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A laser-like focus on product: Serial tech entrepreneur shares her winning recipe

Carol Leaman transformed four tech start-ups into multimillion-dollar businesses

6-minute read

Carol Leaman - Founder of Axonify

Carol Leaman knew she wanted to run her own business when she was still a teenager. But life didn’t take her there right away.

She became a CPA and worked at various companies for about 10 years. She started to think she was destined to be someone else’s employee for the rest of her career.

Then, one day, the CEO where she worked resigned, and the board of the company offered her the job. She would go on to transform the company into a multimillion-dollar business, something she went on to accomplish with four different tech start-ups.

On the edge of a knife

Being an entrepreneur is just a lot of fun,” Leaman says. “You’re always on the edge of a knife, where there is a fear of failure mixed with the excitement of building something successful. It’s like a drug you don’t ever want to get off. I knew this was the path I was supposed to be on.

Her latest project is Axonify, a rapidly growing Waterloo, Ontario-based company that uses games to deliver effective corporate training programs. The company had just two employees when Leaman and a partner bought it in 2011. Axonify now employs 140 and has $21 million in annual sales. Customers include Walmart, Toyota and Bloomingdale’s.

In 2016, Leaman was named one of Canada’s top 100 female entrepreneurs, and she contributes regularly to Fortune magazine. Her many awards include the Sara Kirke Award as Canada’s leading female entrepreneur in 2010.

Too few women tech entrepreneurs

Unfortunately, successful women entrepreneurs like Leaman are not easy to find in Canada’s tech scene. Only 10% of VC-backed founders in Canada are women, and women account for only 8% of board members in VC-backed companies, according to a BDC analysis of PitchBook data in 2015.

Part of the problem is that women often have a hard time finding support and mentorship resources, says BDC’s Managing Director of Strategic Investment and Women in Tech Michelle Scarborough.

She heads up the Bank’s newly launched Women in Tech Fund, the world’s largest venture capital (VC) fund dedicated exclusively to investing in women-led technology companies. Scarborough is also working with BDC portfolio companies and VC funds to better support female founders.

“Role models like Carol and a more active interest in tech are beginning to drive more women into tech careers,” Scarborough says.

Women CEOs head 13% of companies in BDC Capital’s VC portfolio, and Leaman is one of them. BDC Capital has participated in two investment rounds for Axonify.

I love to see people come into a position and execute to their maximum potential. I find it so invigorating to give people challenges in their role and watch them be successful. I just love to help people feel that excitement themselves and to feel empowered and not be afraid to take risks. When you give people that freedom, they will do it.

A focus on winning products

Crucial to Leaman’s success has been her focus on engineering products with solid market potential. She learned this lesson early on after a group of private equity investors asked her to become the CEO of a stagnating tech firm.

After taking the job, she asked to see the financial records and quickly learned what bad shape the business was in. It didn’t even have enough money to cover that week’s payroll. She ended up writing a $75,000 cheque on her personal line of credit to make up the shortfall. “Every single week there was some other skeleton uncovered or a huge problem that needed to be fixed,” she says.

But Leaman persevered. She reengineered the product to fit market demand, found new clients, fixed customer issues and revamped the team. It worked. The investors were eventually able to sell the company to a strategic buyer.

The experience taught Leaman important lessons that stay with her today. Chief among them is the importance of a clear business case for a venture or product. “Who would buy this? What would they pay for it? What’s the market size? How many buyers are in each segment? I get really granular.”

Carol Leaman, Axonify Inc.

Build a great team

Leaman also believes passionately in building a good team and giving them the tools and freedom to succeed. She learned this lesson while working for a man she calls a “bully boss” in one of her early jobs. “Every day was completely terrifying,” she says. She didn’t want that kind of environment in her workplace.

“I love to see people come into a position and execute to their maximum potential,” she says. “I find it so invigorating to give people challenges in their role and watch them be successful. I just love to help people feel that excitement themselves and to feel empowered and not be afraid to take risks. When you give people that freedom, they will do it.”

Leaman’s experiences with the difficult boss also gave her “a massive amount of backbone and personal armour.” That has helped her navigate the male-dominated business world.

She says she hasn’t personally experienced discrimination, but she has heard of many other women entrepreneurs who have. “A lot of young female entrepreneurs have told me about the discrimination and lack of respect they face,” Leaman says. “It’s really disheartening to hear young women tell those stories.”

Network and persevere

She advises women entrepreneurs to develop networks of mentors. They can do so by attending business events, including those for early-stage entrepreneurs. “You have to put yourself out there,” she says.

Another tip: Reach out directly to successful entrepreneurs in your field to ask for advice and help finding resources. “Almost every time, the people you want to connect with are willing to talk to you,” she says. “Most people are willing to help. I get calls from five or six entrepreneurs every month. I always take those meetings and try to point them in the right direction.”

Leaman’s final advice: Don’t give up. “You have to keep pushing on and not get discouraged,” she says. “There will be rejection, whether you’re a woman or man. Don’t take it personally. If the business idea is good, it will find funding.”

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