A 2013 TechPoint Index article made note of a “watershed event that will forever mark time in the history of Hoosier business,” predicting it would be viewed as “the genesis of a new era in the tech sector.” 

That moment was the announcement of Salesforce’s $2.5 billion acquisition of ExactTarget.  

It’s still the biggest exit ever for an Indiana tech company and is credited with bringing national attention to Indiana’s emerging tech ecosystem, attracting new marketing tech companies to the area, as well as other employers with ancillary Salesforce operations. The acquisition also created new energy and resources to fuel Indiana’s burgeoning tech hub beyond what was then a newer sector called “martech.” 

The dozens of newly available ExactTarget team members didn’t have to look far for inspiration about what to do next. Local tech pioneers like Don Brown, Bill Godfrey, Rob McLaughlin and Scott Weber had earlier used their successful tech company exits to fuel the launch of new companies they helmed and/or became investors or formed investment groups to help the next generation of Hoosier tech innovators. 

Chief among Indiana tech’s forefathers are former Software Artistry leaders and innovators. The fast-growing company’s 1997 acquisition by Tivoli for $200 million spawned companies like Aprimo and Interactive Intelligence. Aprimo was acquired four years later by Teradata for $525 million, adding more fuel to the engine of re-investing in Indiana. Three years after the ExactTarget exit, Interactive Intelligence would experience a $1.4 billion exit, creating another ripple effect throughout the local tech community. 

Like their forefathers, many of those who profited from ExactTarget’s exit stayed in Indiana to launch or invest in other companies and organizations. That, coupled with the national attention tied to Salesforce’s presence in Indianapolis, jump-started the sector and realized that 2013 prediction that a new era was about to unfold. 

Last week, hundreds of ExactTarget alumni gathered at the Egyptian Room for “Re-Connections.” They’d planned to meet for an outdoor concert but extreme heat drove them inside. Mitch Frazier, now CEO of AgriNovus but formerly part of the ExactTarget Marketing Team, had anticipated the gathering would be “a celebration of not just what was but was is and what’s to come.  

“We’ll reconnect with former colleagues, undoubtedly share a few laughs and will re-energize a network of great people who continue to have a positive impact on communities and companies around the world,” he said. 

Scott Dorsey, one of three ExactTarget founders, its longtime CEO and the man behind the reunion, said the gathering did not disappoint.  

More than 1,000 people positively RSVP’d to the call. Nearly 100 people flew in from cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, New York and Paris. Former VP of Marketing Amanda Leet, who had formed a band called “The Janeways” during the pandemic along with four other moms, opened the night followed by Marc Roberge from O.A.R. and the team’s favorite DJ, Casey Connor, who flew in from Los Angeles to perform. 

“I always describe ExactTarget as the gift that keeps giving because of super impressive careers and companies launched from this extraordinary group of people,” Dorsey said. “Our alumni base is comprised of hundreds of CEOs, C-level executives and founders, and many talented people are still building their careers at Salesforce. Our greatest differentiator was our talent and “Orange” culture. Our culture is still shining bright more than ten years since the company has existed.” 

Anyone with even a slight connection to ExactTarget was ebullient about the milestone and cited the culture of Orange (referencing the company’s signature color) as an ongoing legacy, second only to the company’s outsized economic effect.  

Just as ExactTarget’s effect on tech can’t be fully told without mentioning the tech companies that came before, it must also include Bob Compton, a Washington, D.C. native who first came to Indiana to work for IBM, earned a Harvard MBA and came back to work for CID Capital, Inc., Indiana’s first venture capital fund that had been launched seven years before Compton’s return. In investing in Hoosier tech, the CID team followed a model of investment in Boston’s tech scene, which CID’s first managing partner, Marion Dietrich, had learned at Harvard, as Compton would also experience there. 

Initially supported with contributions from more than 50 companies like Eli Lilly, Cummins and Ball Corp and area banks, CID Capital was exclusively for tech startups. Compton was key to CID’s support of Software Artistry. In 2016, Compton told the Indianapolis Business Journal that when he joined CID, Indianapolis has “a latent entrepreneurial opportunity, but what we needed was capital and a team to work with those entrepreneurs and businesses.”  

“In the early days of ExactTarget, I was out making sales calls with Scott [Dorsey] and Chris [Baggott]. I was acting as a reference when customers who were signing up needed confidence that the business was going to be around. I would talk to them and assure them that we were committed,” he said, adding that the step was not the norm in the more established tech sectors. 

How Compton came to know ExactTarget, which at the time counted dry cleaners and pizza shops as their customer base, is also Indianapolis tech legend. As told to the IBJ by Compton, Compton was introduced to Dorsey and Baggot by April Sasso, the wife of a friend of Compton’s. She asked Compton to meet her brothers-in-law who had “started this little email marketing company” and give them some advice.  

Compton called the set-up as “the most profitable introduction of my life.” He would eventually lead the first outside investment round for the company, which generated about $1.2 million, including $500,000 from Compton. He became chairman of the board and served there for about nine years. 

It’s difficult to track all of the ripples resulting from the ExactTarget exit. Early friends and family and angel investor did “extraordinarily well,” Dorsey notes. 

“One of our greatest legacies is Nextech, formerly the ExactTarget Foundation,” Dorsey said. “Our team has helped to bring K-12 computer science education to nearly every school throughout the state. We train teachers and provide inspiring summer programs to students who have an interest in technology.” 

