Interview with Gene Quinn

1. How has your career path changed up until now?
Between 1968 and 1987, I was sports editor of my monthly high school newspaper, twice-weekly college newspaper, the Philadelphia Daily News (good times for fans of Phillies, Flyers, Eagles and 76ers) and the Chicago Tribune (Michael Jordan's Bulls and Walter Payton's Bears). While I was working at the Tribune, there was an economic crisis in 1984 when Continental bank in Chicago experienced a run on deposit accounts. At the time, while sports editor with a staff of 60+  journalists (and a seven-figure budget), I had little knowledge of what was driving the financial impacts of the banking crisis that led to the news. I began reviewing where my career was heading and decided to consider joining the business side of the media industry.

I approached Tribune Company's CEO, the late Charlie Brumback, and asked him to support my admission to the Northwestern University executive master's program at the Kellogg School. I changed roles at the newspaper to lead the Chicago suburbs editorial staff for two years while attending Kellogg's celebrated Executive Masters Program. After graduation in 1990, and joining members of a cross-company team pursuing digital business beyond newspapers, radio and television, I was named General Manager of Chicago Online, Tribune's partnership -- along with an equity investment -- with America Online. I assembled a small team to create an interactive new media division of our company. I was part of the due diligence teams that invested in Peapod (online grocery shopping), Checkfree (online bill payment), Open Market (e-commerce platform), Excite (search engine), as well as business analysis of scores of other start-up and scale-up young companies seeking corporate venture capital financing.

In short, I left the job of reporting on home runs and pivoted to a career of seeking financial home runs. My biggest personal bet was with my own career ... and it was confirmed by investment deals with partners and personal stints on private and public company boards of directors, as well as board service at the MIT Media Lab and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). By the way, NCSA was the birthplace of the Mosaic web browser.

In 1997, I was hired by Viacom Corp. as the first Senior VP of Interactive and Online at MTV Networks  and led a team of digital content developers, software engineers and marketers from MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon. Our group brought programming from those networks to online and direct internet distribution.

I launched Confluence Partners, LLC in 2000 as an advisory and angel investment company, with a focus on technology enabling travel, media and financial services companies with internet distribution strategy and business development. My first start-up company was Tnooz, a B2B travel technology media company launched in 2009 to provide news, information and education to the global hospitality and travel industry. We assembled a veteran and tech-savvy team from travel-related media, sales and marketing. Tnooz raised private capital, developed innovative products like sponsored webinars by distributors, tech platforms and financial service providers and 37 sponsored hackathon contests on-location around the world. We sold the business in 2018 to Northstar Travel Media.

2. Did you have a mentor who helped you get to where you are now? If so, what would you say is the most important thing you learned from your mentor?
I've been fortunate to have several mentors as supportive advisors throughout my career. I was recruited to the Philadelphia Daily News by Executive Sports Editor Mike Rathet, who assembled a great roster of sportswriters to cover professional, college, high school and international sports. Mike dreamed up a twice weekly opinion column on the business of sports television, and he assigned me to report and write it. It was my first taste of business journalism. And my affiliation with the assignment landed me in Lake Placid, NY to cover the 1980 Winter Olympics, including the U.S. men's ice hockey team that defeated the Soviet Union, then Finland for the gold medal.

One member of Tribune's board of directors, the late Bob Lablanc, was a member of the technology committee of the board, former executive at Bell Labs, partner at Salomon Brothers investments and founder of Continental Telephone. Bob took me under his wing as my advisor on all things tech and corporate finance, especially venture capital and M&A financing. I learned from his skill as a measured thinker, his experience as a business executive and board member in a fast-moving technology sector, and his encouragement of entrepreneurship within often risk-averse established companies.

3. What advice would you give to those pursuing their first business venture?

Some observations, some of which should become rules to follow:

  • Consider every "big decision" you make in business as your own business venture. Things like seeking or accepting a new job at a different company (or a promotion) can be fraught while masquerading as fabulous. Do your due diligence on every major life or business decision.

  • In most situations in business or new relationships there are risks to measure, and only you can decide. Embrace risk analysis before deciding on action.

