How OJO Canada CEO Karen Starns Found Autonomy Within RBC After Getting Acquired
The real work of any acquisition starts the day it closes. Karen Starns knows this well, moving from CMO of OJO to CEO of the newly spun-off OJO Canada, which RBC acquired in early 2023. Speaking with TechExit.io, Karen explained more about how she led post-acquisition integration and is finding autonomy within a global corporation.
- Identify your new operating model as early as possible in the process so you can adequately prepare for the acquisition.
- Get your team onto new systems quickly, but don’t forget the human-emotions side of the equation.
- Lean into the benefits a larger organization can provide you like more resources, support, and learning opportunities.
Joining a large enterprise can feel like a behemoth that wipes away all your startup flexibility and creativity. But it doesn’t need to be that way—you can still forge your own identity, which is exactly what Karen Starns did when she stepped into the CEO role of OJO Canada after it was acquired by RBC. Speaking with TechExit.io, Karen explained more about how built autonomy within a global corporation.
The OJO Canada platform was built in partnership between RBCx, the innovation and ventures arm of RBC, and OJO, a US-based proptech firm. When Karen joined in 2019 as Chief Marketing Officer, she was ready to help the platform achieve its mission of creating homeownership success for home buyers, owners, and sellers. By 2020, OJO was already a “significant real estate search site” in the US with a Canadian presence as well, said Karen.
Karen added all business decisions focused on consumer value, and that spirit led to the launch of ojo.ca in 2021 and ultimately shaped the decision for RBC to acquire OJO Canada, which is exactly what happened in early 2023.
A startup docking in a large enterprise
Looking back at pre-acquisition planning Karen talked about the importance of identifying the OJO Canada operating model within RBC. She said it was critical to figure that step out as early as possible so everyone could plan for it.
From OJO’s perspective, Karen saw the organization as having “a level of independence while still being interdependent.”
That so far has meant OJO Canada has its own board and Karen’s CEO title is truly “a CEO role” with autonomy to run the business, but the company is “docking” within RBC and is accountable to the larger organization.
Operationally “snapping into RBC”
The first task Karen had as CEO of the newly-acquired company was getting people oriented to new ways of work.
“When you’re in a huge global enterprise, there are systems around that,” said Karen.
While the whole team figures out the platforms they are going to use (using both Zoom and Cisco Webex, for example) and everyone went through new training like RBC’s compliance processes, Karen found procurement to be a particularly interesting change.
“When you're in a small startup and you're a CMO, you can throw down a credit card and just go,” said Karen. “[Now] there are procurement processes.”
The people side of an acquisition
Operational changes are expected during an acquisition. But Karen knew more would happen on the people side.
Having been part of nearly a dozen M&A transactions throughout her career, she understood that people would likely have a lot of questions and concerns. This would of course be made more difficult by the fact that Karen couldn’t disclose all the details to everyone–she had to respect both confidentiality agreements and the reality that you can’t talk about an acquisition fully until the transaction is complete.
Karen talked about the importance of bringing people along the journey as best you can, though, particularly if you’ve seen M&A transactions play out before. From there, she said the process will require a lot of hand-holding, encouragement, and “empathizing when things feel harder than they should” because of the pressure to succeed in your current job and make the acquisition a success.
“[It’s] setting aside the time to be able to be an effective worker and snapping into mechanisms that were built for the full enterprise,” said Karen.
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Take advantage of upside resources
While adjusting to life in an enterprise might appear like nothing more than added pressure, Karen reminded founders being acquired to also consider the benefits that being part of a larger corporation can offer.
In OJO Canada’s case, that meant three things:
- Investment: With the backing of a large enterprise, Karen said OJO Canada can find “a more optimal balance between short-term and long-term” planning.
- Acceleration: Rather than figuring out everything on your own, you can tap into enterprise resources such as Centres of Excellence or research teams to help speed up your product development and go-to-market.
- Learning: Large enterprises often invest significantly into professional development opportunities, said Karen, meaning employees have access to a lot more than a typical startup can provide.
“It’s not a safety net; it’s an upside resource,” said Karen.
Sprinting to the starting line
One of Karen’s goals as a first-time CEO is to build “operational excellence” within OJO Canada. This required a lot of planning pre-acquisition, but Karen was clear that she viewed that as merely “sprinting to the starting line.”
Now that the acquisition is complete, Karen’s real job begins: building OJO Canada within the context of RBC. So far, this has meant building key metrics dashboards so everyone in the organization can see regular performance updates and progress. It’s also meant building a rhythm in the business around team meetings and organizational all-hands meetings.
Karen is also aware, though, that none of her plans are guaranteed to stay in place forever. Plans may change as the market evolves, which is why Karen said her underlying belief is that openness is the best trait a newly-acquired leader can possibly have. She explained that while your acquirer might have written a big cheque because they love what you’ve built so far, the future needs to be created together.
“Starting from a point of shared ambition being open to different paths to success on the other side of the deal is something that I'm using to guide my action,” said Karen.