AWARD SPOTLIGHT: BDC Capital IT Venture Fund ‑ Winner of CVCA's 2022 VC Regional Impact Award for Central Canada for Axonify
Carol Leaman’s business savvy and experience scaling successful start-ups helped to drive the rapid expansion of her training software company Axonify Inc. over the past decade – eventually capturing the attention of San Francisco PE firm Luminate Capital Partners.
Luminate bought control of the Waterloo-based firm in April 2021, with a mission to help Leaman and her co-founder Christine Tutssel achieve their target of building Axonify into a $1B company by 2025.
“Right now, we’re looking at; what do we build? What do we buy? What new markets do we go after to reach that $1‑billion valuation, which is about $100-million in annual revenues,” says Leaman, Axonify’s CEO.
She says Axonify agreed to be taken over by Luminate because the PE firm shared the founder’s vision to expand, while also keeping the operations – and jobs – in the Waterloo region.
“The stars aligned and the timing was right,” says Leaman.
Axonify, which delivers personalized digital learning solutions for frontline employees across sectors such as retail and health care, has more than 220 employees – up from four when Leaman and Tutssel launched it in 2012. Axonify’s training programs are used by more than 160 companies, such as Walmart, Levi’s, and Merck, in 150-plus countries.
The company’s expansion was made possible with some financial backing from BDC Capital, its largest Canadian investor, and U.S. companies JMI Equity and Harmony Partners. Last year, Luminate bought out those investors in a transaction valued at about US$350M. Luminate also set aside additional capital to fund acquisitions by Axonify.
The deal, one of the largest returns to date for BDC Capital, has been awarded the CVCA’s VC Regional Impact Award for Central Canada.
BDC Capital’s IT Venture Fund led the B round in 2015 and then invested in a second-round in 2016, helping the company scale alongside a handful of U.S. investors.
Leaman says the financial support was used to help Axonify expand its sales team and hire developers to build more products, faster. The investors also acted as a sounding board for business decisions and helped make some critical connections. For instance, it was a long-time U.S. investor that flagged Axonify to Luminate, which eventually led to the deal last year.
“All of our investors, including BDC, have been fantastic,” Leaman says. “They were helpful and meaningful in our journey, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without them, that’s for sure.”
Ron Warburton, a managing partner at BDC Capital’s IT Venture Fund, says his organization initially invested in Axonify because of its innovative platform and growth potential – and because it was led by Leaman, an experienced entrepreneur.
“The skill sets, the tenacity, and expertise that she brings to the table are world-class,” he says, adding that Leaman and Tutssel, Axonify’s chief revenue officer, are highly respected in the industry and the Waterloo community.
Axonify has made a big impact in the community not just by hiring more workers but through its participation in various non-profit organizations. The company was also invaluable during the pandemic, providing free training for frontline workers in hospitals, health care clinics, retail stores, and other consumer-facing jobs to keep themselves, their customers, and visitors safe.
Also more than half of Axonify’s staff are women, which is rare in the tech industry. Leaman says the gender mix wasn’t by design but brings an important balance of skills and experience to the company.
“That diversity has been very helpful and has been an attraction tool for other great people to come and work for us,” she says.
Warburton of BDC Capital describes Axonify as “a great Canadian success story that continues to grow worldwide.”