TCA Member Spotlight – Nii Ahene
This month’s TCA Member Feature is Nii Ahene, Co-founder of CPC Strategy and Chief Strategy Officer of Tinuiti. A Bay Area transplant, his Angel Investment interests lie in Innovative and Disruptive 5G-Oriented, CPG, and B2B SAAS Organizations.
Please describe your personal history – your career, personal interests/hobbies, and what you’re currently doing for work.
I got my career started back in the early 2000s when I was still in college. I grew up in the Bay Area, so I saw the first dotcom boom and bust when I was still in high school. I attended UC Berkeley from 2002-06. While there, I started doing freelancing for companies locally in the Berkeley area, helping them with their marketing, setting up AdWords accounts – that’s how I got into internet marketing in general, back in 2003. I ended up starting up a small company, but I couldn’t figure out how to get that to scale so I closed it down when I graduated and took a job at eBay. I was a product manager within their internet marketing department, then moved up to algorithmic merchandising. Six months into my eBay career, I started CPC Strategy, the digital marketing agency I grew with a couple partners here in San Diego in 2007, which was the start of my entrepreneurial journey.
We sold CPC Strategy to Elite and Mountain Gate Capital in 2018. The agency had grown to about 135 employees, we managed north of $350 million in ad spend for over 400 clients across Google, Facebook, Amazon by the time we exited. Post-sale, I’m still working full-time with the agency, as part of Tinuiti; I’m our Chief Strategy Officer, navigating the company through M&A opportunities and strategic partnerships. I’m very excited about what we’re doing as a larger agency. We’re the largest independently run agency in the United States, managing up to $1.5 billion dollars of ad spend for over 900 clients. Very similar to what we were doing with CPC, but we have higher-level relationships with our partners at Google, Amazon, and Facebook.
When I’m not at work, I’m typically working with my portfolio companies. I’ve made a number of angel investments outside of TCA. I’m involved in those companies to varying degrees, from advisorship to hands-on assistance, helping them think through strategic challenges. For fun, I do like to travel, I have a goal of visiting all seven continents before I’m 40, and ideally doing it in one year. I’ve visited six already, so we’ll see if 2020 or 2021 is the year when I finally get down to Antarctica!
What circumstances led you to taking an interest in angel investing, and TCA in particular?
At CPC, we didn’t have the opportunity to raise outside capital. I think of it as a long 13 year MBA in a lot of ways. I got into angel investing because it’s an opportunity to be involved in the early part of an organization, and to providing guidance to founders which is something I’ve come to enjoy. I’ve been a part of other founder mentorship programs, and to be able to apply capital to that with mentorship is the best of both words and allows me to combine two of my passions, investment capitalism and providing guidance to other business owners. When I heard about TCA and the great work they’ve been doing, especially the newer model the ACE fund developed, it was an exciting opportunity to be able to meet and work with more founders and see a greater variety of businesses and potential ventures.
How has your personal background influenced your investment strategies – how have you been able to leverage your areas of expertise?
Over the course of my career at a digital marketing agency I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of companies. We’ve helped hundreds of companies with their growth, especially consumer companies on the internet. While building CPC we’ve been able to create lead magnets, and digital marketing campaigns have allowed us to grow in scale, leveraging content and webinars, so I’ve got a very good sense about B2B and raising market awareness for service, as well as the B2C market from an internet marketing standpoint. That allows me to take a look at a company’s metrics, their unit cost and understand the best way for them to raise awareness – or if internet marketing even makes sense for them. And given the fact that we’re spending an increasing amount of time on digital or connected devices, that gives me an interesting opportunity to be able to evaluate both consumer and b2b deals whether it’s internet marketing, their content plans or paid media plans, helping businesses determine if their plan makes sense. In addition we built up – for an agency of CPC’s size at exit – a pretty robust b2b inbound marketing and insight sales team. I didn’t think I was a sales guy until I booked my first sales team, so seeing how that works, putting up the processes, tweaking Salesforce and Marketo to be able to work together and generate the right leads and have the right leads surface for our sales team… that entire process and the metrics behind it, that’s another passion that I kind of picked up along the way. And as I look at other companies and I see where they are in their process, that’s another place I feel like I can use my experience, examining how companies put together their sales teams, and what their sales processes and sales enablement looks like.
Are there any lessons you’ve learned from your own experiences that you’d like to share with other investors, especially those interested in angel investment?
