Trevor Lynn is the Chief Marketing Officer for Social Tables, an event planning software designed to allow entire teams to collaborate seamlessly on the design and execution of an event at a given venue. He is a forward thinker who advocates staying on top of or one step ahead of the curve in all aspects of communications and business development. We spoke at this year’s techsytalk LIVE, where he was one of the speakers.
Deborah – So tell me a little more about Social Tables.
Trevor – Social Tables is a software for event planners and event properties to work together online. We have collaborative workflow software, and basically what that means from a really high level – an event planner can go in and create a 2D diagram of an event space, totally to scale, A/V equipment, staging, tables, all that good stuff, and then the fun part is they can then take that and share it totally online with their caterer, their client, with the venue, whoever needs to see it, setup staff, banquet staff. And everyone’s working off the same thing, right? So most event planners have had the experience of, OK the cad guy sent me a thing, I need to edit it, let me redline it, let me send it back to the cad, then I have to wait, the caterer has the wrong one, and the A/V people have the wrong one… So it puts it in one place, puts it online, you can access it on iPad, through your laptop, mobile device.
Deborah – Very user friendly! Tell me about the latest developments since last year.
Trevor – As a company we’ve grown a lot. About 3000 customers, about 60,000 end users, we’re in like 150 countries, like 100 employees.
Deborah – So, language stuff going on.
Trevor – Yeah, French, Spanish, English, and we have the ability to roll out more languages – maybe 15 or so customers in China, so we’re working on getting that all set up. So it’s fully international, yeah, three languages right now. Doing this internationally has been fun. We just hired someone in Singapore, just hired someone in the UK…
Deborah – Tell me more about your job there.
Trevor – I’m the Chief Marketing Officer. So, what is that? For Social Tables what that means is my job is kind of on the early side of things with customers and the tail end with customers. So, on the early side it’s a lot of making sure that Social Tables understands what’s going on. What are people saying, what are people asking for, what are problems people are having? What is the general consensus around what planners say, like “Hey, I need this next.” Because that’s our job. Our job is to help planners either build in the things they know that they need or maybe even surprise and delight and build things they don’t even know they need yet.
So a lot of my job is talking to as many customers as possible, being at events like techsytalk LIVE where you get to be around people who are really forward thinking and planners that are really into tech and really pushing stuff… As you look more to the company stuff, we do a lot of content. So we do a lot of written content, we do events, a lot of e-books, downloads, white papers – we also create free mobile apps. So that’s a little different than some companies, where we actually create apps that are totally free for planners and put them in the Apple app store.
Deborah – More than just the Social Tables app.
Trevor – Yes, so one’s a free event calculator.You put in the number of attendees and it will tell you, depending on how long, how many hors d’oevres, how many drinks, how many servers, how many check-in tables [you need] – you know, quick math.
Deborah – Are these all under Social Tables?
Trevor – Yeah.
Deborah – How many do you have?
Trevor – Pocket Planner, which is the calculator, is our first one, and we’re coming out with another one called Sight Inspect. We haven’t launched Sight Inspect yet, but it’s coming soon. A mobile way to help planners to do sight inspections, and then take all their information after site inspections and then easily compare with the stuff they’re looking at. Using your mobile phone, using video and pictures.
This is us just being part of the community. Tech is what we do. So when we hear a planner complain about things that we know we can build a solution for relatively quickly, that’s like fun for our team…
Deborah – Ha! That’s sport… What makes you most excited about your work, and how long have you been working with the company?
Trevor – I’ve been there from the start, so three years. What gets me most excited – it’s on two sides. One is happy customers. You go anywhere to any city, and we have more than a handful of customers, so you can go to customers visits… Convene is a customer. So this whole event, we’re in one of our customer’s places. And that is totally awesome. Talking to people, hearing how they use Social Tables, and how they use it in ways we didn’t even think about – that’s amazing. The happy customer side is amazing. The other side is the happy employee side. Happy people working in the office all day – it’s a great place to be.
Deborah – Are you in New York City?
Trevor – We’re in Washington, DC.
Deborah – If you could expand your work in another direction, what would it be?
Trevor – I think because Social Tables is truly focused on industry education, content, stuff like that, I think it would be really, really fun to get into more consulting with customers. So a lot of the technology we come up with, customers are going to look at their current process and how they do things and go, nope, that doesn’t work. So being able to come in and educate, like hey, this doesn’t fit your current process, but it changes your process to make it look like this, and this is amazing, and help an entire event planning firm or help an entire hotel really dig in, and be like, ‘we need to change to keep winning and keep progressing.’ That would be really cool – a great way to expand what we do, and what I do.
Deborah – How big is your team?
Trevor – About a hundred people. The marketing team is about 20. We market internationally, but everyone’s in DC. We have our paid ads team, our marketing and communications team, our business development team, an events team, a community management team, and Dan is the CEO.
Deborah – What’s your basic philosophy about technology?
Trevor – I’m always trying to automate myself out of a job. If you’re not trying to automate yourself out of a job, you’re probably moving slower than someone else. So, my philosophy on it is, sometimes it’s hard to look at a software product and say, “Oh my gosh, $20,000 – nothing can be worth $20,000.” I tend to be really, really positive on the impact that can have, so I’ll look at something like $20,000 in my head. I’ll just go, oh, we could get ten more customers with that – OK, totally worth it. I know we’ll have ten better customer offerings if we have that software. Let’s do it.
Deborah – So you have the vision for that at this point. You can see which things are going to be worth the investment… in other words, you have a chess player’s vision?
Trevor – I hope so, right?
Deborah – That’s the idea!
Trevor – Yeah, it always seems like a no brainer, if it’s the right technology for your team and it’s easy to use and easy to put in your workflow, it`ll totally change how you do your job. To me, that’s the fun part. If your job’s not changing every six months or so, something’s probably happening and you’re not taking advantage of it.
Deborah – I totally agree with that.
Trevor – Even if you’re trying stuff and it doesn’t work? Great. Because for every couple times that happens, you’re going to hit a home run and your team’s gonna be on fire.
Deborah – Mistakes. What are some of the bigger lessons you’ve learned from mistakes?
Trevor – So one of our core values at Social Tables is fail fast and often. My very favorite core value is, “Every day is a school day.” So those two things together? We’re really big on failing and not being afraid of that. I would rather miss goal because we tried something really big that totally failed than just miss goal because we didn’t change anything. So, failures… when it comes to marketing, it’s really easy to test something. It doesn’t look right, it doesn’t work easily immediately, and then just move on. I have some regrets around certain marketing campaigns, like I wish we would have done an events road show this year… We’ve kind of done it here and there, and they’ve been super successful.
Deborah – What’s an events roadshow?
Trevor – So in 2016, we’ll be going to roughly nine cities and doing educational meetings in each city. So we’ll probably take a customer for a caterer, we’ll go with a venue that’s a customer and a planner, to help us pull it all off, but then it will just be industry education. So those road shows, we’ve done them a little bit, selectively.
Deborah – So they’re like your own educational events, basically.
Trevor – Exactly. A way for us to get out meet customers, meet potential new customers, make sure that we’re being helpful to the community…
Deborah – Listening, hearing what’s what…
Trevor – Exactly… When it comes to new product stuff, I have a little bit of shiny object syndrome… I’ll be like oh my gosh, we have to build this, this looks easy, we should definitely do it… I think there’s been a couple of times with a couple features where it was like, that was the wrong pick. You get this piece of a product that you thought was gonna be amazing, people weren’t really taking to it, then you have to kind of pull back. Those are tough. Because you have an engineering team that’s building things, so that’s people’s time.
Deborah – So then it’s like, guys –
Trevor – We gotta erase that. I think that’s tough. And then a final failure, I think when it comes to hiring… I think we do a great job of hiring, I think we’re awesome at hiring, it’s almost like a core competency, but what I think we could do is just be faster. If you can get the people you know you’re going to need in October, today, do it.
