SharpSpring's Carlson goes from startup boss to parent-company CEO

Published: Monday, December 14, 2015 at 8:27 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 14, 2015 at 8:27 a.m.

SharpSpring reached what would be considered a major milestone for any technology startup last year when it was acquired by a publicly traded company.



Rick Carlson, 42, founder and CEO, SharpSpring

PERSONAL: Married, 7-year-old son

PETS: Two cats, two dogs


FAVORITE BOOK: “The Singularity is Near” by Ray Kurzweil

PLAYING IN HIS CAR: Satellite radio


HOBBIES: Running

EDUCATION: University of Florida MBA

This year, it flipped the script when founder Rick Carlson was asked to take over as CEO of the combined companies, which took the SharpSpring name. With that, the headquarters were moved from the Boston area to Gainesville and on Dec. 1, the ticker symbol on the Nasdaq stock exchange was changed from SMTP to SHSP, giving Gainesville its latest publicly traded company.

Since starting with just a few employees three years ago, SharpSpring has grown to 70 local employees, expects to have 100 by the end of next year and has taken over both floors of both buildings that make up the renovated old Firestone complex at 304 and 308 W. University Ave.

Carlson also finds himself in charge of a worldwide company with 180 total employees and locations in South Africa and the Ukraine.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” he said.

“We’ve just exceeded all our expectations.”

SMTP Inc. acquired SharpSping last year in a $5 million deal that included another $10 million this year for reaching its $5 million annual revenue goal in the first nine months of the year.

As Carlson explains it, SMTP — which provides an email delivery engine — was very small for a public company, consisting of a Boston-based CEO with development offices in the Ukraine. It used its listing on Nasdaq to acquire SharpSpring and South Africa-based GraphicMail, an email service provider that competes with Constant Contact and MailChimp.

Of the three divisions, SharpSpring was by far the fastest growing and quickly became the largest part of SMTP, with nearly 600 digital marketing agencies as customers. Carlson said the kind of marketing automation software that SharpSpring provides is “a very high-growth industry.”

In September, the board of directors asked Carlson to take over as CEO.

He now has a different set of challenges from the startup world in which the concerns are raising money and building a product.

“Now I’m talking to investors and analysts and hosting earnings calls. It’s all pretty interesting stuff,” he said.

He also has to motivate a team on three continents to work toward a common goal instead of motivating a team of 10 or 20 people “sitting right next to you.”

Carlson worked for an Orlando startup and two major Internet security firms before returning to Gainesville, where he earned an MBA at the University of Florida, to raise his son near his in-laws and pursue his idea of starting a software company to help small businesses generate and track sales leads.

One of his first hires was Travis Whitton, who joined as chief technology officer in 2012 after five years at the former online music streaming service Grooveshark.

Whitton, 35 and a Gainesville area native, said he has since hired eight to 10 former Grooveshark developers.

“This is a dream come true,” he said of SharpSpring’s growth. “You want to swing for the fences with every startup. There’s a lot more things that could go wrong than could go right and we ended up in a situation where just about everything that could possibly happen in the way that we had hoped did.”


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