For startup, helping people connect on LinkedIn is big business

Co-founders Cody Harvey, left, and Devin Johnson each cultivated an early sales niche: Harvey won over Uber drivers; Johnson found clients at conferences. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Devin Johnson, 25, is a person who is willing to take what he calls “massive action” in pursuit of his goals.

One example happened while he was still in high school. He started a sneaker resale business to help support his family after his mother lost her job.

His next big feat came with the creation of Kennected, now ranked among the fastest-growing companies on the Inc. 5000 list and known for allowing users to automate their outreach to prospective customers via LinkedIn

After this story was published, IBJ learned that LinkedIn sent a cease-and-desist letter to Kennected on Friday, calling for the company to stop scraping member data from LinkedIn. Johnson said he believes his company is in compliance with LinkedIn’s user agreement and looks forward to reaching a successful resolution.

The Indianapolis software company was born in 2018 when Johnson and one of his co-founders, Cody Harvey, sketched out an idea on a napkin at a McAlister’s Deli. The idea: What if there were a software tool that could help people efficiently use LinkedIn to connect with potential customers?

At the time, Johnson had moved beyond sneaker-flipping and was working in digital marketing. He had found great success making business connections using LinkedIn, but the problem was that finding people and making connections took several hours a day.

“I founded Kennected out of pure frustration,” said Johnson, who is now the company’s CEO.

That back-of-the-napkin idea had legs: Kennected, which expects to book $10 million in revenue this year, now has about 140 employees in the United States and India. As of mid-November, the company was bringing in just over $600,000 in monthly revenue, a figure that’s growing 10% each month.

And for the past two years, Kennected has landed on the Inc. 5000 list. Last year, it clocked in at No. 583, with three-year revenue growth of 832%. This year it was No. 438, with three-year revenue growth of 1,420%.

The company, whose headquarters is in the Pan Am Plaza building downtown, successfully landed its first $4.5 million in investment earlier this year. It’s currently working on a $20 million Series A round that Johnson expects to close early next year.

Kay Whitaker

“A lot of people are visionaries. Devin and the team have an incredible ability to go from vision into execution in a very short time frame,” said Kay Whitaker, managing director at Fishers-based LiftBridge CXO LLC. Whitaker serves as Kennected’s on-demand chief financial officer, a part-time role she’s held since July 2021.

Building a team

After the meeting at McAlister’s, Harvey and Johnson brought in three other co-founders, each with his own area of expertise: Stephen Twomey (search engine optimization and branding), Brandon Poplstein (operations and organization), and Elliot Drake (digital marketing).

Johnson brought to the table his expertise in sales, visioning and execution. Harvey, who had previously worked as a gym manager and in fund development for an international Christian missions group, had experience in strategy, strategic alliances and building high-value relationships.

“One of our, I would say, blessings, would be that we had no ego in what we were really good at,” Johnson said. “So each one of us did something unique, and every single piece of it was needed to get the business off the ground.”

Kennected’s core product is a software tool that allows users to identify their key targets—CEOs at Indianapolis-based companies, for instance, or accountants in California—then craft and send personalized messages to LinkedIn users who fit the parameters.

The tool allows users to, over time, contact thousands of people—some of whom will likely be interested in learning more about what you’re offering.

“It’s knocking on enough digital doors to get you in front of the right people,” said Harvey, the company’s chief strategy officer. “We’re working off the law of averages.”

Kennected also offers customers a way to send video messages via email or LinkedIn, as well as an online scheduling tool.

More than 90% of Kennected’s focus is business-to-business marketing and sales, and its core customers include real estate agents, financial advisers, insurance agents and sales organizations. The company has both individual and company clients, including the international sales training organization Sandler Training and real estate firm Keller Williams.

The software has an average customer rating of 4.5 out of 5 on the business-to-business software ratings site G2.com, with a total of 122 ratings.

Kennected also produces a constant stream of how-to and educational material—videos and written guides on topics like how to improve your LinkedIn profile and how to effectively target prospects via LinkedIn.

Johnson estimated that Kennected has produced thousands of pieces of such content, which it then posts on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other places as a way to draw potential customers.

Johnson said Kennected’s website gets an average of 80,000 unique visitors per month from that content, and 2% to 3% of those visitors end up as Kennected customers.

Acquisitions likely

Once Kennected closes on its Series A funding, it plans to complete multiple acquisitions that will help it diversify.

“We have a whole suite of softwares that are completely not dependent on LinkedIn that we’re rolling out in 2023,” Harvey said.

Johnson and Harvey declined to identify these acquisition targets because the deals have not closed.

But getting to this point hasn’t been easy.

“We worked our freaking tails off the first two years,” Johnson said.

Harvey, for instance, spent about six months sleeping on an air mattress in the Greenfield office the company used at the time. When he did go home, he booked rides through Uber and used the commute as another sales opportunity.

“I figured out that every Uber driver, 90% of them, do side stuff. They sell real estate or they’re some kind of financial adviser,” Harvey said.

So Harvey used the time to give his driver a sales pitch on the value of Kennected, which included a product demo on his laptop. As often as 60% to 70% of the time, he said, those drivers would sign on as a customer.