Deborah – In other words, don’t wait until the need is so pressing, but get people onboard in advance. Is that what you’re saying?
Trevor – Yeah, definitely. I think people’s ideas change, people want to move into different roles – those are all things you can’t account for, so if you wait for that, you’re too late. So always full court press.
Deborah – So always be a little ahead of the curve on hiring, interesting…
Trevor – Getting new “tablers,” as we call ourselves [as in Social Tables].
Deborah – Are there any lessons either you’ve been given, or were passed on to you, or things you’ve learned in your time working here that you’d like to share?
Trevor – I think one of the lessons I learned the hard way is that as a software company, we always want to partner. Our mindset as a company is we want to partner with every software company out there, and we’ll start to think about ideas or ways that the product can work to partner with other people. I think the lesson we learned is that frankly, not everybody has the same philosophy, and you really can’t will that on people. So if other companies don’t do that and you know it would be a killer integration between two products or it would be great for customers, it just doesn’t always work that way.
I don’t know if I know exactly what the lesson is there, but I think we sometimes take this picturesque idea of the whole industry and everything plays all happy go lucky, cuz that’s just kind of how we are, and then it’s like, OK well, you should probably have a better strategy around that… We tend to move so fast, we assume everyone else does, too, and that’s just not how it is.
Deborah – I recognize that tendency, it’s like, “I like you, let’s just do this thing together!”
Trevor – Exactly, and not everyone moves at that pace. You know.
Deborah – Yes, I recognize that. And sometimes you can come on too fast and scare people.
Trevor – Yeah, so just remembering that some people are slower, and to them we’re gonna be fast, and just realize that and don’t press on that.
Deborah – That’s hard to do… that’s funny…
If it’s true that the greatest companies are founded on their ability to fill an important need, then InitLive has indeed carved out a great place for itself in the event industry. Founder Debbie Pinard has designed a mobile device app and cloud service for managing staff and volunteers at events. Its interface is practical, sleek and user-friendly, and it is poised to be further developed in a number of useful directions.
InitLive was one of the exhibitors at this year’s techsytalk LIVE event in August. Debbie and I spoke about the development of InitLive out of her long career of PBX phone system development, including over 50 patented inventions.
Deborah Oster Pannell – What types of things have you patented?
Debbie Pinard – When I was working at MITEL, which is a PBX company, it all had to do with call control and features and things for the PBX, but for InitLive I filed four – one of them is on the architecture and the way that we get to the group of people to communicate with… So basically when you’re in the middle of an event on event day, and something happens, you want to be able to contact the right set of people. So we have this broadcast feature which lets you select based on, say, everybody who’s scheduled now, who’s checked in in the security role. And it narrows it down to those people. Because they change from hour to hour, possibly, right? So that’s one of the patents. Or you can actually pick the place that they are. So we do multi-venue, multi-location – let’s say it’s a run, like a marathon or something. So you can say something like, “Station three, anybody at station three, I don’t care what role you’re in, I need to tell you blah…”
The goal of InitLive is to replace walkie talkies, and then go one step further than apps like Voxer. With its unique, patented filters, it offers options such as being able to reach out to people at specific locations, in specific positions, at specific times. It offers distinct interfaces for both administrators and personnel. It also assists in maintaining minimum staffing levels in any one position, based on real time employee and volunteer check-ins.
DP – So it will tell you automatically on the phone, which shift roles are in trouble and recommend the best people to replace them with and let you press a couple of buttons and automatically boom, you’ve fixed the problem.
One of the patents is, “Where Are You, I’m Here.” If you want to find out specifically where somebody is, you can say, “Where are you?” and they just press a button saying, “I’m here,” and the phone sends back and shows you exactly where they are. We don’t want to have a big map of where everybody is, because that’s not useful, and it’s hard to do on a phone, but if there’s a certain person you need to get a hold of, we also have the full roster of people with all their contact info and their individual schedules, right on your phone.
DOP – That’s awesome. I already love this app… So what makes you most passionate about this, what drives you? I mean, you’re clearly tech minded and you love inventing things. Is it purely that or is there something deeper that’s made you focus your tech acumen in this direction?
DP – I had the idea for an architecture for a communications system. I started with events, looked at the participant side and that was really, really crowded. Then we talked to a bunch of event planners and we kept hearing volunteer management, volunteer management, so they’re using Excel and email, basically, and walkie talkies. Now, we’ve done a couple of events where we’ve found a lost kid. So that makes me happy, because you don’t want to announce that over a walkie talkie, that you’ve got a kid lost, right? Or, we’ve been at shows, and then a customer comes up and looks at it, and goes “OMG, where have you been all my life?” or, “I think I love you.”
DOP – Yeah, I’m already in love.
DP – And wait till you see our user interface, you’ll fall in love even more… We’ve gotten a lot of feedback about how easy it is to use, so that’s another thing that makes me happy. And the other thing is, I’ve been around for a while, let’s say, but most of my team are in their 20’s, so they’re very young and energetic, so that pumps me up, makes me want to come to work, because they’re so enthusiastic.
DOP – I know, I’m old. I need some young people around to help… Is there another direction you’d want to see this project go in, in terms of future growth and development?
DP – We’ve had interesting talks with disaster relief people, so where you have the event pre-set-up, and then if something happens, you can set up instant communications with a group of people. We’ve been looking at implications in the security business where you’ve got people who are temporarily doing something, either in security or crews of people temporarily together [like day crews who come in beforehand to do stage set-up], and depending on the day it could be a different group of people… We initially started off with volunteer management but quickly realized it was really staff and volunteer management, because the app doesn’t care if the person using it was paid or not.
DOP – Right, it’s just about filling the role and making sure the jobs are being done and everything’s covered.
DP – Yep, and being able to communicate with everybody when things happen.
DOP – Is there any overarching philosophy you have with regard to the use of technology that you think plays into the way you are developing your product and talking about it to people?
DP – Yeah, it has to help. Number one, it’s got to solve a problem… When I started doing programming, it was punch cards, right? And now, I can demo my product to anybody on my phone, anywhere, anytime, which I just think is amazing. I mean even when I was back developing PBX’s, everything was in house, like the operating system and the file system and the database… because we had to develop all of it, all the hardware, all the software. Now, Amazon has done all that, and we just have to plunk our software on it, and we’re connected from anywhere.
DOP – So you use Amazon…
DP – …as the back end that hosts everything, yeah. And it’s fast. We were at a show in Barcelona, and the service is currently running in Virginia, and we were demoing the product in real time, no problem. It’s just so amazing. And mobile. We were mobile first, we say. Because we started from the device and said, “OK, what do people need on the day of the event, on their device?” and then we created the backend to support that.
DOP – We all make mistakes along the way as we’re pushing into new territory. Have there been any mistakes you’ve made that you feel have led to significant lessons you can share with us?
DP – I have in the past, and even with this company, hired the wrong person, and it has devastating consequences to the team. In a start-up, because there’s not that many people, and you’re working really, really hard, long hours, trying to get stuff done, if you’ve made a bad hire, or somebody that doesn’t believe in the vision or just doesn’t get along with the rest of the team, or just can’t cut the pace that we’re at, it’s much bigger than the 1% or the 10% that they make up of the team. It influences the whole team, and can bring the whole team down. And it’s amazing, actually, because you’re scrambling to pick up the slack for them, and everybody’s worried about it and they’re not concentrating on what they should be doing. So it’s hire fast and fire fast, unfortunately, but you’ve gotta do that sometimes, especially with a small group that’s under a lot of pressure.
DOP – And you’re not the only one who’s said that, or something to that effect. I think that’s a lesson that a lot of us are still learning about really cultivating the right team. It’s so essential. You don’t realize it until it’s wrong, and when it’s wrong it’s just so bad.
DP – And right now, I am so blessed. The team I’ve got right now is so good.
DOP – The only other thing I would ask you is if you’ve ever gotten any great advice along the way or something you’ve learned that you want to pass on?
