Lessons from Corporate Innovators

Dave Knox Author —  Predicting the Turn

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Episode 23: Dave Knox Author — Predicting the Turn

Dave & I have known each other for a long time. We first got to know each other through his involvement helping lead a Cincinnatti based startup accelerator, The Brandery.

More recently, Dave came out with a book a couple of years ago called Predicting the Turn.

There’s a ton I enjoyed about this week’s episode, but actually probably the thing I enjoyed the most was the detour we took into corporate venture capital. Dave’s actually been a corporate venture capitalist twice in his career and has two more traditional financially driven VC work experiences as well. And so his perspective on how to do CVC I thought was quite interesting and relevant for a lot of you who have been reaching out to learn more on the topic, dovetailing nicely into the podcast we did earlier this year with Rich from the Touchdown Ventures team.

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Full Transcript

Sean Ammirati: 00:08 Welcome to Agile Giants, Lessons From Corporate Innovators. I’m Sean Ammirati, your host. Co-Founder and Director of the Carnegie Mellon Corporate Startup Lab, and partner at the early stage venture capital fund, Birchmere Ventures. Each week I’m going to talk to guests who are experts at creating startups inside large corporations. I believe fundamentally a startup within a company is the same as one inside the proverbial garage, a group of entrepreneurs trying to make the world a better place, using new ideas and inventions. However, I also believe some of the techniques and processes are just inherently different. This podcast is going to explore those similarities and differences.

Sean Ammirati: 00:56 Welcome to another episode of Agile Giants. On this week’s episode, I’m joined by Dave Knox. I’ve known Dave for a while. He ran an accelerator in Cincinnati that I got to know called The Brandery. We’ll talk a little bit about that in the episode. More recently, Dave came out with a book a couple of years ago called Predicting the Turn, which has been read by a lot of corporations and actually has some similarities to Neil Soni’s book, if you’ve been listening to all of the episodes of Agile Giants. I will include a link to Dave’s book in the show notes here, so if you’re interested in checking the book out and reading it, you can go to Amazon from the show notes and do that, and also we’ll include a link to some of Dave’s social profiles if you want to reach out to connect and chat more with him.

Sean Ammirati: 01:38 There’s a ton I enjoyed about this week’s episode, but actually probably the thing I enjoyed the most was the detour we took into corporate venture capital. Dave’s actually been a corporate venture capitalist twice in his career and has two more traditional financially driven VC experiences as well. And so his perspective on how to do CVC I thought was quite interesting and relevant for a lot of you who have been reaching out to learn more on the topic, dovetailing nicely into the podcast we did earlier this year with Rich from the Touchdown Ventures team. So with that, I hope you enjoy this week’s episode.

Sean Ammirati: 02:15 All right. So again, we have a great guest today, Dave Knox. Dave, you wear a ton of hats, and I want to talk about those hats of what you’re currently doing in a minute, between what you’re doing now and the book you’ve written, et cetera. But before we get to that, could you just give everyone a sense on your professional career leading up to the things you’re doing now?

Dave Knox: 02:34 Yeah. So I always like to say I’m entering kind of the third part of my career. So the first two parts that go into that, the first two-thirds, if you will, started my career at Procter Gamble, was kind of that traditional brand manager that came in, and this was in about 2003 that I joined, and at the time you’re just after the dot com crash. And I kind of jumped in and embraced digital marketing as the thing at the time. And a lot of folks were a little timid with it because of the fact of what happened with dot com, but I was a 22 year old, straight out of a public education, no MBA, none of that, and so I didn’t have anything to lose.

Dave Knox: 03:16 So fast forward seven years later, I did a bunch of different roles at P&G but ultimately had the chance to, because of that dive into digital, was able to be one of the cofounders of the corporate digital strategy team, and that was in right around 2008, so got to run and lead our relationships with Facebook, and Google, and Microsoft, and Yahoo, and just really a bunch of the Silicon Valley relationships in that time where digital was kind of coming on its own.

