Kellie Zimmerman, Brightloom, and adventures in tech

July 14, 2023 Washington State Magazine Season 2 Episode 22
Kellie Zimmerman, Brightloom, and adventures in tech
Show Notes Transcript

Kellie Zimmerman is no stranger to the Seattle tech scene. And she’s on a new adventure in the industry.

She spent over 15 years building and leading teams in companies such as Concur and Avalara.

Zimmerman is now CEO of Bellevue-based startup Brightloom, which leverages AI and data to help restaurants such as El Pollo Loco, Ruby Tuesday, and Jamba Juice accelerate their marketing and customer engagement.

She talks about the twists and turns of the tech industry and her career after graduating in 2001 from Washington State University's Carson College of Business, with an emphasis in Management Information Systems. 

Zimmerman returned to the world of startups when she joined Brightloom in 2020. 

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00:03 – Larry Clark [LC]

Kellie Zimmerman is no stranger to the Seattle tech scene. And she's on a new adventure in the industry. 

She spent over 15 years building and leading teams and companies such as Concur and Avalara. Kelly is now CEO of Bellevue-based startup Brightloom, which leverages AI and data to help restaurants such as El Pollo Loco, Ruby Tuesday, and Jamba Juice accelerate their marketing and customer engagement. 

Welcome to Viewscapes, stories from Washington State Magazine, connecting you to Washington State University, the state and the world. I'm Larry Clark, editor of the magazine. 

I spoke with Kelly about the twists and turns of the tech industry and her career after graduating from Washington State University's Carson College of Business with an emphasis in Management Information Systems. She decided to return to the world of startups when she joined Brightloom in 2020 as President and Chief Revenue Officer. 



Hi, Kelly. 


Kellie Zimmerman [KZ]

Hi, Larry.



Thanks for joining me today. Could you introduce yourself to our listeners?


01:08 - KZ

Sure. Kellie Zimmerman, a graduate of Washington State University in 2001. I am now currently the President and Chief Revenue Officer of Brightloom here in the Bellevue Seattle area.


01:23 - LC

That's great. What is Brightloom involved with? What do you do?


01:28 - KZ

Yeah, I love this because I get to inform a little bit about our startup right to a greater community. So things. So Brightloom is really focused on being a part of this new generation of AI-driven tools and software solutions. So we help brand marketers make the right recommendation to the right customer at the right time. Our goal and mission in life is to help the relationship between a consumer or customer and the brand, you know, be productive, be beneficial, mutually beneficial, and inevitably ensure that it's a long lasting one.


02:05 - LC

Sure. And you work if I understand correctly, in a specific industry


02:10 - KZ

We do. We focus intently on the restaurant and retail space. You know, so if you think about Starbucks, right, as a customer and investor in our company, a lot of what you see in the app today, which is making insightful recommendations to you, a lot of that work behind the scenes is something we're doing.


02:31 - LC

Yeah, and the Starbucks app always seems to know what I want. So I think it's working.


02:36 - KZ

Good. Thank you.


02:40 - LC

This isn't your first job within the tech industry. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how you how you ended up here?


02:49 - KZ

You know, I'll tell you I, early on, when Washington State University offered MIS I was part of that group. It was the new offering as part of the business program. And at the time, I was really entranced by all of the exciting startups that were happening in the dot-com era, if you will. And I wanted to be a part of it. I was actually one of the few females in the earlier program there. I wanted to one day build a software company; that was my mission and goal. Now my journey, you know, it hasn't been a direct connection to that. Now I'm at a startup. And I definitely am fulfilling the dream that I once had, but have had a pretty great, you know, when successful and interesting and challenging. And really quite, quite frankly, I'm very lucky to have led the career I have to get to this point.


03:44 - LC

Yeah, what were some of those challenges?


03:46 - KZ

I mean, many, you know, I can think of it from many different angles. One is, you know, when you're part of a startup in particular, that was one of the first organizations I was a part of a company called NCN and we built networks in the medical industry. It wasn't my first choice, let me tell you, because I wanted to be in software, but at the time the dot-com era was bursting, and I had to just pick the first job that you know, I could get. 

But with that, I'll tell you, you know, in a startup and even in the software industry in general, you know, you have the opportunity to wear many different hats. And quite frankly, you're often the pioneer, right,  of something new. As an example, even today, right, we're pioneering AI in an industry that quite frankly, hasn't been advancing technically as a lot of the rest of the world. 

