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Fred Schonenberg: “Let it fall through the cracks”

Let it fall through the cracks — You are not perfect. Let the unimportant things fall through the cracks. If they are important enough, they will find their way back to you. Early on, I spent untold hours trying to be perfect. Answering every email, making sure every story that went out had been triple edited. […]

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Let it fall through the cracks — You are not perfect. Let the unimportant things fall through the cracks. If they are important enough, they will find their way back to you. Early on, I spent untold hours trying to be perfect. Answering every email, making sure every story that went out had been triple edited. It was hyper-perfectionism that took up incredible time and brain-space. Now, we spend that energy on our clients and know that if we take care of them, the rest takes care of itself.


Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Fred Schonenberg, CEO of VentureFuel, Inc.

For over 15 years, Fred has introduced new formats, first-to-market opportunities and is known for his award-winning creative solutions and ability to forge strategic partnerships to grow revenue. As the CEO of VentureFuel, Fred has helped established companies around the world unlock growth by partnering with emerging startups and breakthrough technologies. VentureFuel’s innovation programs solve specific challenges, deliver tangible results and discover first-to-market opportunities from the Museum of Ice Cream to the latest pioneering technologies for Nike, The Chicago Cubs and most recently, California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB). Fred is a frequent speaker at industry events such as SXSW, Ad Tech, Advertising Week, IAB, OMMA and thought-leader published in everything from The Huffington Post, Business Insider, Media Post, The Drum, Tech.co, Creator Magazine, Advertising Week, Event Marketer and more.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Iwas running sales and marketing for a media and marketing company and every single meeting I had with our Fortune 500 clients, someone in the room would ask “What’s next?” It didn’t matter if the meeting was with a company like Nike, Starbucks or Microsoft: all of these large corporations were thirsting for new and different ways to connect with their consumers, to gain a competitive advantage. At the same time, someone from my high school reached out to me and asked if I would have dinner the next time that I was in SF to talk about his startup. He told me about this interesting company that he had started, and then spent the rest of the dinner telling me how he couldn’t get meetings with the very same clients who were clamoring to me about what’s next. He had “it.” I realized there was an opportunity to help connect large companies with startups and new technologies and create partnerships to fuel the growth of both the large companies and the new ventures. Hence, VentureFuel was born.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

Initially, we represented startups and new technologies. We would search and vet the best emerging opportunities and then act as their business development arm to get them early deals with large corporations. It worked great in that we helped launch several startups, but we quickly realized we were trying to find matching problems to our pre-packaged solutions. This changed when a large corporation asked us if we would consider flipping the model, instead starting at square one with an urgent problem they had and going out to search and vet for the best emerging solutions. This proved to be a magical pivot, as now we are the innovation advisors to some of the largest corporations on the planet, solving their challenges with startups and new technologies. The lesson is to listen to the market and your customers and let them guide you to the best model for success.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

Empathy & Understanding — I am fluent in the languages of both Startup and Corporate, as this is the 3rd startup I have run (two of which I founded). I understand all the urgency, excitement, and fluidity of a startup founder. In addition, I have spent most of my life working with huge corporations, so I understand their processes, legal, procurement, need for scale, and the macro-economic landscape. Being able to speak to both parties, understanding their goals, and being empathetic to their needs helps us accelerate them both to winning partnerships.

Curiosity — I simply love to learn new things. It’s insatiable. My wife yells at me because of the number of books I order every week, the endless magazines I buy, and the documentaries I watch. I love hearing about corporate challenges, new programs, and unpacking the nuance of their objectives. I LOVE hearing startup pitches and inventive solutions. It’s a job that is constantly changing and evolving, and that absolutely sparks my curiosity and love for what we do.