Other notable activities include co-founder Chris Baggott’s launch of ClusterTruck, which invented the ghost kitchen concept and has a software spin-off of its own. Co-founder, Peter McCormick now lives in New York after having led global expansion for ExactTarget from London.  

Scott McCorkle, an early advisor to the company and later its president of Technology and Strategy before succeeding Dorsey as Salesforce Marketing Cloud CEO., has launched or helped lead companies like Vibenomics, Torchlite and MetaCX. 

Perhaps the most visible of the post-ExactTarget exit companies is Dorsey and partners’ launch High Alpha, one of the world’s first venture studios focused on ideating, launching and scaling B2B SaaS companies. Since 2015, High Alpha has launched more than 40 software companies and invested in more than 100 companies.  

“One of the joys of High Alpha is working with so many ExactTarget alums across our team and portfolio companies. We have many examples of starting companies with alums — Zylo, MetaCX, Trava, Pattern89 and many more,” Dorsey said. 

A look at the numbers 

In 2013, the Indiana tech workforce topped out at 61,050, and there were only a handful of investors focused on supporting Hoosier tech companies. The Vision 2025 report card, released in 2015 during the inaugural Indiana Entrepreneurship Week, showed Indiana had fallen from 30th in the number of business startups in 1999 to 47th in 2013 and that the state ranked 36th in the amount of venture capital invested per capita in 2013. 

Shortly after the ExactTarget exit, TechPoint interviewed senior investment bankers at the investment banking firm, Navidar Group, which analyzed the transaction. They estimated the gain for all ExactTarget employees (more than half of whom were Hoosiers) at about $300 million. 

“Just think how much wealth the state of Indiana could have created for itself if local funds had provided the venture capital backing rather than East Coast firms. A majority of the wealth that was created from this incredible success story left the state,” the bankers said. 

Indiana has yet to challenge larger cities and older tech hubs for home-grown capital resources, but there has been significant growth. 

Nearly 30 new Hoosier-based venture funds have been created, including the aforementioned High Alpha, and High Alpha Innovation, which works with the world’s leading research universities to provide a successful building platform for university-born ideas. Collectively more than $1 billion has been invested in hundreds of Indiana tech over the decade that followed the ExactTarget exit.

The Indiana tech workforce stands at 118,872 and is still growing.

Mark Hill, a serial investor in Hoosier tech companies, cofounder of Baker Hill and currently managing partner at Collina Ventures, credits ExactTarget and several other successful tech companies – Aprimo, Angel Learning, Baker Hill, T2 Systems and Angie’s List, which evolved into a tech company – for attracting outside-of-Indiana investors and helping contribute outsiders knowing “Indiana is a place where software companies can have significant success.”

“This is borne out by the number of venture capital companies that come to TechPoint’s Venture Connect events,” he said.

But like Dorsey, Hill cautions against thinking the job is done.

“Indiana is not even close to a Silicon Valley, so any comparison or terms like “Silicon Prairie” are naïve,” he said.

The ExactTarget deal caught national tech leaders’ attention not just because of the high-dollar transaction but because Salesforce made Indianapolis its Marketing Cloud headquarters, demonstrating faith in the region’s ability to supply thousands of talented people to push that division forward.

Eric Christopher, cofounder and CEO of Zylo, a High Alpha company, was Senior Business Development Manager at Exact Target. Like ExactTarget’s pioneering in the email marketing space, Zylo invented a new subsector that focuses on helping companies manage their software purchases.

“When ExactTarget started, email marketing was very early as a concept, and most companies did not have a program in place. They were very early and required evangelism to inspire companies to adopt it. But over time, everyone needed an email marketing platform,” he said. “I see Zylo as being on a very similar journey.”

Frazier said it’s difficult to quantify the impact of ExactTarget’s exit on Indiana and the Midwest.

“Leaders from across the ExactTarget organization have gone on to serve in leadership roles in tech and across the economy, but more importantly, the ExactTarget exit created a powerful proof point that market-leading technology companies can be created in the Midwest. It is a reality that has undoubtedly inspired others to create, innovate and pursue dreams in the wake of such a powerful proof point to the world,” he said.

Joanna Milliken, ExactTarget’s first employee, stayed on after the acquisition, rising in the Salesforce ranks before leaving after about four years. Now CEO of Emarsys, an SAP company, she said the early days “at Orange” were “incredibly exciting.”

“There were only a handful of us doing mountains of work, but we were so motivated,” she said. “We knew we were innovating in a new SaaS market. It was the most fun and rewarding career experience to be a part of.”

As an early part of the team, she said she worked in every function of the business and learned things that help her today. “I learned to adapt as the business evolved, which has continued to be a great asset in my career. My role at ET as an early local leader and team builder meant I directly contributed to the culture we created. That special culture was a key differentiator that ET became known for and is still known for today.”

Staying with the new regime taught her other, also necessary, skills.

“Working in product post-acquisition at an organization like Salesforce gave me a great vantage point and new experience working with a world class organization at a huge scale. It was exciting to see Salesforce’s commitment to Indianapolis—from refurbishing office space, sponsoring major events and sports teams, and bringing other businesses, like Lev, to the tech ecosystem,” she said. “Salesforce’s presence in Indianapolis helped further energize the Indy tech scene, from Emarsys choosing Indianapolis as their North America headquarters to other businesses taking root here.”

Christopher, a native Hoosier, said he considers himself fortunate for his ExactTarget experiences but also because the Hoosier tech community is a place of possibilities.

“Because of the tech community that has been built before me, like ET, doing something big here is not only possible, but realistic,” he said.