I’ve been a product manager on and off for the last 15 years and whether it was working at eBay or working within CPC or Tinuiti, I would say that a lot of entrepreneurs underestimate the complexity associated with tech and having the right team, the right infrastructure, the right scalable processes around their product. Just because you have a product that’s brilliant doesn’t mean you’ll get product adoption. I see a lot of pitches where people have phenomenal tech but when asked about marketing they don’t have a specific plan. When I ask about sales processes, how they’re going to get in front of targeted leads and targeted accounts, there’s nothing there. I’ve failed in launching SaaS within organizations, so I’ve seen what that looks like, and what a challenge it is to be able to cut through the clutter in crowded markets. I would say that paying attention to what your go-to market strategy is, is just as important as having great engineering behind the product – but having great engineering to be able to be sure you can ship your product is equally important, so I’m not enamored with SaaS companies unless I see traction. There you can signals you can look at to determine if there’s traction that’s sustainable and long lived. Signals like client churn, logo churn, how quickly the product has evolved, the ability for a development team to be able to present a clear plan for what they’re going to do (and getting there), understanding the level of technical depth within a specific area, the company’s approach to infrastructure and thinking through cloud options between the big cloud providers – Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Those are all areas where having that conversation lets you know the maturity of the management team. When they’re coming back to you with questions or they don’t understand why these questions are being asked – if you’re already an investor that’s an opportunity to get them some guidance, and if you’re not invested yet that’s a sign they have a lot of growing to do to be able to tackle those challenges.
What impact has joining TCA had on your investment strategies? Have you benefited from TCA membership in ways unrelated to investment?
TCA has exposed me to the entire bio space, an area I don’t have first-hand experience with. I have friends, family, colleagues that are in that space, but personally I never been involved in that space, so it’s a whole brand new world, and there’s different aspects and multiple layers to evaluate companies that I’m discovering, which is exciting from an investment standpoint and being able to participate in that via the fund has been awesome. I hope to be able to develop more interpersonal connections, but the people I’ve met in the organization and had the opportunity to connect so far with have been awesome. I can see that the organization is healthy and full of like-minded and diverse membership.
Are there any organizations you support and would like to highlight? Any causes, events, companies that the startup community, TCA, or San Diegans in general would benefit from knowing about?
The Lavin Entrepreneurship Center at SDSU is an organization that I’ve supported financially as well as through mentorship. It supports a cohort of students being taught lessons in entrepreneurship. I’ve been a mentor there for 3-4 years, it’s a phenomenal organization with great people running the program, I’d love to put on the radar for people who haven’t heard of it before. A number of great friends have come out of that particular organization, Pure Vida (Bracelets) recently had an exit, Blenders Eyeware recently came out of there too, it’s been awesome to see a number of companies come out of that program. CPC and Tinuiti have been involved with Startup San Diego over the last decade, hosting events here at our office. These two organizations are connected to our entrepreneurial ecosystem. I think San Diego as a region needs to do more work bringing the different organizations together, but as long as there’s some interconnective tissue, whether it is members or conversations, I think we can strive towards making San Diego a beacon for venture and angel activity.
Why did you decide move to San Diego, and how has it benefited you personally and professionally? What makes it unique and stand out from other places you’ve lived? What excites you about the future of San Diego?
I moved down to San Diego from San Francisco when I was 23, back in 2008, so I’ve been here for 12 years. I came right before the recession, during Facebook’s emergence in the years before they went public. Coming down to San Diego was interesting because I went from a situation where venture was on everybody’s mind to one where you really had to work to find people who were thinking about ventures and startups. But what I’ve seen over the last decade is that energy, that entrepreneurial spirit, has absolutely become a part of the fabric here in San Diego. I’ve joined other organizations like EO (Entrepreneur’s Organization) and I’ve met other business owners and I think that the right balance has been struck here, between looking for home runs but also ensuring that we’re building businesses that are meant to last, our startups are not just burning money and not being good stewards of money they’ve raised.
We have several great universities, the talent here is just as good if not better than the Bay Area. We’ve been able to forge relationships with the universities that I don’t think, at least operating on the scale we did at CPC, would have been possible if we were dealing with Stanford and UC Berkeley – but we were absolutely able to do with SDSU, USD, and to a lesser extent UCSD. I think the right components are here, I think the weather absolutely is something you can’t underestimate, and the Bay Area is only an hour away thanks to our very convenient airport. Not to mention the costs of living here are significantly lower – still an expensive place to live but less than the Bay Area! I think all those factors make San Diego a very attractive place to do business and I’m excited to see larger organizations like Amazon, Apple, and Facebook open offices here, alongside our thriving entrepreneur ecosystem.