GrowthCap speaks with Gary Gigot, a former Visio executive and benefactor of the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Notre Dame.
RJ: Gary, thank you for taking the time. You have a very accomplished background. Can you share with our readers a bit about yourself from how you got your start and the various endeavors you’ve undertaken?
Gary: Two foundations for me are my upbringing in Green Bay, Wisconsin and my education at the University of Notre Dame. Yes this has made me a rabid Packer and Fighting Irish fan but beyond that a Midwestern who sought his fame and fortune on both coasts. My path was 16 years in advertising both small and large agency alike—with Leo Burnett and the Ogilvy Group in the mix, then via a winning new business presentation at Microsoft the ultimate evolution of my career into technology marketing.
I had the great experience to see Microsoft in action in the early 90’s when it launched a flurry of new products that defined and dominated the desktop software industry—Windows, Office, Access, Windows NT et al. As CMO we worked all facets of the marketing mix, through all existing US channels across the entire portfolio of products. This “Windows” emersion catapulted me as an investor and CMO into Visio, a company that created the business drawing category and took me on a scaling, IPO, growth ride all off one platform. This also gave me the war chest for endowing the Entrepreneurship Center at Notre Dame, plunged me into angel investing, and ultimately led to a two fund stint in Venture Capital with Frazier Technology Ventures. After the dynamics of 2008+ and a career in advertising and technology and with retirement in sight—I could taste it—in 2013 I decided to become a co-founder and CEO of a start up spin out from Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana—not Seattle.
Fast forward to today where Vennli is 20+ people strong has 120 customers is defining a new software category called Choice Visualization and Analytics and is on Version 3.0 of its software. I am running the Visio playbook, looking to partner with Microsoft, and using Docusign (a Frazier investment) for all of our contract signings.
RJ: You are also the benefactor of Notre Dame’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship. What is the Center’s mission and focus?
Gary: At the start our goal with the Center was to “Create a Sense of the Possible” for Notre Dame students. In the late 90’s Notre Dame was on a mission to compete with the likes of Stanford and to do so they had to create an entrepreneurial environment in the business school from scratch. At that time I was spending a lot of time on Sand Hill Road and I witnessed first hand the integration of the Universities and the technology community. Same in Boston and Seattle. So we started with curriculum, then a business plan competition, then an alumni network, then social entrepreneurship, then and Innovation Park and now we even have a Chicago Based Notre Dame DNA angel investment group—the IrishAngels. Notre Dame is now decidedly in the entrepreneurial game.
RJ: Are there a few key skills you could highlight that you think are particularly important for aspiring entrepreneurs to develop?
Gary: There are skills that exhibit themselves as operating traits which I would articulate as follows: 1) unilateral commitment to the success of your venture, 2) natural ability to sell your company vision to a growing list of investors, 3) multi-tasking, multi-threading, parallel path work process, 4) talent acquisition, retention and development practice, 5) respect for the centering importance of an articulated and quantitative business model, 6) continuous curious nature on all facets of the product, market and customer set.
RJ: Your current role is Co-Founder and CEO of Vennli, can you tell us about the company and the market need you are addressing?
Gary: Vennli is the platform for visualizing and analyzing how customers make choices. It allows businesses to make quick, targeted decisions about marketing, product development, and sales. The SaaS platform combines ongoing customer surveying and a proven competitive strategy model within an advanced data visualization and analytics software delivering real time, choice data insight.
How does it work? Through an embedded electronic survey platform, Vennli gathers ongoing, real-time insights about what is most important to customers and how they choose between competitors. A patent-pending algorithm analyzes and visualizes this data in the three-circle vLens, an interactive tool that reveals opportunities for competitive differentiation. Leaders can segment the findings using intuitive analysis tools to determine key drivers of choice and opportunities to “be different from competitors in ways important to customers” (Vennli’s mantra). This quickly leads to actions aligned with customer needs.
Since launch, over 120 organizations have utilized Vennli’s platform to accelerate growth by building customer value and competitive advantage. Including many Indiana based companies like Zimmer Biomet and Cook Biotech. Businesses use Vennli’s software and advisory services to understand their market through their customers’ eyes, allowing them to message their product/service more successfully, build brand equity and market share, improve the customer experience, determine product/market fit, and effectively manage product portfolios. Our three minute video, found here (www.vennli.com/walkthrough) provides a succinct overview of the platform.
RJ: What has been the most challenging time in your career as an executive or entrepreneur and how did overcome that particularly challenging time?
Gary: Without a doubt it was the .Com era where VC firms and Wall Street had temporarily lost their collective mind and were discounting successful 25% margin companies in favor of new entrants like Pet, Flowers, Home Grocer.com. The rules changed, so did investment criteria, as did business metrics (and values), and for a while you couldn’t help make money until everything got rationale at which point there was a good chance a company you have invested in did not have a way back. These “bubbles” hurt the good companies delivering on the fundamentals, create excessive but often unrealized value and are filled with excess, ego and at times regular, old fraud. What happens is it takes any joy out of the entrepreneurial journey both on the unsustainable ride up, and certainly on the resulting free fall.
My answer has been to manage my investments in a broad portfolio fashion, take winnings off the table and lock in wealth for the long term, manage our current business in a conservative and careful fashion, and to follow Andy Grove’s suggestion which is only the paranoid survive. BUT, this has to be balanced with vision, and passion, and belief in your entrepreneurial quest. Dicey.
RJ: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Gary: In our line of work we are stunned by three words we continually encounter: Disruption, Innovation and Reinvention. The speed by which markets are changing, new ideas are exploding, and social structures being altered means understanding customer choice has never been more vital. We have fortuitously stepped in front of quite a societal trend.