Keyot Strikes It Big In Trying Times

Originally written by Sam Schaust and printed in the TwinCities Business

One of the fastest-growing women-owned businesses in the world finds success through family and unique organization practices.

Laura Kelly hit the reset button on her career in 2008, or as she puts it: “ten minutes after the recession began.” From the basement of her Woodbury home, Kelly built Keyot, a consulting firm that works in the financial services, mortgage, healthcare and banking industries. Needless to say, business didn’t come easy at first.

“There wasn’t a lot of consulting work to be had,” Kelly said in retrospect, because “nobody was signing on new consulting firms. You were going to go with your tried and true—anybody you had experience with.”

Along for the ride was her sister Anjie and Anjie’s husband, Chandler Cayot. They all departed from Genesis10, a New York-based consulting firm where Kelly received a healthy six-figure income—much of which was saved to jumpstart Keyot. The three of them bootstrapped until 2010 with a promise that the venture would end before hitting the last resort: cashing out their 401k savings. For two years, it seemed as if the three were in free fall, taking no salaries and getting little work. Each of them was ready to call it quits when suddenly Kelly and Anjie’s father, Bill, became their saving grace.

“He was a safety net that I’ll be forever grateful,” she said. “He gave us enough to cover our payroll and expenses for what ended up being three months.”

Bill’s support and Chandler’s persistence landed them a contract with Wells Fargo. Ultimately, Keyot earned $1.3 million in revenue that year and hasn’t missed a beat since. Five years later, Kelly anticipates her consulting firm will finish 2015 with $19 million in revenue. Staff size has exploded from the three founders to about 130 people today. In addition to their Oakdale headquarters, Keyot also operates in Iowa and, most recently, Texas, where they began Crew212, an offshoot of Keyot that grooms young business talent in the technology sector. Recently, the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO) ranked Keyot among the top 20 of the 50 fastest-growing woman-owned companies in the world.

Kelly has drawn considerable advice and tips from the book Traction, written by Gino Wickman, which aims to strengthen businesses through organizational practices. It helped answer a burning question for her: “When I bring a team in, how do I set expectations about what I expect them to do and then hold them accountable and measure whether or not they are being successful in the job I gave them?” Traction has helped her set those standards.

At the point of interview, Kelly’s consulting firm was juggling 15 active clients, each with its own unique demands. Using Traction, Kelly establishes four leaders and assigns each a “rock,” or more literally, a quarterly goal they need to meet, for the company they are involved with. This practice keeps accountability in check for everyone at Keyot, including its senior members who meet every few months with a Traction facilitator named Sue Hawkes.

Hawkes compares Traction to constructing a roadmap, breaking it down as a process of ”systemizing without bureaucratizing.” By replacing subjectivity with objectivity, Hawkes assisted Keyot in the creation of a scorecard that helps to get a pulse on their business. To Hawkes, Traction requires discipline, yet works to build awareness of each team member’s role toward achieving the business’ short- and long-term goals. In Kelly’s case of managing disparate offices, the installment of Traction is crucial to Keyot; or no different than “the analogy of everybody in a boat rowing in the same direction,” Kelly said.

With growth still rising rapidly, Kelly predicts Keyot could bring in around $23 million in revenue within the next two years. But in the meantime, she is pleased to be right where she is.

“You start a humble business on a wing and a prayer,” she said, “and now you get to this point and are successful with a team of wonderful people cheering you on. It’s extremely gratifying.”