Culture, Growth, SaaS

Carol Leaman, Axonify Co-founder & CEO, on Growth and Culture

Continuing our series of conversations with CEOs and founders on the connection between company growth and culture, I recently had the opportunity to speak with Carol Leaman, the co-founder and CEO of Axonify. For those who don’t know, Axonify helps frontline employees with the support and tools they need to do their best work for Axonify’s 160+ customers in over 150 countries, including Walmart, Bloomingdale’s, Levi’s, Merck.
 
Carol is an experienced serial entrepreneur and CEO who has built and exited 3 companies, now building her fourth in Axonify. I thought Carol would be an excellent person to speak with to share her wisdom with startup and scale-up founders and CEOs for at least 3 reasons:
  • Her track record of growth and success;
  • Her understanding of the entrepreneurial experience as a former CEO in residence at Communitech in Waterloo, where she mentored and coached early stage companies; and
  • Her high-EQ approach to leading a company, gleaned not only by my prior interactions with her over the years but also by her public posts on Axonify’s blog and in social media such as LinkedIn. I can honestly say that Carol is one of the most genuine and authentic leaders I have ever had the privilege of meeting.
Carol’s high-EQ leadership shows up in the following ways:
  • Customers: NPS of 76, 97% customer satisfaction, 92% gross dollar retention;
  • Product: 5-star rating on G2, 4.6-star rating on Capterra;
  • Culture: 4.6-star rating on Glassdoor, 98% CEO approval rating, 89% employee satisfaction, named as a Best Workplace for Women and very recently named as the #7 on the Best Places to Work Canada list!
What really stood out to me about this conversation with Carol was the importance she places on values, and their importance in building a strong foundation for the business.
 
And whatever Carol and her team have been doing has clearly been working. A few weeks ago they acquired MLevel, a competitor in their space, and just yesterday they announced that Luminate Capital Partners was making a strategic growth investment that valued the company at US$350M.
 
Many thanks to Carol for taking the time to share her experiences and learnings. I am confident that anyone who takes the time to watch this conversation with Carol will come away with a new awareness of the inextricable connection between company culture, resilience and growth.
 
 
 
 
 
  • While Carol was running her last business, her corporate lawyer introduced her to the original founders of Axonify because they needed help.
  • She initially started by mentoring them, became fond of them. When Google acquired her last company, she decided to buy Axonify with a friend and restarted the business in the way that she felt best capitalized on the market opportunity.
  • Brought in a VP Marketing and VP Software Development, who were two other friends Carol had worked with previously. The four of them formed the nucleus on which Axonify has been built.
 
  • Early in her career, Carol worked for an individual who epitomized every wrong thing to do if you want people to come in to work every day. Carol learned very specifically what not to do and how not to make people feel every day with respect to inspiring people to be productive and do their best work. Developed an inherent sense of the connection between how people feel and the work they do.
  • Carol defines culture as the feeling people have around what it’s like to work at a company. Culture is a whole collection of things that allow people to be who they are, and support them in how they execute against their roles to make them feel like they are adding value, making progress, being recognized for it, and that they have a positive feeling when they think about where they work.
  • Carol’s objectives are to allow people to be who they are, to support them in executing their role with positive feelings, and for employees to be able to look back on Axonify as the very best place they’ve ever worked. The epitome of culture is how you feel about working someplace.
 
  • It is a balance and is extremely difficult. At the end of the day everyone is doing their own thing to try to be successful in life. So just having that understanding that you can’t blame others and you have to figure out together how you’ll get through it.
  • When you make people feel like they and their contributions matter, they will contribute more than you expect.
  • All these things work together. Maintain a sense of no matter what, it will always work out if you work on the problems together. Keep a constant focus on the glass being half full and not playing the game blame helps the team get through the times of extreme stress.
 
 
  • Values are essential, the critical glue that holds everything together. Carol has a base expectation that people are going to be honest, transparent and behave in ways that will be conducive to the whole. Be okay with no one person having the answers but everyone working together to help figure out the answers.
  • Mission and vision will change (and they can change by the week in technology!). Set the North star so that people feel connected to it, but articulating the values is of the utmost importance.
  • It is your behaviour, day in and day out, that is the most critical. How people perceive you is 1) what they hear comes out of your mouth every single day, 2) what they see you do, and 3) who they see you associate with. It really starts with the people, those are the three things I measure people on, and values are essential to everything!
 
 
  • The first week was the hardest. Carol and the team determined the importance of keeping employees safe and secure, and how they would get their customers through it. Axonify developed three stages of getting through it:
  • What is the response plan?
  • What is the stabilization plan?
  • What is the recovery plan?
  • COVID surfaced new uses for the Axonify platform, including customer leaders broadcasting communications on an ongoing basis to their front-line teams.
  • New customers took a pause but with reduced discretionary expenses and significantly increased usage from existing customers, ended up the year much more strongly than initially expected.
 
 
  • Given the scale of the business, Carol only interviews at the senior level and in specific situations.
  • Robust onboarding process in groups in which they learn about all the areas of the business. Carol has a section in which she speaks about the company and its values.
  • Uses the analogy that new hires are part of a healthy cell. Part of their responsibility is to maintain the healthy cell, including identifying and expelling potential viruses. “The standard of quality of people here is nothing I have experienced in my entire career.”
 
 
  • Axonify is diverse by default with two female co-founders.
  • In building the business it didn’t really matter, but having senior women in leadership does attract other women.
  • Axonify will be increasing the job pool to an array of different ethnicities and demographics to increase diversity at Axonify and eradicate unconscious bias.
 
 
  • They are directly connected, no ifs, ands or buts about it.
  • Decision making happens daily with all people and what they decide is based on what they feel. People will make the right decisions if they are feeling good about themselves and the business. It’s that accumulation across every employee that makes or breaks what happens with the business.
  • People only go the extra mile if they feel appreciated and recognized. Without a doubt, how employees have felt at Axonify has led to the company’s historical and future success.
 
 
  • Drop the ego. You’re not as smart as you think you are and you need people around you.
  • Be real.
  • Failure is okay.
 
 
  • Tons of new products in the making! Some are based on AI, other customer requests.
  • New markets such as healthcare, and continuing to serve existing customers and expand on the footprint in the quick service restaurant space.

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My name is Alexander Rink. Drawing upon over 20 years of experience growing early-stage companies, my team and I help CEOs and Boards of Directors of companies from $1M to $25M in revenues identify and resolve strategic and organizational challenges to accelerate their company’s growth in a capital efficient manner.

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