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Take the Money and Run: A Personal Startup Story

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IT WAS JANUARY, and the weather was bleak. It’d been freezing and overcast for as long as I could remember. Sometimes during winter in Akron, it feels like the sun sets in November and doesn’t rise until March.

It was late afternoon, and I was taking a break from hacking on some now-forgotten piece of code. Looking out the window of our “office” — really the second bedroom of our apartment where we’d crammed my desk — there was a foot of snow on the ground. Someone was trying to drive through the parking lot, their tires skidding back and forth on the thick layer of ice under the slush.

Taking a moment, I tried to remember when I’d last been out of the apartment, not counting trips to the grocery store. I couldn’t remember.


We’d started our first company, AgileZen, in late spring the previous year. We launched in July — July 7th, actually, for luck — and things had been going pretty well. We landed solid traction out of the gate, and people loved the product.

I was still pretty tired after grinding out the first version of the software, but I was having a great time. I grew up idolizing id Software and Nullsoft, and ever since I was a teenager, I’d wanted to start a software company. I’d spent the six years since finishing college working as a developer at various companies, but I was tired of executing someone else’s vision.

Zen was something that Niki and I had built by ourselves, without anyone’s permission, trying to cure a pain that I had personally felt. We were pleasantly surprised that it actually seemed to be valuable enough that people were willing to pay money for it. In fact, it was now making enough money that we weren’t burning any more of our savings.

To avoid spending money, we’d been subsisting on a diet consisting largely of soup. (Ramen, the stereotypical startup food, is dried via frying, making it pretty bad for you. Soup is cheap, healthy, and easy to make in large batches.) But now, we’d gradually started to feel like we might be able to afford to eat at restaurants again. I even bought some beer again, which we had considered an opulent luxury.

Anyways, things were looking good. We were still very small, but growing quickly. We had all kinds of crazy ideas on what we could build next. It was hard work, but exciting. A little bit of sunlight would have made me happier, but I couldn’t complain.

My computer dinged a familiar sound, letting me know that I had a new email. We didn’t have any employees, so an email typically meant that there was either a customer support request or a new sale. By now, the ding elicited a Pavlovian response, and I walked over to my desk to check.

Instead, it was an email from a corporate development guy at Rally Software. He wanted to schedule a meeting to discuss how we might be able to work together. Interesting.

I walked across the apartment to Niki’s desk. The office wasn’t quite large enough for both of us to comfortably sit, so she had set up camp in a corner of the living room.

“Did you see that email?” I asked.

Niki looked up and spun around in her chair. “Yeah, what do you think they want?”

“Dunno. Probably just want to talk about building an integration.”


We never built Zen with the idea that we were going to be acquired. We’d talked about it of course, but never more than half-seriously. It always seemed so far down the road that we didn’t give it any real thought. I just saw project management as a problem that needed to be solved, and it was frustrating that no one else had figured it out.

Just a couple of weeks before Rally reached out to us, we were at CodeMash in Sandusky. At the bar after the conference wrapped for the day, a colleague joked with us that the company he worked for (a major player in the project management market) should buy AgileZen. We laughed it off, but it was the first time I realized that selling the company might be a real option.

A few days after they contacted us, we had a conference call with the people from Rally. To our surprise, the CEO was on the call. I remember muting the phone and saying to Niki, “I don’t think this is about integration.” It quickly became apparent that they were interested in acquiring the company.

The idea that someone would be interested in buying our little company was flattering. We hadn’t even been in business for a year yet, and a multi-million dollar market leader thought what we were doing was good enough that they wanted to pay us a bunch of money and stock to have us do it for them instead.

We talked for an hour, and they bought us plane tickets to visit their headquarters in Boulder the following week.


On the way to the airport, we dropped our dogs off at Niki’s parents’ house. We were running a little late, and were in a hurry to make our flight. Walking back to the car, Niki slipped on the ice outside and fell, tearing the knee of her pants and scraping herself pretty badly.

