For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been.”
—John Greenleaf Whittier
Kellie Clark still remembers the night, at the age of 13, when she saw that sense of heartbreak quoted above in her mother’s eyes. “Mom worked her way through nursing school while raising three children. She worked hard, and was very good in her job. She was a Charge Nurse in Carraway’s ER, focusing on spinal cord and head injuries. That’s a physically-demanding job, even by nursing standards.
“Anyhow, we were flipping channels one night when we saw a story about a hugely successful business that had solved a big problem in healthcare. Suddenly, Mom stopped talking and stared at the screen like she’d just been gut-punched. I asked her what was wrong. She pointed at the TV and said, ‘That was my idea.’”
So what was the idea? “Honestly, I cannot remember.” Give the girl a break. She was 13. What matters about that memory is, “My mother had domain expertise and the insight to come-up with a great idea. What she didn’t have was the experience or the resources needed to turn that idea into a business.”
At AppThink, the company Kellie now runs, they’ve seen the enemy. It’s missed opportunity. Which is why they’re in the business of helping entrepreneurs turn good ideas into great businesses. The cynic might say, Gee that sounds really swell — but what makes AppThink any different from the 200+ accelerator programs already operating across the country? For starters, there’s the people involved. AppThink is part of Harmony Venture Labs. Which was founded by Shegun Otulana. Who built and sold Therapy Brands. For 1.2 billion dollars. Yeah, good people.
Rewind: Kellie’s path to AppThink
Inspired by her mother’s career, Kellie enrolled at Auburn, in 2004, convinced she was destined to become a doctor. That career path crashed headlong into reality — otherwise known as Organic Chemistry I. “I still remember Mom saying, ‘If you can’t pass organic chemistry, maybe you really don’t want to be a doctor.’”
Fast-forward seven years. Kellie’s earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, and a Masters in Public Administration — with a focus on Economic and Community Development. Her first job out of school is with AmeriCorps. Working with disinherited communities. Consulting with non-profit organizations on organizational development and sustainable fundraising practices. Earning $14,000 a year. And yes, living at home. It’s an experience she still remembers as one of the best in her career. “I came to know Birmingham, all of Birmingham, for the first time in my life.”
She also came to know, and soon came to work-for, Ed Fields — who’s now Mayor Woodfin’s Senior Advisor & Chief Strategist. At the time, Ed owned and managed Relax, It’s Handled — an Association and Event Management Company serving non-profit associations. “Ed was, and still is, a great mentor of mine.” Event Planning being pretty much the poster business for Murphy’s Law, Kellie remembers, “Ed used to say, ‘Don’t get ready. Stay ready.’”
After two successive consultant-level positions (first, preparing college women considering careers in public service, at Leading Edge Institute, then providing technical assistance and support to dozens of non-profit agencies as Program Manager for the Alabama Association of Non-Profits), Kellie — in 2018 — accepted what she still considers the toughest job of her life: Stay-At-Home Mom. “That year taught me so much respect for women who’ve chosen that as their path. And yes, it is absolutely a full-time job.”
Fortunately for Birmingham’s entrepreneurial community, TechBirmingham CEO Deontée Gordon (then Director Of Business Development at Rev Birmingham) had different ideas for Kellie’s career. “Deontée convinced me to apply for a position at Innovate Birmingham.”
For the next three years, first as Project Manager and then Director Of Operations, Kellie supported Innovate Birmingham’s mission (“to foster an environment primed for technology-based economic development in Birmingham”). Toward that end, one of her key roles was oversight and execution of Software Engineering & Data Analytics boot camps.
“I had the time of my life at those boot camps. I learned a little coding. I worked with so many good people and young founders, and I watched so many of them become great successes. Just the other day, I ran-into a former student who’s now a Senior Programmer at Altec.”
Kellie’s impact in that role caught the eye of Innovation Depot’s newly-hired CEO Drew Honeycutt, who persuaded her to join him, in mid-2020, as the Depot’s Director Of Programs.
For the next 20 months, Kellie: Managed the creation of multiple accelerators. Launched a pre-accelerator. Curated programs providing holistic support to early stage founders. And caught the eye of Shegun Otulana. Not to mention Harmony Venture Labs Director Of Product Delivery Trevor Newberry, who asked if she might like to run one of HVL’s portfolio companies. Namely AppThink. Which they launched last June (2022).
Why AppThink? Why Kellie?
We mentioned the quality of the other people involved as a huge selling point for AppThink. Kellie’s experience and expertise is an equally-attractive draw for young founders with promise. “Throughout my career, I’ve had a particular strength in recognizing and identifying good opportunities for other people — and then connecting those opportunities. I’ve also been consistently successful in connecting promising talent with good people — which is every bit as important, if not more so. I love the saying, ‘Success moves at the speed of relationships.’
“The challenge of building startups in 2023 is so much greater than it was just 20 years ago. The startup world is a lot noisier than it used to be. There are so many more emerging companies and products, and you have to be that much better just to cut through all the noise.
“If you’re not a well-connected, tech-savvy entrepreneur in a town like Boston or San Francisco, it’s even tougher. And when you consider there’s a good chance you’re working on an idea similar to something already taking shape inside a giant company somewhere, with a full-time force of experienced product developers, the chances of quickly and affordably creating something people actually want are slim to none.”
Let’s pause for a Positivity Break, shall we?
“At AppThink,” she continues, “we take the core principles used to build great companies — like Therapy Brands, Shipt, even Google — and we democratize them for non-technical founders with good ideas. We help them assess risk, then test that risk, before they move forward. Let’s say a founder is looking for dependable customer feedback on an idea. We can do that. And it won’t cost them $20,000.
“We’re also testing a process for helping founders develop turn-key Go To Market / Top Of Funnel solutions. We’re even exploring the possibility of supporting other incubators and accelerators — including college labs.
“For most founders who built successful businesses, the biggest step in their journeys was making it from Zero to One — where their ideas were actually validated. Imagine if there were a dependable tool for validating ideas. We’re working on that, too!”
She’ll admit it: That’s a lot of heavy lifting. “I am learning so much. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Of course, she really means the second hardest thing she’s ever done. You know, after Stay-At-Home Mom? So let’s give her time to bring a couple of AppThink projects to life. Then we’ll revisit the rankings.
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