In this episode, we meet serial entrepreneur Katie May. Following her success as CMO at Seek, Katie founded Kidspot – a parenting advice business born from a real pain point that Katie witnessed as a new mom herself. Our conversation follows Katie’s success as Kidspot is acquired by Newscorp and Katie becomes CEO at Shipping Easy, leading yet another company towards a successful exit.
The Beginning Days of Katie May
Katie May calls hers a ‘stock-standard’ start in the industry. While working at large firms and companies such as Arthur Anderson as a CPA, Katie made the decision to go back to graduate school.
After that, she found herself working in management consulting for another large firm, Philip Morris. This was when Katie decided to stop taking the path of least resistance, simply following whoever was recruiting from her school.
While in the management consulting world, Katie met Andrew Bassat, the CEO and co-founder of seek.com.au, who gave her a taste of the entrepreneurial world. Up until this time, Katie had never considered herself an entrepreneur or risk-taker but decided to dive in and wound up spending six years at Seek as their CMO.
After helping them IPO, working in the background as their chief marketer, Katie was ready for the next risk. It was then she was prepared to found her own business, which was Kidspot.com.au.
For Those Outside of Australia, What is Kidspot?
Kidspot is Australia’s leading digital brand and parenting website! It’s a destination for new moms, or moms of any age and stage, which Katie May saw a need for at the time.
Like any worthwhile company, getting Kidspot off the ground had it’s difficulties. Katie May credits great partners with her company’s initial and continued success. Having a partner in the trenches is never a bad thing. One such partner was the chairman from Seek.com who would sign on as an initial investor. Katie says she had the idea, but with his access to capital, he could open doors.
She had many partners that would prove instrumental, with their strengths balancing out her weaknesses. For instance, Katie May saw Kidspot as more of a directory, but it was one of her early partners that saw it as much more. More than a directory, it grew to have all kinds of expert content and a social community called Kidspot Social, anything you may need as a mom.
Where was Kidspot going?
There wasn’t an advertiser in Australia that didn’t want to be on Kidspot. As more and more companies approached Katie, she realized they were on top. However, they also had Facebook just entering the scene and Katie feared this had the potential to take away from their presence. All things considered, it seemed like a good time to make an exit. With multiple investors hoping to win Kidspot, the price they ultimately sold for was significantly more than they were anticipating.
With five investment bankers in the running, one was voted on unanimously. News Corp was to acquire Kidspot with a clean, all-cash offer. Their choice proved to be the right one as the acquisition couldn’t have gone smoother or more to plan. Everything went exactly as investment banker David Gordon had described and the acquisition took just seven months. Even though Katie May wasn’t required to, she decided to stay another year to help in the transition.
A year after leaving, Katie would hear from David Gordon about his investment in the company ShippingEasy. He simply wanted Katie to come in and talk to his team about sales and marketing. But, one thing led to another and one Saturday turned into 8 years as she would sign on to become the company’s CEO. After spending so much time at Australian companies, Katie May says it was nice to find her fit in the US.
ShippingEasy Takes Off
As an e-commerce SaaS company, ShippingEasy scaled quickly. As a Software-as-a-Service company they had a tremendous transactional revenue stream. Four years after beginning at ShippingEasy the company decided it was time to make their exit and sell to Stamps.com. As the leader in shipping software, this was a great exit for employees as well as investors. With the leadership team being as great as they were, Katie May decided to stay on for another three years after the acquisition.
For Any Great Exit – It’s All About The People
After two relatively large acquisitions, Katie May says she’s learned that it always comes down to the people. Of course your metrics need to look good and you need a strong plan, but the team your selling is vital too. Do your due diligence the first time around, get yourself a strong leadership team, and then keep them for as long as possible. Katie May points out all the time and effort that goes into recruiting, hiring, and training up quality people. When it comes time for an acquisition you’re essentially selling your team and where they can take the company. So, as good as your business plan needs to be, your people need to be just as good.
What Would You Tell Yourself 10 Years Ago?
Katie says, simply put, that some things can wait. As an entrepreneur, she tends to have that obsessive and compulsive drive, and sometimes that makes it hard to say no, not right now. Katie May says it’s not just about patience, it’s about deciding what is truly important. If Katie doesn’t practice this daily, her life tends to feel off balance.
