Hannah Lawrence remembered the car ride home after closing on the acquisition of her first business — a moment of brief panic.
“I remember just thinking, ‘What did I just do?’” laughed Lawrence, who purchased Grand Rapids-based Foxbright in January of 2020, becoming the new owner of a company that specializes in website and communication solutions for schools.
“I took on some debt to finance the acquisition,” she added about her apprehension. “You go from not a whole lot in debt to suddenly you’re on the line for a whole lot and you have employees that you need to make sure you pay. There is a lot of responsibility associated with that. But, a few months in, you settle into it and it’s like, OK, things are going fine.”
A little fleeting buyer’s remorse is natural in a deal involving an individual buyer like Lawrence. Her purchase of Foxbright earned the 2021 Deal of the Year status in the technology sector of MiBiz’s M&A Deals and Dealmakers Awards.
Still, business ownership was seemingly always in the cards for Lawrence, who has experience in both finance and the project management side of technology.
She previously served as CFO of Grand Rapids-based property management firm Eenhoorn LLC and then went on to work for Northgate Resorts, which is primarily run by her father and brother and manages a portfolio of camps and resorts.
She was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug when she managed marketing, financing and sales operations for a home sales entity called Dolce Vita in Arizona, which was being positioned to sell.
“I had a lot of fun with that small business aspect, having control over sales and marketing — it triggered the desire to really look for something,” Lawrence said.
That’s when Foxbright became available after founder Catherine Ettinger planned to exit a business she established in 2002 with Paula Whisman, who remained with the company as an employee.
“I felt comfortable coming in with very little tech experience and being able to focus on areas that they haven’t historically — the sales, marketing and business side versus the technical side,” Lawrence said. “Everything kind of fell into place, from the size of the company … as well as the cultural fit. To me, that was huge.”
Lawrence said that the transaction was smooth. However, not long into her tenure Foxbright, the COVID-19 pandemic dominated public life and thrust schools into relative chaos.
“There were some specific sales and marketing agendas I wanted to pursue in the first 13 months — some product changes — but I decided that I’m not going to get really aggressive about this because of the COVID situation,” she said. “I needed to put the brakes on some of it and really focus on relationships with the team and making sure they knew I wasn’t going to come down on them for ridiculous things during this time.”
Clients and potential clients were generally quiet in March amid all the uncertainty. However, business has picked up since.
Lawrence and the team were still productive in COVID-mired 2020, releasing the fifth and latest version of Foxbright’s content management system in October, which created a modern, relevant, user-friendly platform for clients.
Lawrence also grew Foxbright’s client base by 7 percent in 2020.
Some of that growth can be attributed to COVID-prompted interest in addition to the emphasis Lawrence has put on the sales and marketing piece, including working with a third party for (pay-per-click) and SEO marketing campaigns.
“It’s been a lot of trial-and-error,” Lawrence said. “My next step is really looking to bring on a sales individual and a marketing individual, and bring that in house and really focus on client growth from a development side. The product we offer is really solid.”