RALEIGH — Back in the early 2000s, Bill Spruill and Charles Gaddy were both freelancing as independent contractors in the data space, crossing paths while working remotely from their laptops out of the popular Café Helios in downtown Raleigh. Eventually, after a few twists and turns, they decided to strike out on their own together.
And so Global Data Consortium (GDC) was born in 2011. Success, however, didn’t happen overnight.
For the greater part of the next decade, they hustled and bootstrapped and pivoted until they landed in the space of digital identity and compliance.
Flash-forward to today: GDC, a global identification verification platform that provides businesses with access to “high-quality, local data” mined from over 300-plus sources and data partners, is being sold to the UK-based London Stock Exchange Group (LSEG) as part of a deal announced last week.
The exact terms were not disclosed, but it’s believed to be “one of the largest” deals to come out of the Triangle in recent years – on par with exits of fellow homegrown North Carolina startups Bronto and PrecisionLender. (Bronto sold to NetSuite for $200 million in 2015; PrecisionLender got acquired by Q2 Holdings for $510 million in 2019.)
WRAL TechWire’s Chantal Allam recently caught up with Spruill and Gaddy to get a closer look at the deal. Here’s what they had to say:
- Congrats on hitting this milestone. How are you feeling?
Spruill: As one of the Triangle’s and the state’s most visible African American startup founders, I’m immensely proud. I’m proud of the vision we had for the future; proud of the team we built to execute on that vision; proud of the customers and partners who have entrusted their critical identity verification needs to us to deliver. Personally, I’m really proud to show that a founder is a founder; a builder is a builder, regardless of race, age, sexual orientation or economic upbringing.
- When TechWire touched base with GDC last September as part of our “Tomorrow’s Unicorns” series, it sounded like you were focused on building a $1-billion enterprise. Since 2016, it’s been growing around 120 percent year over year. Revenue had ballooned from just over $1 million to a projected $20 million or more in 2021. Why have you decided to exit now?
Spruill: We have always held that we would grow the business first. That said, if someone wanted to buy the business, we would always be open to the possibility. Someone wanting to buy the business is different than us seeking to sell the business.
Gaddy: I think there is truth in the overused paraphrase from “The Godfather:” Make them an offer they cannot refuse. Of course, in this case, it was a good deal. The numbers are right, the union of product offerings make sense, the path forward is opportunistic for the GDC team, and the value add is there for LSEG Refinitiv. (Refinitiv, a subsidiary of LSEG, led a $3.7 capital raise in GDC in 2020.)
- Why is the London Stock Exchange Group the right fit?
Spruill: A long-standing Bill-Charles maxim has been that the best buyer is an existing partner/customer. Therefore, we have always put particular focus and investment in our channel efforts. In the case of LSEG, they are a non-competitive platform to all our current customers/partners so the business can stay largely intact, and we get a bigger global parent that can help accelerate what we were already doing. If it had been most any other customer/partner of ours the same neutral stance might have been less achievable.
Gaddy: There is a fit with the tech and the people. GDC is a group of international specialists, curating a product and API focused on global commerce, compliance, and identity. This team brings international expertise and a platform to LSEG/Refinitiv which fits their focus. Even the names – Refinitiv’s WorldCheck product — is a watchlist and sanctions solution (think monitoring Russian oligarchs) and Worldview is GDC’s global identity platform. Each does exactly what it says on the tin and fit nicely as a complete offering.
- LSEG said GDC’s platform is poised to become the “platform of choice” to manage financial crime-related risks. Tell us about this rising threat, and why GDC’s platform is the best-placed solution to protect businesses and their customers.
Bill: As our world becomes more and more interconnected, fraud and global financial criminal activities proliferate. One example I’ve used recently is the rapid growth of creator economy platforms. These platforms can be used to funnel monies between bad actors under the guise of legitimate sponsorship of creators. These creator platforms will eventually be required to conduct some form of Know-Your-Customer diligence, and that is where we fit in.
Charles: So many more activities and transactions are done online now – why? It is easier, less friction, faster to get to what you want. This was especially true with the pandemic, and I do not see us going backward, only forward. People are opening bank accounts without ever seeing the inside of a bank branch, moving money around the world from apps, establishing crypto wallets, buying now, and paying later. These activities are now all digital and subject to the risk of digital – financial crime and fraud. With all this interconnection, financial crimes are global in nature and thus you need a global solution. You need digital solutions for knowing your customer, verifying identity, establishing trust that someone is “who they say they are.” GDC’s platform enables verification, compliance, and trust at velocity and scale covering 70-plus countries. It is the right solution for the right time to be a “platform of choice.”
- As part of the deal, 25 current and past employees are now newly minted millionaires. Why was it so important for you to include your employees as part of this deal?
Bill: Typically, in the Triangle when high growth companies are purchased the founders/executive teams and the VC investors make the lion’s share of the returns. The employees get something, but not well enough. For us, it was important that the employees benefitted equally from the transaction. Given we didn’t raise massive amounts of capital, dilution was much less of an issue for the overall team. Finally, this has created the foundation for the next big thing for me. As for what message this sends to prospective workers, in a nutshell: You have options in the market to choose from. Yes, big tech companies can pay you great cash compensation, but you will never get a significant wealth outcome from working for a big tech company, in general. Best thing for a young worker to do is to go learn and work at a big tech company, then find something you are keen on and join the early team and share the benefit of your learnings from the time spent at the big tech company. I love big tech companies coming to the Triangle because you provide me with raw talent that can drive the flywheel of growth for startups in the region for years to come.
