Tom Kenney – President and CIO of Verve Mobile

Run often. Literally — go running. Entrepreneurs absolutely need to work out and reduce stress. Plus, you get a lot of great ideas once the endorphins kick in.

As president and chief innovation officer of Verve Mobile, Tom Kenney is responsible for identifying new growth opportunities for the mobile marketing platform.

A pioneer in the mobile location space, Tom was an early employee of startup wireless carrier GO Communications, a spinoff of MCI, as well as a venture capitalist with BlueRun Ventures (formerly known as Nokia Venture Partners). During his time at BRV, Tom was a contributing principal on many investments such as PayPal, eVoice, Lightningcast, and MongoMusic. The businesses were sold to eBay, j2 Global, AOL, and Microsoft, respectively. He also served as director of corporate development at Nokia, where he was responsible for mergers and acquisitions at the height of the company’s growth.

Tom is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business and holds an MBA from George Mason University’s School of Management.

Where did the idea for Verve Mobile come from?

I started thinking about Verve in fall 2004. Ringtones represented a $2 billion global opportunity, and it felt like consumer mobile Internet was about to take off. However, the very beginnings of the journey can be traced back to 1999, when I was an investor at Nokia and BlueRun Ventures. I wanted to invest in a mobile advertising company that would utilize real-time location data from mobile carriers to deliver highly relevant and powerful advertising. BRV searched the globe and could not find one, so we decided to create our own.

I built a business case, got it approved by the fund partners, and negotiated a deal with Engage — one of the big online advertising platforms at the time — to receive an exclusive license to the company’s code, along with 10 employees in North Carolina. Then, I pulled in renowned ad man Martin Puris (co-founder of groundbreaking agency Ammirati & Puris) as a fellow investor. He and BRV invested $20 million into this new company and called it Avesair.

Avesair built the first global mobile advertising platform. Our first customer was AT&T, which used our service to deliver location-based text messages to consumers for retailers. After the Internet meltdown in the early 2000s, we broke up Avesair and recapitalized as Enpocket, selling parts of our technology and software to Third Screen Media. From 2003 to 2006, both Enpocket and Third Screen Media led global mobile advertising. Both succeeded in delivering basic mobile branding campaigns, but neither offered location targeting, which I saw as the biggest opportunity. In 2005, I left and formed Verve to build a location-based advertising platform.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

I’m a huge fan of to-do lists and having lots of quick meetings and conversations with all parts of our company. I’m constantly traveling to other Verve offices, as well as meeting with customers and prospects and attending industry conferences. To stay on top of every trend, I consume lots of industry content daily.

For the last three years, I’ve been focused on building Verve’s enterprise self-service platform, which enables resellers to offer location-powered mobile marketing solutions to the 4 million SMB and franchise stores in the United States. This involves selling to digital marketing companies, leading product development and technology, supporting operations and sales, and evangelizing the SMB mobile marketing opportunity’s potential, both internally and externally.

I’m also responsible for leading our innovations team, which is tasked with new product development to maintain our industry leadership and platform capabilities for years to come. I provide support and assistance to all aspects of our business so I can guide and positively influence our development and sales. I keep a finger on the pulse of the company to know how quickly (or slowly) it’s evolving. Every week, I spend time with our product, data sciences, technology, and sales teams.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I start with lots of research, then meet with folks from other companies in our industry to get a sense of the idea’s potential value. I analyze how it fits into our goals and our vision and whether it extends the value of our industry-leading location marketing platform.