DP – Probably.
DOP – Haha – that answers my question, doesn’t it?
DP – The biggest thing is, get to know your customer. You get techies, and they think things are cooler than sliced bread, but it really doesn’t solve the problem. Or, it’s cool to them but nobody would really use it. We talked to a lot of event planners before we started, to find out how they did things and what they did and what their problems were, and then asked, well if we did this, would you buy it. Because if you don’t do that, then you’re just creating a product for no reason and spending money for no reason.
DOP – Thanks – I’m psyched about your product!
DP – Another thing we’re working on right now is multi-language, so it will be global. And we’re lucky again, we have a very diverse team, so I’ve got five languages covered just on the team.
DOP – That is great.
I urge you to check out InitLive for your next event. I really think this one is a game changer…
Making mistakes on the job can be embarrassing, even humiliating. It’s humbling to screw up in a way that exposes our lack of knowledge or faulty thinking. We think we should know better. But making a mistake is also one of the truly genuine opportunities we get to learn and grow.
When I was interviewing young entrepreneurs at under30ceo.com, one of the most common pieces of advice I heard was to make mistakes, and lots of them. When we screw up, we get a visceral experience of boundaries, of consequences, of really understanding what’s at stake in our day to day decisions, and how we can continue to grow and improve.
If You Do Screw Up, You’ll Survive
It’s true. Making mistakes, while they sometimes make you feel like you want to die, most of the time won’t actually kill you. If you do make a mistake, it’s best to own up and take responsibility for the error. Hiding it or avoiding the consequences usually compounds the damage done, and makes clean up ever more complicated. Most people, while they might be annoyed at the error, will respect you for acknowledging the part you played in the mishap. Do what you can to fix things, and then move on. Don’t waste time feeling guilty or re-apologizing. Just take a note and keep it moving.
Learn How to Learn
The most important thing about making a mistake is learning from it. If you get into making the same mistakes over and over, you’re definitely going to risk not only your position, but your integrity. People are generally forgiving of an honest mistake. But repeating that same error endlessly is going to get you a quick ticket back to the minor leagues…
Enjoy the Process
A number of years back, I was working in an event coordination position without proper guidance. One time, after our team completed a technical installation at a magazine launch event, I was encouraged to hang around at the event reception and hand out business cards to some of the guests who would be considered promising leads.
In hindsight, I find my behavior rather cringeworthy, but at the time, there was a lot of anxiety about increasing company revenues, and I lost my perspective. Needless to say, when the venue owner caught site of me and my colleague working the crowd at the reception, she made it clear in no uncertain terms that this was unacceptable. I felt so ashamed, like a schoolkid being chastised by the teacher.
Years later, I had the opportunity to produce an event of my own in this very same venue. When I ran into the owner again, I took a moment to thank her for reading me the riot act all those years ago. We shared a good laugh, me at the ridiculous choices I had made that day, and she at how harsh she probably was with me. I told her it was one of the best things anyone had done for me during that entire part of my career. She replied that their team actually has regular wrap up sessions after every event during which they talk about all the mistakes that each one of them made, and how they could learn from them.
Here’s another piece I wrote a few years back about what not to do when producing an event. All things I learned from mistakes, for sure. Honestly, being able to laugh at our mistakes is probably one of the best things we can do. Until the next time we screw up…
Congratulations, you’ve started your own business! You’ve developed a unique product or service, and now it’s time to get the word out to your adoring public. How are you going to make yourself shine, in a world where chances are, there are at least ten or more people already doing what it is you do?
But, you say, nobody does it quite like me.
You’re So Special
Aaaah, that’s different. So tell me what makes you so special? How do you do that special thing you do, that makes you unlike anyone else in the world who offers something similar?
This is the challenge of building your brand. In order to differentiate yourself in the marketplace and reach the people you know will respond to your offering, you’re going to have to figure out how to let them know just how unique you are. You need to be so good at conveying the essence of your specialness (yes, I said it), that it will be undeniably obvious to your ideal clients or customers.
When your customers come across your website and social media platforms, they need to have an “aha moment.” They need to slap themselves across the forehead and wonder how it was they managed to survive without you for all these years. They need to feel like they are coming home, like they can breathe a sigh of relief. Thank goodness, I’ve finally found what I’ve been looking for…
Of course it goes back to authenticity. Doesn’t everything? If it’s not real, nobody cares, at least not for long. In order to develop your unique brand identity, you first have to own it! Be your fabulous self! Show the world what you’ve got! Don’t be afraid to extoll your virtues and your special skills, show off the gems you want to reveal to the world. When you put yourself out there, you want to give the world a concentrated dose of who you are, so they know exactly what they’re getting.
Listen, you won’t be able to please everybody. It’s a given. So you may as well dig into your true self and be as real as you can. For one thing, people can smell when something isn’t genuine, and you’ll never be able to build any lasting relationships if folks can’t trust you. But secondly, and more importantly, you have to be able to live comfortably inside the public identity you are creating for yourself. If it’s not true, it will become increasingly uncomfortable, and like a web of lies, it will ultimately trip you up as you’re struggling to be something you are not. Be real, and you give yourself the opportunity to maximize your potential in whatever direction you desire.
Tell Your Story
People want to hear more about you, why you do what you do, what inspires you, how you got to where you are now. Your story is almost as important as the work that you do and the services you provide. Not only does your story distinguish you from what is most likely a large pack, but it offers people a chance to personally connect with you. Since most business dealings are relationship driven, it’s important to tell your story authentically.
It’s all connected, you know. Sharing information about yourself allows people to see you for who you really are, lets them know what makes you unique, and gives them the opportunity to make an authentic connection with you. Think about it, and you’ll see that the personal connection you feel with your favorite brands is what gives them their power. You’ve got the potential to do the same thing for your own brand!
Social media is an incredible channel for connection and communication. It’s where nearly everybody has put their focus these days as part of their marketing strategy, but let’s not forget that it can also be a tremendous tool for good old fashioned networking and relationship building between colleagues.
I first developed my affinity for social media in general, and Twitter in particular, through my involvement in the #eventprofs online community, about five years ago. Those of you who have been around for a while may well remember the roots of this community (and I hope you will share some of your memories, if you are so inclined).
What began as a series of online discussions between professionals in the event industry has, over the years, produced numerous conferences, publications, chats, podcasts and blogs, not to mention many deep and abiding business relationships and friendships. I’m not aware of any romantic relationships that resulted, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that had also been the case! (again, share your memories if you have any…)
Things are a bit different now. The airwaves have been flooded with commercial transactions, cultural memes and political agendas. But if you look closely, you’ll see that there are still plenty of opportunities to use social media as a way to build your professional community and create some authentic relationships in the process.
Here are a couple things to keep in mind as you work to find your people:
Relationships are a Two-Way Street
In business, we’re all looking to promote our work. We may have sales goals, or other growth related targets. The important thing in building relationships, though, is to have as much to offer as you are looking to obtain. In other words, it can’t just be about what’s in it for you.
For example, I’ve become quite disillusioned with LinkedIn groups. I have found that, except in cases where moderation is strict and specific in directing conversation towards more topical discussion, most people use the groups as platforms for self-promotion. I generally hear a giant sucking sound when I log onto the groups. It’s the sound of people trying to sell me things. I’m not interested.
More compelling to me are highly targeted Twitter chats, where the focus is to exchange thoughts and ideas on a particular subject. Much like the original #eventprofs discussions, I’ve often found these chats a great way to meet like-minded individuals working in my industry, or depending on the topic of the chat, people whom I wouldn’t mind getting to know in real life.
Promote Things That Get You Excited
I’ve long talked about the benefits of being generous online. When I feel psyched about a friend’s or colleague’s project or event, I go all out to spread the word throughout my circles. I’ve been a cheerleader for Kickstarter campaigns on Facebook, live tweeted presentations at conferences while I was listening, and blogged about events that I was really excited to attend.
