How an investment from Poplar Ventures changed the trajectory for Podchaser – The Business Journals

Podchaser was recently acquired by Acast for more than $27 million.
But the podcast database startup almost didn’t make it to that point.
In an interview last week, Bradley Davis, founder and CEO of the company, told me a “yes” from Poplar Ventures, a Louisville-based venture fund led by John Willmoth, was vital in closing its seed round in 2020. He said the other investors in the round, such as High Alpha Capital and Hyde Park Venture Partners, were waiting for the company to reach a certain funding threshold before they would commit.
“John really held our fate in his hands,” Davis said. “Had he not committed in the previous round, we could have very likely not have raised any money at all.”
Davis and Willmoth first met at a Heine Brothers’ in St. Matthews in early 2019.
“We didn’t invest right away, to be honest,” Willmoth said, noting that Poplar Venture’s fund was just getting started at the time. “But I do remember meeting Bradley and coming out of that meeting, thinking, ‘OK, this guy’s got some chops. He’s got a very clear picture of what he’s going to go try to build, which is the IMDb of podcasts.’ I thought, ‘Let’s see him get a little traction.'”
Davis noted that Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. (KSTC) was another early investor in the company, signaling to the rest of the local ecosystem that Podchaser was an idea worth backing.
Poplar Ventures did ultimately come on board for Podchaser’s $1.65 million seed round, as did several other Kentucky firms and investors, including Lunsford Capital, Connetic Ventures, Rounsavall Investments, Phoebe Wood, Ed Glasscock, Bill Strench, Richard Greenfield and Matthew Luckett.
It took extreme persistence, luck and a little desperation to get that early money, Davis said.
“It’s not giving up, even though you get told ‘no’ hundreds and hundreds of times … It’s not for the faint of heart,” he said. “It’s kind of cliche, but keeping going even though there were many, many times where I thought, ‘This is impossible. What am I doing?’
“I’d be on Indeed, late at night, being like, ‘Maybe I can manage a CVS.’ I don’t have any skills. My skills do not translate to the workforce. I don’t know anything — I just know how to build a podcast company.”
When you invest in early, you’re betting on the market opportunity and the entrepreneur, Willmoth continued. Even though Podchaser was pre-revenue at the time of Poplar Venture’s investment, Willmoth said the growing data was the linchpin for him.
“I knew that if they could just continue on that path, it would lead to monetization,” he said.
Podchaser built its first revenue product just months after closing that seed round, launching Podchaser Pro in the fall of 2020.
Davis said the paid product took off more quickly than the team had anticipated. Rather than having to test out different ideas, Podchaser found something that worked and ran with it.
“We went from an experiment stage to a scaling stage, and that’s when everything started clicking,” Davis said. “Really the whole mindset of the company changed to scale.”
With revenue metrics in hand, Podchaser had an easier time raising its $4 million Series A round in 2021.
“The experience of raising that round was very different because we had significant revenue traction,” Davis said. “It was a learning experience for me … raising money when you’re doing well versus when you’re desperate and freaking out.”
Then, scaling from a startup into a full-fledged business was the challenge. At a startup, you’re hiring generalists — people who can do a little bit of everything because you have a small team. But you eventually grow to a point where you need specialists, Davis said, so for Podchaser, it was transitioning those generalists into team leadership roles.
Scaling also meant establishing the company’s culture, which was more challenging for Podchaser as it had a totally remote workforce and team members on six continents.
Davis said he used to think the concept of culture was silly, working for other corporations. But he found it to be integral in growing Podchaser.
“When you’re at 10 people, I can have one-on-one conversations with everybody. They know exactly what I’m about, what the company’s about and what we’re trying to do,” Davis said. “When you’re at 30, I can’t do that anymore. So you almost have to delegate that to the culture — everybody’s talking, everybody’s moving in the right direction.”
Podchaser had more than 40 employees by the time of the Acast acquisition, about half of which are in the U.S. Davis moved from Louisville to Oklahoma City last year.
Acast, a publicly traded company based in Stockholm, Sweden, announced the deal in July. Davis said so far, Acast has been empowering Podchaser’s independence, and both companies are sharing data to add value and further each other’s initiatives.
“I’m going to be Acast for the foreseeable future and continuing at Podchaser,” he said. I love what I’m doing here and I love the team. I’m going to keep building.”
Poplar Ventures is actively looking to make investments in business-to-business, software-as-a-service companies based in Middle America, Willmoth said. Podchaser isn’t the firm’s only recent win — SkuVault, another one of its portfolio companies, was acquired earlier this month for an undisclosed amount.
The firm closed its $22 million fund in April 2020, and there’s still capital to be deployed, so raising another fund isn’t on Willmoth’s radar.
“I’ve never had the view that I need to go raise some massive venture fund,” he said. “That’s not what this is about. At this stage of my career, it’s more about: Can I find good companies that I can help grow and be successful? And if I can do that with my existing [limited partners], that’s what I’m going to do.”
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