One-on-One with John Fox
What’s the [not-so] brief history-of-time on John Fox and Venture Marketing?
Venture Marketing is my third startup. I have been involved with seven other startups where I was on the startup team.
Rewind the clock. In 1979 I graduated in Engineering with a Computer Science degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and started work for Intel. I was the first new college grad to go through Intel’s Technical Sales Engineering training program. The program made sales people out of engineering undergrads. Within a couple of years, I was promoted to Field Sales Engineer and was assigned to new account development, which was Intel-speak for unassigned, small accounts. Intel labeled these accounts “R.O.W.”, for Rest-of-World. During the 2-year training program I became a specialist in telecom and industrial automation.
I loved it. And I did very well. At 23, I was the top sales person for Intel’s 2920 Digital Signal Processor (another Intel-first) and Intel’s real-time operating system, iRMX-86. In four years I had grown my territory to $5.2 million from $257K. I did so well that in my 4th year I was honored as one of 22 employees to receive the Intel Distinguished Employee Award—an annual award given to the top 0.1% performers company-wide.
Intel was Camelot. I was working for one of the best companies in the world. I reported to incredibly talented people such as Frank Gill and Bill Roach, and work alongside people like John Doerr. Frank Gill went on to become a Vice-President/General Manager at Intel. Bill Roach left Intel to head marketing for SonicWALL, PCTel, Maxtor, and Quantum. And the famous John Doerr—a Field Sales Engineer, just like me—now one of the most successful VC’s in the world, at Kleiner-Perkins (the same John Doerr behind Google and Amazon).
But the entrepreneurial-bug had bitten me. In 1984, I left Intel to work for one of my startup clients, U. S. Robotics—a client I had nurtured from the time they were 3 guys (Casey Cowell, Steve Muka, and Paul Collard) in a 2nd story loft facing the Chicago “L” on Lake Street (just like the Blues Brothers movie). By the time I arrived, they had grown to 71 employees (I was #72) and had reached $10 million in revenue. I was hired as the first Director of Sales of Marketing.
While I left USR much too early, which is a story in and of itself, I was able to completely overhaul the U.S. Robotics’ product line and, most notably, launch the Courier modem line—still the best-selling modem in the world.
After USR, I joined Tellabs during a very terrible time for them. I inherited the data communications product line, which had a field-failure rate above 10%. The company and their industry-segment weren’t for me and I jumped soon thereafter to my first entrepreneurial adventure, Engineering Tools, as co-founder.
Engineering Tools was way ahead of its time. We had developed factory automation software, running on an 8086-based PC, that fully-mimicked Allen-Bradley’s PLC relay ladder diagram programming language. It sparked a complete revolution in the business. Sadly, Engineering Tools was poorly capitalized. The company settled for an asset sale to Wizdom Systems which was sold to Intellution, a factory automation software company, and is now part of GE/Fanuc.
Returning to the modem field, I joined Telebit in 1987 where I started a new business unit that focused on a new market—high-speed data-over-cellular. While mobility would seem important, my biggest sale ($2M) was used in a fixed-cellular application for land-line replacement in Mexico City to the leading cellular provider, Iusacell. But my personal success couldn’t save Telebit from going into a virtual tailspin, the company having burned through $27M in venture funding and a terrific [overvalued] IPO. The assets of Telebit are now owned by Cisco.
In 1993, my love for new and undiscovered stars and start-ups led me to Productivity Point International (PPI), a high-tech computer training company. Again, history repeated itself and I became the first director of sales and marketing for this company where I was its 12th employee.
At PPI, I developed a National Account Program which surpassed $2M in franchise revenue in the first year. I built an in-house marketing-services agency that delivered 48% savings and an increase in sales leads by 52% to franchisees by implementing a programmatic and scaleable marketing plan, custom to each franchise. I also authored and was principal trainer for PPI’s sales training program (using principles from Strategic Selling and Conceptual Selling) for the company’s 500+ Account Managers. The company was purchased in 1998 by Larry Ellison and Michael Milken for slightly less than $200M—mission accomplished.