As a side note, I should mention this – as a writer, I find that I do my best work when I am writing about something about which I feel genuine enthusiasm. Follow those impulses whenever possible and see where they take you. There’s nothing like the natural unfolding of connections while you are busy doing what you love to do.
All Work and No Play…
Here’s an anecdote. One time I attended a business networking function, and as I was on my way to the bar for my first glass of wine, a guy buttonholed me and started asking me about the level of insurance coverage among my staff. Dude, I just walked in the door, and you’re trying to sell me insurance? Nope. Please, do not do this.
Get to know people. The majority of solid business relationships are based on the fact that the people involved genuinely like each other and don’t mind spending the amount of time they’ll have to spend together in order to work with one another. It’s worth your time to make friends.
Dennis Finnegan is the owner and founder of Luminescence, a full service event production firm that has its roots in, you guessed it, lighting. I first met Dennis back in 2011 when he was exhibiting an exciting new product at BizBash – battery powered, programmable uplights. Having come from the event tech world, I was pretty psyched at the thought of not having to deal with those damn cables! I was so excited about Dennis, that I recommended him to Liz King for her next event. Aaaand, the rest is history.
Well, Luminescence provides much more than portable uplights. If you attended this year’s techsytalk LIVE, then you remember the shimmering holographic smoke “wall” that framed the event entrance. It made quite a dramatic statement. In fact, Dennis and his technical team provide a full suite of event services including trussing and staging, audio, video, furniture & décor, lasers, and other special effects.
Dennis and I sat down to talk about the development of his business and explore some of the qualities that make him and his company unique.
Deborah – About those lights – have you patented them?
Dennis – No, we’re the dealer, not the developer. The story behind that is a very magical kind of thing, one of those things that’s just supposed to happen. I was talking to a gentleman who knew me from the industry, and he just leaned in and said, “This deal just fell through, you need to meet this guy…” So I took a chance and I flew to London, and I met with him and stayed in town for a few days just about an hour west of London, and I took this uplighter and I tried to break it. I knew what I wanted, I knew what I needed tech-wise, I knew what I needed durability-wise, but more than anything I knew what I needed it to look like when we ran the lights, because I play with the lights. I joke around, I say we DJ with the lights.
I take what we do for events from my background from doing theater shows and from doing touring shows, so we translate that to the event space. I can’t have a chase running over fade time, and have one light come down fast, one light come down in steps. Everything in the room needs to work to response when we push a button. Instantly. And these were the only fixtures at the time that had that technology figured out. That, plus the fact that they were water resistant, indoor-outdoor, the battery life was phenomenal… When we first got delivery on them, I could do two jobs out of one charge. The way that they recycled was very intelligent. The guy over-engineered this stuff and he just didn’t have a channel for it yet, so I set up the first importing channel for these fixtures.
Deborah – Are there other people doing them now?
Dennis – Yeah, there’s other distributors now that picked it up in the south region. I think there’s one out west as well… My original fleet is still in service along with all the new fixtures. That’s five years later of hard touring!
Deborah – How many do you have now?
Dennis – We have about a hundred. And there’s various series. I think we have three of the old series, and then one of the new series. The old ones were called .20’s, and the new ones are called Colorpoints, from a company called Core in Europe. The new ones are great, because the cost has been reduced to half, the driver output is increased, their smaller, same footprint but the tech on the drivers have been cleaned up a little bit, the battery life has been almost doubled… When the uplighter product came around, there was a lot of stuff going on… and you know when you just feel like you’re stuck in a rut and you need another branch to swing to? I was there. I was totally there. It was about 2010, we’d been open for a couple of years… I made the difficult decision to trim the fat, get rid of the customers that [didn’t] work, get rid of the people that we [didn’t] vibe with… And it was hard. [There was] a good period of time where we lost revenue because of this, but it opened up a hole that made other things possible… It was a necessary move. We wouldn’t have made it if I didn’t do that.
Deborah – The reason I ask is, many people have talked about that topic from different angles. Not only making decisions about severing working relationships with clients but employees that don’t work. Those are serious issues for entrepreneurs contending with building our businesses.
Dennis – We’ve had people come through that didn’t even make it through the first job… hey, this is not for you. It’s the hardest job there is, where you have to wear so many hats. Especially on the tech side because of the physical demands and the tech demands, logistical demands, making sure of timetables… when everyone else fails at it, we thrive… Technicians and production people in general thrive on chaos, on controlled chaos and organization. We’re kind of misfits in life – we’re geeks, we’re all a little strange, but for some reason this industry makes us function correctly.
Deborah – It’s the right fit.
Dennis – What was important to me is that I wanted to do what I do, just a little bit differently, in the ways that I see as the correct ways. I’ve been a manager of people for other companies, but you don’t have the freedom to make those choices. I needed to start my own enterprise to do that.
Deborah – What makes your company unique?
Dennis – Tech is tech. Gear is gear. A lot of production companies love to tell you about their inventory, and I could take you into my warehouse and show you all my racks of gear and how great it is – I have the newest gear. It’s our people. Our people make us special. I think that I have really great people around me. I try to do that in my personal life, and I try to do that in my professional life. I’m very selective of the people I let into my sphere of energy. It’s a combined effort, and I like everybody that I work with. Like I said, we’re all strange cats in our own realm, but we’re a small family. You’ll see. Even though it’s a hard day, we’re still laughing.
Deborah – Everytime I see you, you always have good people.
Dennis – That’s the thing about keeping our size down, too. I’ve got five people on staff and a call list of about 30. A call list is good, but when you bring people in, you’ve got to be selective with that as well. I don’t think that our clients use us because we have the best inventory. I think they use us because we’re easy to get along with and we’re 100% reliable. There’s a lot of checks and balances in the background to make sure the orders are correct, but things do happen. I do what I have to do to make it right. I don’t pass the buck, and we also don’t farm out work to other people. I don’t subcontract crew or gear. 98% of our equipment on any job is in our inventory, controlled by us, so I know that it’s serviced, I know that it’s clean, and that’s why I’m in a comfortable place. We’re big enough to handle medium to large shows, and we do touring work, I travel to Vegas, Miami – we work. But I still have a good amount of control over everything.
Deborah – It’s true, production people are a weird bunch. To be conscientious and reliable and consistent, means that you are different, because everyone in this business is nuts.
What makes you most excited about the work that you do?
Dennis – I still get to be creative… I used to really get a kick out of flying the console and being in the front of the house and being the guy who pushed the buttons and making it all react, and every once in a while I’ll still jump in the seat and push the buttons, but that’s translated now to the bigger picture and making sure that all the assembly is correct… I like going into a raw space and figuring out every move from the moment it comes into the building to the moment it leaves the building and all the moving parts that go in between… The thing that’s so cool about what we do, and it’s almost like a spiritual thing, is that time no longer exists. You’re stuck in linear time, you have a curtain call, and no matter what happens, you must make your curtain call on time. There’s no, “I hurt myself,” there’s none of that. You get in the groove and time stops. And it’s moment by moment, priority by priority, A list to B list to C list to D list, to show and then Go. At the end of the day, you close everything up and you send it off and you go, Wow, we just went through 18 hours, where did it go? It’s like when athletes say, we’re in the moment. Our moment lasts all day.
Deborah – It’s a zone you go into.
Dennis – I think it’s one of the times when you’re being as true to yourself as you could possibly be, because you’re expressing from within and it’s just pouring out of you.
Deborah – The hologram. Every time I walk through that thing it’s like a religious experience.
Dennis – So this is a technology that I found about five years ago, and I knew I couldn’t handle it then. I knew that we weren’t ready for it. But it’s been simmering in the back of my brain, and I knew we needed to figure out a way… We launched at BizBash in October…
We pushed the water screens out first, because it gave me a chance to get over the bumps… It’s a rear projection system using elements, so we played with that first, and once that ran its course, it was time to move onto the fog screen, so now here it is.
