The Story of Vennli: When Innovation Meets Opportunity

By Theodore Fox | Spring 2015

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Visit the chicly appointed fifth floor of downtown South Bend’s Citizens Bank and Trust building, and it’s hard to imagine all that goes on there started as a Notre Dame professor asking students to draw some circles.

Meet Vennli, the marketing company built around a Venn diagram concept that could change your life — or at least your growth strategy.

The company was founded on a model that came out of the teaching and research of Mendoza Marketing Professor Joe Urbany, with the early involvement of James Davis, former management professor and director of the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship in the Mendoza College.

The central concept involved the use of a Venn diagram to chart three overlapping circles to represent a company’s offerings, a competitor’s offerings and customer needs as a frame- work for illustrating competitive advantages and disadvantages.

In 2007, Urbany integrated the “Venn lens” model into a growth strategy project as the central assignment in his core Executive MBA marketing course. Each student was to develop a growth strategy project with the goal of testing their predictions about customer preferences against actual customer feedback, all analyzed via the Venn diagram categories. The hypothesis was that executives would have difficulty in accurately predicting their customers’ preferences, but direct customer evidence viewed through the three-circle model could provide new insights that would spark fresh thinking about growth.

Today, more than 800 growth strategy projects later, Urbany has found solid support for the hypothesis. Among many examples of positive growth outcomes, one major archdiocese employed the approach to examine its fundraising efforts for a scholarship program, and ultimately increased funding by 71 percent. Another case led a health-care organization to complete an acquisition for a specific capability and pursue another before being profitably acquired itself, all within a seven-month timeframe.

A subsequent book and a recent paper documented a number of these findings, which Urbany has also shared at several research conferences. The conclusion? Managers can overcome natural gaps in their customer knowledge to identify unexpected and long-lasting growth opportunities.

“Mostly, marketing principles exist in books or in blogs,” says Urbany, who is also a co-founder of Vennli. “You see, ‘Here are the five secrets,’ and they all say the same thing: ‘Listen to your customers, blah blah blah.’ But there is little insight about how to make those concepts tangible.”

This is key to understanding the Vennli approach. Because when Urbany and Davis, now head of the management department at Utah State University, published the three-circle diagram in the Harvard Business Review in 2007, they weren’t questioning marketing’s core principles; they were simply trying to unlock their potential for business owners.

“As a marketer, I would look at Vennli as a valuable tool to my marketing toolkit because I have the ability to get real-time customer insights, visually expressed, that I can use to drive sales and marketing action,” says Vennli CEO Gary Gigot (BBA ’72). “We put together a pretty unique package of capabilities. We haven’t seen anything quite like it in the market.”

So, what is it exactly?

A cloud-based software platform, Vennli allows a client (call it Company A) to think through an aspect of its business it wants to grow, such as a particular product’s market share or the revenue it generates. The more specific Company A can be in crafting this context statement, the better, so it will be asked to enter other targets to define its growth case further, including the amount of growth desired and the timeframe to achieve it.

With this information in place, Company A can then survey customers from within the platform, get feedback in real-time, and have that data mapped in a three-circle Venn diagram known as the vLens by a patent-pending algorithm.

The left circle of the vLens represents Company A’s product or service, the right captures the needs and wants of customers, and the bottom is the offering from Company B, a direct competitor. The data points themselves, marked by pins, are choice factors — i.e., characteristics of the product or service in question that customers use to make their buying decisions.

The essence of what Vennli does is to help a company understand customer choice; more specifically, to gain insight into the variety of factors that drive whether a person orders Biggby coffee or Starbucks, for example. These might include whether the customer likes that chain’s coffee, if food is also available, or the quality of customer service. These are standard elements of  customer research. Traditionally, however, there has been a lag between when such data is gathered and when it can be used. And even then, the former Microsoft executive Gigot says, it would more often than not get buried in dense marketing reports that might never be opened. 

With Vennli, not only is the data fresh, but Company A can stagger the sending of the surveys — which are automatically generated based on the choice factors and desired market segmentation it provides — so as to track customers’ changing attitudes over time.

By looking at the vLens, Company A can immediately identify the consumer choice factors that make up its competitive advantage; these are the pins that fall in the green zone, where customers say Company A does a better job of meeting their needs than Company B. It can also see those dimensions where its offering is viewed as inferior (orange zone) and where customer needs are going unmet by both competitors (yellow zone).

Company A now has a simple context in which to define its growth strategy: How does it move more of those pins, more of those reasons why a customer chooses one product or service over another, into its competitive advantage green zone?

Vennli lets a business develop its growth strategy collaboratively, providing multiple users with the ability to post ideas for how to move individual pins on the vLens itself and then mapping the ideas based on their ROI and costs. In addition, the same survey tool used to gather information from customers is distributed to the organization’s own employees so they can see firsthand how their perceptions of their product compare to (and usually differ from) those of the people actually buying it. And while Vennli is not a consulting firm, its team of more than 20 employees — which currently includes seven Notre Dame graduates — is a partner to clients throughout the process, from helping to narrow in on what part of the business they want to grow to understanding more subtle implications of the data they collect.

“An organization could purchase a combination of software packages, consulting services and market research to cobble together pieces of what we are offering,” says Pooya Ghiaseddin (MBA ’08, ’03), vice president for marketing and product management. “However, we have yet to find a comprehensive, end-to-end solution offering what we have in our SaaS [cloud computing] platform and the team we’ve built for professional services.”

Adds Dan Farrell (BBA FIN ’95), vice president for sales and customer success: “I have the pleasure of introducing the Vennli platform to businesses across the country, and without fail, these potential clients get excited about the visualization of their market.”

That the seeds of the vLens, and thus of Vennli, were planted by Urbany simply trying to come up with a better way to explain competitive advantage to working professionals in the Executive MBA program illustrates the potential for faculty research to be transformed into real-world innovation. It also speaks to Notre Dame’s increased emphasis in recent years on helping faculty bring their intellectual property to market, something that has not been lost on Gigot.

Before moving to downtown South Bend, Vennli was headquartered in Innovation Park at Notre Dame, the University- owned commercial accelerator located adjacent to the campus. He cites the connections they were able to build there and the access it gave to talent from Notre Dame and the South Bend area when it came time to hire employees as being instrumental in the company’s early success.

Of course, it never hurts to have someone like Gigot himself get involved, either.

The benefactor of Mendoza’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship, he began talking with Urbany about starting a business around the same time he helped found the IrishAngels angel investing group in 2012. (Editor’s note: What began as the IrishAngels in 2000 was rebranded in 2012 as the Irish Entrepreneurs Network, to allow those interested in funding Notre Dame startups to become the IrishAngels Investing Group. The Irish Entrepreneurs Network has grown to include more than 400 members — those interested in supporting aspiring Notre Dame entrepreneurs — while the IrishAngels includes nearly 150 accredited investors.)

“We started this because of the proximity to Notre Dame, but we’re now doing it because we’re in South Bend, which is a bit of a twist. Because so many good things have come out of our establishing the business here.”