And so a lot of the challenges you face are bringing innovation, right often to something that hasn't been innovated before, or needs replacing or revamping or enhancing, I like to say, and with that comes a lot of challenges. You're learning the hard way, you're taking risks. Sometimes you fail, right? 

I found myself quickly in the sales realm, which was not something I actually anticipated ever being in, mainly because I took some risks, and I got out there to help other engineers one random evening, go out and sell an account. And before you knew what, I was selling, so, you know, taking risks is definitely a part of the tech industry. And with that comes, you know, the challenges of learning sometimes the easy way, and sometimes the hard way.


05:26 - LC

From someone outside of the tech industry, these startups come and they go, but I've heard the term fail fast, you know, and move on.


05:36 - KZ

Yeah, take risks fail fast. That's right.


05:40 - LC

Yeah. And do you feel that it's been a good model for you? Do you feel fulfilled doing that kind of work? Is it exciting?


05:49 - KZ

Yeah, it's really exciting. I mean, I'll tell you, having been part of larger organizations like SAP, hundreds of thousands of employees, versus a startup, which has less than 100, you definitely have to be comfortable with failing fast, especially in a startup environment. It's only 10x what it is, you know, at, let's say, an SAP. And so for me, I thrive off of that challenge, right, you really have to instill in yourself a lot of confidence, right? And just be somewhat humble and nimble in the process, because you will get humbled, right. You will make wrong decisions. And you will hope for the best and, unfortunately, get the worst. And so that's all part of the game, and you gotta like it, you know. 

I like to think of it almost like a chessboard every day. It's what am I going to, you know, pull forward, and someone's going to hop over me, and I'm going to be sent back, you know, to start over again. Fine, right, that's part of the game. And that's the way I've been able, I think to succeed, is I really take it as a game. And it's just a game of passion, and innovation. And you just got to keep going.


07:01 - LC

Kind of stepping back just a little bit to your experience at WSU. Were there things you learned or something about the culture, the MIS program that really helped you succeed?


07:12 - KZ

You know, I really have thought a lot about that, especially because I haven't thought about that in a while, right, since I've been away for some time. But there are two elements that I would say, Washington State really gave me. 

One was this ability to, to grow and flourish in a community. I think WSU has such a unique opportunity with students, and that it's a student led city, right? It's a city that you're living often in, you know, within your peers. And you naturally organically start to build, you know, relationships or even hierarchy in some regard, right around leadership opportunities, and you find those things just naturally by the community itself. Living in a student, only student led community, I think one of the assets I bring to a company is my ability to connect with people quickly. My ability to have high EQ as I like to think about it, right, to understand what they're thinking and how I can relate quickly. And I credit that all to WSU, I definitely didn't have that skill. Growing up in a smaller community before college, I didn't have that skill going in. And I definitely gained that leaving the program. 

As far as MIA, you know, I remember specifically, an assignment that our team had (we were put into teams). It was a local State Farm Insurance agent back in early 2000. There wasn't a lot of technology as it is today, where someone can just go online and buy something, right. Like back then it was much different. And one of our first assignments was helping organize customer information for this local State Farm. And, you know, the agent was amazing and brought us in, allowed us to, you know, just really understand the business, what mattered. You know, we worked with this really creative team to build what we felt like an automated Rolodex, you know, for lack of a better word. And it really helped him and you know, the thing that I loved, is several years later, he actually found us—the team that had helped him, you know, do that. And at the time, he said it was one of the most impactful things that someone had ever done for his business. 

And I will remember that story forever because it taught me what technology can bring a business. It can bring a business a lot. If you really put the right thoughtfulness towards it can really be impactful. I think it's another you know, piece of the program that I felt like was just really set me up for long term success in this industry.


09:53 - LC

Well, it sounds a little bit like what you were describing with Brightloom because with restaurant industry, building that customer relationship is so important, and having technology assist in that, you know, it's kind of cool to hear that you were doing that work even back at WSU.


10:09 - KZ

Yeah, it taught me customer first thinking for sure. Which in sometimes the tech industry that can often get lost, right, it becomes less about the customer or more about the innovation. And I like to keep bringing that customer back to the front of the conversation.


10:25 - LC

And speaking of conversations, there's a lot of conversation about changes in the tech industry, you know, how some of the big companies that are laying off a lot of people. What does this mean for a startup? And kind of where do you see this going? How's it going to affect the tech industry?