Deborah – Any lessons you’ve learned that you’d like to share?
Dennis – One of the reasons why I started my own business is, coming up in production, coming up in touring, it’s a very macho driven industry and a lot of these guys are “Hey you, f-in new guy, get over here.” You know, I never liked it, I came up in it, I dealt with it, and I developed a thick skin about it… but you don’t learn by being beaten down, you don’t learn by being insulted, and the whole thing is, all this positioning, all this posturing, I’ve never understood how you expect someone to thrive by insulting them. So when I started my thing, for better or for worse, we’re going to do it differently…
So my shop is a teaching shop. One of my guys took a hiatus and jumped into a shop in Australia, and he was interviewing with them, a bigger shop, and they asked him, “What do you know?” And I always said to the guys, “You’ve never worked in a big shop. You’re a face in a crowd of faces, you never really get in the hot seat, you never really get any experience, it takes years to get on the console or to learn. Here, you’re gonna learn every job and you’re gonna learn fast.”
When he was telling them all the experience he had, they didn’t believe him. They wanted references from me, said, “Where did you learn all this?” Learned from doing. And if you do something wrong, we correct, we remind and train. We’ll break your hump a little, cuz like I said, we’re a family. But very rarely have I raised my voice in anger to anyone on my team, because I don’t understand the necessity for it, and I think that’s why we get along so well. Even on the difficult days, we pull it through. There are days when we don’t eat. There are days when we don’t sleep. But we get it done, because we’re all in it together and we know that we’re working for the greater good. So I think that was one of the things I learned.
But we definitely review every job, in the truck on the ride home – “OK, we hit traffic, oh, we forgot this one item, OK, we worked around it this way, but let’s put a new process in place,” and everybody has input. We have no choice – we don’t work any other way.
Deborah – OK, so commitment, creativity, integrity – any other lessons?
Dennis – Stay true to yourself. There are times when I take risks with the company taking on a project that may require us to stretch or reach a little bit further, but I’ve seen people make the mistakes of trying to do it all, or trying to do what they don’t do. If we don’t have people on the team who can do a certain part of the production, I tell my clients, “Hey, we can’t work with you like this. Maybe I can recommend someone else.”
Luckily, we’re in a place right now where we have a good broad reach for everything, but I think that staying true to what makes you YOU, and keeping your identity – do what you do and do it well. There’s a market for everybody. We’re in the heart of the world, there’s so much work to go around. Find the clients that make sense for you, do the work that makes sense for you, and be great at it. You’re gonna fail if you try to do everything.
Dahlia El Gazzar is the founder of The Meeting Pool, a combination interactive directory and consulting firm that helps people implement new technologies in their work and lives. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dahlia during this year’s techsytalk LIVE, and one of the first things she did was ask me if I was using Evernote to record my interviews. What? She then proceeded to blow my mind by showing me how I could use the built in microphone to capture my audio, save it as a wav file, share it and any associated images along with text annotation via a chat backed up by email notifications. And why am I not doing this all the time??
As Dahlia explains it, the Meeting Pool is a place for conversations. It was created, “… to help event professionals with new ideas as well as new technologies that they can implement and embrace, not only on the event level but also for productivity and for sanity, and to help them with efficiencies and just being ahead of the curve.”
“The other side of it is there’s these amazing technology companies, especially in the startup world, who need guidance and consulting on how to reach the right people at the right time with the right message, and so we help them with that as well.”
So what we’ve got here is an agency of tech geeks who are poised to help end users be more tech forward thinking and productive, and help tech companies reach the right people with their product. They’re also currently upgrading their tech decision engine, which contains info on over 1000 companies, to facilitate due diligence research on new technologies and solutions currently being offered in the marketplace.
Here’s more from our conversation:
Deborah – How does your work relate specifically to the event industry?
Dahlia – Anybody that wants to integrate practical technology or even just technology solutions and making people feel comfortable with their mobile devices, that’s when they bring us in to be an onsite team. If they embrace more event technology on the entire event level, it will be easier for adoption if the attendees are comfortable with their mobile devices. A lot of times you get handed an iPad and you ask your 7-year old son or daughter how to fix it or how to do it, so you can’t ask them to embrace new technology at a show or at an event if they are not comfortable with the basics.
Deborah – So your goal seems to be similar to Jim Spellos’s company. How would you differentiate your company from his?
Dahlia – So Jim and Liz and Corbin Ball and myself, and there’s a lot of other educators out there – I think our collective mission is to make people exploit or embrace smart apps and technologies and understand them enough to put them to good. And also to cut through the shiny objects, or the 400 or 700 apps that people sometimes say that you need. Jim and I, we’re very like-minded in the sense of educating people and not overwhelming them. We take it a step further where we’re doing it for not only the events world, we’re also doing it for the mainstream world. There’s a generation gap in the way of utilizing mobile devices and apps and business solutions. That’s what we are now catering to as well.
Deborah – So you find yourself catering to those businesses who might be sitting with a 1990’s style website that they still need to pay their developer for every time they need to change something?
Dahlia – Exactly, or if it’s someone who doesn’t have the time to look at their workflows and the processes that they have in place, where they’re married to the status quo. Usually this is where we go in and we look at the underlying platforms they have in place or do not have in place, and then make sure that all the team members are onboard with it.
Deborah – What are you most passionate about in your work?
Dahlia – My passion is to enable people to use their mobile devices and smart technology to be as efficient as they can be. And I know it’s a huge mission. I usually start all my sessions by saying, “I want you to be untethered from your office and your desktop and to do exactly what you need to be doing, on a beach in Mexico, and I can get you there.” Or, if I’m at a show, like we went to National Auctioneers Annual, so you have 3000 very fast speaking people, and a guy comes and he has a flip phone, and he’s like, “I never knew how to use it, I only have one number on it,” and so how do I get him to be comfortable with that? And efficient. Actually, it was awesome. He was doing voice to text messages, he was taking pictures and emailing them to his designer to put up on the website, and he still texts me pictures of flowers because of my name… So what drives me is that on one side, but it’s also on the technology side where I see all these wonderful solutions, like the holographic entrance [installation by Luminescence production services framing the techsytalk LIVE entrance]… So it’s looking at that tech or those apps and saying, this is the kind of experience you can shape with it. And it is all about experiences, our whole life is about experiences…
Deborah – Is there some other part of your life outside the industry that inspires you or feeds into the work, or another direction that you want to take the work in that you’re not doing right now?
Dahlia – What inspires me is my children, and I’ll tell you why. Because they are already living in a world that is so connected, that if we are the ones creating experiences for them, and we want them to go to the face to face and all of that, we need to create better experiences than they do on Playstation, to get them more engaged. On the flip side, we can’t forget to teach them how to be on that social level, not engrossed too much in a Twitter or a Snapchat that they can’t have a face to face conversation with Deborah when they meet you.
My kids actually worked a couple of tech bars with me, and it’s interesting because older people tend to go to them, like can you take this ding off the notification. It’s an interesting dynamic. I like to see things from their perspective. I love to see how technology’s changing how education is being delivered in schools and then – they run circles around me when it comes to stuff like that.
Deborah – Are there any particular mistakes you’ve made in your work that you feel have taught you some significant lessons that you’d want to share?
Dahlia – So, a couple of things. Taking on too much, and also not running with your gut feeling on products or ideas fast enough.
Deborah – Explain.
Dahlia – Taking on too much in the sense of making sure you’re not in overdrive all the time, but on the other side is when you have amazing ideas that your gut says, you just need to try it. So it’s getting that lizard brain to be quiet, as Seth Godin sometimes says, and to run with it and to find like-minded people who will support you or say, just let’s try it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, let’s just throw it out there and see what happens.
The world of technology is interesting and scary at the same time. I know a lot of people say that, but it’s the honest truth. It’s an interesting time, especially in the events world, because there are so many awesome technologies that can be utilized to change and create awesome experiences. People do need to take the time to understand how it works overall, for that seamless wow factor or seamless experience.
