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Kelly Ford | Growth Venture Capitalist
This week we spend time with Kelly Ford Buckley, a tech industry executive turned growth equity investor with a specialty in accelerating growth and building enterprise value for software companies from startup to $100M.
Kelly Ford Buckley is a tech industry executive turned growth equity investor with a specialty in accelerating growth and building enterprise value for software companies from startup to $100M. Prior to Edison, Kelly spent 20 years in high-growth emerging and established companies. She has been featured in Buyouts, Forbes, Crunchbase, Venture Capital Journal, and on Nasdaq TradeTalks and Cheddar, and is a frequent speaker at national investor, tech industry, B2B sales and marketing events.
[00:00:01] – Kelly Ford Buckley
What I really encourage leaders to do is to not let too much normalcy resume without taking real stock of what you and your organization learn from the last two plus quarters. Leaders and their teams are now crisis tested, and that’s a really, really big deal.
[00:00:27] – Doug Foulkes
Welcome to The Future of Work, the podcast that looks at, you guessed it, the future of work. It’s brought to you by WNDYR for their blog, Chaos & Rocket Fuel. WNDYR are productivity and human behavior specialists who use technology to help us humans on our digital journey from disruption to transformation.
You can check them out at WNDYR.com. That’s WNDYR.com. I’m your host Doug Foulkes. And along with WNDYR CEO Claire Haidar, we regularly meet up with industry experts and mavericks to get their take on work in the future.
This week we’re looking at the future of work through the eyes of a growth venture capitalist, specifically General Partner and Fintech Investor at Edison Partners, Kelly Ford Buckley. Kelly is a tech industry executive turned growth equity investor with a speciality in accelerating growth and building enterprise value for software companies from startup to a hundred million dollars. Prior to Edison, Kelly spent 20 years in high growth emerging and established companies. She’s a frequent speaker at national investor, tech industry, B2B sales, and marketing events, and a self-confessed work nerd. We’re going to start with Kelly’s definition of a work nerd and why they also important before her explanation of top trends that are shaping our current work environment.
[00:01:56] – Kelly Ford Buckley
A work nerd, to me, is someone who is passionate, maybe obsessive about productivity, connectivity, continually finding new, better ways to get jobs done. And I think that applies to jobs being done as individuals, but even more importantly with others. I don’t know a work nerd who is also not a workaholic. As a work nerd, I have a pretty intense kind of work ethic and pace. Workaholic and work nerd do not mean the same thing, but I think there’s strong correlations there.
You know, the work nerds are the early adopters, the influencers, often champions of process and technology that enable better work. Back actually, when I was at my my first startup in 2000, we called these folks Alpha Mavens. And they were kind of the nucleus and the catalysts for adoption of better ways of working. They might have been lower in the organization. They weren’t necessarily like an economic buyer, but they were the most important role in order to ensure the success of the deployment of our products in organizations.
[00:03:26] – Doug Foulkes
Kelly, you’re a technology investor. I think we could safe to say. Could you share with us and our listeners the top three trends that you feel are currently shaping work, probably outside the pandemic?
[00:03:40] – Kelly Ford Buckley
I think it was the Microsoft CEO who said the pandemic has driven two years worth—I think he said two years worth—of digital transformation in like two months, though there are trends and themes that, you know, would be relevant outside the pandemic, I think many of the same things are relevant also because of the pandemic.
So, we invest in areas that didn’t actually realize much exposure from the pandemic. And we’re continually evolving our investment themes. So we tend to prioritize vertical themes over horizontal ones. But let me share a couple of vertical ones first as it relates to work. Vertically, I mean, digitized health care, how doctors, nurses work with their patients—I mean, they’re dialing in, videoing into appointments more than ever before, obviously, pandemic related. But this was something pre-pandemic that we were big believers in. And it’s really going beyond that just kind of connectivity piece to a more robust level of connected care. Those aging at home, but also those suffering from any number of issues. So for providers, health care providers, this is their work. And there’s huge productivity and cost benefits and obviously safety that was brought to light that benefit during COVID. So that’s something that we think a lot about.
Also, supply chain resilience. Real time visibility, transparency, collaboration between all the players in your chain. And the speed implications when you have that, that is also enabled by bringing manufacturing closer to the end customer. This requires just a level of people and party connectivity and real time collaboration and insights in order to work smarter to enable that speed.
So those are two big areas for us. And we have we have several investments in each. And then I think horizontally and I don’t know if we coined this. We talk a lot about internally the notion of the pel-autonomy, you know, access streams anywhere, any time, and what this does for businesses and content and enabling technology for new ways for employees to learn and develop or expand their skill sets. I think this is really important for innovation. And, if employees can do more, then companies can expand their products and services and their overall business.
