Kim Taylor is not your typical tech entrepreneur.
A former sports reporter and NBA dancer with the Milwaukee Bucks, Taylor grew up playing ice hockey in her native Wisconsin before moving to Silicon Valley to work in online advertising. That’s where the 32-year-old rose to fame as one of the stars of Randi Zuckerberg’s “Start-ups: Silicon Valley” reality TV show — an experience that Taylor says “was a total disaster, but I’d do it again.”
For those who didn’t watch the frequently-panned Bravo show, Taylor was the one who quit her job at Ampush Media to start a fashion startup. That company didn’t go anywhere, but Taylor quickly stumbled back into entrepreneurship with a new online education company by the name of Ranku.
Now, Taylor — who completed the TechStars education accelerator in New York last summer — is taking the next step in her career. She’s moving Ranku, backed by tech investor and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, to Seattle.
Taylor was encouraged to pick Seattle by Rahul Sood, the general manager of Microsoft Ventures and an investor in Ranku. Sood touted the region’s depth of tech talent and vibrant startup ecosystem, qualities that resonated with the graduate of Arizona State’s journalism department. After a weeklong visit to the Northwest for a Microsoft education conference, Taylor said she was hooked.
“We fell in love with Seattle,” said Taylor, adding that the people reminded her of those in cheese-loving Wisconsin. “We just really felt at home.” It also didn’t hurt that two of the company’s key recruits, an engineer from eBay who previously worked at Microsoft and a designer from Columbia University, had connections to Seattle and wanted to move back.
“That was kind of the universe’s way of telling us: Go to Seattle,” she said.
Sood said he’s excited to have Ranku in Seattle, calling a “true entrepreneur.”
“What makes her unique is her humility and self-deprecating approach, she’s very likeable as a result … and since Ranku is doing something great in the education space — a space that is in desperate need of change — and Kim and team are super talented I thought it would be a good thing to get her to move to Seattle,” said Sood.
The San Francisco Bay Area also was a possibility, especially given the connections that Taylor made while on the reality TV show. But the intense competition for engineers — even average ones — pushed her to the Northwest.
“In Seattle, we were really wowed by the tech talent,” Taylor tells GeekWire. “There are these massive software companies that people don’t know, because they are not the sexier names, but they are really (creating) awesome and really complex products.”
Specifically, Taylor said that Bainbridge Island-based Avalara and Bellevue-based Concur inspired what they are building at Ranku, in part because both companies are good at capturing data that is constantly changing, whether it is sales tax information (Avalara) or travel and entertainment expense forms (Concur).
The 10-month-old company is creating an easy way for students to discover online degree programs from colleges and universities, including American University, Johns Hopkins University, Penn State, Colorado State University and dozens of others.
“Right now, there is a huge discovery issue in finding (these universities) because everyone has an online course,” said Taylor. “Putting a degree online is 100 times harder.” Ranku helps the universities tell their stories, serving as a feeder system of students. It also partners with large companies that offer tuition reimbursement, managing that process for those who are returning to school.
Right now, more than 85 schools are listed for free on Ranku, with Taylor saying that it’s important that “every school has a voice” in the marketplace. Those schools represent over 700 degree programs, many in the STEM fields where skills are desperately needed.
“We are taking a Google-like approach where we think if you show the person the most relevant results of what they are looking for, that will drive up conversion … that will drive up the application rate,” said Taylor, adding that some online MBA programs are paying a whopping $55 per click in Google to obtain leads. “We are a startup … so we are going to forego short-term revenue to build something we felt could be much bigger.”
In past roles, Taylor specialized in online education, helping organizations such as University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, 2U and others attract new users At Alloy Media, she was named Education Salesperson of the Year. Ranku goes beyond traditional lead generation, she says, since the company is helping employees of large companies find the best opportunities in what she describes as the “large misunderstood market of non-profit online degrees.”
Building a startup has always been in the cards for Taylor, one of the reasons she moved to San Francisco in the first place. The reality TV show happened to be an unexpected detour on that journey, though she took some good advice from Shark Tank’s Cuban in prepping for the Bravo show. Cuban advised her to resist the urge to play to the cameras, instead saying and doing what came naturally.
“I never really planned to be a reality star. I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” says Taylor, adding that investors get a kick out of her brief moment of fame. Some ask her if the experience was a bad thing.
“I’m like, yeah, my lead investor has multiple reality TV shows. He’s on Shark Tank,” says Taylor, speaking of Cuban. “I think it has actually helped me.”
When told that I never watched “Start-ups Silicon Valley,” Taylor responded with a laugh: “don’t bother.” But she did learn a lot watching how all of the pieces came together for the show, lessons that she is now applying to her own startup.
Ranku, and its five employees, plan to arrive in Seattle in early July. It plans to start bolstering its product team, adding another five staffers shortly after their arrival. A new financing round is in the works.
“We’re so excited for the move and to become a part of the Seattle ecosystem,” she says.
Interestingly, Ranku’s co-founder Cecilia Retelle — the former director of education poilicy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — has known Taylor since the age of 12. In fact, the two played ice hockey together back in Wisconsin, joining one of the only girl’s hockey teams at the time and often competing on different boy’s club teams.
That experience on the ice could serve the entrepreneurs well as they enter the fragmented and complex online education business.
“That was the best training for working in technology ever,” says Taylor of her time playing hockey on a boy’s ice hockey team.