It was the internal marketing-services agency at PPI that formed the basis for Venture Marketing. We think and act like a marketing department for each of our clients.
Now when you talk about marketing, are you talking about the full spectrum, the “Four P’s” of traditional marketing?
Venture Marketing is all about the experience that I’ve gained in the last twenty-plus years and, most importantly, the processes by which unknown products or services get to market—ON A BUDGET by focusing on those things that help the sales team move down the sales process faster.
It’s about being able to look at our clients’ products and being able to determine the most likely market or sub-market where we can find sustainable revenue. In launch-mode, it’s not so much about building brand, but more about finding customers who will become repeat buyers. It requires Venture Marketing to be much more nimble and pragmatic than a typical agency. While the four P’s is a great concept for teaching, it’s not something that easily plays out in practice, at least for our clients.
How did you come up with the idea of doing this?
As I said earlier, Venture Marketing is an outgrowth of the internal agency that I built for Productivity Point International. When I started at PPI, we had a very limited marketing budget since our revenue at the time was about $1M. I began a search for a marketing partner who would see the value of growing with us. I couldn’t find anyone who understood my business and would take the time to learn. I met with many agencies, but I always felt as if I was being sold. With this conclusion, I hired my own internal staff.
Do you have direct competitors?
Just in Chicago there are more than 1,100 businesses that fit the category. But I don’t believe anybody is doing specifically what we are. And I have not seen any other businesses staffed with the kind of people that I have—marketing experts who come from internal marketing departments—not ad agencies. Consequently, we tend to understand the angst that our customers go through. Our ability to understand the customer’s needs and their passion has really set us apart.
So even though there are 1,100 similar marketing firms to yours, you don’t qualify any as a true competitor?
I believe that it would be very difficult to do what we’re doing unless they have had a very similar experience to mine. And you know, that’s a handful of people. Yes, there are many people who have gone out and been successful once and maybe twice. But not seven or eight times.
You’ve mentioned earlier that since you got involved in entrepreneurial activities, you haven’t really worked for another company. What is it about being an entrepreneur that appeals to you?
Certainly, it’s not the glamour. There is none. I really believe that I have a better opportunity to increase my own personal equity doing something on my own than working for somebody else.
Does autonomy play a significant role in that?
Sure. But I think any entrepreneur that’s worth their salt recognizes that they are not an island. And, you know, anybody that says, “I’m so smart I can do this myself and I don’t need anybody else”—is inviting disaster.
Do you think that some people are better at spotting market opportunities than others?
Absolutely. In fact, it’s what I really excel at. I can say this for two reasons. One, I am incredibly resourceful. If someone tells me that it’s impossible, I see it as a challenge. Two, I have an ability to put myself in other people’s shoes, so to speak. To adapt. I can see other points of view and think that way.
So when I’m given a product or a service that we need to sell, even if it’s something that I would never purchase personally, I can think objectively and figure out who actually needs it and how best to reach them. It’s been a huge help in my career.
More and more, you hear that with new ventures, it’s not so much what the venture is but the model used to drive it is what makes it different.
Completely agree. Read The E-Myth, by Michael E. Gerber. The whole thing boils down to whether or not the business processes can become repeatable. If the entrepreneur can’t step away from the business and let it operate on its own, you have nothing. A sustainable business is one that enjoys repeatable results (a euphemism for “business model”).
When forecasting the success of a start-up, how important is gut feeling?
It is still number one.
Is there anything about being an entrepreneur that I haven’t touched yet?
I believe it’s especially important for entrepreneurs to be well-grounded spiritually. I don’t want to get off on this tangent too much, but when the chips are down, you’ve got to have faith in something besides yourself and the business. Being a follower of Jesus has brought stability to my life and recognition that my self-worth is not measured in dollars and cents. Thankfully.