If you’d like more info or to connect with Katie May, find her on LinkedIn.
All right. I am here with Katie May, both board member and investor. How are you doing today, Katie?
Good. How are you doing?
Doing great. Doing great. Thanks so much for coming on. I’m excited to learn a little bit about your background and your story and what … I guess before we dive into Kidspot and things like that, let’s hear your story. Let’s hear what your background is and your origin story.
Sure. Well, we’re obviously here to talk about more of the entrepreneurial side, but I’ve probably had more of a stock standard start. So we won’t go through all the boring things.
But just in general, I did work at some larger firms and companies to start. I was a CPA and I worked at Arthur Anderson and then I went back to graduate school. After that I worked at Phillip Morris, that was a big marketing job. Then I went into management consulting.
So those are all, I would just say, those more traditional routes from, okay, I have a degree, what do I plug it into? I probably took the easy way out in terms of you just follow on from who’s recruiting at whatever school you’re at.
But I guess from the management consulting role, that’s where I met Andrew Bassett, who was one of the founders of seek.com.au. That was sort of my first foray into more of the startup world. I would never have considered myself an entrepreneur or a risk taker or someone that wanted to go out and disrupt industries, but that really gave me a taste. I would say that was much more about Matt, Paul, and Andrew’s journey and they probably are more those people, but that gave me a taste of it.
I spent six years there all the way through IPO, and then I founded my own business in Kidspot. I guess you could say then I moved from being on the executive team of what I would call a real startup culture, very entrepreneurial culture, to doing my own thing and building my own team. That was a great experience.
Then finally, when I left that I took on another startup and that one was here in Austin and was called ShippingEasy and was in the e-commerce space. So I guess my background is a little bit of those traditional firms and management consulting and corporate jobs leading to the last 20 years have been much more entrepreneurial in nature.
Got it, got it. And what was that like, taking a company public? Obviously you were with a good core team and you were hands-on and everything like that. But taking Seek public through an IPO, what was that experience like?
Well, let me don’t overstate my role in that because the three founders really did the hard yards in terms of the roadshow, because I was sort of the chief marketer, my role was much more on the prospective side and really thinking about the narrative and how we wanted to tell the Seek story and ensuring that both investors and then eventually shareholders would perceive Seek the way that we thought about it. So my job on in the IPO was much more around the narrative, some of the documentation, the press, that sort of thing versus they went out and did the road show. So they did a bang up job because it was a really successful IPO and I was definitely in the background.
Got it, got it. And when you started Kidspot, what were your first initial steps? I think a lot of people listening are either operating a business currently or they just sold one or they’re looking to buy one and a lot of people are always interested in what the starting process is like for somebody that’s coming out of an IPO company that’s ready to start their own venture, and what was that like? Did you hire a co-founder? Did you do it on your own?
Yeah. I think the first word, just going back to your question what’s that like, the word difficult or challenging comes to mind and I’m sure anyone that’s listening to this that is trying to get a company off the ground, that will resonate with them because no matter what, it’s going to be hard. I did have someone that really helped me in the very early days and then it transitioned to yet another person. So I absolutely think having a partner is a great thing.
So for me, coming out of Seek, the initial investor in Kidspot happened to be the chairman of Seek. I guess you could just say I already had an existing relationship. He was incredibly supportive. He understood the space, but also he had access to capital, which is really important when you’re starting a business. So it wasn’t as stressful for me. I had the idea and was obviously the CEO and founder, but he could open the doors and if I could tell the story and get people interested, at least I didn’t have to do both parts of that.
But I did have an initial partner who was my head of inside sales at Seek, and she had left. I didn’t poach her. But we really started the business together and then later there were different partners for me. So my Chief Commercial Officer, her name was Miffy Coady. She was just instrumental in giving me the confidence to move from what was ever going to be a really small business, because the way I conceived of Kidspot was more of a directory, into this sort of behemoth that was going to have content and a much larger footprint and therefore very large advertisers would want to invest with us and then millions of moms came.