Deborah – Do you find that people get overwhelmed a lot when they’re faced with new technologies and they just don’t know which way to go?
Dahlia – For sure, they get overwhelmed to a point that they paralyze themselves and therefore do not try things.
Deborah – So do you find that you’re a helpful catalyst in that regard?
Dahlia – We are, because we bring it down to basics and laymen’s terms. Also we talk through it with them and they use us as soundboards. For example, [we explore] what it would mean for their constituents, for different event participants and if it needs to be phased in [over a couple of years], instead of someone from the C-suite saying, no we need to do the whole entire thing, and they have no idea what they’re talking about.
Deborah – So it’s an integrated approach.
Dahlia – It has to be. It certainly has to be.
Deborah – So Meeting Pool is really for the meetings and events industry.
Dahlia – It started with the events industry, and it’s morphing, because a lot of the attendees that we touch at different conferences, they see the benefit of taking a look at their own personal and professional set-up and skillset. We end up talking to a show organizer about the tech education or tech bytes that we’re bringing to the show floor, and you know I just had a call right now and she’s like, “Well wait a minute, can I get a one-on-one? Because I don’t know if my devices can sync up, and I want to know about those top ten productivity tools,” or “I want to know if I’m using LinkedIn the way I should,” and so it’s a domino effect. It’s meant to be, to a point where we say, bring us to your board or your C-suite and let us have them be comfortable with tech or mobile devices and know what Twitter is and so forth, even if they do not need to live on it, so they can understand what your decisions are all about.
Deborah – And then you can do a sweep of all their needs and their tools that they’re currently using…
Dahlia – Right, so it’s not a flyby… See the pool has always been a spot in the hotel where you have interesting conversations that go off on tangents. Whether at the bar, or in the pool, that’s where you meet interesting people and you’re like, “OMG, that clicks.” Then you go off, and you’re like, “Well, I can use that for business, but wait a minute, I can use that at home,” or “I’ve had this awesome idea for a book. I don’t know how easy it is to do it, tell me a platform that I can use…”
For instance, I was looking at what you’re taking notes on, and I’m thinking why aren’t you using Evernote? Because Evernote has a built in microphone for you in the notes…
And that’s how it all begins…
Hot off the presses update: Tech evangelist Dahlia El Gazzar is now empowering people with smart technology to lead productive business and personal lives via her new company, DAHLIA+. Through workshops, tech bars and one-of-a-kind consulting, she has what it takes to help you get to and stay in a winning position in our rapidly changing tech environment. Reach out to her at Dahlia@dahliaplus.com if you have a question or need a sounding board – she’ll be happy to speak with you. Tell her Deborah sent you and receive a special surprise! (Don’t tell anyone, but the surprise is a free resume and Linkedin profile review… ssshhhhh….)
If you’ve attended techsytalk LIVE over the past few years, then you are well acquainted with magician, Max Major. Host of the yearly event tech conference since 2013, Max wraps his uncanny mental abilities in a confident, wry sense of humor, giving the impression that he knows a lot more than he’s telling. He and I sat down together for a few minutes at this year’s techsytalk LIVE in August for a chat…
Deborah – Max, there are a lot of people doing work like you – what makes you unique?
Max – Well, I could tell you the differences between me and other people, but the bottom line is that actually it doesn’t matter. I don’t think there’s such a thing as competition in any industry. Period. Even the most competitive industry. You’re a DJ, everybody’s a DJ. You’re a photographer, well, everybody’s got a camera these days. Everybody’s a photographer. You’re not competing against someone else. Someone isn’t hiring you or them, they’re choosing to work with you because they have a personal relationship with you and believe in the work you do, so you do good work, and you have your own client base. It has nothing to do with other people.
Deborah – What is it about the work you do that you really love?
Max – People. Yeah. As a mentalist, I’m decoding people, I’m fascinated by people, by what makes us tick, how we make decisions, why we say the things that we say. I’m kind of a student of human nature, and so I get to demonstrate what I’ve learned onstage in an entertaining way, but I’m still learning every performance, so that keeps it exciting.
Deborah – Where are you moving towards in terms of the development of your work?
Max – I just signed a deal with NBC/Universal for a six month development deal that ends in December… at the end of December, we’ll try to sell a national TV show. This process is really exciting; I get to work with really creative people… The first three months are essentially brainstorming and development, and the second three months are actually producing a sizzle, which is like a three minute pilot. So that’s the first piece of a national television show or series… which has been a goal of mine since I was a kid. To support a career of public performances, a television show is a platform to gain visibility, because my true passion is live performance.
While the reach of television is incredible, and you have an ability to spread your message wider, live is where it’s at. It’s what I enjoy the most… it’s sort of two pieces to the puzzle, of having a public career. One is live shows and the second component is a national television series. So I still do corporate events, perform at conferences and conventions and meetings all over the country, doing sort of a traditional stage show, after dinner, but also serving as an MC, or doing a hybrid job of both entertainer and MC.
Deborah – Will you continue to do that?
Max – I will. I mean, I’ll always be available for hire. The price might change, (laughs) but no, that’s something I really enjoy. Events need entertainment. It’s the most commonly overlooked aspect of planning a conference or meeting. It’s like what budget do we have left over for entertainment, which is the wrong approach, because if your event is boring and not entertaining, it doesn’t matter what content you delivered. All people will remember is that they didn’t have a good time. People remember the emotion they were left with, with an event, not necessarily what they learned, and the only way to tap into that is entertainment.
Deborah – What’s your philosophy about technology, as it relates to the work that you do?
Max – As a business owner, it definitely affects me, you know. Technology gives me a number of tools and advantages your parents didn’t have. As entrepreneurs, we have more opportunity in front of us than anyone has ever had in history to do what it is that we love. The internet is a great equalizer – it’s not hard to get the word out about what you do. You have a soapbox. Where before you had to buy very expensive advertisements, in traditional print or one of five TV stations that there were at the time, the internet allows everyone to do what it is that they love, and to monetize it and capitalize on your passion. If you are passionate about collecting thumbtacks, and you’re really passionate about that, you can make a living curating a community of people who probably share that same interest. We’re all weird, and the internet allows us to find people…
Deborah – Find our weird tribe.
Max – Yeah. Seth Godin says, “We’re all weird,” and I believe it. So yes, as a business owner, technology helps. As a performer, as an entertainer and as a business owner, social media is a game changer, you know. You have this great reach to get your message out and to share content and share what you believe and impact people on a larger scale. And then as a performer, technology is great. New lighting, new projection technology just makes my live shows more engaging.
Deborah – Do you use devices a lot?
Max – I guess I adapt with the times. I used to guess people’s email password, and now it’s more common, you know, people have their cell phones – now I guess people’s passcode for their phone, their pin#, that kind of thing. So yeah, I do things with technology because people carry it on them, but technology isn’t the method.
Deborah – It’s a tool.
Max – It’s just a prop. Yeah, it’s like oh, you’ve got a cell phone? What can I do with that, because I’m going to come up against that.
Deborah – Is there any aspect of your work that is related to something from personal life that’s a big influence on it?
Max – Sure… look at stand-up comics – some of the best stand-up comics have the darkest past and personal struggles… Being charismatic is being completely aware of who you are, so you can be energetic and charismatic, you can be soft spoken and charismatic, it’s just an awareness of who you are, and an openness about it makes you magnetic… people go, wow that person’s so comfortable with you they are. And so, there’s a lot of personal stories that come into my show itself, but then also your past shapes who you are as an entertainer. So what you find funny and the things that you study, they’re all shaped by circumstance of childhood or whatever it is… Yeah, you can’t escape that in any field but especially as an entertainer where you’re a storyteller, those stories are relevant but also, it shapes your personality which is front and center, and if it’s not authentic, an audience can smell it…
Deborah – Do you see yourself in relationship to your audience in a specific way?
