Jon Vein has been a rocket scientist, entertainment attorney, media mogul, tech entrepreneur—and a civic figure of growing importance in Los Angeles. Since leading his marketing analytics company MarketShare to one of the largest-ever exits for a Los Angeles–founded company, Vein has spent his time focusing on public service, serving as president of the Los Angeles Convention and Tourism Development Board of Commissioners—during a pandemic—and as the mayor’s point person securing hotels to keep homeless Angelenos and survivors of domestic violence safe during COVID-19. Vein tells CSQ about his unorthodox path to success, and what he’s doing today for the city he loves.
WHAT WAS YOUR CHILDHOOD LIKE? WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. I was born about a week and a half after JFK was assassinated, so my parents named me Jon F after him. I was always given books about JFK, expressing his advocacy for giving back and the importance of engaging in something bigger than the individual. That was a theme in my pursuits for my whole life. Another theme was that I was pretty good in school, particularly math and science, so that propelled my interests as well.
I went to Harvard Prep when it was an all-boys school and left there to go to Birmingham High School. Given my interest in math and science, I figured I’d go to a science college, so I applied to Caltech, MIT, and UC Berkeley, because they were among the best engineering schools. I got into all of them, but when I looked at Caltech, it turned out to have a 9:1 male-to-female ratio at the time. As a college student, and having spent some of my high school years at an all-boys school, I decided Caltech would not be the best place for me. I also stopped considering MIT when I realized I had to live in the snow. It is crazy how decisions can be made when you’re a teenager!
I ended up attending UC Berkeley, and I did a double engineering degree—in electrical engineering and computer science and materials science engineering. Quite a mouthful, I know. I also studied abroad for a year in England.
YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY NOT AN ENGINEER TODAY. WHY DID YOU CHANGE CAREERS?
During college, I worked summers at Teledyne and at Hughes Aircraft on the Star Wars program under Reagan. I decided that I did not want to be an engineer professionally, mostly because at that point in time Silicon Valley really had not taken off, so most people who were engineers wound up working in the defense industry. For a variety of reasons, including not wanting my livelihood to go up and down depending on what party was in office, I ultimately decided not to continue with that.
I was deciding between law school and business school. I got into Harvard Law School and decided to go there. The reason for law for me was dual: I thought it would be a good platform for entering into the business world, but also for my interest in public service—I thought that law would sort of check boxes. While in law school, I worked two summer jobs at entertainment law firms and accepted a full-time job at one of them upon graduating. After taking the bar, I went on a trip to Europe, as many graduates did at the time, before starting my full-time job. While I was traveling in Switzerland, I got a phone call from the senior partner of the law firm I was joining, and he told me that he had good news and bad news. The bad news was that many of the junior partners decided to start their own firm; the good news was that he asked me if I would start a law firm with him. We started what became Dern & Vein.
HOW DID YOU MAKE THE MOVE FROM LAW TO ENTERTAINMENT?
One of my clients was a small animation company, Film Roman, which was producing shows like Garfield. I started working with them so much as they grew that I ended up putting an office over there and started going into their offices one day a week. I was eventually asked to join the company full time. I became the COO and for a little while the acting CEO. We grew to be the largest animation company in the world after Disney. We produced everything from The Simpsons to King of the Hill and, for a while, even Family Guy, as well as many great kids’ shows, and we took the company public in the mid-’90s.
I stayed there for about five years and then I met Michael Ovitz—incidentally, through my wife. Michael asked me to run two of his companies: Artist Management Group, which was a talent management company, and Artist Production Group, where I ran the business side of the movie production company. I did that for a couple years. At that point, I helped arrange for the sale of the management company to another management company—which was run by a fellow Harvard Law alumnus.
HOW DID YOU GO FROM THAT TO STARTING MARKETSHARE?
After leaving the management company, I spent about a year deciding what to do next—do I want to start a new company, or do I want to work for another company again? At that point I met a guy who came out of the advertising industry. It was very happenstance. A mutual friend knew I was going to be in Hawaii over Christmas, as was another one of his friends, Wes Nichols, who ran a pretty big division of Omnicom, and he suggested that we meet. We got to talking about all the changes going on in the media world, with accountability and digital advertising and the fractionalization of the media world. Back in the day, if you advertised on one of a few networks and your local radio and local newspaper, you’d get to everyone. But the world had changed to include hundreds of cable channels and billions of websites and mobile devices, and companies had little insight what they were getting from their advertising spend.