So I think that having a partner is fantastic. No matter what your strengths are, you always have a blindside or weaknesses. I would say having those people next to me, whether it was Irvin Rockman who became the chairman of Kidspot and was really helpful on the capital raising and just general support to the people I mentioned that I worked alongside. They just give you the confidence to keep going and obviously on those days that you’re feeling exceptionally challenged or beaten down, you hope they’re in the exact opposite mood and can keep you moving forward. So definitely found the people that I worked with to be instrumental in sticking with it and just, I guess, persisting and getting through the rough spots.
Yeah. Well said. You like being in the trenches with somebody else, as I say.
On a day-to-day basis. So that’s a great segue into Kidspot and what it is. I mentioned right before we started the show that I have a newborn baby and I went through last night and read quite a bit on the site and it’s really powerful information. So just from a high level, what is Kidspot and what is the mission that you started with?
Yeah. So today I would say it’s really just a destination for new moms, but moms with children of any age up to I would say 12 in Australia and New Zealand. So it’s very much not that how to teach your child to tie a shoe or how to deal with a baby that doesn’t sleep, not that those aren’t common and universal across any geography. But in general, the website was really targeted at moms in Australia and New Zealand.
The early mission was I think so many things. Again, if there’s people that are starting businesses or buying businesses, hopefully you have a passion for what you’re doing. For me, I was a new mom. So lots of things, the idea was born out of need, but I thought of it as a directory.
I’d come from Seek, which is a massive database of jobs. It’s a lot more than that today. But back when I left there in 2005 it was much more. It was a massive job website where it was just all about having a ton of jobs and then a ton of job seekers and then helping to match them.
So the way I thought about that as a new mom was, okay, when I need something, so whether that’s a clown for a birthday party or a gymnastics class, finding that in those days was impossible because everyone didn’t have a website. You didn’t just Google it the way you do today. So you have to put yourself back 15 years ago to get into that head space. But I really thought of it as a directory where I could find things in my local area that I needed at each age and stage.
Then what it grew to be was much more anything you needed as a mom, whether it was, hey, I need a fire engine for a birthday party, or it was something not directory related. It was much more on the content side, like it’s the middle of the night, my baby has a rash.
The content is just, its exceptional content written by experts and it is very comprehensive. That’s a huge part of Kidspot’s mission, is no matter what the question they will have the answer.
But then the third part of it was really around community and the fact that new moms in particular, but moms of any age when you’re tackling or facing something that’s new, whether it’s your child’s being bullied or you feel like there might be slow developmental concerns or whatever it might be. Being able to connect with another mom that has either gone through it or is going through it, Kidspot made that very easy and it had a real community side to it called Kidspot Social.
So overall it was just this tremendous destination where no matter what you needed in order to, let’s say parent and raise a child, it would be on Kidspot. Then the business model was clearly, once we had all the moms, which we really did and they still do, there wasn’t an advertiser in Australia that didn’t need to be on Kidspot. We were really the best way to connect with women who have all the purchasing power. So it was just this really nice circular, successful business model for a lot of years.
Let’s talk about the acquisition itself. Kidspot was a wildly successful acquisition. Researching it before our call today, I was really digging in and seeing the company News Corp that acquired it and just how that process happens I’m always so curious about. Because I’ve heard everything from bumping into the acquirer at a coffee shop and then striking up a conversation all the way to hiring an ibanker and going out and actively seeking it out. So what was that like leading into that acquisition?
Yeah, I guess the first thing that anyone has to decide is if they want an exit. So we had, the larger that we got and the more of a household name that Kidspot became, more and more of the large media companies in Australia were contacting us. So it was really like the Corporate Dev or Corp Dev departments from those companies would just get in touch, “Hey, we want to be on your radar.” We would always say, “Hey, we got a mission. We’re executing. Not interested.”
So first you need to decide that you actually want to sell or not. Sometimes someone just comes with such a big price or something else happens. But for us, we actually made a decision as a board that we felt like Facebook was really starting to encroach on the time that moms had to spend on a site like Kidspot and we felt like it was a zero sum game. Every minute they gave to Facebook was a minute they weren’t giving to us.