Max – In my new show, I’m their guide. I’m sort of pointing out things that are universal, things that I know about people that you might not have noticed. Yeah. I’m like the best man… Like, we’ll get into a little mischief, and somebody said I’m the best, best man. I’ve never actually been a best man, but I’d make a great best man… the best man for your evening, you know…There’s gonna be a few surprises, we’re gonna have a little bit of fun, you’ll probably have that heartfelt moment that you have at a bachelor party… Yeah, I’m your guide. I think I’m wired as a teacher, in a way, there’s a bit of that in everything I do.
Deborah – We all make mistakes. Obviously it informs our growth, our development. Is there one particular mistake that comes to mind, having produced a lesson that’s become really important, or some insight?
Max – No, truly. I know some people say, there are no mistakes, only lessons. I wholeheartedly believe that everything that has happened to you in your life has put you in this exact place that you’re in right now. Not fate, not any supernatural way, just an effect, cause and effect. I’m here right now sitting at this table with you because of a choice I made ten years ago about where I went to school, which put me on this certain path to eventually meet Liz, and this to happen. It’s not fated, it’s just those are the facts. And so, no event is really good or bad in and of itself.
We place judgments on things, and so if you’re aware of that, and if you’re paying attention in your own life, then everything is important, even the smallest little thing, even the thing that seems bad at face value. You know if you looked at your life ten years from now, and you looked back, you would see how everything unfolded, and it would make beautiful, perfect, wonderful sense, like in the rearview mirror. It’s always easy to see all the connections… Like anyone else, my gut reaction in the moment to an event that you could perceive as negative, yes, I still get frustrated, but I’ve worked very hard at removing labels and judgment from my own life, because it’s really important, and people are interested in this kind of thing, and developing a healthy mindset.
Look at stoicism. Marcus Aurelius wrote a lot – he was a stoic philosopher. People don’t know that about him, but he has a lot of writings about how we perceive events and how we can’t control the actions and thoughts of others, we can only control our own thoughts and actions. So we can’t control what happens to us, we can only control how we think about it. It’s very powerful. Look at stoicism, look at the Tao, look at mindfulness and meditation, it’ll change your life, because you’ll stop reacting and you’ll start observing, and it has a very profound effect on your life, so no, I don’t have any regrets or any mistakes.
Deborah – You don’t see them as mistakes…
Max – Sure.
Deborah – What’s your thought on the connection between science and spirit?
Max – Well it depends on what you mean by spirit. I mean I’m agnostic. I have no stance on religion or God, it’s not relevant to my life and how I live my life.
Deborah – I don’t think I mean religion or God.
Max – Some people, they hear the word spirituality and they go, oh, your spirit or whatever the supernatural thing is. The true meaning of spirit is your essence. It doesn’t have to be anything supernatural… so, consciousness if you want to call it that, being…
Deborah – I guess I’m thinking about that territory.
Max – I’m not a scientist, I only have my own personal experience to speak from, and so, there’s certainly an awareness that’s above that conversation inside your head. I think we can transcend judgments, we can transcend the ego and that narrative in our head and that kind of thing, and be more present for our own lives and live richer and fuller lives.
So, I’m a born skeptic, I’m agnostic when it comes to religion, I question things at face value. As a magician I’ve been trained to do that since I was 12 years old, and so the spirit is a very personal thing, and my exploration of spirit has been sort of cracking my preconditioning and trying to become more my true self and shedding those layers of burdens from childhood and everything else that happens to you… I think the closest thing you can get to spirit is probably working on mindfulness and awareness, and working towards living your passion. Those are the two biggest things you can do for your life, and so when your passion and your work are aligned, and you’re present for the unfolding of that, that’s the point of it all…
Deborah – Would you say you’re getting there?
Max – I don’t know, I mean it’s a lifelong journey. I don’t think it’s a destination you arrive at, I think it’s a practice. So, I’m definitely in a better place just from a mindset standpoint than I was four or five years ago, and it’s allowed my career to take off, because I don’t put so much pressure on myself. I used to be very attached to outcome, and so it was a win or lose mindset… When you sort of detach from that and attach yourself more to the present moment, you become more attached to the process, and when you’re more attached to the process, things will naturally unfold the way that they should. You’ll do better work by its very nature, you’ll put less pressure on yourself, you’ll have less stress…
You actually do better, you actually achieve more by attaching less to goals. I certainly still set goals for myself, but you sort of set your goal and then you let go… And it’s not a recipe for apathy, like “Oh, yeah, I’ll just put my intention in that direction.” No, you still work very hard. You set your intention, you let go of attachment to outcome, and then you bust your ass and put all of your energy in one direction, with the understanding that it’s that process, it’s the work, that’s the point. Not the final product or the outcome. That’s transformed my career.
Well, another techsytalk LIVE has come and gone, and I have to say, this may have been the best one so far… that is, I think so. I actually spent much of the day in the Convene boardroom, interviewing nearly a dozen of the presenters and exhibitors who attended that day.
Liz King Events has made it their business to gather some of the more forward thinking people in the event/tech worlds, and this year was no exception. Jill Taub Drury, founder of Drury Design Dynamics, kicked off the morning with a look at surviving the next evolution of the meetings and events industry, based on her firm’s core values of maintaining excellence, working with the best people who are committed to innovation, education, and a practice of road testing new ideas. I later spoke to Jill to find out a little more of what makes her tick.
Deborah – Jill, tell us a little about Drury Design Dynamics.
Jill – Drury Design was founded in 1981. We are a fully integrated communications agency. We work with clients to support their brands across the board via meetings, learning and performance, entertainment, social and communications. We’re a very diversified company. It’s exciting, because we get to work with our clients across their different types of projects, and that makes it fun.
And by clients, she means folks like IBM, Walmart, Deloitte, Johnson & Johnson… Says Jill, “It’s exciting that they trust us to communicate their message.”
Deborah – What do you find most exciting about your work?
Jill – I love the people I’m surrounded by, they’re really amazing – it’s always exciting to be around a group of people who are so creative and so innovative, and smart, really smart. We do a lot of content. A lot of companies who do production, do [only] production, but we’re doing the strategy and the messaging and the content and the building out the architecture of the event, so that’s exciting… and then it’s the clients we’re working with and the subject matter and to see the changes going on within their companies, as well as the world, is really interesting.
Deborah – What kind of changes are you seeing?
Jill – Well, IBM is a client of ours, and so if you look at Cloud and technology and social and servers and all those things… There are other examples of companies we’re working with where maybe they have internal things going on. Maybe they’re being split or bought out, and we help with that messaging, how they communicate with their people and train their people to handle it and the expectations and prepare them for the future, so that’s a whole other side of it, which is very strategic oriented. I know that we’re known for these very large 20,000, 15,000 people conferences, but there’s this very important part of our business that has to do with strategic leadership, and how we can help them communicate.
Deborah – A little more quiet, behind the scenes, but no less exciting because the dynamics are so impactful…
Jill – Absolutely, on such a big scale, and to see it rolled out. Whether we roll it out or somebody else does, I love seeing that. What’s MPI’s thing? “Great things happen when you bring people together.”
Deborah – Is there any other place you’d like to go?
Jill – One of the things that’s interesting that I talked about today, is that you have to evolve, and over three decades, we’ve done a lot of that. The thing that’s done for us has been to grow our capabilities, which enables us to go into all these different areas now…. I think if there was one area that I wish we did more of, it’s experiential events, which is not so much about the content, it’s more about the fun and engagement. We do a lot of that, and we bring it into our events, but to just do events like that would be a lot of fun… We certainly have the capability to do it. I find that there are many companies who do that who are trying to get into doing the content end, and they’re finding it very hard to go that way, whereas we already do all of those things, we just haven’t been going after that business.
