When RangeMe CEO Nicky Jackson started her retail product discovery platform in her children’s toy room, she thought it would keep her mind occupied while on maternity leave. She didn’t expect it to turn into a global juggernaut. Here, she shares her leadership journey as a female founder, including her lessons learned.
It was May 2015, and Nicky Jackson was walking into the US head office of Fortune 500 retailer, Target. She was excited and nervous to be pitching her retail discovery platform, RangeMe, which she’d only launched months earlier in Australia. If Jackson could generate interest in the US, her revolutionary platform had the potential to completely disrupt the retail industry.
Jackson was passionate about using technology to bring together retail buyers and product suppliers. Until she developed RangeMe, retailers relied on onerous methods of discovering new products: trade shows, brokers, or cold calls and emails from suppliers. For small entrepreneurs with no retail buyer contacts – as Jackson had once been – the chances of a buyer agreeing to distribute your product were negligible, which was incredibly disheartening for those trying to get a new business off the ground.
Yet, Jackson’s research found that retailers were keen to uncover innovative, niche brands to satisfy consumer demand. She was sure her platform could create success stories for retailers and suppliers alike, by making it easy for them to find each other and determine if they had matching requirements. But first, she needed a foot in the door to the US market, which is why her meeting at Target was crucial.
“I’ll never forget presenting to a room full of merchants at Target, and at the end, the chief merchant slammed the documents on the desk and said: ‘This is amazing! When can we have it?” Jackson says.
It was one of those pinch-me moments, and the knock-on effect was phenomenal. The small business she started on maternity leave was about to go global.
The beginning of a juggernaut
Jackson never set out to start RangeMe. In fact, she was trying to get another business off the ground in 2013 when she was on maternity leave with her 6-month-old daughter and 2-year-old son. Her daughter had terrible eczema, and a local compound chemist made the only cream that helped. Ready for a distraction from dirty nappies and sleep deprivation, Jackson sought to commercialise the cream to help other children with similar skin conditions. Working with the chemist, she developed a skincare range, Derma Baby, and started approaching pharmaceutical retailers for distribution. No one returned her calls or emails.
“It was really difficult to get them to respond to me because who was Nicky Jackson and Derma Baby? They received hundreds and hundreds of emails, cold phone calls and cold reach outs,” Jackson says.
Drawing on a decade of experience in brand management for big-box consumer goods corporates like Pepsi and Kellogg, Jackson reached out to her contacts and began investigating the pain points for retailers. She learned they wanted to uncover niche brands like hers but struggled using existing methods.
Jackson immediately saw the opportunity to bring technology into the equation.
Setting up shop
Putting Derma Baby on hold, Jackson set up a ‘home office’ – her brother’s clunky old desk in the middle of her children’s toy room – in their rented house in Sydney, Australia. She worked furiously on her new concept between caring for her kids and nap time.
It took three months of juggling family and work to get the business off the ground, working with a local agency to develop the platform. Jackson’s husband, Darryl, her greatest champion, helped during the long evenings when he came home from work. She recalls him taking a selfie of the two of them for posterity, exhausted and surrounded by chaos in the toy room.
However, the hard work paid off when Jackson began emailing retailers about RangeMe. This time, to her delight, she received immediate responses from senior buyers. “It showed me that they were hungry for something that would help them,” she says.
When Australian supermarket giant Coles expressed interest, Jackson was jolted into action. Clearly, RangeMe was no longer the maternity leave project she’d envisioned. She needed investors and advisors to help her fledgling business grow. At this time, Jackson was fortunate to meet Andrew Reitzer, long-term CEO of wholesale distributor Metcash, who loved her vision so much that he invested in RangeMe and became their board Chairman. He remains a valued mentor.
When looking for investors for your startup, they must understand and support your vision. A strong relationship with your investors will not only allow you to build your vision but will open the door to new contacts and business opportunities.
Opening new doors
An article in the Australian Financial Review about the alliance between Coles and RangeMe led to an introduction to investors that would profoundly impact Jackson’s life. Ido Leffler and Lance Kalish were co-founders of Yes To skincare, the 2nd largest natural beauty brand in the USA.
“Ido was very familiar with innovation in the retail scene. He and Lance were instrumental in saying, you guys have got to come out to the US and see and speak to retailers and see what’s happening on the ground,” Jackson says.
Leaving the children with their grandparents, Jackson and her husband undertook two trips to the US, each two weeks long. Thanks to introductions from Leffler, they had meetings with buyers from massive retailers, including Target, Walmart, Walgreens, and Rite Aid, and attended major trade shows. Everywhere they went, there was strong interest in RangeMe.