We decided to start a company around that need. We partnered with a professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management who ran the marketing department, someone who wrote basically the textbook for this approach to connect advertising, on one hand, to sales, on the other. If you advertise on Facebook, unless someone clicks on that ad and buys right there, you don’t know what your return on investment is. Or even if they do click and buy, maybe they saw a TV ad for that company an hour earlier that primed the pump for the online purchase. We ended up building what became the biggest software company in this world of marketing accountability. We would go to major companies and advise them how to allocate their budget, across countries, cities, media, and even down to a granular very level. We built that company for about a decade and ended up serving about two-thirds of the Fortune 50 companies. Our clients were collectively spending about $1 in every $10 spent globally on advertising. We sold at the end of 2015 to a public company called Neustar [for $450M].
WHY WAS THAT THE TIME TO MAKE A BIGGER MOVE TOWARD PUBLIC SERVICE?
I spent a huge portion of 2016 integrating my company into Neustar, but also working on the Hillary Clinton campaign. I was hoping to move full time into public service at that point, but I had not decided whether the right path would be appointed or elected office. We know how the appointed story ended: She lost, but I still went ahead and left Neustar at the end of 2016. Starting in 2017 and for a couple of years, pretty much all my time, other than a little consulting, was spent in the public service arena, serving on many civic, state, and national boards, as well as on a number of charity boards, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, California Science Center, UNICEF, Big Sunday, California Cultural and Historic Endowment, and Center for American Progress.
YOU ARE CURRENTLY PRESIDENT OF THE LOS ANGELES CONVENTION AND TOURISM DEVELOPMENT BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS. YOU ALSO OVERSAW SECURING HOTELS FOR LOS ANGELES FOR PROJECT ROOMKEY, HELPING TO PLACE UNHOUSED INDIVIDUALS IN HOTELS. WHAT HAS THAT BEEN LIKE DURING COVID-19?
When the pandemic hit, the mayor asked me to take on two related roles: One was to help lead Project Roomkey for the city of Los Angeles. My focus was on finding hotels and negotiating for them to participate in Project Roomkey. I was also asked to do the same thing for survivors of domestic violence as part of Project Safe Haven—with COVID, options for survivors were very limited, because they really could not go to shelters or friends’ houses to escape their abusers. We had to do the Project Safe Haven work very secretively to ensure survivors would not be tracked down by their abusers.
The issue of homelessness is inexcusable in a society such as ours, and I still spend a great deal of my time on this issue.
Both programs were really gratifying—it was crazy the amount of hours we all spent, where teams were calling at all hours of day and night because there was so much import in getting both groups safely off the streets so they could shelter and avoid COVID, as well as receive food and services. I think they were both resounding successes. For Project Roomkey, we wanted to prioritize care for the people with co-morbidities or who were over 65. Out of 60,000 homeless people in the county, about 15,000 met that criteria. About half of that group would really be appropriate for Project Roomkey, since it was difficult to place those with severe mental health or addiction challenges in the hotels. We ended up getting around 4,500 people, representing more than half of the target group. The issue of homelessness is inexcusable in a society such as ours, and I still spend a great deal of my time on this issue.
With tourism, people congregating in large groups is just not going to happen for a while. Even with a vaccine, there’s going to be a significant amount of time before people feel comfortable. We’ll see a slow ramp, and expect to get to 2019 levels of tourism around 2023. That said, the hotels we’ve seen a faster ramp than we anticipated.
ANOTHER THING YOU’RE DOING NOW IS BIOLOGYWORKS. WHAT IS EXCITING TO YOU ABOUT THAT?
A couple years ago, a friend who I met through my government work, Peter Marx—also a serial entrepreneur—called me one day and said, “The Alfred Mann Foundation has this really cool technology, do you want to start a company around it?” We spent well over a year negotiating to acquire the rights, and we closed in February, just as COVID was hitting the U.S. The technology we acquired became a component in what we have ultimately built, which is an in-home diagnostic device, where you can test for almost any disease state for which you have a genetic fingerprint. We were originally going to start out testing for diseases like influenza, as well as things like strep, STDs, and even some cancers. Aside from being designed for in-home use, our product is also unique in that we can have multiple tests in the same device—our first device will have COVID-19, influenza A, and influenza B. It also gives results in 10 minutes, so people can inexpensively know if they have COVID, and we have a digital back end that can give you a “hall pass” for work, planes, and group events. We’ve filed with the FDA and also have a bunch of international markets that are interested. I’m very excited about the company because we can help open the world back up, and in the long run, have people take more control of their own health.