Joe Urbany, professor of marketing in the Mendoza College of Business, winner of the 2015 1st Source Bank Commercialization Award
In 2011, Notre Dame marketing professor Joe Urbany and fellow faculty member Jim Davis published the book “Grow by Focusing on What Matters: Competitive Strategy in 3 Circles.” In it, the two shared Urbany’s three-circle competitive-strategy model that takes into consideration a company's offerings, competitors’ offerings and customers' needs to reveal opportunities for competitive advantage and growth.
One of those intrigued by the book was Gary Gigot, a Notre Dame alumnus, a software executive with a background in technology marketing and venture capital and benefactor of Notre Dame’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship. “I was intrigued by the idea of understanding customer choices using data on past purchasing behavior and intent to buy. Joe laid out the importance of identifying a customer’s choice factors and who owned those choice factors, you or your competitor,” explains Gigot.
“I saw a potentially strong application if it could be delivered to companies as a software as a service.”
Gigot struck up a friendship with Urbany and the two talked about launching a company. Lending credence to Urbany’s theory was the fact it had been vetted and tested over the years by more than 900 students in his MBA and executive MBA classes. Students from a broad spectrum of consumer and business-to-business companies applied Urbany’s model. Many carried what they learned back to their employers and put theory into action.
Says Urbany, “It was a tremendous validation.”
After two years of conversation, Urbany and Gigot launched Vennli in 2013, with Gigot as co-founder and investor. The veteran businessman brought something of value beyond capital to the academic startup: a wealth of relevant knowledge. In addition to experience with software-as-a-service company DocuSign, Gigot was a former vice president of marketing at Microsoft and before that spent 16 years in advertising, including a stint with Ogilvy & Mather.
Vennli’s transition from classroom to commercialization wasn’t always smooth. Urbany says discovering Vennli’s identity has been an evolution based on market realities. “We initially intended to be a software as a service platform where customers could ‘self serve.’ However, classrooms operate under ideal conditions. In real life, marketing research is not a natural skillset. We realized there was a disconnect with customers.”
Out of necessity, Vennli evolved into a consulting-driven business model. “We were fortunate we had a talented team who were adept at facilitating the process with our clients. This involved a greater investment on our part and took us to a higher price point,” Urbany says.
There were, however, customers that took a deep dive into Vennli’s research and advanced data visualization platform and mastered it. One of these is Nucor, the largest and one of the most profitable steel companies in the world. “Nucor committed themselves to adopting our process as a way of thinking and have realized a significant financial return,” Urbany says.
Other well-known brands immediately recognizable: Bayer, LinkedIn, TireRack, 3M, Weber Shandwick and of course, Notre Dame.
Urbany credits Vennli’s fast start out of the gate to professional networks: his, Gigot’s, those of other board members and Notre Dame’s. While relationships opened doors, the Vennli team worked hard to get into great places.
And the Vennli team has continued to work hard to find their sweet spot. In July 2019, Vennli launched a new website and new cloud-based content intelligence platform that combines the power of customer data and artificial intelligence to give customers content recommendations that work. The new version also takes Vennli back to its original software as a service model while being more tactical in helping users get the right content to customers at the right time in their decision journey.
Urbany is grateful to 1st Source Bank for presenting him with the Commercialization Award in 2015. “We got lucky; there were so many other deserving companies that year. The award created a lot of visibility for us. Through Chris Murphy’s leadership, 1st Source Bank is an incredible partner for Notre Dame and Vennli.”