It’s entertainment today for the most part. But like anything, something blowing, you know, trends blowing up in B2C that sort of evolve into B2B. And we think there’s a lot of really exciting developments that have yet still to come, but also dynamics that will start to mature inside organizations of all sizes that will rely on pel-autonomy enabling technology.
We also see this as an opportunity for this type of access to be embedded in business applications and be more of a plug-in where continuous learning and companies taking more of a special interest and training and skills development in new ways that is typically only afforded maybe working in large companies.
We were already having an increasingly distributed workforce and now that’s certainly been accelerated and will continue to accelerate. So things like, you know, bring your own device increases vulnerabilities. And as such a demand on a new generation of cybersecurity, we’ve been investors in that space for several years and or several funds. And we continue to lean in there. Remote, I mean, it’s an aspect of our work that will continue to increase. And as such, we need increasingly sophisticated collaboration tools to support that. And that would have eventually been a trend anyway. It’s just the pandemic has accelerated things. And these are all areas that we’ve made bets in or we’ve been looking to make bets in. But I think that there’s very interesting vertical–specific applications as well as what people think more traditionally when they think about work and work tools and some of these themes more horizontally in terms of supporting the business of work or the work of business.
[00:08:39] – Claire Haidar
I can definitely concur with what you’re saying there, Kelly, because we’ve seen the same thing. We’ve just seen a very big spike in our customer base in the medical field. Where as, pre-pandemic, they were actually quite resistant. So they were definitely focusing on the patient–doctor relationship and they were undergoing a lot of digital transformation there. But actual internal operationalization and efficiency creation in the actual workings of hospital and doctor environments was still lagging. And it’s just spiked.
[00:09:16] – Kelly Ford Buckley
Yeah, it makes sense. And, you know, growth companies should be prioritizing health care as a sector. It’s a huge growth sector. So they have lots of problems to be solved, especially now even, you know, post-pandemic. They’re dealing with things that they weren’t dealing with before.
[00:09:37] – Claire Haidar
As you’re working with and monitoring your portfolio during this changing landscape, share with us where you’re seeing leadership teams floundering and where are they flourishing?
[00:09:50] – Kelly Ford Buckley
We’ve been pleasantly surprised how our leaders have anticipated and adapted in this environment since March. Our stance and guidance was really grounded in three things and it was survive-to-thrive, assume third party capital is not an option, and find ways to play offense, too, if you can.
I think the floundering may have happened if companies did not truly embrace that austerity planning mode that they needed to be in when this hit. You know, the whole notion of like “cut once and deep” and don’t assume growth will resume quickly or that capital would be available, extend your cash runway for 18 months if you can. We didn’t know what we didn’t know what was before us. And I think the companies that didn’t cut deep enough would be floundering if they didn’t take this advice.
But strategically, playing offense was easier for some sectors more than others. Supply chain, health care we talked about. There’s pockets of fintech, on demand business. Those who were able to—were already in healthy growth markets that had had tailwinds. It was very easy for them to play off that, to start to diversify their markets maybe, or products quickly, turn on a dime, and even some that weren’t in those markets could pivot in a certain direction to support their customers during that time. Doubling down on a certain segment of a market, like we have a lot of companies that sell to large enterprises but have a product that also is very effective in the mid-market. Strategically, those who have flourished have been able to play offense well.
And I think operationally one of the bright spots has really been around culture and talent, you know, in the midst of lockdown to accelerate some of that offense playing. But also just starting last quarter, once things started to show signs of normalization again. CEOs and their executives who were once (and many were) very strict about having their teams in a single location, this whole experience has opened their minds and they’ve seen their employees connected and productive and have begun to have more open minds about where their talent pool can be. And tapping into larger talent pools of qualified candidates who are located outside the state or city where their office is.
So that’s been a big shift. I can think of a couple of CEOs in particular that we work with who I would have never guessed in a million years. They would have never hired their next executive who couldn’t show up at that office every day. And now they’re talking to companies based in New Jersey. And the CEO is talking—we’re hiring a VP of sales. And we’ve got candidates in Florida and Austin and Chicago and Boston.
And these are incredibly qualified candidates that we wouldn’t have had, you know. Sure. New York, New Jersey area has great talent, too. And there’s great talent in many places. But to open that pool and also open the pool of different forms of diversity, when you when you start to really pick your head up and say, “Wow. What could this role be and who could fill this role and what could that bring to this company?”