After meeting with the companies that may already be executing on the idea, I decide whether it’s better to build, buy, or partner. If we decide to build, I create a presentation on the new idea that explains the value it will bring to Verve and our industry. I provide very specific and detailed requirements and evangelize and educate the company internally and the marketplace externally on the power and potential value of the idea. We then try to get the new product to market quickly to test, iterate, and fail fast if we happened to miscalculate something.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m really excited about the potential of loyalty apps for retailers and small businesses. Consumers love their apps, and if retailers can provide enough value, consumers will download their loyalty apps and use them often. This provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a retailer to develop a truly personalized, one-to-one relationship with its customers. Consumers can and will do a lot in these apps, which provides retailers and their mobile partners with a valuable path to purchase behavior data that will drastically impact consumer marketing.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I constantly read industry news concerning every aspect and angle covered in our business. That includes advertising, mobile, Internet technology, marketing, small- and medium-sized businesses, and retail. I meet with people from all aspects of our industry to learn more. Every meeting provides new insights and value.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

I got a job at a diner as the overnight shift dishwasher when I was in high school. I was excited about how much money I was going to make: $300 a week, which I thought was friggin’ awesome! But I barely made it through the night. I fell asleep with my head on the counter several times, and my co-workers kept waking me up. My dad picked me up at 6 a.m. I told him that I was done with the night shift and would not be returning that evening.

After college, I followed my girlfriend at the time to Washington, D.C., getting a job working for a federal government agency. I was amazed by the lack of work, excitement, and effort. You had to be careful not to get run over at 5 p.m. as the herd headed to the elevator. And God forbid you were 10 minutes late! At the end of my first year, the agency and I agreed it wasn’t a good fit.

Both of these jobs taught me that you really need to love what you’re doing to perform well.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I don’t like to spend a lot of time looking backward. I only care about the now, the future, and making sure Verve is wildly successful and my wife and kids are wildly happy. Looking at Verve with 20/20 hindsight, however, I would have done many things differently, such as initially pursuing a different type of customer, creating different initial product sets, tweaking business models, making different hires, pursuing different strategic partners and investors, etc.

Given what I knew professionally and personally, I think we built Verve extremely well and made mostly great decisions, given the available options. I have learned so much and done everything I thought I wanted to do in my twenties. It’s been a really amazing ride so far.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Run often. Literally — go running. Entrepreneurs absolutely need to work out and reduce stress. Plus, you get a lot of great ideas once the endorphins kick in.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Keep pitching, and never stop selling. My old boss at Nokia and BlueRun Ventures once said that entrepreneurs have the toughest jobs in the world because everyone (except your own teammates and investors) wants you to fail. You have to believe in yourself, your mission, and your opportunity, and you need to keep selling until you succeed.

We had hundreds of VCs, strategic partners, and corporations say “no” to us. But we had a few individual investors and initial customers say “yes” — and that was enough.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Before Verve, I’d never really sold anything to anyone. I assumed I would get funding and hire salespeople. But we were first to market, and no one understood what we were creating. My own salespeople were terrible — they didn’t get it, and they couldn’t close any deals.

Then, it hit me: No one knows Verve like I do. I have to go out and evangelize and pull the market to us. Once I started selling, we started succeeding.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I always keep a Word doc of new business ideas. Here are a few that are on it:
• A media company that is 100 percent local, with original content and eager local journalists who are armed with iPhones and iPads
• A musical in Las Vegas or on Broadway about the life and music of Van Morrison
• A universal mobile loyalty app for small business owners

What is the best $100 you recently spent, and why?

Nike Free 4.0 sneakers — they are light and easy to wear and make running so much better. I run more, think more, stress less, and work better. Nike is a world-class product company; it amazes me with how it innovates and improves. It’s one of the great companies in the world.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I try to keep everything simple and easy, and I love software and services that work the same way and don’t break. I love my MacBook, my iPhone 6, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, and I (surprisingly) have become a big fan of Microsoft Exchange for our corporate email.

Some of my favorite mobile apps are Uber, Starbucks, MapMyFitness, Lose It!, Open Table, Chase, AP News, and Quicken. I also love Netflix.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?

Our wonderful CEO, Nada Stirratt, asked us to read “Essentialism,” which she found very useful in her own career. It’s a great read that helps identify inefficient personal and professional habits that we develop over the years. By reducing the noise and doing less while focusing on the top items we need to accomplish, we’re more successful and happier.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Phil Knight, Howard Schultz, Jack Ma, and Travis Kalanick have influenced my thinking.


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