Female Founders: April Downing of Khoros on The Five Things You Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview with Candice Georgiadis
Get comfortable being uncomfortable — In order to have successful personal growth, you need to try new things. It’s uncomfortable not knowing all of the answers but you must embrace that uneasiness and tackle new opportunities head-on.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing April Downing, CFO for Khoros.
April’s 20 plus years in Tech have included everything from co-founding companies to taking companies public. Having raised over $0.5 Billion for various stage companies, April appreciates the complexity that comes from starting and growing businesses. She’s also completed over 20 M&A transactions and opened offices in over a dozen countries.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Thanks for having me, Candice! I think the only thing that is consistent about my path is that it’s been working with tech companies. No two companies have been alike for me. Whether it’s different industries, different go-to-market strategies or different sizes, I have always been able to bring something from one situation to another while also learning something new. Both times that I have been fortunate enough to co-found a company, it’s been due to a connection to a technical co-founder who appreciated our difference in superpowers. Most tech company founders are visionaries and technologists that consider what’s possible. My superpowers are taking that vision and turning it into planning and action.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The last company I co-founded was Supply Drop. Our mission was to change the way consumers get their everyday essentials. By leveraging the power of AI-based technologies like predictive analytics and conversational intelligence, we removed the hassle of managing things like toilet paper, paper towels, trash bags, dish soap, laundry detergent, etc. We started the business in July 2019, about 6 months before Covid-19 was even a thing. It took us about 6 months before we were ready to go to market with our offering. We only launched a couple months before the pandemic was in full swing so once the stores’ shelves started emptying and people were clamoring for toilet paper, we were there to help! We had to limit the number of sign-ups each day so we could keep up with the demand! Because we were still working through our supply chain logistics, there were days that we had to clamor to find stocks of toilet paper at our local stores to ensure our customers got what they needed.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Start-ups are all about moving fast and learning along the way. Rarely (actually, likely never) do you start off with exactly the right business model, pitch, offering, go-to-market… you get the point. Acquiring customers for a direct-to-consumer company, or for any company for that matter, is hard and it’s necessary. As a seed-stage funded company, we had very little money, so we had to be scrappy. One of our customer acquisition strategies was to set-up a table outside apartment complexes and hand-out breakfast tacos to residents that came to learn about Supply Drop. While we ended up feeding a whole lot of hungry, dog-walking residents. It didn’t turn out to be the best customer acquisition strategy. But hey, we made a bunch of people happy and learned some lessons along the way.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have been so fortunate my entire career to have folks believe in me and believe in my ability to tackle anything. Early in my career, a COO I worked for (a male, I might add, which I will note later how important advocacy is) kept pushing me to take on more in my current role or even pushing me to take completely new roles within the company. We were about to embark on an IPO (initial public offering) and the COO absolutely advocated for me to be the VP of Investor Relations. I didn’t know anything about doing the job, and I had to learn quickly without making big mistakes. I learned what is now a mantra of mine: get comfortable being uncomfortable! It’s a fundamental part of driving successful personal growth.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I believe there are multiple things at play. First, start-ups are risky and for lots of different reasons, women tend to be more risk averse in business. Second, most founders, at least for software companies, are techies. As we are aware, approximately 1 in 10 engineers in the U.S. are females thus putting even further pressure on traditional skills needed to be a funded company founder in tech. And third, is due to business networks. LinkedIn data shows that women in the U.S. are 28% less likely than men to have a strong network.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Advocacy is number one. I am currently CFO at Khoros (www.khoros.com) where over 50% of our executive team identifies as female. This is attributed to our incredible CEO, Jack Blaha, who appreciates that diversity of team members, backgrounds and thinking makes the organization stronger. Especially now that Covid-19 has dramatically reduced networking opportunities, it’s more important than ever that women have advocates that they can tap into to help get them connected to the right mentors, opportunities and potential funding. There is an increasing amount of funding sources that are focused on specifically supporting women (like True Wealth Ventures in Austin, Texas — @TrueWealthVC). These firms not only provide critical funding opportunities but also do a great job of setting entrepreneurs for success with value-add resources alongside capital.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Founding teams should include people with different strengths. Women tend to be more empathic than men as well as exercising greater vulnerability, key attributes to driving not only a great culture but one that supports understanding and alignment within the organization. Starting, growing and scaling a company is complex. I believe that driving success out of complexity is only possible through a cohesive leadership team and engaged employees working with clarity, alignment and accountability. While this is possible from any person regardless of gender, women can absolutely thrive in these constructs that are based on not just IQ but also EQ.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