[00:13:27] – Doug Foulkes
Kelly, I’m going to change the tack slightly. But actually, you’ve sort of hinted towards a potential answer just now, actually. The pandemic’s brought everything forward I think you said at least two or three years earlier. So if we go forward another five, maybe 10 years, what are the offices of the future going to look like?
[00:13:47] – Kelly Ford Buckley
On the one hand, I think many might say now that there will be no physical workspace and everything will be digital and virtual and distributed. And I disagree with that. I feel strongly that productive relationships and cultures and important leadership team dynamics still need the in-person time. It’s difficult to replace the impromptu whiteboard session and the office pop-in for quick feedback, quick decisions, the on-the-fly stuff.
If everyone would just pick up their team’s call when it comes in, just as they might pick up their phone or pick your head up when someone pops in your office, maybe a lot of that could still be achieved. But think about strategic sessions and planning and big topics and innovations amongst leadership teams. Like I just think there’s something that cannot be replaced, technology cannot replace. In our work in particular, when I’ve had these conversations and debates with my colleagues and other folks, if you look at venture capital growth, equity, private equity, could Edison find and execute the best deals, raise the next fund without in-office? Sure. And many funds do operate with little team and in-person time and play individual sports as investors. But I don’t know. My view is that’s the difference between running a fund versus running a company. True companies have cultures, a team.
And while much can be done virtually, remotely, the in-person stuff will always have importance and maybe that’s an old school view. But I’m just not a believer that this developing view—and I’ve read a lot about this—that many have, about making jobs work for the individual. I think the leadership of every company needs to decide what kind of culture they want to have and be. And if that’s it, great. But that’s not always going to be it. And that may not be the right thing for the business. So once the company decides who they want to be, what their norms will be, what their culture will be, then they should go fill the jobs that work for that goal or work for that culture.
That said, I do believe in 10 years, we should be in a spot where repetitive tasks, regardless of where they take place, will be automated. So, the human work becomes much more focused on the non-repetitive tasks, right? And a certain skill set, strategy, analyzing data, training machines or training each other, navigating complex sales and marketing problems, various forms of innovation.
So that notion of reskilling and skill development that I mentioned earlier, the training, the talent management initiatives, this all becomes increasingly important regardless of where you are and what kind of company and approach to the workforce that you choose to have. And with more automation, there’s more data. So I think also the performance of most jobs will be more readily measurable and quantifiable. And, maybe this is a reach, but I could also imagine and would celebrate a greater emphasis on performance-based compensation. Some might say, “oh, well, everybody has their MBOs and their OKRs and their goals. And hopefully most of them are quantitative in any business today. What if that comp and the definition of performance was truly about the results that the jobs and the people in the jobs were delivering?
I think with more automation of the repetitive tasks and even the non-repetitive tasks, having ways to measure more readily and quantify impacts more readily, you can really think about incentives in different ways and the productivity and performance of your people in different ways. So I think less about the physical workspace, though I still think it needs to exist. But some of these other dynamics, I think will be—I look forward to that in 10 years, certainly.
[00:18:29] – Claire Haidar
As somebody who runs a fully virtual company, I actually very much agree with you because that’s sort of like where the conversation goes whenever Tracey and I have this conversation with people, is the natural question that they ask of us is, “well, do you not believe in teams being together at all?” And she and I actually are big proponents of doing strategy in person and things like that. And I think for me, the way I see things going is that what that blended version will look like is—it’s almost like SWAT teams where a customer need is going to arise and it’s going to be a very particular set of skills that are going to have to come together out of the organization, work on that specific problem for however long it takes to solve it, and then disband and move on to the next problem.
If that hypothesis is even just somewhat true, I think all of the other softer issues that you’ve spoken about now, that don’t necessarily pertain to the physical collection of people in a space, become really valid. Because, in order to build a team that’s able to band together and disband very quickly and be centered around quick problem solving around customers, that requires radically different cultures and digital structures to what we’re seeing today.
What interesting future of work tech is on your radar at present?
[00:19:57] – Kelly Ford Buckley
Most of my time right now is actually spent in FinTech, but I also have a significant enterprise software background. So, I think about the intersection of fintech or even the fintech kind of as an ingredient in a business application.