  • As for "advice for those pursuing their first business venture ..."

    • Assuming you will either spend your own or your friends' and family's capital, or seek angel or venture capital investment, ask yourself these questions:

      • Think TEAM from the start. Are you starting this venture alone or with known, current partners? What are their skills and credentials? There are no "teams of one."

      • What is your product or service?

      • What problem does it solve for prospective customers?

      • What is the size of the addressable market now? How large is that market universe in out-years?

      • How do you make money? How does that revenue model drive business growth? What is the cost to achieve that growth? Can you find a "flywheel effect" to drive growth? (e.g. -- Selling to new customers through current customers via social media and other friends-and-family marketing ... that's a flywheel effect)

4. How do you overcome risk when it comes to making business decisions?
The first thing to understand about risk is that it cannot be eliminated, but it can be managed. At a young company, the team should share decision-making from the early formation of the company. The decision-making may be led by any member of the team. Consider assigning a different leader for each additional decision by the team members. There will likely be risk in hiring, selection of a business offices or production facility, competition from existing companies, expensive vendor contracts, creating and protecting technology (especially software code, formulas for company products and other TBD intellectual property). There likely will be many other risks in decisions to be made later in the company's maturation.

More fully developed companies have board committees such as audit, compensation / human resources, technology, executive, nominating / governance. These committees each have a written charter that outlines the manner in which the company manages itself for profitable growth while best managing established legal, ethical, financial / tax and regulatory matters. More mature companies often rely on outside opinions from consultants who can share data and other intelligence from the competitive marketplace.

To summarize, understand there are risks of bad outcomes in most business decision-making. The best course is to fully understand what circumstances create business success for the company and which circumstances create downsides or failure for the company.

Part of the value of having investors and mentors as advisors inside the Hospitality Innovation Hub is that our entrepreneurs have access to these deeply experienced business experts who can facilitate decisions based on analysis of risk.

5. Why did you decide to become a mentor/ investor for the Hospitality Innovation Hub Incubator?
Business is a social sport, which means competition, not battle. My own personal (and financial) growth in business comes from my curiosity about "what's next" in the global technology-driven economy. The three mentors in my business life understood me and wanted to be part of my success. Learning also is about teaching. In business, learning is the result of personal observation, listening, interacting, networking, debating, inventing, analyzing, building and growing ideas into products and services. Bottom line, it's just that I like helping others create the next "flywheel effect" business by pointing out the mistakes I've made myself and observed in others. Plus, I can share knowledge of others' mistakes so the next generation of entrepreneurs can learn from those mistakes. Thanks to Prof. Richie Karaburun for asking me.

6. What book are you currently reading?

Art of the Chicken By Jacques Pépin

A Master Chef's Paintings, Stories and Recipes of the Humble Bird
Publisher: Harvest, An Imprint of William Morrow

6. What is your favorite vacation destination?
It's complicated ... I am a fly angler who is married 48 years to my lovely best friend, Susan, who lets me go fishing quite often. When it comes to a favorite vacation destination, we likely would pick Florence, as Susan is an art historian and photographer, plus there's the food and wine of Tuscany. The complication from the question is the fly fishing for me, as I have two favorite personal fishing destinations: 1) The Henry's Fork of the Snake River in Idaho south of Yellowstone National Park. 2) The next place in the world where I have yet to fish.

8. What is your favorite movie?

Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman ("Sometimes nothin' is a real cool hand."), George Kennedy ("Nobody can eat 50 eggs.") and Strother Martin ("What we have here is failure to communicate.")

Current movie:
Oppenheimer (Powerful profile about the person and the times, especially when viewed in IMAX for its dramatic value.)

9. Any last words you would like to share ...?

In sports, coaches like to say: "There's no 'I' in 'team'."
The same goes for a start-up business venture. 

On T-shirts and bumper stickers: "The worst day fishing beats the best day at work."
Respect your team members' down time by valuing how they spend it.

On risk analysis for business ventures: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

On risk analysis for boardrooms: "There are no unfair questions, only unfair answers."

Gene Quinn