You have to be technical, and you have to be a visionary to be a successful founder. Not true! While it’s critical to have a North star of what’s possible, it’s also critical to have operational talent in the organization early on that can turn that vision into a plan and that plan into action. Culture gets created early on and someone that is focused not just on what’s possible but also on creating a culture of accountability and trust supports a potentially good company to becoming an excellent one.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
In order to be a successful entrepreneur and founder, you have to possess the ability to handle rapidly changing priorities, failure and uncertainty. The initial pitch for a start-up is never the same as what it will be years later and sometimes, even weeks later. There are always new ideas that must be vetted. These can lead to changing your previous path. Given the uphill nature of fundraising and acquiring customers, you can never be sure where money will come from or when, which creates a ton of uncertainty about the viability of an early-stage business. If you enjoy knowing what you are going to do each day you go into work and prefer to have a plan for the future, being a company founder may not be the best path for you.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable — In order to have successful personal growth, you need to try new things. It’s uncomfortable not knowing all of the answers but you must embrace that uneasiness and tackle new opportunities head-on.
- Manage to no surprises — This doesn’t mean that bad things can’t happen because we all know they do; it means that if something does, it should not be a surprise to you or the team. As an individual team member or leader, you should be cognizant of what the potential outcomes are for scenarios you face and create plans for the what ifs.
- Do what you say you are going to do — For most people, trust has to be built over time and through a variety of interactions. Team members want to know they can count on you, and they don’t want to be worrying about implications of someone not doing something they said they would. Setting expectations of what you are going to do when and then delivering on that is imperative. And in the case that something happens, which it often can, being sure your team knows any implications of that quickly will help ensure they can react accordingly and alleviate any negative impacts.
- Plan and execute against a crawl, walk, run approach — While it’s good to imagine what success looks like, a lot can change on the way. Entertain what the run phase of a certain initiative may be, but plan for near-term steps you can accomplish in a crawl phase that will quickly deliver value and learnings. This will then lead to the walk phase of even better execution and impact. Plan to learn along the way and have that feed back into what you are going to tackle in your next phase.
- Fail fast and learn from it — If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying. We have all heard this so many times but, it’s true. What’s most critical for this to be a strength vs. weakness in an organization is building trust across the whole team that it’s safe to fail, say you don’t know and ask for help. Everyone is volunteering to be at work each day so create an environment where folks are encouraged to take risks to reap greater reward.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Every one of us can always do more here. For me personally, I sit on the Foundation Board for Helping Hand Home for Children in my hometown of Austin. This 125+ year old non-profit provides a safe haven for children healing from physical, emotional and sexual abuse, neglect or abandonment. I have been part of this organization for decades serving as past Treasurer and continue to be a member of the Finance committee to support the health and growth of this incredible organization that serves the most deserving children. Additionally, I am fortunate to be part of Khoros which heavily invests in our Khoros Social Responsibility Program. Through this program, we offer our software and services free to women-owned and minority-owned businesses and nonprofits that do not currently have the capacity to invest in our offerings. This gives everyone at Khoros a chance to volunteer skills and services in support of the causes we care about and the chance to make a collective, positive impact on marginalized communities.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Empathy. I believe every person should be taught how to be empathetic. Someone’s perception is their reality. How great would it be if every person could have an outward mindset to learn and appreciate someone else’s position, feelings and experiences? For more on what this can be, check out Arbinger Institute www.arbinger.com or @Arbinger.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Sir Elton John — Not only do I love his music and acting but, also, his spirit and his commitment to help others. Elton John is authentic and compassionate. He selflessly shares his incredible gifts with the whole world. His AIDS Foundation is changing lives. So many experiences, so much impact. Even a cup of tea with Sir Elton would be lovely!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.