Dave Knox: 03:47 So did that for, like I said, about seven and a half, eight years, and then I actually decided to take somewhat of an entrepreneurial leap and I became the chief marketing officer for a digital marketing agency called Rockfish, and Rockfish, when I joined, was a small company doing a couple million dollars in revenue, about five, six, $7 million in revenue and I got to open up our Cincinnati office. And so I did that for, once again, about seven years. I tend to get that seven year itch, it seems, that goes into it, but had an awesome ride there. We ultimately did a 10X in terms of the revenue for Rockfish, worked with some of the best brands in the world from Ford Motor Company to Mars to others, and just had a blast doing it before we ultimately sold that business to WPP.

Dave Knox: 04:38 So those are kind of the two day jobs. Also simultaneous to the rockfish job, I also was the cofounder of The Brandery, which is one of the top 10 startup accelerators in the US, and that got me even further and deeper into the world of startups and venture capital.

Sean Ammirati: 04:55 People actually on this podcast, these are more corporate innovators than traditional entrepreneurs. I mean, there’s a mix for sure, but because of that, they may actually be a little less familiar with The Brandery and what you mean by “accelerator” than maybe groups you’re used to talking to. So maybe just spend a minute what The Brandery is.

Dave Knox: 05:13 Yeah. So I’ll start with, “What’s a startup accelerator?”

Sean Ammirati: 05:16 Perfect.

Dave Knox: 05:16 Because it’s a concept that’s changed a lot over the last seven years. When we started in 2010 there was only about 30 of them in the country, and today I saw one number that pegs that number close to 2,000 now that are out there. And think of it as a startup school. So you would have at the Brandery around 800 to 1,000 startups that would be applying to get one of 10 spots into the program. And those 10 spots, they would get into a four-month program that was curriculum on how to do things with startup or as a startup. It would give you access to mentorship from some great minds across the ecosystem, and it would give you access to a bunch of resources. You know, benefits with Amazon Web Services, different things of that nature. And the real defining factor of it was it’s a set time period, and after about a four-month period, you would do what’s called Demo Day, where all 10 companies would get on stage and they would be pitching to venture capitalists for fundraising.

Dave Knox: 06:20 So that was the basic premise, and uniquely for your audience, it was really, the frame we did for The Brandery was inspired by the work I was doing at P&G, because there were some great accelerators out there. You have tech starter, Techstars started before us, Y Combinator, you know, go down the list. There was a bunch of them. But the thing I kept seeing constantly at P&G was, we really believed that there was something special about the art of building a brand and doing consumer marketing, and it went well beyond just a fancy logo and knowing what colors you should have.

Dave Knox: 06:58 And so the premise and idea of The Brandery was other accelerators were giving you access to startup founders and VCs. We want give you access to a third type of a mentor, which were some of the best brand building minds and digital marketing minds from some of the largest corporations in the world. And so our mentors were those of us from P&G, the head of digital for Nestle, for Kimberly Clark, for Unilever. Like, those are the folks that we brought in to mentor and coach in addition to all the other stuff you would get from other programs.

Sean Ammirati: 07:34 Yeah. I think you were one of the first specialized accelerators, if I recall. Maybe I’m wrong on that, but you’ve seen a bunch more later, but the Techstars accelerators at that point, those were their regional ones, not the corporate partners, correct?

Dave Knox: 07:50 Yup.

Sean Ammirati: 07:51 Techstars Cloud had not launched yet, for example, with Rackspace, so it was pretty early on there. But you see as the number has exploded, right, that’s become a big trend, is this kind of verticalization of the accelerators, if you will.

Dave Knox: 08:04 Big time. Yep. It’s definitely changed a lot. I mean, I remember our first year trying to convince some of those large corporations that they should spend $5,000 or $10,000 as a sponsor with us, and last I checked, some of those named accelerators are a $3 million a year for sponsorship checks. We apparently screwed up and didn’t monetize as much as we should have.

Sean Ammirati: 08:28 I’m going to just let that softball go right by. But I did actually want to touch on another part of your venture career, because you also helped WPP when ultimately you guys became part of that group. You actually helped them with their venture group as well, and one of the things that we do have a lot of interest among this audience in is this concept of corporate venture capital. And I was thinking you’re kind of unique because you’ve spent time doing traditional stuff with both Vine and then obviously Brandery, but you’ve also been an MD inside of a corporate venture group. And so I wonder if you could just compare and contrast that a little bit for the audience.