Moving to the USA
Returning to Australia with a signed agreement from Target, Jackson told her board that she was moving her family to the tech epicentre of San Francisco, California, to take advantage of the opportunities coming their way.
In a flurry of activity, Jackson and her husband raised $2 million in capital over the next eight weeks to bridge the initial US expansion, packed up their lives and said their goodbyes. It was chaotic and stressful, especially when their visas still hadn’t come through at the last minute. “We’d said our farewells and were due to leave in two days but had to wait another two weeks for the visas,” Jackson says. They sent their kids back to their local schools and worked out of their temporary accommodation during the frustrating holdup.
In San Francisco, the stress continued as they rushed to establish their home and business, with Jackson as Chief Executive Officer and her husband as Chief Operating Officer. Jackson was run ragged between leasing an office, hiring staff, buying furniture, finding a home and organising a school for the kids. With her health suffering from being run down, Jackson’s husband was adamant they bring on help, including cleaners, food delivery and a nanny to assist with after-school activities.
Jackson is proud of how she and her husband worked together to build their business and care for their family. “Everything’s very balanced in our household between my husband and me. Even back then, we shared the responsibilities of the kids and household duties like unpacking dishwashers. It was like a tag team, and it was real teamwork. I think it’s important for the kids to see that,” Jackson says.
However, she is most proud of their leap of faith in moving to the US. “Not questioning it and not doubting ourselves; just going there and making it happen.”
Whether starting a business or running an established enterprise, be kind to yourself and outsource parts of your life to prevent burnout.
Facing their competitor
In the US, Jackson raised a further $4 million from local venture capitalists to support the expansion. With no direct competitor, the platform was generating significant interest. Their closest competitor was ECRM, who, for 30 years, had matched buyers and suppliers through face-to-face ‘speed dating’ sessions at week-long events. Encouraged by a board director to ‘keep her enemies close’, Jackson set up a formal meeting with ECRM at a trade show, meeting with their CEO, Greg Farrer. He was impressed. “He said, either we’re going to buy you, or you’re going to buy us,” Jackson says. “I’ll never forget it.”
They weren’t looking to sell, but several months later, when Jackson was preparing for their next capital raise, an enterprise software company that worked with Whole Foods Market, a retail client of RangeMe, expressed interest in buying the business. Jackson and her husband were flown to New York and had the heady experience of being wined and dined. The prospect of being acquired became increasingly attractive, as it meant securing their future and providing an excellent return to their shareholders.
Meeting with prospective buyers
While they were in New York, Jackson met with the private equity company of their competitor, ECRM. It seemed they, too, were interested in acquiring RangeMe. Jackson was surprised that their offices were old school – she couldn’t even connect her laptop to their screens. She was sceptical that her audience would appreciate the benefits of her technology-based business.
“However, it was quickly apparent that ECRM bought into the same vision, understood the need to scale with technology and came to the party,” she said. Eighteen months after arriving in the US, ECRM offered to buy them for an undisclosed amount, offering all shareholders a tidy return on their investment over a short timeframe. Jackson and her husband were to stay on and run the business as Co-CEOs.
After an intense two-month-long due diligence process concluded successfully, Jackson arrived in her office to find a surprise from her husband. He’d printed off the photo of the two of them in their old toy room and wrote in big letters, ‘We did it!’
Paying it forward
In March 2018, Jackson and her family moved back to Australia to run RangeMe from Sydney. When the COVID pandemic hit, RangeMe helped keep hundreds of businesses afloat. “Our retailers and suppliers relied on us to survive and connect; all the trade shows were cancelling, and RangeMe was the only place they could continue to source and do business,” Jackson says. “It was great that we could help the industry thrive.”
Today, over 15,000 retailers worldwide, including big brands like Walmart and Sephora, depend on RangeMe to access more than 200,000 suppliers and their 1 million+ products. Gone are the days when it was just Jackson and her husband – they now have a team of 250 globally. She also finds time to support entrepreneurs and does advisory board work to pay forward the help she received.
“I’m very proud of how RangeMe has contributed to the success of small, innovative brands who were like me, mum entrepreneurs, or husband and wife teams or family businesses. They literally realise their dreams through the platform, getting onto the shelf of a Walmart, Whole Foods, or big box retailer,” Jackson says. “When I look at those success stories, I still get shivers. I think, how cool is it that we are helping change all these lives?”
Nicky Jackson’s Leadership Lessons Learned:
© Laini Bennett, MBA