Each February for the last six years, Ken Gardner travels from California back to Louisville to serve as one of the judges for the annual Brown-Forman Cardinal Challenge business plan competition. As a seven-time serial entrepreneur, he shares his insight and wisdom with graduate-level teams competing for cash prizes and in-kind services in a “Shark Tank” style event to help launch their innovative endeavor. While in town, Ken reflected fondly of his time on campus.
UofL: Could you tell me about growing up in Louisville?
Gardner: I grew in the West End of Louisville and graduated from Flaget High School. I was 10 years old in 1960 when my father left American Optical, raised money from local investors and started his own business, a wholesale optical laboratory. I worked for my father in high school and early while in college. I never wanted to work in the optical business but I became determined that someday I would start my own company. My father taught me that the freedom to pursue your own ideas and make your own decisions was worth the effort.
As one of 9 children, I knew that the only way I could attend college was through scholarships. With help from the Xaverian Brothers at Flaget, I won half a President’s Scholarship to UofL and the other half through an Economic Opportunity Grant. I worked full-time all of my college years.
UofL: What were your original career plans?
Gardner: As a college student, my goal was to become a Wall Street stock analyst. My degree was in Finance and as a junior, I got a job at First National Bank working at night processing checks. The bank’s wealth management division – Kentucky Trust – had an apprentice program run by Holland McTyeire, a legendary figure in training aspiring investment managers. Each year, 5 trainees were selected to participate in the apprentice program. In early 1972, President Nixon froze prices and wages in the United States. The economy went into a recession and the bank chose to scale back the program and I wasn’t selected. However, I was asked to meet the V.P. of IT Operations and based on an excellent score on a programming aptitude test, I was offered a position as a computer programming trainee. Well, what I was supposed to do with my life found me. I loved programming and I was good at it. And programming became both my vocation and my hobby.
Within a year I was promoted. I enjoyed working at the bank and would have stayed, however, my wife and I had a profoundly deaf son and we relocated to Palo Alto, CA to find a school that would help him. I will always be grateful to the bank and to everyone there who helped me learn and pushed me to excel.
UofL: I understand that Soasta recently sold and you’ve started a new company. Can you tell us about it?
Gardner: SOASTA was bought last April by a public company, Akamai for $200 M, which was great. During the previous five years, we got heavily involved in big data, data science and machine learning which is “the red-hot new thing right now.”
My new company is conDati which means “with Data” in Italian. While at SOASTA, we assembled a very sophisticated product called the Data Science Workbench that would pull and blend data and turn it into magical real-time dashboards and do it very quickly. Chief Marketing Officers would ask if they could put the rest of their data into our platform because their systems were so fragmented. These conversations were the beginning of the ideas that we are building at conDati.
One company told us they had 48 different pieces of technology each running an aspect of their marketing. They ran email campaigns, Google AdWords, Facebook Ads, LinkedIn Ads and video display ads. All of these different marketing programs run independently; each platform has its own set of data. Nothing was integrated, and it was nearly impossible to blend it and make any sense out of this high volume of data. They need help pulling the data together to measure the ROI on marketing campaigns.
conDati will connect to all of your cloud martech providers, collect all of your important marketing data, blend that data into a unified data asset that is used to analyze, forecast, predict and visualize using sophisticated big data science. Then the results are shared via real-time dashboards, reports, and alerts. We’re still in beta and have 12 customers that have signed up for our service. Our goal is to go live in Q2, so I’m working like a madman right now. There are real problems as there always are, but this is a blast.
Since graduating in 1972, I have spent 70+ hours/week learning new technology and using that tech to build products. Consider this; your mobile device has far more computing power than the fastest supercomputers from 20 years ago. During my career, we have moved from punch card systems to mainframes to PCs to cloud computing. The increases in capability and reductions in costs continue to drive innovation. If you are trying to be the best, and I am then you have to keep learning new approaches and new technology.
UofL: After moving to California, how did you get reconnected with the University?
