“I had never heard the term unicorn until I saw in the paper someone calling me one,” said Gary Nelson, who founded Alkami, which provides cloud-based digital banking products and is now valued at $1.7 billion.
In fact, not only did he not realize he was a unicorn, he said he didn’t know Alkami had the potential to reach unicorn status when he started it.
“It would be easy to say that I knew at the beginning, but that would be a total fabrication,” he said. “We knew the market needed a refresh, and I liked the idea of a small, nimble company taking on the big boys. In the early days, it was just a head game. I was just thinking, ‘How was I going to fund this thing? Where do we get funding? I had the best salesperson on the planet. He was just a key player. It took several years to know it was going to be successful. We never missed a payroll, which is amazing for a startup. The only person that didn’t get paid was me, which is not unusual.”
He said the four things needed to build a successful company are a really good idea, sources for funding, leadership that knows what it is doing and an executor to develop and sell the idea or product.
“It takes all four of these things,” he said.
But, he said the funding component is why many otherwise-solid businesses fail. Once investors are at the table, however, growth can start to occur, if the other pieces have solidified.
“You’ve got to have strategic investors who bring millions to the table and that’s not going to be a local, small investor,” he said. “That’s where so many companies come to a halt. Then, it’s all about bringing in the right people at the right time. After our investor came on board, we were able to recruit an executive from Dallas out of retirement. Then, clients started coming on, and if you have a client that does well then it begins to sell itself. That’s when this thing started to roll downhill pretty quick.”