24 Years of Innovation Conclude: Karen Clark Cole Embarks on New User Experience After Tenure at Seattle Tech Firm

Karen Clark Cole and a llama at her Heaven on Earth Animal Retirement Sanctuary on Washington’s San Juan Island. (Photo courtesy of Cole)

Karen Clark Cole is ready to tackle her next big idea.

Cole recently retired as CEO of Blink, the Seattle-based UX and design shop that she co-founded 24 years ago.

When the startup launched in 2000, the internet was in its infancy. One of Blink’s early projects was designing the first courts electronic file and serve system for LexisNexis. Before then, lawyers were walking their documents to the courthouse. Digitizing these operations, Cole said, “was revolutionary.”

Blink grew slowly for many years. The startup never took investment dollars and rejected acquisition offers. Cole and co-founder Kelly Franznick devised a strategy to acquire smaller companies.

They kept expanding. There were big bumps, including one that almost caused a bankruptcy. But ultimately Blink sold to India-based, publicly-traded IT services giant Mphasis in 2021 in an all-cash deal valued at $94 million.

Heading into retirement, Cole is not envisioning a cruise-ships-and-golf kind of future.

A year ago, she set up shop on Washington’s San Juan Island. What started with a few rescue geese — yes, that’s a thing — has become more than 100 animals including pigs, sheep, goats, donkeys, llamas, ducks, geese, chickens, and two cows living at her nonprofit, Heaven on Earth Animal Retirement Sanctuary.

Cole is working on a business model to make the sanctuary financially sustainable and exploring educational programming with a focus on the climate impacts of farmed animals. The long-term plan is to establish a retreat center and maybe offer summer camps.

Cole is prepping to serve on corporate boards and is board chair for the all-girls school she attended growing up in Victoria, B.C. She wants to write a book. She’s still an advisor for Blink.

Waves of ideas keep coming — but Cole is putting parameters on them.

“None of it is tech related,” she said. “That’s definitely on the list — to be in the real, physical world. Getting dirty and being tired at the end of the day. That’s really important.”

We caught up with Cole to talk Blink and her lessons learned as a leader over the past two decades. The conversation was condensed and edited for clarity.

Karen Clark Cole retired as Blink CEO in May. (Blink Photo)

GeekWire: What are some big picture takeaways from your experience with Blink?

Cole: It’s going to take me two years to process it all, honestly. I’ve been so forward-looking for 25 years, there’s not been a lot of time for reflection, for good or bad, because my job has always been to figure out what’s next. What’s coming? What are we going to do about it? Where are we going to go? And making sure that we stay relevant and innovative all the time.

The way I ran the company was constantly iterating. I treated it as a design project where we iterate, we prototype, we iterate, we modify, we tweak it before we ever launch it.

What I’m hoping to do next, actually, is to spend the next couple of years reflecting. I’m going to write a book. I’m hoping the outcome is to give me a chance to say, “Wow, we did a lot of stuff.” It’s hard to imagine when we started the company in 2000 that Amazon was a real startup. We were just starting to book airline tickets online. And travel agents were really nervous about being replaced by the internet.

We’re at the same place with AI coming. No one really knows how it’s going to change our lives. But there’s no question that it will. And so everyone’s just figuring out — how do we use it, should I be afraid that my job is just going to go away or be taken over by AI?

We’re caught at a similar time as we were 25 years ago when the internet was just taking off and no one was really sure what was going on. We weren’t sure how to use it, how to design for it — certainly user experience wasn’t even a thing back then.

It feels to me like we’re at the bottom of that mountain again. And 20 years from now it’ll be fun to look back and think, “How did we ever live without that?”

For up-and-coming leaders who are now where you were 25 years ago, do you have advice for them?

Power is a real thing, and you can do good with it, or you can kind of ignore it. And I think ignoring it causes a lot of problems. There’s a book, “Fierce Conversations” [by Susan Scott] and they talk about being aware of your “emotional wake.” The idea is, particularly as a leader, what you say and what you don’t say, has equal weight. And when you go to a meeting, or you don’t go to a meeting, they both have an impact, and you get to decide what kind of impact you want to have.

And so I think if you’re really intentional and aware of the impact that we all have, and whatever circle we’re in, then the world’s a better place because everyone is being mindful of the people around us. That’s the only reason that I ever did any of the things we did at Blink, to really have a good impact on lots of people.

Karen Clark Cole is embracing the grubbier side of caring for rescued animals. (Photo courtesy of Cole)

When you are describing all of this, it makes me wonder, did you work with coaches? You’re very self-aware, so did you just read and explore?

I always tell people if they want to be a CEO or run a business, that they should go to art school because it’s the best training. I swear I had no intention of doing any of this. But learning critical thinking, which is the backbone of art school, and how to give feedback and accept feedback, it’s really the foundation of everything I do.

I would always look at what do we need? I would always look internally, and it’s really our user-centered design process that I follow.

For leadership, I call it user-centered leadership, which is talking to our employees and talking to our clients and finding out what do you need and what would make it better for you, and being willing and open to thinking out of the box.

Does being a woman leader ever come into your mind? Or do you think, you’re a leader and it doesn’t matter what adjectives describe you?

In the early years, the stakes were low. There were only two of us when we started the company. And being in Seattle, as far as communities go, it’s pretty welcoming.

The biggest thing for me was I went to an all-girls private school from grades 2-12. So I was in an environment where I had no idea that women didn’t do everything. In later years, I realized that I need to be aware of what else is going on in the world and there’s a lot of work to be done for equality. But I was oblivious to it for the first 10 years, which helped me because by the time I really realized there were some major systemic problems, it was too late. I was too confident at that point.

I had an unusual situation in that I went to this all-girls school, and I grew up with just my dad. His friends were always over. They’re old now, but at the time, they were middle-aged white guys. They were my biggest fans and were so supportive and really encouraging.

Karen Clark Cole’s boat is a key part of island life. (Photo courtesy of Cole)

So I was often in a boardroom with only men and I didn’t even notice, it was so comfortable for me. I was with my biggest fans, people who really supported me. Whether that was true or not, I have no idea. I was oblivious to it all. That served me well for the first 10 years. After that I became much more aware, and the more powerful I became as a leader, the more I could see [gender] coming up.

When you have a bigger company, and you’re buying companies and working with banks and you’re talking about real money, there’s definitely people who feel threatened who are men. At that point it was too late because I was like, “if you’re not going to help me then I’m going to walk around you or we’re going to mow you down.”

I’m on the National Women’s Business Council and the primary goal of the council is to advise Congress to try to pass policy to help women entrepreneurs and address discrimination, particularly in access to capital. We just need laws in place to make it illegal. It’s kind of unbelievable.

Any missteps, things you would have done otherwise? Or is your perspective that you’re learning, you’re doing the best you can at the time, so why regret it?

I think that’s exactly right. We were moving too fast. I mean, there are plenty of massive failures and terrible moments. I almost sent the company off a cliff, I almost bankrupted the company at one point when we were trying to get financing and it didn’t go well. We were on pins and needles. And then two years later, we sold the company for a ridiculous multiple, so it’s just part of the process.

I try to embrace failure. Failure is the most important ingredient in success. When you’re in it, it can be awful. I would come home and I didn’t talk to anybody during those months when we were in a dark place. I don’t want to be there again, but I can tell you it’s how we’re successful now. That just builds resilience. We are so tough as a company, have been through all these different downturns and crises. We’re wiser, and we’re stronger. The only reason I could leave at this point is because the company is so solid and so tough that it’s really going to last forever. That’s always been my hope.

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