REPEAT is a special interview series underwritten by CliftonLarsonAllen where we take a deep dive inside the minds of Minnesota’s rare repeat technology entrepreneurs. Repeat means to start a tech company, exit said company, and return start another one.
Aaron Kardell became a technology entrepreneur at age 14, and by 24 he had sold his first company. Today, he is the founder and CEO of Homespotter, a VC-backed mobile focused software company in the real estate industry. Kardell is among our guests of honor at the upcoming Founders Respect and Recognition event on April 5th.
When and where were you born?
I was born in 1980 and raised in Wayne, Nebraska.
Were you parents together and what did they do for a living?
Yes they were married and their primary profession most of the time growing up, is they were co-owners of a manufacturing company for mattress pads and pillows. My mother led accounting and my father led the sales team.
Do you have any siblings?
Two younger sisters – one now works for the state and the other is more of a graphic designer by trade.
What’s your earliest memory of money?
Growing up in a small town, there was always the big city trip to go shopping. So whenever we would go to Sioux City, Iowa, I remember around age five, experiences like buying things, and then with friends learning about money and change, etc.
Was money discussed in your family growing up?
Yes and no. By the time I was four, my parents had a decent amount of debt and some failed businesses. I was pretty shielded from those circumstances until much later in life.
Their fourth business, the manufacturing one, did take off and from my vantage point it was a comfortable lifestyle they provided. They were always talking about some aspect of the business at the dinner table and around the house.
What was your first experience doing something in exchange for money?
About age nine, together with my dad, sometimes for fun, we would fish golf balls out of the pond, clean them up and resell them to the golfers. From there, in my early teens I would work for my parents business doing random things.
Then, when I was 14 I wrote a Windows shareware application and sold that for $50 per license. There was no online purchases or saas back then, so everything was done via mail and disk.
You were writing and selling software at age 14?
How did you get into that?
I remember learning BASIC programming on my moms briefcase style laptop around age six. I was fascinated by the machine that could do things based on what it was told.
For how long did you pursue your software sales?
For about four years, throughout high school, I stopped when I went to college.
What did your parents think about it?
They were supportive…I think my dad was fascinated more than anything that I was able to pull it off…with such high margins too. He emphasized how unique my situation was and also acted as mentors to me during that period.
What kind of high school student were you?
I was kind of a slacker…I got decent grades and test scores, but probably not as good as I could have thinking back about it now.
Did you play any sports?
For most of junior high and high school, I ran cross country, did track, and tried to play basketball.
Where did you go to college and what did you study?
I went to school at Bethel, which is what brought me to Minnesota. There I studied computer science with minors in business and math. I still had a bit of that slacker in me from high school but managed to pull off a 3.5 GPA by the time I graduated.
How did you finance college?
I was very fortunate that my parents paid for school. Not having outstanding debt or large tuition bills to pay certainly made pursuing the entrepreneurial endeavors easier to take on.
Did you work throughout college?
I did have a number of fits and starts with little tech businesses…random things that I either never completed or that I did finish but didn’t fully complete commercialization of. I remember building ipoinformer.com which was an alert messaging system for IPO allocations on Schwab, E*TRADE, and other platforms…keep in mind this was late 90’s and pre dot-com bust when things were going off.
During my junior and senior year in college, I worked remotely for a company that was based in my hometown called INET Library. This would lead me to start Altona Ed in 2001, K-12 student information system that I would grow to 15 employees and eventually sell to Pearson in 2004.
I was the founder, received capital backing from a key investor, and provided a good return to everyone involved.
Did you to work for Pearson at that point?
Yes, I worked for Pearson just shy of three years and left in August of 2007. I had reached a point that I knew I wanted to go find and start something else.
Going from a company of 15 people to one of 30,000 with lots of corporate layers between me and the CEO…I felt limited in the impact that I could make. I had achieved a decent exit with money in the bank, confidence, and no kids at this point so my risk tolerance was high.
Was your wife + family supportive?
Yes, I am very fortunate that my wife Kate has never really questioned my entrepreneurial decisions and always been there for me since we’ve been together. Of course it helps that I was able to demonstrate some early success so there’s proof of a positive outcome. And I think my parents were really proud of me too.