It’s no surprise that Active.com spawned dozens of entrepreneurs and companies, many of whom are still pushing the technology and innovation envelope. Many of these entrepreneurs have been a boon to the San Diego tech and startup ecosystem and beyond. Take, for instance, Gerry Widmer, former Director of Strategic Planning, Active Marketing Group. Widmer, who has also been involved in a handful of other local hot digital companies, is current Founder of CEO of San Diego-based Fidus Advisor.
I recently caught up with Widmer, who walked me through his time at Active, as well as his entrepreneurial journey after that and why he’s excited to help foster San Diego’s explosive tech and startup scene.
Active Days: Widmer was led to Active in 2004 through his friend Tom Carroll, whose wife, Kristin Carroll was leading the Active Marketing Group part of the business. “I had just come off working with brands like ASICS, Oakley, and Shimano in the traditional advertising world and wanted to learn the digital side of marketing – banner ads and email marketing was new media at the time,” Widmer said. “I think Active’s biggest accomplishment was its ability to take all the Active.com assets/audience and aggregate them in one spot for brands to reach the active lifestyle audience very efficiently.”
Training Ground: During his time at Active, Widmer was “in my 30’s and definitely was one of the old guys. While most were young, they were smart and entrepreneurial. It was a great business training ground and many employees went on to be very successful after their Active career.”
Sustainable Business: “Active was the stereotypical ‘tech startup’ culture back then. Things moved very fast with a goal of getting the company sold. That would be my only knock about my time there. Active had a real opportunity to change the landscape of how consumers buy services online. Building a long-term sustainable brand was not the goal – which was not unusual in venture-backed businesses back then.”
The Deal: After leaving Active.com in 2006, Widmer spent about seven years at SaaS ecommerce darling, Digital River, and until recently, was the CEO of Zesty.io, a cloud-based content management system. Widmer has also served as an advisor for various San Diego tech firms.
Digital River: During its heyday, Digital River was a pretty hot San Diego company and pretty ahead of its time in SaaS ecommerce and digital marketing technology. In 2006, Widmer joined one of the company’s business units, BlueHornet, as Director of Client Services. By the time he left seven-and-a-half-years later, he was the General Manager. Fun fact: BlueHornet actually offered Widmer a job the same time Active did, but he chose Active.
Zesty.io: In between his regular gigs, Widmer was mentoring and advising other startups around San Diego when he met Randy Apuzzo, founder of Zesty.io. “The technology had been around for a number of years but hadn’t formalized the business. When I saw the power of the technology it was an easy decision to join Zesty.io,” Widmer said.
He described Zesty.io as a more powerful, very modern, enterprise version of WordPress. “Zesty.io ‘SaaSified’ the enterprise Content Management technology marketplace. The company has made it very easy for brands to distribute any content to multiple devices without the need of IT and/or expensive developers. For example, a marketer can publish one piece to the website, mobile app, video game, lobby video screen, IOT device, etc. (anything that is connected to the Internet), with a press of the button. That’s pretty powerful.”
Early investors of Zesty.io included Andy Ballester, co-founder of GoFundMe, Taner Halicioglu, co-founder of Seed San Diego and creator of Facebook hardware infrastructure, and Dave Hagewood, CEO at Psyonix, maker of popular game publisher Rocket League, which was recently acquired by Epic Games.
New Venture: This May, Widmer left Zesty.io to launch San Diego-based Fidus Advisor, which offers executive CEO coaching, mentorship, and advising.
“There are not many seasoned tech executives here in San Diego who have both a strategic marketing/positioning and go-to-market operational scaling experience as a CEO,” said Widmer, who has created global strategic marketing plans for companies like ASICS, Oakley, Qualcomm’s BREW platform, just to name a few, and global business operations for two technology companies. “Having been doing this for 13 years, at big and small businesses, I can empathize with the challenges newer CEOs face; I help them avoid a few of the potholes that lie ahead of them.”
It’s Lonely at the Top: According to the Harvard Business Review, 61% of CEO’s feel the loneliness of the role hinders decision making. That number goes to 70% for first time CEO’s. Today’s most successful leaders, Widmer said, surround themselves with the smartest employee talent and trusted advisors to keep pace with the rapid changes they’re experiencing with their markets. “They’re keeping their ego in check to ensure the long-term success of their business.”
“Having been in the CEO role for well over a decade, the immense pressure to have all the right answers drove me, at times, to insulate myself,” Widmer explained. “There were days where a team or board member would turn to me for answers I just didn’t have; my leadership approach in these situations is to admit I don’t have the answer. Sometimes the requests had urgency and many times it was about medium to long-term strategic planning. In all the cases I would lean on mentors and or peers for feedback and support. …I didn’t have true confidential, non-judgmental coach with years of business experience available for consultation. This is why I started Fidus Advisor – providing CEOs and leaders an outlet where they don’t have to wait to tackle the short-term or long-term business challenges that will help their business grow.”
The Power of Digital Marketing: Widmer harkens back to his days at Active and what the company taught him. “I learned the power of digital marketing – more specifically, email marketing. I wouldn’t have been as successful at BlueHornet if not for my experiences at Active.”
Then & Now: As far as San Diego’s tech startup scene goes, Widmer said, “Holy smokes; wow has it changed since those days. The tech startup scene has exploded since the Active days, and just in the last three years. San Diego has become one of the hottest tech hubs in the country. The San Diego Venture Group (now part of CONNECT) has been successful in getting the attention of the out-of-town VCs and helps foster a great support ecosystem for tech startups. But, San Diego is just one example of many other ecosystems that have cropped up over the last few years.”
Because, San Diego: Besides our famous weather, Widmer said he chose to stay in San Diego throughout his career because, “my family is more important than my career. And, maybe it has to do with the fact I moved four times before I was in third grade. I’ve turned down opportunities outside of town, but the tech scene has grown so much that my skill set and my experience is unique for San Diego. I look forward to advising and mentoring these fast-moving tech companies. I have really enjoyed that part of my career.”
Editor’s Note: This is part nine in a series about the early pioneers of online race and activity registration, the subsequent companies they went on to create and run, and how they are still “active” in the San Diego tech ecosystem. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 & Part 8.