Carol Leaman’s Axonify landed $US27 million in growth equity last November and promptly hammered the throttle.

Axonify, the Waterloo Region-based learning software company, hired 60 people in 2016, bringing its total to 105. It landed at No. 10 on Deloitte’s 2016 Canadian Technology Fast 50, and is even now and taking steps to add 50 more employees over the next 12 months.

Cue the screeching tires and flying dust.

Axonify, founded in 2012, is disrupting the business of employee training. Its platform is designed to make learning fun, to encourage employee participation and dramatically enhance information retention. Moreover, it can link each employee’s progress to metrics showing improved sales and performance.

Just days ago the company launched a series of irreverent YouTube videos designed, as Leaman puts it, “to poke” its main competitors – the purveyors of LMS, or learning management systems — right “in the eyeball.”

“It’s a bold move for us,” says Leaman, sitting in her Waterloo Region office. “We’re just going to hit it head-on.”

For years, most employee training has taken the form of LMS, or desktop video modules. You know the drill: Watch a video, answer questions, pass a quiz, and your employer ticks the box that you’ve been “trained.”

Problem being?

“If I tested you today on what you actually recall, the average human being would remember five to seven per cent of what you saw 3 ½ months ago,” says Leaman.

Axonify, instead, uses what it calls “micro questions” pushed to the employee through games and activities. As the employee learns, the software adjusts. If a concept needs reinforcement, extra questions on that topic appear. When a concept is understood, the questions morph, introducing another topic.

“We’ve completely broken [the old] mould,” says Leaman. “We’ve made [education] so appealing to the modern learner that organizations don’t have to force anybody to do it.

“They do it every day for three to five minutes, they have fun, they get rewarded for it, and they actually see they’re getting smarter and can do better at work.

“They love that feeling.”

So do Axonify’s customers, companies like Walmart, Toyota, Bloomingdales and Johnson & Johnson. Better trained employees have fewer accidents. Better trained employees make more sales. All of it shows up on the bottom line.

“Bloomingdales, a small retailer, in three years they’ve saved US$10 million,” says Leaman.

“We can statistically predict with 90-95 per cent accuracy who is going to sell the most product based on what they know and what we’ve trained them on.”

Recently Axonify’s platform was purchased by another Waterloo Region tech company, eSentire, which sells cybersecurity defence.

“A significant number of the cyber-attacks we see take advantage of human vulnerability,” explains eSentire CEO J. Paul Haynes. “Phishing emails are particularly successful in the workplace as they target busy employees who may not recognize a suspicious email. When it comes to cybersecurity, user awareness is a critical tool in any organization’s toolbox.

“That’s why we partnered with Axonify last year to deliver Training Day, a security awareness training platform designed to help organizations harden one of their best cybersecurity defenses – their employees. The platform has been well received by our clients and has quickly become a cornerstone of our security awareness training offering.”

Leaman, a CPA, is one of the Region’s tech pioneers. She grew up in Ottawa. “I came here to go to school and ended up staying.”

She’s also one of the region’s biggest boosters. “It’s been so awesome to watch [the Waterloo Region tech community] grow so dramatically. I’ve had [amazing] opportunities here,” she says. “I love the way the tech community is so tight-knit. Everyone knows one another.”

Leaman generated headlines recently with her plain-spoken criticism of policy events in the U.S., specifically the travel ban for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. The ban has since been blocked by U.S. courts but the battle continues.

“It’s horrifying,” she says. “I mean, there’s just no common-sense explanation to justify what [U.S. President Donald Trump] has done.

“My worry is [Trump] is going to throw the world into chaos.

“I don’t think anybody can predict what the implications for the world are going to be two years from now. And I feel like we’re all, in a way, standing and watching wide-eyed and going, ‘What next?’”

But as Leaman recently told the Globe and Mail, events in the U.S. may have presented Canada with a gift. Canada and Waterloo Region have a shortage of skilled tech workers. A less welcoming environment for newcomers in the U.S. may generate an influx of talent here.

“We’ve got an opportunity here to take advantage of it,” Leaman says.

In the meantime, Leaman is focused on helping Axonify grow and changing the way employees learn. The company’s new videos are designed to drive home the notion to potential customers that it’s time to rethink the way they train their staff.

“We’re calling ourselves the un-LMS,” she says. “The campaign is designed to shake the trees and get the notice of our buyers to say it’s time to make a change.”

About The Author

Craig Daniels
Senior Journalist

Craig Daniels is a veteran reporter, columnist and editor who has joined Communitech’s editorial team as senior journalist. He worked most recently at Postmedia in Hamilton, where he led the team that produced the National Post, and before that at the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Sun, Financial Post, the Montreal Daily News and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, N.B. He has an abiding interest in the transformational power and promise of tech and startup ecosystems, is a commercially licensed pilot, and has a debilitating wrist-watch fetish.