So when you think about group oriented workflows and processes, it could be a supply chain where there are financial aspects and actions and decisions. And it’s it’s not just one person to one transaction requiring payments or billing your vendors, materials, and the time sensitive nature of some of these things, which had typically been associated with very internal legacy, lock down, not very collaborative, and very slow processes and technology, different applications inside companies. It’s now opening up. Having a fintech component of that: is it is it financing and a loan? Is it… There are key components that usually come out of the workflow and happen separately. But where you can truly enable fintech as kind of an ingredient and embed that, I think that that’s really exciting and contributes in a different way that we’ve been talking about, but still connected to the notion of speed, efficiency, data, insights, and collaboration. I think sometimes the technology’s in the way, but sometimes it’s just policy and process and legacy thinking that needs to come out.
I don’t know if I, like today, right now, in a digital virtual world, consider embedded fintech as an ingredient in everything I’m doing as most critical right now. But I think it’ll go there.
[00:22:11] – Claire Haidar
Yeah. As you say, I fully agree with you. It is shocking, but it’s not surprising to me. Like robotics is not a new thing. Robotic automation is not a new thing. I mean, car manufacturers were doing this 30 years ago already. This is not new to us. But the reason why it accelerated in those very real production line environments was because the production line is visual. You can literally look at something on it and see that it’s not working. I think the reason why we’ve lagged behind in the digital space in this area is because it’s unseen.
[00:22:47] – Kelly Ford Buckley
It’s replacing, for some, the need to get in the room with people. And if they were in a room, would they have the same want for these types of insights? And if they were in a room down the hall, there’s another room with something going on as well, right? So they’re just used to the potential of disconnectedness or redundancy on the negative. And on the positive, like, yeah, they’re getting in the room and if those four people think that they’re in charge of this innovation or that innovation. So I think these tools inspire creativity and innovation and then can create redundancies in a good way. But if you just knew about it, like how much more powerful, if there’s that many more brains thinking about that next innovation.
[00:23:40] – Doug Foulkes
Kelly, my last question was I asked you to look into the future. I’m going to take you back in time now to Groove Networks, which is a very interesting company that you were involved in quite some time ago. I think it’s fair to say it’s a very early version of many of the collaboration tools that we see today. What made you so excited about that product and why did you choose to get involved?
[00:24:04] – Kelly Ford Buckley
I joined there and it was 2000. So 20 years ago. I was working at Lotus early in my career, that’s what was sort of the original spawning of work nerd. But, you know, Ray Ozzie created Lotus Notes, and when he started Groove, the company was in stealth mode. And I was intrigued and really ready to do the startup thing. I always said the only thing that’s going to get me out of Lotus, which IBM had acquired—so I was technically working for IBM, the Lotus. We were able to operate fairly independently for a long time—the only thing that would get me out of there would be if I could go work for Groove. And I was watching Ray, he was assembling really a dream team. And finally, when they were ready to hire someone like me, it was a no brainer to make that move.
Groove was, I think, or I like think and I’m not aware of any other tool that put the worker, that business user, first. It was driven—the use of the application. It didn’t come from IT rolling it out and training you on how to use it. It was a user-driven experience. And of course, sitting in a Groove space, workspace, with access to real-time file sharing and chat, voice, whiteboards, project and task management, all in one space available on and offline and totally secure. You can’t be in there by yourself, like, you have to work with other people. So that’s where those alpha mavens came in for us.
But it was, all the power was pushed down to the user. I loved the user-driven nature of it. That was unheard of back then. We had a hosted, kind of recurring revenue model with our cloud services, which enable the online/offline dynamic for a desktop application that was pretty innovative at the time. It was early SaaS. And I love the empowerment of the user and I still used it even after Microsoft sort of wounded down. I was, let’s say, I was still using it with my team in like 2012/2013.
It was a great time to be in a startup. We were in stealth mode for a long time. Everybody was curious what Ray’s next big thing was going to be. I think we were really having a meaningful impact on, and probably scaring the IT departments a bit. But, you know, really putting more power in the hands of users. And the security aspect of it was really exciting, too. I mean, we had, when 9/11 happened, State Department, Department of Defense. Like, they were all using Groove to communicate in real-time and respond to crisis. So it was great time. And some of the best people I’ve ever worked with my career and many I’ve had the opportunity to work with again and will again. Great experience.
[00:27:30] – Doug Foulkes
We spent almost the whole time chatting to you about work because you’re a work nerd, I suppose. Wine and dogs. Let’s talk a little bit about the Kelly who steps out of the Edison office.
