Career journeys can be straight and narrow, or windy paths that take you where you never thought you’d go. In the technology industry, your planned path can be disrupted by the marketplace. For David Kerr, technology allowed him to explore many paths — one that even took him oversees to Germany.
Kerr’s executive stints include leadership roles at Groupon, Angie’s List and GHX, before joining Octiv, a digital document solutions startup in Indianapolis, as COO. In July 2016, Octiv rebranded from their former name, Tinderbox, and announced expansion plans to hire up to 220 new workers over the next five years. Later in September 2016, Octiv announced a fundraise of $4.7 million led by GE Ventures with participation from High Alpha, Greycroft Partners, and Allos Ventures.
After Octiv’s CEO Dustin Sapp announced his departure in January 2017, Kerr stepped up into the CEO role and is now bringing his own vision to the company through executive leadership.
I spoke with Kerr to learn more about his insights in software-as-a-service (SaaS) leadership, digital document solutions, and why he took a leap from politics to business and now tech.
SARA: Talk about your path from college to today. What direction did you take that led you to your first company, which was also founded by Dustin Sapp.
DAVID KERR: I didn’t follow a traditional path from college to my current career. I graduated with a liberal arts degree in politics. I returned to Indiana after college and started work at the Hudson Institute as a research analyst. After a few years doing policy work for Hudson, Cummins Engine, and an education reform organization called COMMIT, I purchased a small business from a local business broker. I spent the next few years growing or acquiring my own businesses in a number of fields that included advertising, manufacturing and mortgage lending.
In 2000, Bob Compton, a local angel investor, asked me to ‘run’ a ‘startup’ that was being incubated by three students at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. That was my first foray into tech and it’s when I met Dustin Sapp. He was a junior at Rose-Hulman at the time. The business was NoInk Communications.
We grew NoInk for a couple of years and then sold the business to Everypath, which was a Silicon Valley-based mobile middleware company. I had the opportunity to run North American sales for Everypath for a year. I then bought the NoInk assets back from the company and restarted NoInk as a standalone business. I was fortunate enough to sell the business again to GHX. GHX then asked me to run their nascent European operations which I did for four years from Dusseldorf, Germany.
How did you come to work at Angie’s List?
My opportunity to work at Angie’s List came on the heels of my European experience. The family was moving back to Indianapolis from Germany and I reached out to Bill Oesterle (who I worked with at the Hudson Institute) to ask him about the International School of Indiana where a few of his kids attended. That led to Bill asking me if I would like to join Angie’s List to run the eCommerce team that included the Big Deal and Storefront product lines.
After making your transition from Angie’s List to Octiv, what was it that kept you engaged and interested during your time as COO?
Octiv has an incredible team, engaged customers and experienced board members and investors. I enjoy working with all of those constituencies along the journey of growing Octiv. Additionally, the sales technology market, where Octiv plays, is rapidly changing, fast-paced and growing. Attacking these opportunities and challenges with the Octiv team brings something new and interesting to every day of work.
Talk about your current role — what does a day in the life look like for you?
I appreciate the scope of activities that every day brings to my current role. We are intensely focused on making our customers successful and building the best, most innovative product, in our category. To accomplish these goals at our stage of a company means rolling up my sleeves every day and spending time on sales, customer success, recruiting, marketing and staying in touch with competitors, partners and potential investors to track where the market is headed.
Now that you’ve transitioned from COO to CEO, talk about the difference between the roles and what you do now. How are you changing (or keeping) the company’s direction, vision and focus?
The primary difference between the COO position that I held and the new CEO role is that I have added some additional responsibilities around board and investor engagement and building brand and partner awareness. In reality, at a company of Octiv’s size, the COO and CEO titles can often blur depending on the skill sets of the people holding those roles. You must be engaged in every facet of the business and ensure that everyone is acting with urgency and being responsive to the customer and market demands.
The areas where I am placing significant emphasis is on recruiting top talent to the product and engineering team, building brand awareness and ensuring appropriate product innovation to fit the market demands. White glove treatment of our customers has always been foundational at Octiv and I am ensuring that we continue to focus.
How has the digital document solution industry changed during your time at Octiv?
Intelligent document generation and contract management is becoming a ‘must-have’ solution for business. Just a few years ago, most companies were satisfied with simple, static attachments to an email for their sales proposals, contracts and other sales documents. In the last few years electronic signatures, online collaboration of sales documents, and documents that are built with logic and recommendations to ensure increased sales efficiency and effectiveness have become more mission critical for a growing number of companies.
What are some of the shifts you’ve seen in your career that affect your daily decision making at Octiv?
Transparency is one of the most interesting shifts I have seen in the workplace over the past couple of decades. It used to be that a few people in management knew the true condition of the business, the overall strategy or where the company was headed next. Today’ tech companies are almost fully transparent. Every employee at Octiv knows the sales numbers, what customers are having trouble, how the budget is allocated, the strategy and what challenges the company is facing. If they don’t know, they can ask a question at any number of company forums to get the information. Transparency has made for much greater alignment across the Octiv team.
Where is it going and what will Octiv do to either impact the change or go along with it?
Octiv is putting a heavy emphasis on product innovation and is considered one of the market leaders. The team we have and continue to build upon, will keep their focus on continuous improvement of the Octiv user experience, predictive analytics and ways to streamline the sales document journey.
Looking back on your career in leadership at tech startups, what advice would you give to a college student majoring in computer science who wants to work for a tech company?
First I don’t think you have to be majoring in computer science to have a career in tech. I’ve seen people from so many backgrounds and college majors achieve success in tech. A few of the core attributes to be successful in a tech startup environment include the following: resourcefulness, innate, insatiable curiosity, the ability to communicate well (written and verbally), excellent problem-solving skills and a heavy dose of flexibility. I think if you exercise these muscles and are opportunistic around companies, roles and the ever-changing environment you can successfully build a career in tech.
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