John Gardner was one of the founding members of BlueRun Ventures, which spun out of Nokia a decade ago after scoring a huge win as PayPal’s first investor. But, proving you can go home again, he returned to Nokia a few years later to head the Finnish giant’s growth-stage venture investing. In this week’s Elevator Pitch, Gardner talks about his change of heart and about what’s ahead for his operation, which isn’t affected by Microsoft’s pending acquisition of Nokia’s mobile-phone business.
Q: HOW’D YOU GET INTO THIS RACKET?
A: I first came across working with startups when doing business development for Nokia in the late 90’s. It was absorbing; Working with visionary entrepreneurs, seeing what they accomplish over the years and getting the chance to influence them in a way that greatly enhanced their chances of success. I got really inspired and decided it’s what I wanted to do full time, so I got into venture capital.
Q: WHAT KINDS OF PITCHES ARE YOU LOOKING FOR NOW?
A: As a group, we invest in mobile technologies, and that is really our core expertise. Under the mobile umbrella, I’ve been scouting pitches in applied data, analytics and advertising for the last five years. I am always on the lookout for entrepreneurs who think they can solve a unique problem in that complex space. It’s an attractive field, because advertising is the primary monetization engine on the Internet for content, and mobile is key to that. RocketFuel, Verve Mobile and Pubmatic are good examples of companies I keep looking for.
Right now, the convergence of online and offline at retail is also very interesting, and we have just done a few recent investments in entrepreneurs who are actively enabling that: RetailNext in the US and SolarVista Media in China. As a group, we also focus on mobile technologies in local marketplaces, embedded systems, connected car, mobile consumer (mostly gaming and wearables) and mobile enterprise.
Q: WHAT’S THE BIGGEST MISTAKE ENTREPRENEURS MAKE?
A: Not thinking big enough. If you start in a niche, have a big end in mind.
Another common mistake is sacrificing on quality when hiring. It might be a cliché, but it’s really all about the team. If you have a strong team, you can do anything.
Q: WHAT’S THE NEXT BIG THING GOING TO BE?
A: The convergence between online and offline at retail will be huge. It’s something that has already started to evolve, and I believe mobile will play a key role in that development. The technologies that enable that convergence are currently fragmented, and both brands as well as publishers want solutions for cross-channel and cross-device optimization. Technologies that increase visibility, performance, analytics and prediction throughout the whole marketing and retail lifecycle.
In a few years, we could be walking down the street and seeing the same information on our mobile, a digital outdoor billboard and our desktop when getting to the office — and as a brand, be able to track all that. Also, the advances of artificial intelligence in all marketing and consumer services, turning masses of data into better end-user experiences, is big but will get much bigger yet.
Q: YOU WERE IN BIZ DEV FOR NOKIA, LEFT TO CO-FOUND BLUERUN VENTURES WHEN IT SPUN OUT OF NOKIA, THEN REJOINED THE COMPANY A FEW YEARS BACK. WHY’D YOU DECIDE TO, AS THEY SAY, GO HOME AGAIN?
A: I was doing business development for Nokia together with John Malloy and a few others; a core group of us spun out to do venturing in mobile in 1998 and founded what is now BlueRun Ventures. That group is (also) still only focusing on mobile, but they do early stage; we do later stage investments.
In 2005, Nokia wanted to back its own VC, and I saw the opportunity to be in the creation mode and build something of my own. This is my startup. We have been able to establish one of the few truly global venture groups in the world that focus on growth stage investments in mobile.
I am a firm believer in the benefits of the hybrid venture model, which consists of an independent VC backed by a sole corporate limited partner. And that conviction is only getting stronger. We have proven over the last five years that with the right execution, it is a very strong model.
Q: TALK ABOUT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EARLY STAGE INVESTING LIKE YOU WERE DOING AT BLUERUN AND THE GROWTH-STAGE INVESTING YOU’RE DOING NOW. WHY ARE BOTH IMPORTANT TO THE VALLEY?
A: Early and late stage investing are two very different ballgames. The companies in later growth stage have different needs in terms of VC support, scaling, execution, sales teams and hiring. I find growth stage interesting, as many of the companies we invest in are just about to embark on the global arena. As active global investors, we are able to help them do that with our local offices and extensive industry networks in China, India, Europe and here in the US.
Both stages of investing are equally important to the valley, as they fuel capabilities at different stages.
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