Jen Randall directs Maestro through period of steady growth

Maestro started out as an e-learning company and has turned into a custom software company serving the likes of Facebook and Dannon Yogurt. Jen Randall talks to Startup Grind about what that transition was like and where the company may go from here.
It's probably fair to say that not everyone is as comfortable with risk as Jen Randall. 

"Risk can be really fun," Randall says. "You learn so much about yourself when you are put in a situation that is uncomfortable. You grow and learn who you are."

That positive outlook goes a long way toward understanding a path that has taken Randall from the front of a middle school classroom, to Johnson & Johnson as sales and training manager, to making cold calls from her basement for Maestro, to president of the company.

Maestro, a company that got its start creating learning products for clients, now makes custom software much of which is focused on improving employees performance for Maestro's clients. The company had $3.8 million in sales in 2013 and has 75 clients, including such companies as Facebook, Dannon Yogurt, Johnson & Johnson, Stryker, and Amway. 

At a Kalamazoo Startup Grind interview, Randall recently described the company and its rapid growth. Randall was invited to speak as part of the 40Forward program by Google, intended to spotlight the success of female entrepreneurs in the tech sector. Such businesses headed by women raise more money from investors and investors get a 35 percent higher return on investment.  

John Mueller led the interview, one of 60 with female leaders of tech companies conducted across the globe. In response to his questions, Randall recounted the company's history, described its core values, and next steps.

Josh Little started Maestro eLearning in 2007. He had been working at Stryker where he was part of a training program and had become frustrated by what was available for trainers. He wanted to start something new and went to work in the room above his garage.

Little and Randall had become family friends after his wife had provided child care for Randall’s son. They had remained close over the years, though Randall’s family had relocated several times and when he started talking about his own business Randall said she would be interested in working with him if he ever needed anyone to lead his sales effort. 

In Greenville S.C. Randall and her family had just built their dream home. Randall had a cushy corporate job and "a really nice lifestyle." 

With some prayer, Randall decided to leave South Carolina and work with Little to build a new tech company, though for the first year it meant working without drawing a salary as all revenues went back into the company. 

The company’s first interviews were conducted at Panera Bread,  she says with a laugh. As the company grew and started hiring, its yeasty smelling location proved challenging. "Telling people to show up at Panera Bread was not ideal." 

They needed a place to grow and found that at the business incubator at KVCC, which has since closed.  

In 2009, another company grew from their efforts, Bloomfire. Little moved Bloomfire company to Salt Lake, when he realized how much easier it was to find the Ruby on Rails developers he needed there. (He found eight developers in 24 hours and realized he could not have made those connections in Michigan.)  

Early on, there was some discussion of dissolving Maestro. But the company was doing so well--it grew 111 percent in 2011--that they decided to grow both Bloomfire and Maestro. 

"We just did our 117th project for Zimmer (a health-care company that supports orthopaedic  surgeons)," Randall says. It's one of a list of clients built by "six months of relentless cold calling."

Maestro has kept its clients through its service, which helps companies understand their needs and the root causes of their problems, so they get the solution that meets their needs, she says.

Little has since sold Bloomfire, moved on to start another company, and Randall is buying out his shares of Maestro.

Maestro ultimately outgrew its quarters in the KVCC incubator and when the company was five years old it moved to downtown Kalamazoo, where it currently is located. 

Rapid growth brought its own challenges. As the marketplace changed, Maestro changed to keep pace. Those changes led to some difficult decisions regarding structure of the internal team.

Not wanting the former teammates to feel as if they were cast adrift on their own, Maestro’s leaders worked with those in their network in an attempt to find new positions for those who had been let go. Letters of recommendation went out, contacts with potential employers made and networking done on their behalf. "We did whatever we could." 

Maestro has developed its own corporate culture. It's one Randall says was necessary. "It's what holds us together," she says. ("Our core is also our compass," the company website says. "Without purpose work is just work.) 

Employees at Maestro are given a lot of autonomy. "We hire really smart people and allow them to do what they do well."

She says one of her most valuable lessons as the company has grown is that people can be trusted. "There are so many brilliant people in this world. Trust them to do really great work."

She's also learned that it's not necessary to hire people who are exactly like her. The lesson actually has been that you need people with all kinds of varied skills. "You learn the most from people with completely different thoughts and ideas." 

With the company's success it's not surprising to hear it's been approached by prospective investors. Randall discussed the possibilities with a group of advisors, but decided the company was not ready for such a move during 2013. Stay tuned for developments in 2014. 

So what is the advantage that women have when it comes to tech company leadership?

"Women can bring a unique perspective to an industry that has historically been dominated by men, but regardless of whether you wear pants or a skirt, have a vision for what you want to accomplish," Randall says. "Hire talented people and help them make it happen."

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

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