So we felt like, look, we built a great business. We had still the vast majority of moms in Australia and New Zealand were visiting the site on at least a weekly basis, if not daily. So the numbers were very strong. The habits were there, the content was fantastic and we felt like, look, for us trying to continue to exist as this independent website with no traffic coming from a larger, they used to call them portals. They all have all different names, but obviously if we were part of something like news.com.au, which is a huge website, that would help us to combat some of the tension and competition we felt from Facebook.
So we decided that it was time to exit. So we did go the more traditional route. We interviewed, I don’t know, five or six different investment bankers, the board unanimously chose one. So all of us really agreed that David Gordon, who was part of an investment banker in Sydney called Lexington Partners, we all agreed that he was the best person to represent Kidspot.
Then we just ran a process, and that’s one of two processes. I did another one after that, but it just went exactly to the book. He said, “This is how it would happen,” and we would put together this information memorandum, and then we would essentially get these letters of intent. So he explained how all these things would happen and what the timeline would look like.
Honestly it happened exactly like that. I only mention that because my next one didn’t go like that at all. It still was successful, but it was very different. So it doesn’t always go to plan. There’s lots of curve balls that come as part of these processes. But for Kidspot, it really went exactly as the investment banker said it would go.
Then we were lucky enough to have multiple buyers, which caused the tensions, which always for someone that’s selling is better having competitive tension in the process and having multiple people, in most instances and certainly in this instance, you’re going to get a better price.
So it was just, I don’t know if I’d call it an easy acquisition, as much as it went to plan where we ended up from a price perspective, which I don’t really want to go through. But where we ended up from a price perspective was significantly more than we’d said where we would be willing to sell. There were really two people at the end and either of them would have been great acquirers. But we ended up with News Corp and that was a fantastic relationship. They continue to invest a ton of resources I Kidspot today.
I’ve been gone for eight and a half years now. So it was a long time ago and Kidspot continues to be a household name there. So I’m pleased about that.
Excellent. Excellent. That’s a good segue into timeframes. So from start with the amazing investment banker that you guys hired or the board agreed, could represent Kidspot, the timeframe from him representing you guys and getting the okay from the board all the way through to you stepping into News Corp, what was that timeframe?
Got it. And then after the acquisition, went through, the parties were held, everybody was celebrating. Was there a vesting schedule? Did you have to stay at News Corp for a certain period of time?
That’s such a good question, and I know News Corp absolutely would have had an earnout. But the other bidder for Kidspot, that was one of the best things that they brought were obviously adding tension to the process and the price went up as a result of them also fighting to be successful in the acquisition process.
But the other thing is the other suitor was actually a US-based company called Demand Media. That was really, it was founded by entrepreneurs. They had bought several businesses before they put a bid in for Kidspot, and they really said that, hey, they’re on the founder side and they don’t like earnout. So one of the things that they did in their offer is say, “Hey, this is all cash. No earnout.” That meant for News in order for them to end up the winning suitor or whatever the words are, they had to take their earnout off the table and they did.
So no, there was no vesting schedule. There was no earnout. It was really, everything was just, it was an all cash offer. I did stay for another year and I told them I would stay a minimum of 12 months. At the time I lived in Austin, Texas, where I live now and I commuted for all seven years of that every month. So a big part of wanting to sell was partly we thought the timing right, but also that I did not want to be traveling every month and away from my own family seven to nine days every month.
So I had told them when they bought like, “Hey, for the next 12 months you have me monthly. I’ll continue to do exactly what I’ve done the last seven years. But after that I’m not going to want to do the same extended travel.” So I ended up staying just over a year and then I retreated back to Austin and stopped the travel.
Got it, got it. Well done. I love how the bidding between the two acquirers led to removing the earnout. That’s pretty incredible. I love stories like that.
So ShippingEasy, what happened after the acquisition? You stayed there for a year and you started another company or you jumped on with a company?
Yeah, the investment banker that I mentioned, David Gordon, he actually, we kept in touch. He did a great job and I really respected him. I don’t know, maybe a year later, a little less than a year he just said that he had made an investment in this company called ShippingEasy. It was based in Sydney, but they were starting to get traction in the US and just said, would I be willing to come in and talk to the team? Because apparently they thought they had this great product, but they just didn’t have as many customers as they would have anticipated at that stage. So I felt like their problem was acquisition and sales and marketing is my background so would I just come and spend a Saturday in Sydney with the team?
