Following Sale of Haiku Deck, Adam Tratt Reflects on Startup Life

The idea for Haiku Deck, a Seattle startup that makes software for putting together short, image-heavy presentations, only came about after its founders’ original plan to build a development shop for social network games failed to gain sufficient traction.

Now, years later, Haiku Deck co-founders Adam Tratt and Kevin Leneway’s decision to switch to developing slideshow-building tools looks to have been a savvy one. This week, Tratt announced that BookRags, a Seattle company which provides online lesson plans and learning guides for education and business users, has acquired Haiku Deck.

Tratt, Haiku Deck’s CEO, declined to say how much the startup sold for, or share other financial terms of the deal. One of Haiku Deck’s engineers, whom Tratt declined to identify, will join BookRags and continue to focus on presentation tools at the larger company, Tratt said. (Leneway left Haiku Deck last year and is now an engineering team lead at Pioneer Square Labs, a Seattle investor and incubator.)

Haiku Deck first developed an app for Apple’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPad. Later on, the startup released a Web-based version of its software so Haiku Deck could be used on both computers and mobile devices, regardless of the operating system. The startup’s tools, which Haiku Deck made more sophisticated over the years by adding machine learning and language-processing capabilities, have been downloaded more than 6 million times, Tratt said.

Shortly after Tratt and Leneway launched the company, Haiku Deck participated in Techstars’s inaugural program in Seattle. Tratt said the startup raised more than $5 million in outside capital in a series of funding rounds.

Like many venture-backed software startups, the company early on concentrated more on product development and growing its community of users than making money.

Haiku Deck began bringing in revenue in 2015 through what’s known as a freemium model, where people can download and use a basic version of its software for free, but must pay to unlock a version with more features.

Tratt remembers Haiku Deck’s monetization push as a challenging time for the company, and said that in retrospect, it would have been better to focus on bringing in revenue earlier.

“I think we probably waited too long,” Tratt said. “We definitely could’ve used the revenue sooner. At some point, we had to build a business. We had to become less free, and more of a subscription-based product.” He declined to reveal Haiku Deck’s 2018 revenue projections.

At its peak, Haiku Deck had a team of 19, including a dozen full-time employees. But the startup had shrunk to a two-person outfit by the time it was acquired by BookRags. The reasons Haiku Deck’s headcount decreased mostly had to do with “operational efficiency,” Tratt said.

Tratt, whose career path has included stints at Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Cranium, said he’s likely to remain in the Seattle area. He plans to take some time off to be with family during the holidays, then will start looking for new opportunities in 2019.

He said he’s not sure whether his next job will be at another startup or if he’ll go to work for an older, more established organization. It’s conceivable he could again set off on a new venture with Leneway, but that’s just one possibility, Tratt said.

Tratt described the time he spent helping to build Haiku Deck and positioning the company for an exit as an eye-opening and demanding experience.

“What I’ve learned is that doing a startup is about getting comfortable with a persistent state of discomfort,” Tratt said. “Everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you think. You’re always feeling like no matter what milestone you achieve, there’s another challenge in front of you. You raise a round of financing but the next day, you wake up and it’s like ‘Oh, now we’ve got this new, big, hairy, audacious goal that we’ve got to achieve to get to the next thing.’”

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