This was strange; I’m usually the one getting randomly injured. Since we’ve been married, I’ve fallen down the stairs three times, once managing to spill coffee on the ceiling. When exercising, I’ve manage to twist my knee, ankle, elbow, and punch myself in the face not once but multiple times.

Kneeling on the ice, Niki looked at her knee and then to me with a look of sheer terror.

“We’ve  got this,” I said, helping her up. We rushed back home so she could bandage her knee and change clothes before racing to the airport. Fortunately the roads were well-salted, so by setting some land speed records — without drawing the attention of the state highway patrol — we made our flight.

We landed late in Boulder after dark, and the corp dev guy picked us up at the airport. We made small-talk as we drove from Denver to Boulder, and it was during this conversation that I first heard the phrase b-school spoken without being drenched in sarcasm.

We checked into the Hotel Boulderado, a restored historic hotel in downtown Boulder. After pacing around our room for a bit, we went downstairs to meet with Rally’s executive leadership team for dinner.

I was pretty nervous. We were just two kids from Akron that built this little web app to help people organize their work. Collectively, the people from Rally had something like 100 years of experience. Several of them had previous acquisitions, netting them significant personal wealth. Mostly, I drank a lot of wine and tried (unsuccessfully) not to sweat through my shirt.

We spent the entire following day at their office, meeting with a never-ending series of people from Rally. They explained to us what they thought the potential future of Zen could be, and we were struck with how similar their vision was to ours. They were smart, determined, energetic people, passionate about what they were doing, and driven by a higher purpose. I liked them quite a bit.

One thing that struck me as amusing is that throughout our conversations, they consciously avoided using the word acquisition — it was always merger. A clever attempt at flattery, which I appreciated in spite of its transparency.

After all of the meetings, the CEO came back to say that they wanted to meet, but that they wanted to make an offer to buy our company. We would hear from them in a few days once they put together the numbers. He thanked us, and we left for the airport.


A few days after we got back from Boulder, I was scheduled to visit Microsoft in Seattle. Just before I left, they called with the offer. It was reasonable — nothing ridiculous, but respectable, particularly considering our ARR had just barely cracked $70K. The payout was split between cash and a grant of stock up front, good compensation in terms of salary and two years of stay-pay bonuses for both of us, as well as stock options on a three-year vesting schedule.

By this point, Rally had raised $90 million or some exorbitant amount of venture capital, and were clearly near exit velocity where they could go public. We met with their CFO, who quickly won our confidence with his frankness and transparency with their finances and future plans. Between the salaries they were offering (starting at $135K for each of us) and the potential value of the stock, it was hard to look at our meager bank balance and not want to sell.

Not insignificantly, it also meant we could leave Akron. We knew we would miss our families back home, but after 27 years of Ohio winters, we were ready for a change. We weren’t keen on moving to Colorado, but strangely enough, they had an office in Raleigh, NC, where we already had several friends. It felt like serendipity.

All the financial incentives aside, we started Zen because we wanted to help people work together more effectively. We were convinced we were on to something with Zen, but we weren’t sure that we could take it to the next level. Getting access to Rally’s resources and reach meant that we might be able to get our product in front of more people, and increase our impact.

With all that said, one of the main reasons that we decided to sell was: quite simply, there were times when we felt like we had no idea what the fuck we were doing. We couldn’t shake the feeling that we were just a couple of kids in an apartment, buried somewhere under lake effect snow. These people were big time. They had deep pockets, lots of experience, and a strong understanding of the market.

So, we sold our company.

Due diligence took a month, during which I spoke at Microsoft’s MIX conference in Las Vegas. I was more than a little distracted, and my talk was a trainwreck. To my chagrin, I’m sure there’s visual evidence of it somewhere. I’ve never really apologized to Phil Haack, who was nice enough to ask me to speak at the conference, only to be presented with a huge shitshow. Sorry, Phil.