Those Uber rides cost $40 one way, but Harvey found the expense to be a good investment. “Each [Kennected] sale, you know, you’d make a thousand dollars upfront plus $90 per month [in subscription revenue]. So all I had to do was sell, like, two or three to be super profitable.”

Johnson’s strategy was to travel the country attending sales and entrepreneurship conferences. He wasn’t going for the program but for the chance to meet the high-powered attendees. “I’d buy the most basic ticket. Say the ticket was a hundred bucks. But I would hang out in the area [of attendees] that paid 10 grand, 20 grand, 30 grand to be there.”

The ability to advance their goals by making personal connections is a hallmark of Kennected’s leadership, said Whitaker, the company’s CFO.

“They really do take networking to another level,” said Whitaker, whose company specializes in serving tech startups. “They do that, really, better than any other entrepreneur I know of.”

Whitaker cited Kennected’s seed-funding round earlier this year as an example. Johnson started meeting with potential investors in February, she said, and by April the round had closed. “He was able to raise that in two months. Most people, that would take the better part of a year to do.”

Youthful energy

Kennected’s workforce skews quite young—at least half of the company’s hires are people just out of school. One example of that youthful influence: The company has a closet full of Nerf weaponry that it uses for occasional in-office battles.

Tim Roberts

That youthful energy is an asset, said sales trainer Tim Roberts. Roberts is the founder of Indianapolis-based Trustpointe Inc., a franchisee of the sales training organization Sandler Training.

Trustpointe became a Kennected customer last year. After one of Roberts’ employees left for a job at Kennected, Roberts began coaching Kennected’s staff. He currently spends about six hours a week coaching individuals and teams who call the 67-year-old “Yoda.”

Roberts said Kennected has built a fun environment where people feel empowered to try new things. At the same time, he said, Kennected takes an honorable approach to sales and has built a culture of psychological safety, where people work to help their colleagues improve.

“It is a fun culture where you feel like, ‘I want to get in the game. I want to play,’” Roberts said. “They coach each other, they role-play every day of the week.”

But the company is not entirely populated by 20- and 30-somethings. It also has a handful of people who came with years of experience under their belts.

Chad Burmeister

One of them is Chad Burmeister, who joined the company as director of enterprise and agency sales about three months ago. Before that, Burmeister had been serving as a consultant to the company on its enterprise strategy—selling Kennected to companies that then resell the product to others.

Burmeister, who lives in Colorado and works remotely, has been in sales for 25 years. He said he joined Kennected because he sees huge growth potential.

Kennected isn’t the only tech company that helps people connect via LinkedIn—CoPilot AI, which is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Expandi, based in the Netherlands, are among others offering such products. But Burmeister said Kennected is the clear leader. “I see Kennected as the rocket ship in this space.”

Kennected generates most of its own leads using its own software, which shows its effectiveness, Burmeister said.

And because the tool is so heavily automated, it can allow a salesperson to do in 15 minutes what might otherwise take up to three hours, he said.

Artificial intelligence growth

Kennected software is an artificial-intelligence-powered sales-enablement tool. And that’s a technology category that’s caught on in a big way in the last five to seven years, according to one expert.

Robert Blaisdell

Robert Blaisdell, a senior director analyst in the sales practice of Gartner Inc., a Connecticut-based tech research and consulting firm, said the focus now is on tools that can help salespeople maximize their time and be more productive. “We don’t see AI replacing the sales rep. We see AI replacing the activities and the administration that the sales rep has to undertake.”

AI isn’t a magic bullet, he said. It’s only as good as the quality of the information it’s working with. So if an internal database or a LinkedIn profile is inaccurate or out-of-date, so will be the results you get with an AI-powered tool.

That said, AI-powered sales tools are gaining ground. According to a report from Blaisdell that Gartner released in July, 15% of all sales technology spending will be on AI-powered sales-enablement technology within three years, up from current levels of 5.6%.

Over time, Blaisdell said, he anticipates that other AI-powered sales tools will also gain widespread adoption—tools that provide sales forecasting, pricing insights about the competition, and sales-call analysis with real-time coaching.

“There’s a lot of room to run here,” he said.

Technology aside, Johnson sees a more fundamental reason for optimism about Kennected’s growth prospects.

“We give people hope, and when you give people hope, they’ll give you a chance. When you can deliver, they’ll stick with you forever.”•

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5 thoughts on “For startup, helping people connect on LinkedIn is big business

  1. “For startup, helping people pester others on LinkedIn is big business”

    There. Fixed the headline.

    I can’t be the only LinkedIn user who despises and ignores cold sales calls and emails. If I need a “solution” I will be looking for it, not sitting around waiting for someone to “target” me.

  2. Companies who scrape data from LinkedIn know their are living on the edge. I have consulted in this space for many years and know that these automated practices are against LinkedIn’s terms of service. Hoping you don’t get caught is not a sound strategy. I don’t know the history of this company’s communication with LinkedIn, or its attempt to work together to use LinkedIn’s API for its use, so I can’t complete your story, but there are stated rules against this. As an aside, automated communication is one of the most inauthentic and obvious forms of sloppy social networking, and I never advise using these practices.

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