Led by a pair of organizational psychologists with more than a decade of experience working in leadership development, Monark has set out to improve the way companies train their leaders.
The Calgary-based startup is building software designed to automate the science of leadership development and performance for both new and emerging leaders. Through live cohort-based training, as well as personalized micro-learning, behavioural nudges, and feedback powered by machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI), Monark hopes to deliver more lasting behavioural changes on a more consistent basis.
“The impacts of having [emerging leaders] be unprepared is vast … When you’ve got people quite late in their careers, they’re already entrenched in some of these bad habits.”
– Amanda Julian, Monark
Monark has secured $1.5 million CAD in seed funding to fuel the development of its offering, layer on more AI and ML integrations, and support its United States (US) expansion plans.
The equity round closed in August and was led by future-of-work-focused Toronto venture capital (VC) firm Storytime Capital, with support from other new investors Calgary-based The51, Kitchener-Waterloo’s Phoenix Fire, StarForge, and other Archangel funds, and existing backer UCeed. The round brings Monark’s total funding to nearly $2.5 million, and Storytime co-founder and managing partner Neil Grunberg to Monark’s board.
Monark co-founders Kelsey Hahn and Amanda Julian previously worked together at Calgary-based family office Viewpoint Group, operating a boutique consulting firm focused on leadership development. Frustrated by the lack of impact they were having and cognizant that there were other parts of organizations beyond the C-suite level that were “struggling and under resourced,” Hahn (CEO) and Julian (chief science officer) left Viewpoint in late 2020 and founded Monark with the goal of building a better way of delivering leadership training.
“We had primarily been engaging in this traditional consultant model, where we were engaging really episodically with our clients … and then leaving, and then coming back in a year and seeing that nothing has really changed, other than they’ve gotten this nice report that went into a file drawer somewhere,” Julian told BetaKit in an exclusive interview.
During their time with Viewpoint, Julian said she and Hahn came to two key realizations. First, that they needed to catch folks much earlier in their careers, and second, that middle managers—who have historically been underserved from a leadership-training standpoint—often play a critical role in how organizations function.
“The impacts of having those people be unprepared is vast across organizations,” Julian said. “When you’ve got people quite late in their careers, they’re already entrenched in some of these bad habits.”
Now, Viewpoint is an investor in Monark, which secured simple agreement for future equity (SAFE) pre-seed and bridge financing from the firm in 2021 and 2022, when UCeed first invested. The startup has also purchased all assets, intellectual property, and clients from Viewpoint’s leadership consulting arm and converted those customers to its platform. Since it emerged from beta last year, Monark has amassed a client base consisting largely of energy and manufacturing organizations and electrical utilities.
“Emerging managers rarely get the support they need to develop leadership, which creates a painful organizational blindspot,” Neil Grunberg of Storytime told BetaKit. “Monark enables corporations to turn managers into leaders who can then empower their teams, creating exponential and multifaceted growth in the organization. Not only has the Monark team identified this clear need in the future of work, but they are executing on all cylinders and impressed us throughout the diligence process.”
Hahn, who gave birth to her second child while fundraising for Monark’s bridge round, told BetaKit that closing capital during the downturn was difficult, between VCs reserving capital for existing portfolio companies, to navigating differing expectations from investors who said the company was raising either too much or too little in Canadian versus US terms.
“It’s been challenging to raise money in the Canadian ecosystem over the last two years, and so we put our heads down and said, ‘You know what, there’s more than one way to get capital into your company, and the best way is to sell,’” Hahn said.
Knowing that this would also make Monark a more resilient organization, that’s what the startup did, keeping its team lean, focusing on sales, and leveraging grants, reaching cash flow breakeven before closing this round.
As the economy deteriorated and VCs’ priorities shifted, Hahn said this made Monark more attractive to prospective investors. Amid the competitive leadership-development market, which she argued features many overpriced and outdated solutions, Hahn claimed that this traction helped Monark stand out.
“There is no question we are in a challenging macroeconomic fundraising environment,” Grunberg said. “However, because Kelsey and Amanda are running a strong, lean organization and driving both revenue and growth, it gave them the confidence and calm to present themselves in a light where they were not chasing funding with stress. That allowed them to stand out and wait for the right investors.”
“Emerging managers rarely get the support they need to develop leadership, which creates a painful organizational blindspot.”
Storytime, which launched last year and has since closed its fund at $17.5 million CAD, has invested in eight early-stage Canadian startups building tech for the future of work to date. As Grunberg claimed, while middle management within medium to large organizations is “pivotal,” it “has been neglected.”
“Monark’s focus on using cutting-edge technology to empower these managers lands right into the Storytime strike zone,” he added.
While Monark has tested its solution in many different environments, including serving clients in the private equity, financial services, real estate, legal, and medical spaces, Monark has established more of a foothold with industrial companies.
Per Hahn, the startup has found a niche serving traditional organizations that either have not had access to employee leadership tools or haven’t invested in them. “We’re operating really, really well in these desk-less kinds of environments for workers that have previously really never had access to this sort of training,” she added.
Monark hopes to serve this same sector in the US. Hahn noted that the startup already has many clients headquartered in Alberta with a presence south of the border, which could serve as a stepping stone for Monark’s US expansion plans.
Meanwhile, Monark’s product development plans include using ML to offer more personalization and exploring the use of generative AI to provide live feedback, insights, and simulated roleplay.
Feature image courtesy Monark.