Gardner: My father graduated from UofL in 1950. I have always been a Cardinal. In 2000, I was named an Alumni Fellow and joined the Board of Advisors which included several west enders and Flaget High School alumni such as Jim Patterson, Dan Ulmer, and Jimmy Shircliff. When Charlie Moyer became Dean, he set a goal for the College, “We’re going to be the best at something, and that something is Entrepreneurship.” He promoted Van Clouse to lead the program and now UofL’s entrepreneurship program is ranked among the top in the country. In 2012, the College started the Circle of Fame program to recognize alumni that have been successful entrepreneurs. I was selected in 2013. Quite an honor. I am very honored to be in a group that includes Jim Patterson, Dan Ulmer, David Jones, Stewart Cobb, Kent Oyler, Terry Forcht, Diane Medley, Sean O’Leary and many others. When I attend the BOA meetings, the room is full of people who have built companies from nothing. In many cases multiple times. I am very comfortable in that room. All of us are there to help the College and future students and entrepreneurs.
UofL: What business achievement are you most proud of?
Gardner: Certainly, leading a company through an IPO is a huge deal and would be a high point, so far.
UofL: Do you feel there is a winning formula for becoming a successful entrepreneur? If so, what is your winning formula?
Gardner: Yes, I feel there is a formula along with some personal attributes that you have to possess. One of the most important is the effort. I’ll use the 1st law of motion from physics to describe it. If you have an object – or a company – at rest, you have to supply a lot of energy to get it moving. Ideas and companies are the same way. The process of taking an idea and making it a reality, requires that you put in tremendous amounts of effort and time. You’ve got to be willing to work 70-90 hrs./week. There are enormous paybacks from success however it requires great ideas combined with effort, focus, perseverance, and determination.
Over an extended period, I’ve had the chance to build about 30 new systems and products from blank sheets of paper across seven generations of technology. There is real engineering methodology in doing that. Was I ready to do it at 25? No, but I was ready at 38. I had mastered the process of building software and had ideas I believed in to attract venture investors. So, having mastery of something is an important part of the formula.
There is part of starting a new company that is an act of will. You know where you want to go and other people want to follow you. There is no way to take that vision and give it to someone else. It’s just not how we humans work. You can’t delegate it. You have to develop all of those experiences and have to learn how to handle yourself, how to talk with venture capital people.
As I have enjoyed success, It has become easier for me to raise money. Not easy, easier. There are always more NOs than YESES. It’s ironic, but you can raise a whole lot of money when you don’t need it. When you really need it, it can be very tough. With conDati, I have former colleagues that wanted to invest in my latest venture because they knew I would make it work. About half of the money we have raised has come from Friends & Family.
UofL: Often the entrepreneurial path can be challenging or have bumps that may cause a person to stumble, would you share a uniquely challenging experience that you’ve had and the lessons learned?
Gardner: I’ve not had any failures, but I’ve had several close moments. SOASTA launched in 2006, and you may recall what happened to the economy in Fall 2008. I got told NO! 85 times. As the dark clouds gathered, the VC’s were scared to invest. Thankfully, a friend introduced me to a guy with a new fund that needed to invest and he came through three days before Lehman Brothers closed. So, another ingredient in the success formula would be to have some component of luck, the right timing, or ZEN. That was the closest I’ve come to a failure, if we don’t get that money, we go bankrupt in 90 days.
UofL: As we prepare for this competition, how do you think you would fare if you were on the business plan circuit?
Gardner: I’m an excellent presenter and I’m passionate about everything I do, so I think I could do well. If I could go through Van Clouse’s classes, I think I could rock it. Several years ago, he invited me to his class, and I brought copies of a 150-page business plan with me to share with the class – this is level of detail needed.
Currently, the process has become more streamlined with pitch decks and 30-minute presentations. A typical VC will listen to 300+ presentations/year, so there is this stream of new ideas that will inform them about trends in the market. After hearing all of the pitches, that individual partner will make one investment a year. So that’s where persistence is needed. You put together a presentation and make it for the first time. You will get critiqued, then you revise it and do it again. After doing that a dozen times, you begin to anticipate the questions you that will be asked and all of the objections. So, you revise, plug holes, produce more detail and deliver a better presentation. That’s what this competition circuit does – each iteration you’re learning what the investors want. So, hopefully, the performance that you start with is not the one that you end up with at the end of the finals.
Almost every business that I know of realizes that continuous improvement is a necessary component of being successful. I use every good idea I’ve ever heard or seen. The people that I’ve seen be successful entrepreneurs don’t let go of that need to improve continually.
Postscript: After this interview, Mr Gardner won the USAA Venture Pitch Contest in Austin during SXSW 2018. https://www.condati.com/blog/