Ron Ranauro: Reluctant Entrepreneur
By Jim Schakenbach
Ron Ranauro sports the boyish good looks that one often associates with hard-charging corporate sales execs, but after just a few minutes of conversation, he betrays himself as a thoughtful, almost reluctant entrepreneur.
Currently the general manager of Paris-based Gene-IT, Ranauro is responsible for worldwide sales and growing the barely-year-old US operations of the biological research software company from their offices in the Mass Biomedical Initiatives wing of the former St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester. He came to this position after graduating from WPI twenty years ago with a B.S. in business management, followed by a 1988 M.S. in computer science, and stints with a number of computer companies that took him from the east coast to the west coast and back.
His computer career started in the summer between his junior and senior years at Data General, where he eventually spent three years in software development. From there he moved to Viewlogic Systems in 1986. "It was at DG that I realized I liked programming; I had gotten my Master's (in computer science) and that had given me a foundation which I still rely on today," commented Ranauro. "In this business it really helps to have that background -- even if I'm not using it to create technology -- to know how it's done."
It was at Viewlogic that Ranauro got his first taste of marketing. "Fortunately, Viewlogic was growing and so there was room to make a move and I guess that's where the entrepreneurial spirit kicked in," he said. After two years in product marketing, he had the opportunity to join a west coast start-up called Exemplar Logic. "At the time it was four guys in a garage and I was the fifth," stated Ranauro. "I was the first marketing slash sales person they hired. I really cut my teeth in sales there." It was here that Ranauro's WPI experience really came into play. "I wanted to broaden my skill set which is part of a process I started as an undergraduate at WPI," he observed. "In hindsight, it's clear to me that the (WPI) program bred that entrepreneurial spirit. From the 'product' that went in (referring to himself) to the 'product' that came out, I'd say I grew a lot."
And it wasn't just the academic program that helped shape Ranauro at WPI. "I was privileged at the time to take part in the football program, which was on a resurgent path. There was a spirit there after the football program was almost dropped (and new faculty and students were recruited for it), and so I was able to get grafted into a group that I was able to identify with. WPI gave me that opportunity." Ranauro started at center for three years and helped lead the team to its first victory over Norwich University in close to twenty years. That same drive helped Ranauro lead Exemplar from $500,000 in sales to $5 million in just four years.
By now, Ranauro wanted to get back to his family, so he moved back to the east coast and joined Nextwave in 1995 where he ran the eastern regional sales office. But after just a year and a half there, the entrepreneurial bug finally bit deep and he felt ready to run his own show. So he left Nextwave to start his own company, Blackstone EDA, believing that his business model would give him the flexibility to offer whatever the computing market needed. "I could sell (different) products and services as the clients (and their needs) changed, but my company would stay the same." As the business evolved, it was renamed Blackstone Technology Group and attracted $3.5 million in angel investments at the height of the technology investment run-up in the winter of 1999-2000. The newly re-christened company focused on optimizing computing networks for high-throughput applications. Despite the bursting bubble, Blackstone was awarded $12 million in B series financing in the spring of 2001, "a major accomplishment for me under the circumstances."
To complete the financing, the venture capitalists asked Ranauro to step aside as CEO to make room for someone familiar to their style. Ranauro remained a shareholder and a director of the firm and concentrated on alliances, but after September 11 the market had essentially disappeared and shortly thereafter he left. "I didn't resist the management change because that's the classic evolution of an entrepreneur/founder, " he shrugged. "That's the price you pay when you decide to play that game. If it would help the company succeed, then it was an easy decision for me. At the time, I figured the VCs knew more than I did."
Asked if, in hindsight, he would have done anything differently, Ranauro replied, "Only with experience. I couldn't have had the foreknowledge because at the time I had some very experienced and sophisticated investors and business professionals advising me. But I pulled the trigger, and at that time the discipline was to grow (the company) and get bigger. I didn't have enough operating experience to anticipate the markets would fall, but I've got the experience now and I understand the financial (ins and outs) and how to manage the burn rate. Some people just get it right when they're twenty-seven. I needed another ten years."
But the story doesn't end there. Ranauro came away from that experience not ready for another bootstrap start-up, but seasoned, ready for another, different, challenge. "So now I'm able to bring that experience to these guys (at Gene-IT), "he commented. Now his challenge is to help Gene-IT develop and sell software which helps bioscience companies discover the functions of genes through something called comparative genomics - a fundamental process that enables scientists to compare two or more genome strands to look for commonalities and differences that might hold the key to new and better health and nutrition products.
When asked what advice he might give the next generation of graduates and budding entrepreneurs, Ranauro had some very practical advice. "Learn how to sell, or at least develop a very healthy respect for it as an art and a profession."
Ranauro also stressed that graduates and entrepreneurs should find mentors and be willing to pay their dues. "(Creating) a breadth of experience over a number of years is paying your dues, "he said. "At a company like (Gene-IT) I've done everybody's job. I'm not saying I can do it as well as they can, but I can empathize." That empathy and understanding, he noted, enables him to perform his job even better.
Like so many other alumni, Ranauro sees the value of a WPI education and looks for it when hiring. "We've been blessed with Alec Icev, a graduate this year of the (WPI) computer science department who's on my team here now."
Ranauro also likes to contribute his time and experience to WPI programs when and where he can. "Last year I participated in a graduate course business plan review and I gave an undergraduate presentation on managing growth. I like to participate in the Venture Forum when I'm able. I found it particularly helpful when I started Blackstone because it helped fuel my ambitions a bit. They even invited me back to present Gene-IT as an investment opportunity when I first started here, so I take advantage of those resources and make myself available to the faculty as well as to Mac and Gina" (Mac Banks and Gina Betti of the WPI Collaborative for Entrepreneurship & Innovation). In addition to the WPI Venture Forum, Ranauro also participated in CEI's Dinner with Entrepreneurs last year and plans to do it again this year.
Finally, Ranauro's years of experience taught him the value of something more than money. It taught him about the price paid for the privilege of owning and running a company. Of the balance between business and personal life. Asked what he would say to a roomful of alumni entrepreneurs he smiled and said, "How's your home life? Are you having fun?"