Aaron Fulkerson, former MindTouch CEO, said he tested the waters of stepping down from his leadership role by observing how effectively the company operated when he was absent.

Aaron Fulkerson, former MindTouch CEO, said he tested the waters of stepping down from his leadership role by observing how effectively the company operated when he was absent.

— San Diego’s MindTouch, a tech company with software that turns business’s customer service and marketing materials into easily accessible online documents, launched in 2005. On May 24, co-founder and CEO Aaron Fulkerson stepped down after 13 years at its helm. Fulkerson cedes the CEO position to the company’s chief operations officer, Aaron Rice, but remains on the company’s board of directors. Fulkerson sat down with the San Diego Business Journal to talk about bootstrapping the company for a decade, challenges technologists must face to succeed in business and when it’s time for founders to move on.

Q: There are different ways a founder can “exit,” or leave his or her company. What route have you chosen, and why?

A: There are different kind of exits a founder can make. There’s the most obvious one, an exit for the company to a public market; the exit through acquisition; and then there’s what I think of as the ‘ham sandwich’ exit. I base that on something Warren Buffett said: ‘Look for companies that could be run by a ham sandwich.’ I’m proud to say MindTouch is in a situation where it’s really a spreadsheet business. There’s a period you go through that requires a lot of breaking things and trying new things and experimentation as you get product-market fit. Then you set up a repeatable motion in sales and marketing around the product-market fit. MindTouch thankfully is in a position now where it could be run by a ham sandwich. And I don’t want that to sound like a pejorative, because there is something really beautiful and elegant about that kind of leader.

Q: MindTouch has evolved significantly since its early days. Take us through how it’s changed to what it is today.

A: We’ve been through so many iterations before getting that product-market fit and then got it scalable and repeatable. MindTouch, from the beginning, was a way for me to say ‘(expletive) you to the man,’ because we released it as free open source. The entire concept of it was free knowledge; I wanted to go put Elsevier out of business. I wanted it to be technology that made it possible for academicians, researchers or journalists to be able to author and publish very quickly, in a way that would drive very effective self-service. It was all about, how do we aid someone creating knowledge by innovating around the consumption side. That first phase of the business was not a business; it was an open source project. Then we started commercializing it, (but) that was not a defensible business model. Then, in 2011 we launched it as cloud business, and that’s when we really started to take off as a company.

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