This is the second of the six-part “SA 100 Insider” series, looking at the passions, hobbies, and pursuits of Silicon Alley’s tech elite. “SA 100 Insider” is sponsored by Mercedes. Read more posts in the series »
Growing up in Madison, Wisc., Ranku CEO Kim Taylor became a force to be reckoned with on the dance floor, the beams, and the ice. As a girl, she loved dancing and she loved ice hockey. By age of seven, that passion for dancing ultimately led to an interest in gymnastics.
That mix of school and sports has been a theme throughout Taylor’s life, right up to her current project: Ranku is a tech startup that helps students discover and rank online college degree programs. It’s backed with $US500,000 by Mark Cuban, the tech investor who is perhaps best-known as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks.
Taylor became a very competitive gymnast thanks to the help of her coaches, the parents of Chellsie Marie Memmel. Memmel was a member of the U.S.’s 2008 Olympic women’s gymnastics team.
“I was a very serious gymnast,” Taylor tells Business Insider. “That was my whole life. I also just really liked sports. I was kind of very well known (for the beam). No one could ever beat me at a handstand contest.”
But since her brothers were ice hockey players, Taylor decided to take up ice hockey while continuing to excel at gymnastics. She joined her high school’s boys hockey team as well as a private girls hockey team.
Also on that girls’ team was Ranku co-founder Cecilia Retelle, the now-former senior director of education policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. When their team went to the national championship, Retelle and Taylor bunked together and have been friends ever since.
The college years and dancing in the NBA
Once she entered college, Taylor snagged a spot as an NBA dancer for the Milwaukee Bucks. That year, the team ended up going to the eastern conference finals.
But that was her first and last year as an NBA dancer. That’s because she realised she wanted to be a sports writer or broadcaster.
After her first year of college, Taylor stopped dancing for the NBA, and transferred from a small Jesuit school in Wisconsin to Arizona State University, to study journalism.
While at ASU, Taylor wrote for The Arizona Republic where she mostly covered football. Her coverage involved a lot of statistics, and that’s when she fell in love with research. Research, she says, is most of what drives her online education startup today.
Given that she essentially grew up in the boys locker room both as an athlete and sports writer, Taylor says, it was good training for the male-dominated tech world.
After college, Taylor switched from the editorial side to advertising. Around 2008, Taylor was working for an online publisher in Chicago where she focused on online education.
At the time, Taylor says, for-profit institutions were exploding because newly unemployed people saw schools as a safe haven, an alternative to an unstable workforce.
“I knew it was a big industry, but no one in Chicago appreciated it,” Taylor says. “So I started thinking that I should look at startups, but I knew nothing about startups.”
So she came up with a checklist. Taylor wanted to join an early-stage startup with no revenue, and no capital.
“I wanted to run revenue,” Taylor says.
And that’s what she ultimately did.
Starring on Bravo’s “Start-Ups: Silicon Valley” reality TV show
Taylor came to Silicon Valley as the fifth employee at a startup that builds Facebook ads for brands.
She joined contingent on fact that they would let her do things her way, she says.
“They didn’t know how to make money and had zero contacts,” Taylor says.
Within her first year at the company, Taylor demonstrated how to reach $US1 million in revenue.
Along the way, Taylor found out about Bravo’s new reality TV show “Start-Ups: Silicon Valley.”
“It sounded like a complete joke,” Taylor says. “I just wanted to see if I could get on it.”
So she bypassed the standard application process and sent the producers a well-crafted email instead. Two days later, she was invited to join the show.
The show received negative feedback from the moment the first episode aired. People criticised it for not depicting an accurate, authentic view of life in Silicon Valley.
A few episodes into the season, we found out that Taylor had decided to leave the Facebook ads company to start a new fashion startup called Shonova.
By the time she left, she was bringing in $US3 million a month in revenue. She would’ve stayed, Taylor says, but the startup’s executives wouldn’t give her a VP title.
She told them, “If you don’t give me my title or give me a raise, I’m out.” As Taylor reflects back on what happened, she wonders if the CEO thought she was kidding. She wasn’t.
“I think a lot of women get held back in their careers,” Taylor says. “I was held back. They didn’t want to give me a title. They didn’t want to push me forward. I always knew I was capable of more.”
The show got canceled before the end of the first season, but Taylor has no regrets.
“It was an amazing thing for me,” Taylor says. “Anything is what you will make of it.”
Though, she’s not sure if she could say the same for some of the other cast members. She didn’t specifically mention these examples, but the season featured plenty of drama, a strap-on sex toy, and other bizarre moments involving some of the other cast members.
From Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley
Just a few weeks out from launching fashion startup Shonova, Taylor pulled the plug. Her real passion had always been in education, so she decided to pursue Ranku, the online education startup that she had first started thinking about back in Chicago.
Even though the application deadline had passed for the new Kaplan Education accelerator powered by TechStars in New York, the program said it would make an exception for her if she could get a team together.
Within two weeks, Taylor convinced Retelle, her childhood friend and former ice hockey teammate, to quit her lucrative job as the senior director of education policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to join Ranku as a co-founder. Taylor also brought on board an engineer and user interface designer, and convinced her brother to help out, too.
With a team intact, she received her term sheet for a $US20,000 investment in Ranku.
Ranku wants to become a destination for people to find the best online degree program from top-notch universities. For Ranku, the “best” school isn’t necessarily the one with the highest ranking on the “U.S. News and World Report” list. Instead, the best schools in Ranku’s lists are the ones that give students great job outcomes.
The three-month accelerator program started this past June. A couple of days before Demo Day, where each startup pitches to an audience of investors, Ranku announced that Mark Cuban would be leading a $US500,000 seed round in the startup.
“Mark was coming to town to do press for Shark Tank,” Taylor says. “He pinged me and asked how my startup was doing. I said, ‘cranking’ and he asked me to meet. I knew he wanted me to pitch.”
Aiming to find a place to go where people wouldn’t want to talk to Cuban, Taylor scheduled a meeting at her favourite Green Bay Packers bar (Cuban is a diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fan).
“No one bothered him,” Taylor says. “No one said anything.”
So she gave him the high-level pitch, but after a few minutes Cuban interrupts her.
“Kim, stop talking,” he said. “I’m in.”
Ranku launched just three months ago, but it’s already cash-flow positive. Going forward, Ranku wants to solve some of the biggest, most complicated issues in education and close the skills gap.
“It’s something that needs to be solved in the private sector,” Taylor says. “That’s how I see it. We start here. This is the logical starting point for online education. New rules are being written. There are no rules about what makes a great versus a terrible online school. No one even understands if and why they’re good. We want to champion idea of measuring the quality of schools by output.”
It goes in line with what President Barack Obama wants for our education system, Taylor says. The only difference is that Taylor and her co-founder Retelle plan to have that done by next quarter.