Obviously one thing led to another and then I ended up bringing the company and re-headquartering it, I guess you call it in Austin and then took on the CEO role. I actually did that for almost eight years.
So it ended up to be a much longer play than I expected when I went to Sydney on that Saturday. But it was a great business and it was fun to build one from scratch in Austin, where I’m from and to build out a network here and have an experience in the US given I’d spent so much time with Australian companies.
And what was that like when you were building the company? How big was it, and how quickly did you guys scale it over your time there?
We scaled it pretty quick. The business model at ShippingEasy, it’s a SaaS company so people are paying a monthly subscription. It’s also shipping, so there is a transactional revenue stream attached to shipping so just call that almost like a clip the ticket on the vast majority of shipments that go through the software.
So we scaled it quickly. We got it to about 50 million in ARR by the time I left, and I guess we sold it after four years to stamps.com, which was a publicly listed company. So a of couple people move from Sydney when I brought it to Austin and then we just started hiring. When I left there was over 100 people. So it was a pretty sizable company and was part of a much larger portfolio and Stamps is the market leader in all of, let’s just call it shipping software.
So it was a great exit for the shareholders. But more importantly, it was a great exit for the employees because Stamps is, they’re just a fantastic parent company. So I ended up staying for another over three years, about three and a half years after they acquired us.
I stayed just because I wanted to stay because I really enjoy the leadership team there. They let us to continue really just in an entrepreneurial spirit of trying stuff and continuing to grow and write our own strategy and execute … What we want and really was they’re backing. So that was a really good experience and the company is Austin based. I left there a year ago and I’m obviously in touch with a lot of people that are still there because they’re right here in Austin, where I am, and that company continues to grow.
The pandemic, which has been difficult for all of us has been really good for shipping companies and for shipping software companies. So ShippingEasy has had a fantastic year, which is great given sometimes when a CEO exits that can be a little tricky and it wasn’t tricky at all. It’s a great team and the guy that took it over is exceptional. So they’ve gone from strength to strength, which is great to see.
Excellent. Excellent. Yeah, and on top of that, Austin itself is exploding in growth wise. I know people that have moved there over the past 6 to 12 months from San Francisco and LA. A lot of people are moving there. It’s a really, really fun city.
So with the ShippingEasy segment, you’ve gone through two pretty large-scale acquisitions, very large acquisitions. You’ve learned all the intricacies that go into that.
If someone listening was about to sell a company, what would you say is one of the most important parts that you learned after going through the acquisition to Stamps to News Corp, both of these companies. What were you guys always referring to? Was it a standard operating procedure? Was it the burn rate? What were the really important things that you could share with a listener that might be getting ready to exit if they’re ready for it?
Yeah. I would say, two different sides to the question. So one side around what’s really important. Clearly, no matter what business you’re in, there’s a set of metrics that demonstrate something. It’s different depending on the industry you’re in. For someone that’s in SaaS there’s just a set of metrics that you would be very familiar with, like CAC and lifetime value. So there’s a series of metrics. You obviously want those to be in very good shape.
So of course, numbers are super important, demonstrating growth, very important. Having an executive leadership team that an acquirer actually thinks is going to stick around and execute on whatever forecast you’re selling them in terms of your forward 12 months or your forward three years or whatever it might be. So I think all those things are important.
I think for me, if I think back on any of the exits, but more importantly all of the journeys, we put so much stock, and I know for anyone that’s listening that had to put together a business plan, you put so much stock into what your ideas and what the business model is and how you’re going to execute it and what numbers and what capital you need and all those things. That’s just table stakes to me. It’s like, well, of course you need a really good idea. Of course you need a business model that’s actually going to lead to profitability. Of course you need a competitive advantage.
So I think all of those things are like, yes, you need a really strong plan. But I think, and some of this sounds like such a cliche, but it always comes down to the people. I think the busier you get, and whether you’re in the first year or you’re in your sixth year, where you don’t want to spend your time and I never want to spend my time, is on recruiting. It’s such a pain, looking through things, preparing for an interview, deciding on what questions, doing the reference checks, whatever it is that’s part of your recruitment process. It is painful and even if you have a recruiter, you still have to be prepared and ask the right questions or you never actually know what you’re getting.