Dave Knox: 09:05 Yeah, for sure. The reason I started getting into some of that corporate, so one thing that it’s actually not talked about that often, but my original corporate venture work was actually at Procter and Gamble.

Sean Ammirati: 09:18 Oh wow.

Dave Knox: 09:19 So back in 2009, P&G had this little thing called Procter and Gamble Productions, and its claim to fame is it actually invented the soap opera. So 80 years ago, As the World Turns, Guiding Light, all of those, P&G created them, and this group had its own production company that produced all of this stuff. It so happened that group sat right next to the corporate digital team, and the gentleman who ran that pulled me over one day and said, “You know, a lot of the stuff I hear you talking about and pushing our brands to consider, I need to be doing for P&G productions as well, because I know the run of soap operas on traditional CBS, ABC, NBC, that makes us a lot of money each year, but that’s probably going to go away at some point.”

Dave Knox: 10:09 And so he had me pull in, it was kind of my last assignment at P&G, was with the mandate of, “What should be the alternative revenue streams of the 21st century for P&G Productions and possibly more broadly at P&G?” So it was in that job I got to do a lot of different things, and instead of having our own fund, we actually took the profits that we were making on the soap operas and I ended up doing about $7, $8 million of corporate venture deals over four different investments over that last kind of year at P&G.

Sean Ammirati: 10:45 That’s awesome. So you have, I guess, effectively two corporate venture experiences, and then kind of two traditional, between The Brandery, and then we haven’t talked about this, but you also have The Vine Fund. So even more, what do you see as similarities and differences between traditional and corporate venture activity?

Dave Knox: 11:03 Yeah, I think the biggest thing comes down to the definition of financial or the definition of returns. And what I mean by that is, a traditional VC, the returns are what matter. What’s your IRR, return on capital, all the different things that go into it.

Sean Ammirati: 11:23 100%.

Dave Knox: 11:23 It’s about returns.

Sean Ammirati: 11:24 Right.

Dave Knox: 11:24 And a lot of the factors that also drive that is, some of the behavior, frankly, I don’t personally enjoy in venture, which is the second an investment looks like it’s not going up, you probably should stop spending your time on it, because your duty is your financial returns back to your LPs, those that invested in you. The contrast with a corporate venture firm is, returns don’t just have to financial. The bad corporate venture ones are the ones that don’t consider financial returns at all, because you still need to help your entrepreneurs make money, and you need incentives to be aligned with your fellow investors, but the concept of market intelligence as a return should be, I think, at least equal, if not more weight than the financial returns. Because if you think, even some of the best investments of all time from a corporate venture capital firm, or just frankly any venture firm, that actually might be a rounding error on a Fortune 500’s balance sheet.

Sean Ammirati: 12:30 Yep.

Dave Knox: 12:31 So just measuring by financial returns doesn’t make sense, but the intelligence that you can bring to the table of trends and threats and opportunities and everything else, that is ridiculously valuable, and it’s actually why I think the single biggest mistake of almost every corporate venture fund is having that venture fund report to the CFO. That corporate venture fund needs to sit in a place of strategy that can impact all the business units, not one that is just a financial return.

Sean Ammirati: 13:05 That’s awesome. One more question on this, because this is a topic we had touched on ventures on. This is a topic that people are hungry for actually more content on, it seems. If someone is listening to this and they want to do CVC, any suggestions for how to get started, Dave?

Dave Knox: 13:22 Yeah. So I think there’s a few different things. So one, I love the Touchdown guys.

Sean Ammirati: 13:27 Yeah.

Dave Knox: 13:27 David and Scott and Rich, they’re awesome. So definitely talk to them, is one thing you should do for sure. The second thing, and I think this is one of the most important, valuable things, is recognizing that corporate venture requires an internal skill and an external skill, and the internal skill is a corporate VC has an unfair advantage in that you have quite often tens of thousands of experts across your company in the most minute of details related to your industry. And startups would love to have access to that level of information, and frankly a venture fund would love to have access to the due diligence of an industry like that.

Dave Knox: 14:17 So that’s a ridiculous value, but you have to have somebody that knows how to navigate the corporation to find those experts, and to know that you have somebody that might know what it takes for a spray nozzle to clog and what that would do from an e-commerce standpoint. So you have to have that internal network. But the external network is the fact that venture capital is a relationship game, and any of us that spend any time in this world, it’s not six degrees of separation. You’re lucky if it’s two degrees of separation.