10:44 - KZ

The tech industry has benefited from such growth, right, over the last decade really. And with that came luxuries. I can even think of some…my second tech job, you know, we had lunch provided for us. I mean, there was a lot of luxury in the tech industry, because of its growth, and its ability to really have these intense margins, right, across the products they were offering and the people to support it. 

It's getting tighter, you know, and tech companies are learning quickly, I think, especially post COVID, that you can't spend like you used to. There's just not that room for these luxuries. And some of those luxuries are people too you know, more people to do the work. So in today's environment, it definitely is about doing more with less, finding creative ways, you know, even more creative ways to even leverage other technologies to get better with your own. 

And in the startup community, you know, I'm going to be going into a fundraising environment here shortly. I'm nervous, right, I'm very nervous, because the VC markets just aren't opening the pocketbook like they used to do. And so it's gonna force me as the leader to be very specific about our value. And really intentional about the growth and the things that we can do and remain extremely focused on that. As they say, sometimes, when the going gets tough, you know, that's when you learn the most, and you can flourish coming out of that. And so through this dip, not only for our startup, but I think large organizations too, tech will come out better on the other side, it's just going to be hard through this process.


12:31 - LC

Is Brightloom going to be going through an IPO coming up, or is that even in the works?


12:37 - KZ

Oh, Larry, you know, that's my dream. You know, at Concur, I was part of a company that, you know, we grew exponentially. So I went from a $100 million company to nearly a billion dollar company. Pretty cool, right? To be on that 12-year journey, I learned a lot. Then Avalara, my next mission was I want to help take a company public. They were already on their way. But they just needed to kind of optimize a bit more. I came in and we IPO’d within a year and a half. Now, I want to take a company from the beginning stage to an IPO. That's my dream. So I hope your crystal ball and question is insightful. But that's definitely the goal.


13:28 - LC

Thinking of the restaurant industry, and kind of the exciting work that Brightloom is doing, you know, it sounds promising to me.


13:36 - KZ

If there's one thing I've learned in tech, right, is that when you're part of a transformation, when your technology is helpful and transforming an industry. At concur, we transformed the travel and expense industry. Avalara it was all about e-commerce and tax, and how to make sure Amazon and others, right, were tax compliant. And my timing there was impeccable, quite frankly. And that transformation, now it's helping restaurants and retailers use AI and use their data to transform the way they interact with customers. So I like to think we're on a transformation right now that we're going to be, you know, successful and helping a lot of restaurants and retailers out there.


14:20 - LC

So something else that I think people who listen to this might want to know: what advice would you give to somebody that really wants to get into tech industry? And how can they do that?


14:30 – KZ

Yeah, it's a really, really good question. I mean, the first thing I would say is the tech industry, although large, it's small. So your network, your experiences, right, those are things that really matter in this industry. And so build a network, build a community, always ask to understand what other departments do, what other resources take on. Always understand as many dimensions of the tech industry as you can because it's always comes in handy and always does. Every time I think about even an elevator conversation right, with someone I've ever known allowed for a connection to be made. When a problem that I needed to help a customer solve. And so build a network. Be curious, ask a lot of questions. Learn, right, the more you know, the better you'll be. So that would be you know, some of my higher level advice. Really tactically, just be thankful. I think in the tech industry, I always like to pay it forward, because I feel like a lot of people helped me in my journey. And so just, you know, be appreciative. When someone does that for you. It goes such a long way. I often see especially new graduates, forget about that, you know, that it's important to respect and appreciate others, you know, when they've kind of reached out to give you a hand. Then just be passionate about what you do and go for it. You only get this opportunity once, right? Your career comes around one time. Go for it. And it's amazing what happens when you have that kind of mentality, especially in the tech industry.


16:07 - LC

That's really insightful advice. Kind of goes back to what you were saying about community and WSU too. Any last words about what your maybe next adventures might be or anything else that you might want to tell the Cougar nation?


16:21 - KZ

Yeah, well, my one thought would be next time you use Starbucks, think of Brightloom, right. If you work in the industry, you know, check us out certainly as we try and follow our path. You know, that may be kind of fun and exciting. You know, I think as a really thankful Coug myself and what Wazuu, Washington State has given me, I think I would just say “Go Cougs.”


16:46 - LC

Thanks for listening. For more podcast episodes, alumni profiles, and WSU stories, visit magazine dot wsu dot edu. The Viewscapes music is by emeritus music Professor Greg Yasinitsky.