So I would just say that all the time we all spend tinkering with our business models and thinking and obsessing over things related to the execution, it always comes down to the people. So again, whether you’re looking to exit, so much of an exit relates to the team that the acquiring company will be inheriting.
If they’re just buying your technology, well then don’t worry about what I’m saying. But I would say that’s the minority of acquisitions.
So if it’s a more traditional exit that you’re looking to do, I would just say the team will become exceptionally important. So if you don’t have a really good number two, if you don’t have a leadership team that looks like they can actually take the company to the next level, no one’s acquiring for where you are, they’re acquiring to where they think you’re shooting for. There should be a very strong set of people that are convincing and compelling in those meetings.
So I just feel like I probably did not … I always knew people were important. I don’t mean to say I didn’t. But the time that you spend recruiting that you look at your diary and you think, “Oh my God, this is such a waste of time. I have three interviews today.” It’s actually the best time you can spend.
So if I was looking back in time, I’d say, wow, I probably could have learned that lesson earlier and not been so miserable, looking at my calendar and recognizing that, oh, oh, so-and-so is leaving. We’re going to have to replace or what have you.
So I think people are just as important as everyone says they are, and for a CEO or a founder, spending time on choosing carefully, actually doing those background checks, actually having that next phone call and forcing yourself to do the diligence on people, it is such a good time. Then obviously mentoring it and doing all the right things once you hire them. But yeah, people are way more important than the business plan.
Well said. Well said. So that leads to our finale question that we ask everybody. That was actually … You touched on a few things there. But the final question is knowing what you know now, what would you tell Katie 10 years ago? For personal advice or business advice, what would you tell yourself?
It would probably be, I think the very things that make entrepreneurs very good could lead to this question and maybe not regrets as much as ooh, if I had my time again. So what I would tell my younger self is some things can just wait until tomorrow. I think that successful entrepreneurs tend to be fairly obsessive people, and I’m no exception to that. I can be obsessive. I can be compulsive. I can spend an extra three hours at night thinking, Oh my gosh, I’m going to get through this. I can get up at 4:00 AM. I can do all the crazy things that probably lots of listeners do because I just want to be successful or they just don’t want to fail and both of those are really big drivers for me, the not failing just as important as the being successful. And there really are things that can wait.
So I think it’s easy for me to say now, because now maybe I’ve recently retired and so my life looks a little bit different. But there are so many things, and now when I work with entrepreneurs, which I do, if not every day, every week, it’s like, you know what, that doesn’t have to be done today. And so it’s not just about patience, it’s about saying, “You know what? I’m going to decide what’s really important each day and provided I get those things due, some things are going to make it til Monday. I’m not going to do them on Saturday.”
I think the obsessive nature of an entrepreneur can lead you to feel like everything has to happen today. I think that the lack of balance in my life, I’m not sure that it made these companies more successful. I think it just made me less balanced.
So I think that’s the advice I give my younger self. Stop, realize what’s important, get those things done and let some other things, they can wait. That’s probably it.
Got it. Got it. Well, those are all the questions I have for you today. It’s incredible to sit down and talk to someone so experienced with multiple big exits like this. But where can people go and where do you want to send people to either learn more about what you’re working on or what someone else is working on?
Yeah. I don’t publish anything, so I’m really not a huge public person. It’s like, “Oh, please go to my Twitter account.” I honestly don’t do any of those things. So I would say sure, I’m on LinkedIn in the normal places. Otherwise, I do sit on a few boards and I’m quite active obviously in all of those and that probably demonstrates a little bit about where my interests are today. So yeah, I would probably just direct people to my LinkedIn profile, which at least I keep half up to date. But otherwise, yeah, I’m probably more of a private person.
Got it, got it. Well, once again, thank you so much for coming on the show, Katie. This was super valuable, and thank you for sharing all the journey because you’ve definitely done a lot with these exits. A lot of people are going to see a lot of value in here, a lot of value from what you share. So thanks so much for coming on.
Well, great. Thank you. And good luck to all your listeners.