Sean Ammirati: 14:54 That’s right.

Dave Knox: 14:54 You have to realize that you know the old Malcolm Gladwell saying of 10,000 hours, I’m a massive believer of it, especially in this world, because it’s about being the phone call somebody wants to make, because the best deals are usually competitive deals, especially in today’s environment, and it’s going to be competitive to get into the deal and to get into the deal at a good price. And if you don’t have those relationships, it’s really tough to do. And the corporate VCs, I think too oftentimes they might focus on the first and they ignore the second, and it doesn’t matter what your company logo is because most of the startups and the VCs actually couldn’t care less, because you’re interchangeable.

Dave Knox: 15:41 But if you have a relationship with them, you’ve been into the trenches with them, that matters. So find somebody that’s got those relationships, and if anything, I actually think you need to look for the person that like … I got dinged every year on my P&G scorecard for being too externally focused, with an exact mark at one point of, “Dave has too many coffee meetings in the mornings before coming into the office.” You actually want that person.

Sean Ammirati: 16:09 Right. Find him in your organization.

Dave Knox: 16:12 Yeah.

Sean Ammirati: 16:12 That’s awesome. That was a little detour, but actually I think incredibly helpful for many people here. So let’s go turn to the kind of third chapter, if you will, of your career, and kind of the things you’re working on now.

Dave Knox: 16:27 Yeah. So the third chapter started about two years ago now.

Sean Ammirati: 16:32 So we got five to go?

Dave Knox: 16:33 Yeah. Got five to go before I start itching. Two years ago was lucky enough, we had a very good exit with Rockfish, so had the freedom to kind of figure out what I wanted to go do next. And I decided to really take the stance of actually orchestrating around the flexibility of the home front, first and foremost. So when we sold Rockfish, my twins had actually just been born that summer, and so the first five years of an earnout, I was on the road a ton. And so I had some opportunities to jump back in as a CMO, do the startup thing full time again, or even go on the venture side, and I decided I want to do something that was a little bit more flexible. And that flexibility has actually led me into kind of what I would have said were three things a little bit ago, is now four different things I spend my time.

Dave Knox: 17:24 So the first is, I was lucky enough I had … My book Predicting the Turn came out just about that time, as I was about to be leaving. And that has given me a great opportunity from a content standpoint to do a weekly podcast, to be a Forbes contributor, and to do a lot of public speaking both at conferences and to private corporate meetings and executive offsites, et cetera. So I did that around the world of corporate innovation, this mixture between startups and big companies. So that’s bucket one.

Dave Knox: 17:55 Bucket two is I tend to do a lot of investing. As you mentioned, Brandery Companies, Vine Street Ventures, just as an angel investor myself. And that used to have to be something I did outside of the nine to five hours, and this new freedom gives me a chance to actually roll up my sleeves, be on the board of directors for a few of those companies, and really get a lot more involved. So that’s kind of bucket number two.

Dave Knox: 18:23 Bucket three has been this thing that I call executive marketing coaching. So I’ve been really fortunate that when I decided I wasn’t going to jump into a single CMO job again, I started getting some calls from companies I would call series A, actually all the ways up to actually being public companies, that were trying to figure out how they should be structuring their marketing organizations for the future, and trying to decide, do they have the right people in place? Are they missing any roles? Do they have the wrong talent? Do they need to find the right talent?

Dave Knox: 18:58 And so I’ve been involved working with executive teams and senior marketing teams on fixing that and serving as that coaching role, not as a consultant. If you want somebody to build your performance marketing plan, I’ve got five guys I can tell you to go talk to. But really being that sounding board, and a sounding board both on the strategy of marketing and business, but also on the people side of marketing. Both getting the right people in the seats and then frankly helping unleash the full potential of some of those marketers, that a lot of times you get put in this role of being the head of marketing and there’s no one to help coach you and be a mentor for you, because most CEOs don’t come from a marketing background. So you end up as this kind of lonely island, that that’s why I’ve been trying to help. So that’s been the third bucket.

Dave Knox: 19:49 And then the fourth one that my wife thinks I’m crazy for, but about two months ago I actually got a little bit back into the CPG game, and with a few friends, we actually bought a small CPG company.

