Returning to Vancouver for its second year, TechExit.io presents the biggest exit success stories, and connects attendees with the players that made them happen. As a media partner, BetaKit interviews TechExit speakers about their journey prior to the conference.
When Carol Leaman was 17, she told her aunt she was going to be CEO of her own company one day. Fast forward two decades and Leaman has been a CEO of four different companies, with one, PostRank, exiting to Google.
Speaking to BetaKit ahead of her appearance at TechExit.io on April 10th in Vancouver, the serial CEO shared her lessons learned from leading multiple companies, and reflected on starting, growing, and eventually exiting PostRank.
Leaman started her career as a public accountant, far away from entrepreneurship. Just a few years into her career, she got the opportunity to become the CEO of an early-stage tech company her firm had acquired, Fakespace Systems.
“It was one of those moments in my life where I went ‘Ah, okay, I’m back on track. This is what I was meant to do.’”
“It was one of those moments in my life where I went ‘Ah, okay, I’m back on track. This is what I was meant to do’,” she said. “I had this epiphany that I landed where I was supposed to be.”
But as with most startups, the road was not easy. “The product we were selling was a very high-fidelity VR technology product that cost millions of dollars for very few applications globally,” Leaman said. “The entire market in the world for those products was about $100 million.”
The experience taught her an important lesson – to pay attention to market size and potential customer budgets. The company ultimately re-branded and pivoted, and Leaman moved on to her second CEO post at another early-stage tech company, RSS Solutions.
A move outside of the virtual reality space, RSS Solutions developed software for enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, specifically targeting the manufacturing industry. It didn’t take long for Leaman to realize the company was missing a crucial element for success.
“Frankly, the company was built on mediocrity,” she said. “Everyone was good people but not well-suited for their roles.” Leaman now cautions entrepreneurs to look for the best people possible, even if it takes more time and effort. “Don’t just find anybody that you think might be able to do something. Go find the best people you can possibly find.”
Leaman became an early investor in PostRank soon after meeting its then 22-year-old founder, Ilya Grigorik. She eventually joined PostRank as CEO in 2008 so that Grigorik could focus on product development.
As the leader of her third early-stage tech company, Leaman took the lessons learned from her former roles to help PostRank find product-market fit.
“He was a genius,” Leaman said of Grigorik. “He could build anything.” But the CEO wasn’t convinced that PostRank’s founder was building something anyone would pay for.
PostRank helped businesses measure how content performs: who’s sharing and where it goes. The company originally targeted bloggers to get market validation.
The CEO wasn’t convinced that PostRank’s founder was building something anyone would pay for.
“It was a mixed response,” Leaman said. “We were building what was essentially a blog post ranking solution… that exposed influencers that were influential in specific topic areas. But we ended up realizing fairly quickly that bloggers were not willing to pay what we were hoping.”
So, Leaman and the PostRank team pivoted and took their product to agencies. The decision created tension between CEO and genius founder, as Leaman fought for the company to build something people would pay for. “You can only work on a science project for so long,” she recalled.
This time, the product stuck. The analytics were helpful for agencies to identify and track influencer performance, something they were, in turn, selling to large brands.
Two years into Leaman’s CEO tenure, PostRank was finally growing and making money.
Leaman was in San Francisco with one of PostRank’s largest agency clients, whom she said had been trying to buy the company for over a year. Initially, Leaman didn’t want to sell because she preferred to scale the company, but the agency “finally came back with an offer I was willing to entertain.”
Coincidentally, Leaman received an email from Google saying its Head of Analytics wanted a demo of PostRank. Leaman agreed to a meeting the next day.
Halfway through the meeting, the Head of Google Analytics jumped in and said, ‘I just want to buy the company’. Suddenly, Leaman had two acquisition offers for PostRank.
In the end, the choice between Google and PostRank’s agency client came down to terms and preferences. Google’s all-cash offer was a definite plus, but Leaman recalled that Grigorik also liked being able to say that he started a company at 22 and sold it to Google at 26.
To Google and back again
Leaman stayed one month at Google, the minimum she was required for a smooth acquisition.
“I did have a couple of job offers from Google,” she said. “But about six months prior to the sale, I had met the founders of Axonify. They had this little piece of sketchy source code they built for a customer in their marketing agency.”
As a mentor, Leaman started to help the software company organize its business. During that process, she saw more opportunity.
“As I was helping them, I came to understand this could be a real thing,” she said. “So instead of going to Google, I decided to buy it from them. I took the code, I took two employees, I brought in a business partner and started over from scratch.”
Four companies and three exits later, Leaman is making her 17-year-old self proud. Taking the lessons from her previous three companies, Leaman both co-founded and leads Axonify, the first time in her career that she is CEO of her own company, just like she promised her aunt.