While digital media startups are hardly rare, it’s probably safe to say that few executives have co-founded, incubated and been instrumental in driving the growth of as many visible ventures as Josh Engroff has in 16 years.
Engroff — selected as one of MediaPost's 2016 Online All Stars, in the media category — currently balances two extremely demanding roles. On the one hand, he serves as managing partner of KBS+ Ventures, the corporate venture capital arm of advertising agency KBS and its holding company, MDC Partners. On the other, he serves as digital media officer at The Media Kitchen, the media planning and buying arm of KBS, with clients including Vanguard, Victoria Secret’s Pink, Vail Resorts, Stanley Black & Decker, Seventh Generation and Noosa Yoghurt.
In his three years at KBS+ — an early-stage investor in martech, ad tech and SaaS startups that talks to 500 startups a year — Engroff has led 13 deals in 10 companies, including Entrypoint VR, msg.ai, PlaceIQ, Indicative, AdsNative, Dextro and Mezzobit. Those deals ran the gamut of hot, emerging martech areas: AI and personalization, VR distribution, video analysis and computer vision, and mobile messaging, to name a few.
“It’s like having a front-row seat to the future,” says Engroff — who is relishing the chance to be a venture capitalist himself, having pitched innumerable VCs during his earlier career.
His path began in the late 1990s, working for friends at e-commerce startup Dash.com. The venture raised a “huge” amount of money quickly, “which led me to believe — for a short while — that being an entrepreneur was easy,” he shares.
But the company, hit hard by the crash of April 2000, folded about a year later. Engroff left with important friendships, including ones with Jeremy Levine (a VC legend now at Bessemer Venture Partners), Rob Goldman (head of ad products at Facebook), and Jeff Brooks (president of Huge New York).
He also left with a deep love of the Internet, a knowledge of programming and core programs like Flash and Photoshop, the insight that “raising too much money could be as disastrous for a startup as raising too little,” and an understanding that being an entrepreneur is actually grueling — but a perfect fit for his personality.
“There is nothing romantic or glamorous about being an entrepreneur,” he says. “In my experience, great ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard thing is execution. It’s messy, unsexy and gritty. In fact, the one quality nearly all successful entrepreneurs have in common is grit: the determination and perseverance to keep moving forward despite physical, psychological, or financial pain.”
Engroff warns would-be entrepreneurs that 90% of startups fail, and the 10% that survive take six to eight years, on average, to pay off with a sale or exit.
But relentless curiosity, along with a drive to create, keep the pain in context.
“Creativity is about bringing something new into the world,” he says. “Creating a new company is a full-on commitment to an original endeavor that carries a risk of total failure.”
Since Dash.com, he has co-founded three other startups. Two — digital music company Jango and design consultancy Marching Ant — are going concerns. Another, mobile programmatic DSP EveryScreen Media, was acquired in 2013 by Media6Degrees, since rebranded as Dstillery. He also led that company’s mobile platform business unit for a time, driving 700%+ YOY revenue growth through product and business development, marketing, analytics and operational honing.
Engroff also spent a few years leading product and business development for Billboard’s
mobile apps and online properties. (He won a National Magazine Award for best Web design for Billboard.com.) Later, under new owner Prometheus Global Media, he added digital oversight for The
Hollywood Reporter and Adweek.
Engroff says his current dual roles at KBS+ and The Media Kitchen complement one another. “I’ve had the privilege of working with amazing people at some truly cool brands. Maintaining connections with clients keeps me tuned into marketers’ real challenges,” he says. “This helps me vet whether the startups we’re talking to are actually solving real problems.”
Under his digital media leadership, The Media Kitchen won MediaPost's Mobile Agency of the Year in both 2015 and 2016, and Programmatic Agency of the Year in 2014.
He and his team contribute a winning media edge to numerous successful campaigns each year. In 2016, examples included a Noosa tool on Spotify that is inspiring thousands of consumers to generate custom playlists, and a campaign for the Justice tween fashion brand that generated 96% of its sales revenue and conversions from Instagram and Facebook.
In addition, Engroff plays a critical thought leadership role at the agency —which, under president Barry Lowenthal, this year focused on emerging issues and areas, including VR’s distribution problem, local programmatic TV, the Snapchat API, the bot problem, AI, and mobile’s transformation of marketing, among others.
His influence is also very much felt In the broader industry. He’s a prolific, insightful writer for MediaPost and other business media, and hosts the annual Digital Media Venture Capital Conference, which attracts the biggest names in VC and Silicon Valley.
MediaPost's 2016 Online All Stars, celebrating nine outstanding achievers in online media, advertising and marketing, will be celebrated at an awards presentation on Jan. 19, in New York City.