Sean Ammirati: 20:00 Oh, really?

Dave Knox: 20:01 So I’m serving as the executive chairman for that and kind of the managing member from the investors.

Sean Ammirati: 20:07 Wow.

Dave Knox: 20:07 So that’s been fun.

Sean Ammirati: 20:08 That’s great. Let’s go back to your book. I mean, all that is is awesome, but let’s go back to your book. I mean, don’t tell all your secrets, because we won’t be able to go buy a copy, but give a quick overview on what the book’s about and kind of a tease, if you will.

Dave Knox: 20:20 Yeah. So the high level of the book, the subhead of it is, “The high stakes game of business between startups and blue chips.” And I use that very specifically because it’s about … There’s a lot of books out there that are written about the glorification of startup concepts, and there’s a lot of good ones, and a lot of that’s good learning, but I think it’s really wrong for us to ever have the opinion of, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” And so what Predicting the Turn is about is being an objective view from somebody that has their foot in the world of startups, and somebody that has their foot in the world of big companies of, “What do each need to know about the other?” And most importantly, “how should companies be thinking about these concepts of the opportunities that startups and innovation present, but also the threat of how some of the world is changing kind of just across the board?”

Dave Knox: 21:17 And the framework I use is the shorthand for it is, when I was sitting in that world of P&G on the corporate digital team, realistically we treated digital as a marketing tool. And I look back to today, and the single biggest mistake is we thought of digital as digital marketing, when we should have been thinking about digital as digital business models.

Sean Ammirati: 21:40 Yup.

Dave Knox: 21:40 Because the Dollar Shave Clubs and the Birchboxes and all these other great companies that were born from those times, yeah, marketing was a thing that they did, but it was about reinventing and rebuilding businesses from the ground up with digital at the core. That’s where we should have been paying a lot more attention.

Sean Ammirati: 21:58 That’s right. So I’m curious if you have thoughts on this question, given kind of where you sit, and then we’ll kind of turn to wrapping this up. But you spend a bunch of time with startups and then a bunch of time with large corporations as well, and one of the things that I am increasingly feeling attention as I talk to executives especially is, once they buy into, “Okay we need to do transformational innovation. We need to get more serious about these things.” Then there’s the sort of next natural question, which is, “Okay, which of these should I do sort of inside out, where I use my own team’s resources, assets, and which of these things should I go look to partner with startups and kind of do, if you will, outside in?” And I suspect you’re getting a lot of the same questions, Dave. I’m curious kind of how you counsel executives on that question.

Dave Knox: 22:50 Yeah. It’s definitely, it’s probably one of the more common questions that comes out, and I’d say it has to be all of the above. It actually can’t be an answer of only choosing one of them, because you have to have that innovation portfolio, and you need to be thinking about, “How is mergers and acquisition going to be a skillset?” Well, that’s a corporate development team that is internal, knows the five year strategy, if not the 10 year strategy of where a corporation is going, that can participate in the right way out in the corporate world and get you the best deal. You can’t rely on the investment bankers for that only, because they can’t incentivize by the size of the check that you write.

Sean Ammirati: 23:34 Correct.

Dave Knox: 23:35 So that’s got to be an internal thing. But on the same token, you need corporate venture capital, and that could be a strategy that is a team you build yourselves, that could be a partnership model like Touchdown, or it could be the model you’ve seen of sole LP, where I think Aker was this way for Campbell Soup, Kraft-Heinz has something that Bill Piscatello is running that’s this way, where it is a sole LP, which is a corporation, but the venture fund doesn’t have an investment committee that’s overseeing yet. They get to run it and find the best deals based on themes.

Dave Knox: 24:13 So you need that. You need those structures. So I say all of it, because you need to do them all. You can’t just check a box, and that’s where I think so many corporations, especially a lot of these corporate accelerators, it’s like, “Okay, that was an easy way for me to check the box and tell my bosses I was doing innovation.” That’s not enough, and you need to be doing eight, nine, 10 different things to be able to do it.