Passion — I just love the work that we do. I think I have the absolute coolest job in the world, and I would do it for free. I get to hear how global CMOs are thinking about their business or how a CEO is rethinking packaging to be more sustainable — then I get to go out and talk to the most brilliant investors and founders who are out creating inventive solutions to deliver something never-done-before. I get to bring those groups together to make magic. I get excited just talking about it!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Be direct and succinct — I spent 6 weeks writing the text draft of our first website. Upon receiving, my advisors responded with “I don’t understand what you do — but it seems very impressive.” I was sharing every piece of potential value we could add to any possible client, which resulted in an avalanche of words filled with ethereal fluff. This process of refining our story to its utmost simplicity to be as direct and succinct as possible has taken years, and now people understand that we build innovation programs for large corporations. My advice is to try to explain what you do to a 9-year-old. That should be your website language — then save all the potential perks only for interested parties.
  2. Let it fall through the cracks — You are not perfect. Let the unimportant things fall through the cracks. If they are important enough, they will find their way back to you. Early on, I spent untold hours trying to be perfect. Answering every email, making sure every story that went out had been triple edited. It was hyper-perfectionism that took up incredible time and brain-space. Now, we spend that energy on our clients and know that if we take care of them, the rest takes care of itself.
  3. Play Offense, Not Defense — In the early years of VentureFuel I said yes to every meeting, every event, every founder who wanted to pitch us. I had intense FOMO on what was happening next. I personally attended over 20 meetings every week. I heard Chris Sacca (famed investor and Shark Tank Judge) talking on the Tim Ferriss Podcast about how he moved out of SF. He stopped taking every coffee, and instead created space where only the most serious opportunities would take the time to come to him, and conversely, he only had time for the most serious opportunities when he came into time. He dictated who he met with, instead of being on the rocking horse of coffee meetings — lots of motion, but no progress.
  4. Values Equal Value — This is a chapter title in Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce’s new book, which . essentially advises you that having company values will provide financial value to your firm. At VentureFuel, we started to support the causes we care about, like our Rogue Women conference. We didn’t start this to make money, but instead because it was something we believed in. Similarly, in 2020 we are diving deeply into environmental sustainability areas we are passionate about, where we think startups and corporations together can save the planet. By putting that out for people to see will attract like-minded clients and team members to hopefully help us change the world for the better.
  5. Advise Don’t Preach — I have studied corporate innovation, read hundreds of articles and books on it, and interviewed and worked with the absolute best in the world with startup and corporate partnerships. So, I have a LOT to say on the subject. I have spent hundreds of hours writing my thoughts into thought leadership posts and still do so. However, I found that rather than preaching my opinion out into the sea of social media noise, it’s far better for me to listen, and to spend time on LinkedIn or Twitter seeing what challenges people are facing and determine if I can provide advice or guidance. By solving their problems, I can provide value as it’s needed, rather than preaching to those who follow my channels.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Love what you do, then it doesn’t feel like work. Leave your computer at your desk. When you go home, turn it off. Reboot. Get some sleep, have time with your family and friends. The work will be there in the morning. Do NOT start your morning on your phone. Work out. Have breakfast. Meditate. Yoga. Take your kids to school. Whatever it is, start your day your way — don’t let someone else dictate your start. When you get to work, tackle the one thing. If you could only do one thing today, what is the one thing that would provide the most value or advancement to your goals? Do that first. Then, and only then, you can attack your inbox — which is filled with other people’s priorities.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My Mom, Anne Moses. She started her own law firm from scratch because the South didn’t value female attorneys when we first moved down there. She is the best networker I have ever seen and built a client base in a town that she had zero connections in. I get my work ethic from her, but also her sense of priorities. She never missed any of my games, concerts, or anything important to me growing up. She was always there and made sure that her kids came first. I know she missed a few business opportunities due to that choice. Life is short. You should spend it on what is most important to you. An extra meeting isn’t going to be the thing you value and remember.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

Professionally — I see the results we generate for our corporate partners by tapping into the inventive solutions of startups and new technologies. I want to leverage that mojo to change the world. What if the biggest brands and best sustainable packaging startups could come together and solve the plastics problem? What if corporations started funding and piloting with female-founded companies — could that start to change the wage gap? How can we leverage this dynamic to make real change in the world, beyond all the financial growth we generate?

Personally — I just had a baby boy in September. So right now, I am working on trying to sleep through the night. I am trying to find a balance between my love and passion for VentureFuel and the desire to spend every possible second with my wife and son.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

VentureFuel is starting to tackle a variety of meaningful challenges in the world. My hope is that we can leverage this dynamic framework of corporate/startup partnerships to solve tough problems: That we start to really improve the planet, people’s lives and leave this place better than it was when I got here.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

If I could start a movement it would be called “Do Something About It.” It would be entirely around fighting the “complaint” plague. The amount of time spent on “woe is me” stories is insane. People complain about everything: politics, the weather, commercials, their commute, their spouse, their rent, their situation, someone else’s situation, their sports team, their dog, their neighbors, their neighbor’s dog. “Do Something About It: Because the Complaint Store Is Closed” — that’s the movement.

You have the time and ability to change whatever it is that is bothering you. I had a heated debate the other day with my mother, who was complaining about politics the other day. I asked her how many hours she spent per week consuming media on politics, between the news, the newspaper, the radio, and podcasts? How many hours did she spend per week complaining about the information she consumed with friends, family members, and clients? Add those two numbers, multiply by 50 weeks. Then multiply that by your hourly rate. As I see it, you have two choices: Donate that amount of money to the other candidate, or spend that number of hours campaigning for the other candidate (or, she could run for office and be the change she wants). But it works for everything. Instead of complaining about the weather, spend that time working to get a new umbrella or laying the foundation to move somewhere else or dedicating time to improving global warming. There are a lot of serious problems that deserve time and resources,but complaining doesn’t lead to solutions. Convert your frustration into action.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: @fredschonenberg

Twitter: @vfinsights

Instagram: @vfinsights

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