On the day the deal finally closed, we bought a $50 bottle of champagne and drank it together in our little apartment-office as the snow continued to fall outside. Just a couple of kids from Akron, but we were real-life entrepreneurs with an actual acquisition on our resume. We got calls from the press asking us questions. Investment bankers called us asking to manage our assets (which weren’t nearly as impressive as they undoubtedly thought). We felt like we’d made it.

Eventually, we’d come to learn how wrong we were, how hard the road ahead of us would be, and that selling the company would mean the end of what we’d worked so hard to build. But that night was for celebrating.

_____________________________________________________

About the Author

This article was written by Nate Kohari, a software engineer and an entrepreneur who co-founded AgileZen. 

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Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Laina Raveendran Greene, Co-Founder at Angels of Impact

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Here is our interview with Laina Raveendran Greene, Founder of GETIT Inc. and Co-Founder of Angels of Impact, an impact network focused on women social entrepreneurs helping to alleviate poverty. She is an entrepreneur and social impact investor, whose passion is female empowerment, and enabling women to be key agents to help alleviate poverty in Asia.

What makes you do what you do?
As a minority female Singaporean from relatively humble beginnings, I have never taken anything for granted. I learnt early on that I have to work doubly hard to overcome the “glass ceilings” but if I persevere, I can succeed. That is why I chose to focus on helping women-led social enterprises as I know how hard things are for them and I hope to make things a little easier for them.

How did you rise in the industry you are in? 
I rose by being courageous enough to push against the “glass ceiling” and seizing opportunities open to me no matter where they were. Early on, I realized I would have better opportunities overseas, so I worked in many countries, including Switzerland, USA, and Indonesia and used these opportunities to learn and open new avenues for myself. I now come back to Singapore with many more networks and skill sets.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
Yes, as a minority Singaporean, it may appear that I am not the usual leadership demography in Singapore. In my own way, however, I think I have amassed my own international accolades and work experience such as serving as the first Secretary General for the Asia Pacific Internet Association, CEO of one of the first few tech startups in Singapore in the early 90s, being on the International Steering Committee of the Global Telecommunication Women Network, and most recently selected as one of the 2nd cohort of Edmond Hillary Fellows in New Zealand.

I am now moving to the next phase of using these networks and skills to help other women to social enterprises, which seem to be exactly what I want to do in my next phase of life (after more than 25 years of global work experience).

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? 
It was harder in my younger days, as one of the few women in tech to find mentors but today I do.  Men were reluctant to mentor me for fear of rumors.

How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him? 
I found my mentor when I was taking an executive program at Stanford. He was one of the keynote speakers and I went to talk to him. Intrigued by my background, when I asked if he would mentor me, he said yes. I meet with him at regular intervals and I always ensure I have put his ideas to test before reporting back to him. I feel that I value his time if I do actually listen and act on his advice.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent? 
The key qualities I look for is an eagerness to learn and humility to be open to new ideas. Also, when asked to be a mentor, I usually give homework and see how proactive they are. Only the ones who do their homework, take the advice and act on it, are the ones I actively mentor.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously and unconsciously support diversity, as I see the importance of diversity on true innovation. You never get anything new, talking to like-minded people. It is always good to have different perspectives to create new ideas. I am also an active supporter having faced racial and gender discrimination in my life and want to ensure that others are given a better chance.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb? 
A great leader to me is one who has empathy and humility, and a genuine spirit of service. Today’s challenges such as climate change and social injustice, requires many players to apply their knowledge and skills to solve and have a sense of ownership in solving these issues

Advice for others?
The only advice I can think of is do what you are strongly passionate about. You need to persevere to succeed so it helps if you truly care about the endeavor you are working on.

If you’d like to get in touch with Laina Raveendran Greene, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/laina/

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Callum Connects

Denise Morris Kipnis, Founder & Principal of ChangeFlow Consulting

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Denise Mossis Kipnis’ curiosity in people and the world, lead her to set up ChangeFlow Consulting.