Sean Ammirati: 24:37 Awesome. Well, let’s actually finish up going kind of back to where we started here. So imagine … I think you went to Miami of Ohio. Imagine you’re coming out of Miami of Ohio and you’re starting your career, and you’ve done quite well for yourself. So imagine it’s 2019, and there’s sort of Dave Jr. coming out of Miami, Ohio today and thinks like, “Hey, I want to have the same type of career that that you’ve had.” What type of advice would you give him or her?

Dave Knox: 25:05 Yeah. The thing I’ve actually enjoyed the most about Predicting the Turn is, the corporate talks are a lot of fun, but I’ve been really fortunate. A lot of universities have actually picked up the book.

Sean Ammirati: 25:16 Yep.

Dave Knox: 25:17 So I’ve gotten to actually have that question asked many, many, many times, and the answer I give actually a lot of times kind of surprises the kids, because it’s not what they were expecting. And I usually tell them that they should go look at a corporation as the first job, not something entrepreneurial. And the reason I push that is, if I think back, I have a saying I’ve lived my life by, is that your 20s are for learning and your thirties are for doing. Because it takes a very, very special person to be able to build a startup at 22. You know, I could barely handle my own checking account, much less an investor’s money at that age. There’s a lot of growing we do as people.

Dave Knox: 26:00 And an advice I got when I started at P&G was, my boss, a great guy named Bruce Katzman sat me down and he said, “I want you to drive as fast as you humanly can, because I know you’re thinking ahead of where we need to go, but know that I’ve got the safety belt and seat belt on you, and we’re not going to let you crash the car and die. So go as hard as you can, because we’ve got the seatbelt for you.” And I say that because I’ve made multiple, multiple million dollar mistakes at 22, 23, 24, and 25, and if I’d done that as a startup, even if I joined a startup instead of starting one myself, those could have been career defining and career ending in many cases. But at a large company they were speed bumps, and they were indications of, “Hey, slow down a little bit.”

Dave Knox: 26:55 That’s the advice I give to everybody, is go that place where you can continue to learn, because you don’t know everything you know at 22. You don’t know everything you know at 40 which is what I’m facing here in the next year. You’re going to continue learning, and if you can go to a place that’s going to be investing in your learning, giving you authority and give you great exposure, it’s an amazing thing to be able to do. But take advantage of that time, know what window you have, and for me I realized that when I wanted to make my move away, it was when I felt like the equation of change, that I wasn’t learning as much as I was giving, in that the thing that I was specializing in. So that’s when I knew it was time for me to leave.

Sean Ammirati: 27:43 That is surprising advice, especially because I would imagine a lot of the entrepreneurs coming through The Brandery are those younger, kind of first time entrepreneurs too. So that is kind of an interesting, contrarian take there.

Dave Knox: 27:55 Yeah. Well, the interesting thing is a lot, some of our most successful companies were ones that actually were founded by somebody that had five to in many cases even up to like 15 years of business experience before they jumped into the startup world.

Sean Ammirati: 28:13 Interesting.

Dave Knox: 28:13 And you just, you learn something about those environments, and you can get exposed to some great things along the way that I think is really, really valuable. It doesn’t mean go punch the clock for 20 years.

Sean Ammirati: 28:25 Sure.

Dave Knox: 28:26 But I also look at the fact of my most valuable relationships now are the eight to nine guys that were frankly drinking buddies at 22, because we were all young, single, just starting at P&G in a new city together, and yet those guys, one went on to be the CMO of Dollar Shave Club, one went on to be the CMO of Dish Network. If you find the right company, you can surround yourself with a peer network that’s even more valuable than the one you’ll get at an MBA program, and you didn’t have to pay $40,000 a year. They paid you for it.

Sean Ammirati: 29:04 Yeah. That’s a good note to end on. Dave, I really appreciate you joining us today. For those who aren’t familiar with the book, I’ll include a link to the Amazon page in the show notes so people can check that out. And again, Dave, thanks for making the time today.

Dave Knox: 29:17 Hey, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for reaching out, and if anybody wants to riff on any of these concepts, I’m easily reached at pretty much anything Dave Knox on any social channel out there.

Sean Ammirati: 29:27 Perfect. Thanks, Dave.

Sean Ammirati: 29:37 I hope you enjoyed this episode of Agile Giants. If so, consider sharing it with a friend, and if you think it’s worth five stars, which I hope you do, please go to iTunes and rate it so that others can find this content as well.

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