Allen Bonde: Can't Get No Satisfaction
By Jim Schakenbach
Allen Bonde's road to success has been neither straight nor easy, and he likes it that way just fine, thank you. The '88 WPI graduate has spent the last fifteen years learning new skills, discovering what he likes and doesn't like, and honing his chops as an entrepreneur through several high profile and not-so-high profile jobs.
Currently Bonde is president, lead analyst, and founder of the Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts-based Allen Bonde Group, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in market research and analysis, and strategic planning in the high-tech and financial services industries. With clients ranging from small start-ups to nationally known corporations such as Bank of America and Ask Jeeves, Bonde and his four colleagues help companies discover and implement better ways to do business, serve customers and achieve growth. Not bad for a guy who graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.
First, after graduating from WPI, Bonde went on to earn a Master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Virginia and pursued engineering work back in Massachusetts. "My first job was at GTE and an interesting thing happened while I was there," commented Bonde. "I started to run projects and get involved in the marketing of the technologies we were developing - and this goes back to my experience at WPI - I discovered I actually liked the selling and the marketing of what we were doing better than the actual development of it."
Working for a business unit charged with helping commercialize technologies developed by GTE, Bonde started volunteering to write proposals, publish results of his group's work, and doing public speaking at conferences and trade shows. "It dawned on me that if I could articulate and I could create a business plan to commercialize technology, I could perhaps start a business," Bonde said. "What I was doing wasn't really engineering anymore, but it wasn't really sales and marketing and it lit a fuse under me to learn more about this sales and marketing thing."
That led Bonde to leave GTE in '94 and take a job at a small Boston business-to-business advertising and PR firm, helping them with their technical accounts. "I lasted there eleven months," laughed Bonde. "It was as bizarre and invigorating and crazy as any place I've worked. Talk about a fish out of water. But I learned about technology PR and discovered the power of industry analysts and discovered that this was the ideal role for me. I could get paid to analyze and write about technologies." So he left his PR job in 1995 and went to work for Yankee Group, a major industry analyst firm.
"I started at Yankee Group right at the beginning of the enterprise software boom period and ended up starting their second Internet practice in '96," Bonde said. "It was like being inside a tornado; I literally couldn't answer my phone in the last three months that I was there, because people were constantly calling me to pitch their company or recruit me. It was incredible." He eventually took one of those calls and joined a new company called Extraprise to start an analyst and strategy consulting business for them. At Extraprise, Bonde did analyst, consulting, marketing and even PR work, building up a practice with fifty clients and hiring a dozen employees. Specializing in e-commerce and the Internet space, Bonde quickly gained visibility, appearing on CNBC, PBS-TV, and Fox News and in over 100 publications around the globe.
From there, Bonde jumped to McKinsey & Company, an international business management consulting firm where he was tasked with helping start a new e-business unit for the company. "When McKinsey called, I had to answer," stated Bonde. Realizing that a stint at the well-respected consulting firm would work wonders on his resume, Bonde started there in 2000. "I did some interesting work for them -- in the media and entertainment practice of all places, looking at the future of ad-supported media and Internet advertising -- but I discovered I really didn't want to live in New York, or be on the road 80 percent of the time away from my family, or just be a consultant." So Bonde went back to Extraprise for short time before taking the plunge and starting his own business in October, 2001.
"While this is my first start-up, it's really kind of my fourth, having started a number of business units," observed Bonde. "I discovered from day one that the most important thing in consulting is, who's going to pay me for what I know. I wound up essentially working my Rolodex from Yankee Group and Extraprise, telling people we're starting this research and consulting group. Our pitch was, we're this specialty boutique firm, focusing on certain emerging technologies, more agile, more flexible, and less expensive than the traditional firms."
Currently, Allen Bonde Group is working on a new mergers and acquisitions advisory service. "There are a lot of deals happening in the markets that we cover and we're creating services where we can advise businesses and do the match-making the way an investment bank does. We're trying to evolve the business - we're doing market strategy, we're doing strategic planning, sometimes we're doing technology strategy with our banking customers. Next I see us actually doing some of the work that the banks do."
"It's been an interesting fifteen years since I left WPI," observed Bonde. "My wife thinks I'm crazy because I can't work for people. It's a general restlessness. Two or three years is about as long as I can do one of these things. I'm always looking for a better way. I don't do well when people try to manage me." Along the way, Bonde has discovered that he likes the starting up part better than the running of a mature business part. "I left Yankee Group once (my job) became more of an operational role, managing a staff and fighting over a budget with the CFO. Starting it up and growing it was the fun part."
For Bonde, like so many entrepreneurs, the excitement lies in the pitching and the telling of a story, of having a vision and getting other people excited. "It's all about challenging conventional wisdom, challenging authority at times, and not taking 'no' for an answer."
WPI's interdisciplinary advantage
Bonde credits WPI with helping him bridge the gap between the technical and the creative side of business. "In the consulting world, if you have that kind of crossover capability, you're all set," stated Bonde. "WPI is a very technical school but it has very well rounded people and that's really unique. And I think it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think (WPI) attracts well-rounded people, which turns out even more well-rounded people.
"When I think back to the undergraduate curriculum, it's very practical in the way it approaches preparing students. You learn to focus, which is important when you're starting up a business. Number two is problem-solving - the process of learning how to break down a problem and trying something - try stuff on a workbench and see if it works. That completely applies to a business, too."
That problem-solving approach has helped Bonde throughout his career. "At McKinsey, I felt I was ahead of the curve because I had done (problem-solving) before, even though I was behind in the sense of not having an MBA. If I hadn't had more of the interdisciplinary engineering curriculum (offered by WPI) it would have been much harder than if I had just had the traditional engineering curriculum. I don't think I would have been able to do a lot of the stuff I've done."
Communicating is key.
Bonde credits his ability to communicate well with being pushed at WPI. "The importance of being able to communicate, to write well and convince people that you have something to say and some unique value to add is the foundation for doing good business. I learned how to write by working with some of the (WPI) history professors like John Zeugner who required a lot of writing in his class and pretty much pushed me to become a good writer."
CEI and the Venture Forum: Hands-on resources
In addition to his well-rounded undergraduate background, Bonde found two other WPI resources to be invaluable. "The types of programs (the Collaborative for Entrepreneurship & Innovation and the Venture Forum) put on have an incredible 'how-to' value for a start-up business. Having done stuff with the MIT forum, I found the WPI programs to be much more hands-on, putting ideas into practice and fostering a community support group for entrepreneurs. It's so much more effective for me than those forums that tend to be more academic," stated Bonde. "It's so much better to learn from your peers who are doing things and then start the dialog and discussion that enables the exchange of knowledge and insight."
As a result, Bonde is a firm believer in all that the CEI and Venture Forum do to support start-ups. He is actively involved in talking to students at events such as CEO East, and helping spread the word about the school's entrepreneurial initiatives to other businesses. "I think it's a really effective vehicle to foster networking and knowledge-sharing. People involved with WPI are never satisfied, and that's a good thing. If you're going to be an entrepreneur, you can never be satisfied."
In keeping with his personal modus operandi, the never-satisfied Bonde is going a step further. "It's my personal mission to try to bring some additional awareness of what is happening at CEI into folks I know who are running consulting companies or running IT organizations or working for big software companies so that they're aware that there's this resource. There are an awful lot of us out there who have connections with WPI and who are running businesses. We should be spreading the word, which leads to more visibility which leads to more programs-and more value for all of us who have been involved with WPI along the way."