What’s your story?
I’m driven by curiosity. Having been the only one in a room who looks like me for most of my life, I developed a curiosity about who stays, who leaves and who thrives in minority/majority situations including when and how connection and collaboration happen. I was a systems thinker long before I knew what that was, always asking why and so what; and seeing the pieces, the whole, and the places in between. So helping people and organisations move through the complexity of transformation feels natural to me.

What excites you most about your industry?
I see change and inclusion as two sides of the same thing; I don’t practice one without the other. Some people see change as death, as loss, as exhausting. And it can be. But I see in the work I do as an opportunity for something new or hidden to emerge. When an organisation understands that it is first a group of people, who themselves represent and belong to groups of people, and it begins to tackle what it would mean to understand and learn from all that talent, all that diversity, to have them all working for and not against the organisation, to truly unleash all that their people have to offer; that’s magic.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Change and inclusion are personal values as well as professional strengths. For me, living and working outside of the States was a bold experiment to see whether any of the stuff I’d learned about change and inclusion would work outside of the US. My husband and I targeted Asia specifically: it would be the greatest contrast, culturally speaking, for me; and a unique career springboard for him.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Although I’ve practiced in other cities, I am biased towards Singapore. In some ways it’s what Los Angeles is to the rest of the United States, a microcosm of sorts. The regional/global nature of it means that so many different nationalities and cultures are represented. As a result of this mix, you never know what you might get. In some situations, cultural dynamics are obvious, sometimes subdued. The variability is compelling.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Never ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself.” Michael Rouan.

Who inspires you?
Often it’s a “what” not a “who.” I can get inspiration from a passage in a book or a situation in a movie, as well as a turn of a phrase or watching people interact. I often make the biggest connections between the various threads I’m working on when I’m sitting in someone else’s event.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I’m honestly not blown away by much. Instead, I’m struck how circular things can be: ideas often come back around with a slightly different twist and I watch the way it shakes things loose for people. I recently sat through a workshop on Self as Instrument, and despite being thoroughly versed already, I learned something. In preparing for a panel on design thinking, I unearthed a new language to describe things.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
You’ve caught me at a good time. I’m sitting in appreciation and gratitude for all my experiences, because I wouldn’t be who I was today if all that has happened, didn’t. And yet one thing comes to mind: It wasn’t until I redesigned my website two years ago (shout out to Brew Creative!) that I realised I hadn’t made explicit agreements with my past clients as to what I could share publicly about our engagement, or whether I could use their logos in my promotional materials. In my business, confidentiality is so important, and yet I need to be able to talk about the work as reputation and experience leads to the next success, and so on. It turned out a lot of the contacts I had known had left the organisations where the work was done, so they couldn’t help at that point. So the practice I’m carrying forward is to get those agreements up front, and to make sure my relationships in client systems are broad as well as deep.

How do you unwind?
Science fiction, puzzles, wine.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Home. I don’t travel to relax, I travel to learn and explore.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Built to Change, by Ed Lawler and Chris Worley. To my knowledge, it’s the first pivot from advising organisations away from stability and toward dynamism, from strategic planning to strategizing as an action verb; to blow up the traditions and rigidity that impede organisations from developing change capability.

Shameless plug for your business:
We’re taught that there are two kinds of people: those who see forests, and those who see trees. There is a third type, my type, and we see the ecosystem. Worms, climate, birds, the spaces in between. This is the perspective organisations need to be successful in solving complex problems and thriving in change.
ChangeFlow uniquely blends four disciplines (two of which are multi-disciplinary in themselves): organisation development, culture and inclusion, change management and project management.

How can people connect with you?
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ChangeFlowConsulting/
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dmorriskipnis/
LinkedIn Company page: https://www.linkedin.com/company/4862954/
Email: [email protected]
Website: http://www.changeflowconsulting.com

Twitter handle?
@ChangeFlow

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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