[00:27:41] – Kelly Ford Buckley
I mean, I work more than I sleep or do anything else. But, I do find time to unplug. I do get outside with my dogs. I have two. I have an English lab called Harlow, she’s chocolate. And a Pyrador, which is a Great Pyrenees/Lab mix whose enormous and his name is Maxwell. And they’re about a year apart by five and six? Oh no, six and seven. We restored an old home when we bought the house seven years ago. I love home renovation and design. I’ve redone rooms even like I have version two and version three of certain rooms since I’ve been there in seven years. I’m a year-round beachgoer. I don’t care what the weather is. I love the beach, Nantucket’s my happy place. And not just in the summer. But I’m a diehard kind of north-easterner. New Jersey is doing just fine for now.
[00:28:42] – Claire Haidar
I have to share a story with you very, very quickly about that Pyrenees/Labrador mix, right?
[00:28:49] – Kelly Ford Buckley
Yeah. A pyrador.
[00:28:52] – Claire Haidar
A pyrador, yes. So I, in another life, this is a whole different conversation we’ll have one day, Kelly. I used to be a very, very niche food photographer and I used to go on expeditions with extreme sports athletes. And I used to photograph their eating and their expeditions and everything like this. So, long story short, it was actually a pyrador that, well, not saved us, but protected us from a bear attacking our cabin in the Arctic.
[00:29:26] – Kelly Ford Buckley
Yes, that’s what they do!
[00:29:28] – Claire Haidar
They’re amazing dogs!
[00:29:30] – Kelly Ford Buckley
They are. Yeah. That’s what they’re bred to do. It’s a very different I mean, I love that he has the lab in him, too, but everything about him as a great Pyrenees and his behaviours are just so different than our lab or any lab I’ve ever had. They’re very protective.
[00:29:48] – Claire Haidar
OK, Kelly, you’ve hinted at this. If I was to look at a golden thread in your career for me, looking from the outside in, I would say it hinges on two things: Back in your days as an employee, it was very much market growth; and now as an investor, the golden thread that I’m seeing is operational efficiency. Would you agree?
[00:30:12] – Kelly Ford Buckley
Yeah, sure. I’ve always worked in high-growth environments and have been obsessed over not just growth, but scalable growth. I’ve developed a pretty keen skill of knowing and seeing things that should be repeatable, making them so, and putting them on a path to predictable.
I’m also incredibly impatient. So efficiency and speed are important to me. I hate wasting time. I don’t let perfect get in the way of great. Take what data is available. But, you know, you just have to trust your gut and go. I think working in growth environments, you know, it was probably by osmosis kind of developed that. And these things, you know, as an investor, go nicely hand in hand. Focus on the fundamentals and look to build a scalable business. It’s not growth at all costs.
[00:31:16] – Claire Haidar
Kelly, we’re coming to the end of our conversation. Definitely a conversation I could keep having with you for a long time. And I know Doug could also linger here for much longer. But if we were to wrap it up and we were to ask you to leave one key insight or piece of advice with our primary audience who consist of senior executives, who are currently very focused on digital transformation within their orgs, what one key takeaway would you leave with them about growth in this present moment that we find ourselves in?
[00:31:54] – Kelly Ford Buckley
You know, we’re starting to see some resumed normalcy as we kind of leave Q3. This is a relief and it’s exciting for companies of all walks, but for growth companies in particular. And understandably, everyone wants to look forward put 2020 in the rear view. But I think what I really encourage leaders to do is to not let too much normalcy resume without taking real stock of what you and your organization learn from the last two plus quarters. Leaders and their teams are now crisis tested, and that’s a really, really big deal. There’s lots of learnings and new skills and implications on the business that came from this period.
So my advice would be, identify, if you haven’t already looked in the mirror and had that kind of reflection, do it. Identify the strategies, behaviors, the new norms that you really want to bottle and take with you going forward. Your employees, your customers, your investors will appreciate that reflection. And no doubt it’ll give some new meaning to the growth mindset of the business from here on out.
We’re at a perfect time where there’s enough time behind us, enough learning. We’re not out of it completely yet. But especially as we look toward 2021 planning, figure out what being crisis tested has meant and is going to mean for the go-for-it business.
[00:33:31] – Claire Haidar
Kelly, thank you. Thank you for giving us a full hour of your time.
[00:33:35] – Kelly Ford Buckley
Thank you. It was fun!
[00:33:37] – Doug Foulkes
Lots of fun and some incredible insights. Thank you, Kelly Ford Buckley. We hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast. If you have, we look forward to inviting you back sometime soon. Just a reminder, for more information about WNDYR and the integration services they supply, you can visit their website. That’s WNDYR.com. And so, as always, from me, Doug Foulkes and Chaos & Rocket Fuel, stay safe and we’ll see you soon.