Charles: I’m going to turn more to the motivational, colorful side of why it was important to include the employees. With no money, Bill and I often framed our team and efforts in terms of the explorers of the sea or pirates of the black sail. When the explorer Cortés arrived in the New World, he made history by promptly burning his ships. This sent a clear message to the crew: There is no turning back, we will survive and succeed. If we are sending this sort of message to our employees, there are two things of serious import for them to buy into GDC: We had to live it and they had to see an upside from believing in it. We definitely lived it, and now their belief is paying off.
- What are LSEG’s plans for GDC in Raleigh?
Bill: Expansion is number one. We are continuing to hire both here and globally for the team.
Charles: Growth. They want to see this team expand its reach within the LSEG org while also maintaining and expanding the go-to-market strategies which have been successful at GDC.
- For most of GDC’s lifespan, you bootstrapped the company. And when it came to raising funds as a Black founder, you admitted it wasn’t always easy. What does GDC’s success say about the Triangle’s ecosystem?
Bill: Thinking from a more positive angle GDC could not likely have been built anywhere else. We had the talent we needed here; the infrastructure was here, and our families and friends were here. Without those components, we would not have survived the journey. One other component that it is important to mention was the existence of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED). Without the experiences I had at CED, GDC would not have come into existence, for sure. I think many of the successful founders, both past and present, don’t realize or understand the impact that organization has had on the success of the region and on their personal outcomes. For me, I absolutely intend to give credit where credit is due to them.
Charles: As a co-founder with Bill, I can attest to the challenges of raising money in the Triangle ecosystem. When we started all of this in 2010, it was a perfect storm leading to bootstrapping the company. Raising money in the Triangle was impossible, and the meetings we did get resulted often in – “what the heck are they building” or “I just don’t get it.” Things have changed in the Triangle, albeit 12 years later, and there are more opportunities. There is a foundation now, and from this foundation I hope things will get easier. That said, only so much easier. I hope we will see businesses being built that merit funding, not the raising of funds to merit a business. I will always be in favor of zebras over unicorns; it is just how I am wired. (In finance, “unicorn” is a term that describes a privately-owned startup with a valuation of over $1 billion. “”Zebras” are companies characterized by doing real business, not aiming to disrupt current markets.)
- When it comes to equity and diversity, do you think it’s getting any easier for minority founders to get the support they need to grow – both here in the Triangle and nationally? What work still needs to be done?
Bill: Uh, no. Lots of talk but very little has changed in my view from that aspect. There is a lot to be done for the playing field to truly be leveled. I was talking with someone recently about the simple issue of friends and family and the challenges minority founders have with being able to tap into these resources because we don’t have friends and family that can write $100,000 checks or even $1,000 checks. That is just one aspect of the bias machine that must change.
Charles: There is still a lot of work to do. Combatting conscious and unconscious bias as it relates to equity and diversity is an ongoing effort. I hope to see many of the 25 newly minted millionaires put resources towards investing in the Triangle and in the process finding ways to progress the cause of equity and diversity.
- What’s next for you both on a personal level?
Bill: So, first things first, I’m getting married. My partner and I are a bit behind the curve on that exercise and after 24 years it is probably about time.
I got asked this question a bit differently recently. To paraphrase, I was asked: “How does it feel to have achieved my life’s goal?” My response back was: “Who says I have achieved it?” This outcome is simply a step on the path of my journey. Next up, I’m hoping to change the landscape around minority engagement in the tech community to create more options and possibly better outcomes. Alongside that mission I intend to help the Triangle reclaim its mantle of being one of the top technology clusters in the country. We held that mantle many, many, years ago. We lost it in the meltdown of Web 1.0, and we’ve forgotten who we were along the way. I hope to help reverse that and put us firmly back on the map as a region to be respected and admired. Finally, I’m hoping to create a Triangle version of the PayPal Mafia. This is where the 25 millionaires come into the picture. I’m hoping to help motivate my colleagues to co-invest in promising local tech startups. Ideally, some of these startups would follow in our path with their teams and share the equity along with sharing the risk. Can we get that flywheel started, I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be amazing if we could?
Charles: I am already married so no big surprise there, but I do look forward to the party.
Before talking about me personally, we would not have achieved the milestones and success in GDC without the support of our investors. This is an easy “shout out” to do because, as a predominantly bootstrapped organization, they are mostly friends and family. They believed in us even if they did not understand what we were doing. There is a part of you that cannot give up on your goals when your family and friends money is on the line. So, to all our investors, thank you for believing.
A specific thanks also to my lead investors: my wife and three kids. They have lived through the ups and downs of a bootstrapped company, and I hope enjoyed some of the ride. So, what is next for me? Well, I know what I am not doing – I am terrible at golf and don’t have the patience for fishing, so I will make another run at something – either inside of LSEG or another endeavor in the future.