20 percent of client training is now done at VasTech's Annapolis headquarters in Eastport. Mid-level managers come to town for a two- to three- day course. They, in turn, go back and train their staff in about 15 minutes. "Given the location of our office, it's a perfect place to bring clients," says Amy. "They want to do their training on the water, go out to lunch at Davis' Pub, see the Naval Academy and other historic sites. Work can be very stressful, but we have the atmosphere---and you can bring your dog to work."

VasTech is growing at 100 to 150 percent a year, and the members of the management team believe they need to find a smarter way to manage that growth than each of them working 70 to 80 hours a week. "I guess our long-term goal is to take a vacation," says Amy, who is technically on maternity leave and recalls Josh's cell phone ringing 10 or 15 times in the labor room of the hospital. "We're getting closer. This year was a little bit easier than last year. We might let Ted take off for his honeymoon."

The bottom line? "You can be successful in business without the 90s model of going out and getting a million dollars in venture capital money," says Josh. "You can start with an idea and you can put the product before the marketing and still succeed. It's common sense business."

Martie Callaghan is a freelance writer and native Marylander who enjoys spending time with her five grandchildren.


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