Christine Nicodemus, co-founder and COO of Ascend, nurtured the growth of the goal-based student engagement software for several years before its recent acquisition by Aperture Education. She says what she and her co-founder initially set out to build ended up being very different by the time the acquisition came around.

In the early days, the idea was to build a gamified goal-setting app for teenagers and their parents and teachers. Through it they could collaborate and set shared rewards when goals were hit. She got early seed money to launch the concept from a couple of her professors and she and her partner hired some folks and launched an early version with a local school in the fall of 2019. They quickly learned about aspects that needed to be tweaked, did some design thinking with some students and teachers, and launched with a different version a couple months later.

"We ended up moving out of the K-12 space and generally more into the nonprofit space as we learned that there was a deep need from a bunch of nonprofits that were working with students to have measurable outcomes that they could bring back to their donors," Nicodemus says. "And so there was a little bit of a shift that the nonprofits that we were working with could actually push out challenges for students to go out and achieve, as opposed to just students creating their own individual goals. They could still do that but the nonprofits wanted to know how many students after going through a junior achievement camp ended up going and creating a bank account as a challenge, or something like that. We went through that iteration for a bit and ended up continuing to iterate all the way up to the point of the acquisition."

The period ahead of the acquisition, she says, was a challenging couple of months. Right before the pandemic hit, she and her husband agreed to put in one more tranche of capital to the company.

"We were growing but not quite as fast as we were hoping to," she says. "And then the pandemic hit and virtual learning skyrocketed. We had tons of volume. We had more investors interested in coming in and helping out."

In fact, they met Aperture, their eventual acquirer, through an introduction from a local leader for the Charlotte Angel Fund who introduced them to the then-CFO for Aperture at the time.

Nicodemus says she connected with the Aperture CFO and the more they got to talking, the more synergies they realized there were between the two companies.

"We started that sales and distribution agreement before the acquisition happened and the success of the two companies together, even before the acquisition, led us both to realize that we would de-risk the situation on both of our ends by becoming one entity and continuing to move forward," Nicodemus says. "There's just too many dollars that were reliant on both parties. It made sense for us to combine and continue to grow together."

Nicodemus spoke at last year's Charlotte Smart Business Dealmakers Conference about Ascend's acquisition by Aperture Education. Hit play to catch the full interview.