Drury Mash [the firm’s yearly professional education event] is something along those lines, particularly this year. It was really fun and everyone was “Oh, what a great party!” and I’m like, “I’m so glad you’re having a great time at our great party! Let me tell you what you learned!” Because we’re creating an experience – that’s exactly what I wanted them to walk away with.
I really think a lot about onboarding at events. I happen to be shy. When you go to an event where you don’t know anybody… if there’s 200 or 300 people, it’s really clear that you feel separated from everybody else. When you have 10, 15, 20,000 people, it’s overwhelming, and so where do you start? So creating experiences where people can easily turn to the guy next to them, and it makes sense, and it’s not awkward, and make a comment that a conversation can come from, it speaks volumes. And it’s equally as important as anything else you do, because… When you go to a conference, the information, 98% of it is online. It’s the experience, it’s networking, it’s the people and the business that you’re doing, particularly as you look at millennials… The millennials made us acknowledge and put it into play, but we’ve always wanted this. Because who really wants to sit in a room and be talked at for five days?
Deborah – I’m so glad these types of conferences are winding down, because they’re so deadening.
Jill – Yes, they are. Even when we’re in an arena situation for our general sessions, we have second screen, so that if you’re going to be sitting there on your computer, your tablet and your phone, and your head down, you’re listening but you’re doing other things, I’d rather have you go to content that’s about the speaker or the conference or the subject matter. So we provide second screen information.
Deborah – In your presentation, you said, “Tell a story – look to technology to support it.”
Jill – It’s really about putting the information up there, and having a link for somebody to go to…that’s what it comes down to… What’s the link and how are they getting to it?
Deborah – So rather than fighting the trend of people being hooked in all the time, you are using it to advantage – if they’re going to be on, give them something that will connect them back to the subject at hand.
Jill – It’s an example of looking at emerging technologies and concepts and adapting them to work for us. Where did second screen come from? They’re doing it on TV! Follow the hashtag, tell us what you think, friends watching TV in different locations talking to each other through it… So that’s really the idea, it’s just adapting what’s being done… you always need to drive the mission and the messaging and the brand, and so any opportunity you can do that in a way that doesn’t feel intrusive…
Deborah – That’s the key, to make it organic to what is going on.
Jill – Right, because when they call them marketing events, you can’t be marketing all the time.
Deborah – No, nobody wants to be marketed to… in fact, I wrote an article for lLz once called Quit Marketing at Me. I got it, enough already!
Jill – I read it, I heard it, I’m there… On the second screen, the other thing is we use it for polling, right there… I’m waiting for the day when we have something like Yelp for speakers, and people are rating them as they’re speaking, and it comes up on the screen. How will speakers change their presentation? I mean I would have a heart attack.
Deborah – Me too, wait, I’m failing, I’m failing, no it’s going up, wait, no, it’s going down, pivot, pivot! Hahaha…
Jill – But people will be doing that and sharing and then making recommendations, “Go see this guy, don’t see this guy,”
Deborah – Oh my…
Jill – In real time it would really be tough, but I do think it would do a couple of things. It would hold speakers accountable, to make sure that they’ve rehearsed, to make sure that their content is really good. I have clients who, you’re getting up on an arena stage in front of 18,000 people – I don’t care how often you speak, rehearse! If not for you, for the technical team, so they can set your levels and see where you’re going to pace to, get your rhythm down for changing your visuals, so it’s really important. I also think that it will help drive pre-conference conversation along with post, which is really important. You know, you look at social during events, so social can go up – it spikes for the four days during the event, and then it goes down. So, if you can start that conversation before and then keep it going, that’s what you want.
Deborah – Tell me, do you have any big mistakes that you’ve made that you’ve really learned from that you would not be too embarrassed to share?
Jill – Let’s see. This is a big one to put out there. Holding onto people too long, because you think you’re being nice. And you’re not doing anyone a favor by that. You’re not helping your company, your brand, but you’re not helping them, because the longer you keep someone who isn’t doing a good job and they’re clearly not happy, you’re making them less marketable in the job market after they leave. I think that we’re very culture driven at Drury and very family oriented. It doesn’t meant that we’re family, we’re a business, but we really care, and sometimes we do that and it’s not a good thing.
Deborah – Thank you, that’s a good one. I love that you’ve said it, and I hope that you don’t call me tomorrow and say, “Don’t say it” because I’m a big fan of humility and pulling back the curtain and showing process. Making mistakes is where we learn.
Jill – Didn’t I say that? Don’t be afraid to fail. And share those lessons.
Deborah – I think we culturally need to get past the shame of making mistakes and this insistence that we’re constantly being judged, that there’s some kind of judgment that’s permanent and unforgivable. Because it’s not like a fall from grace situation here. We’re not going to hell if we make a mistake.
At under30CEO, many of the entrepreneurs I interviewed there said, “Make lots of mistakes, it’s the only way you learn.” How do you know unless you push into something new? Oh well, that didn’t work, and then you learn. Otherwise, you don’t know if maybe you’re just being lucky.
Jill – And that’s why I talk a lot about how it’s not just educating people about the technology, or an idea or a process, they have to road test it, they have to experience it hands on, and you get two things from that. First of all, they get to experience it so they understand what it’s like. They understand if the technology will work, or the philosophy behind the activation will work, but we also see how people interact so we can think about, should we adapt this and then include it into our client driven events? Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe there’s not a place for it. Maybe we just need to wait for the right opportunity. But I hate technology for technology’s sake. I hate kitch, trendy stuff – what’s it going to do? What’s the purpose?
And one last comment re: holding onto people too long. It’s not a decision that you make willy nilly. It’s a really thoughtful process, and it’s stages. You have to work with people, see their potential, so it’s not just about having the right people in the seats, it’s about having the right people in the right seats. And so there are times that we’ll see that a person might be more passionate about, or have more of a sensibility for another area, and we love this person, we don’t want to lose them, just because they’re not doing this job correctly. They might be better over here, let’s give it a try. And it’s not all about us. It can’t be all about us. It has to be about them as well. If I cared enough to bring them on, I need to care enough about what their next step will be.
Deborah – I think that speaks to a really great philosophy of valuing relationships in all their dimensions and really understanding all those dynamics between balancing out your needs, the needs of your employees, your consultants, whoever, so that you’re really taking all these needs into consideration. That speaks volumes of you as a business person, and an employer and an innovator, too, because I don’t find everyone to be that forward thinking. I don’t think everyone thinks that way.
Jill – I have to say, Deborah that I was really lucky to start when we started in the 80’s. It’s a lot harder now, because everything’s faster, cycles of engagement, what does that mean, and the pressure that always is, and even how the opportunities that come to us and the expectations right out of the gate, and you hear you’re not even as good as your last show. It’s really hard today, whereas if I think back, I had handwritten, full page double sided letters of thank you. Now, it’s a different world, and you have to go with that. But it gave us time to really understand who we were, what we wanted to be and the importance to us of the role of culture within the company, because I want to be able to go to work every day and be happy and I wanted to be surrounded by people who are happy.
Deborah – Absolutely, and I’d like to think that the process you’re talking about, sort of broadening the level of internal engagement is something that we can foster. One of the things I’m hoping to do with this series of interviews is tease out some best practices and philosophies and some values that I think are significant as trends I’m seeing amongst this little subset of thought leaders. Because I really think that’s what techsytalk is about. techsytalk is not just about the latest gadgets, there are so many more dimensions to it.
Jill – Liz has really couched it well. She’s really terrific.
Deborah – I agree.
Matchmaking Stories from Techsytalk LIVE – ClearHart’s Clara de Soto Meets Event Farm’s Brennan McReynolds
Welcome to the first article in our new series, Matchmaking Stories from techsytalk LIVE, chronicling the matchmaking power of our annual marquee event tech conference and showcase.
Just completing its seventh year, techsytalk LIVE (formerly known as Plannertech) has established itself as THE place to learn about the latest resources and best practices for using technology in the event planning and meetings industry. In addition to its awesome educational content, the event has become a hotbed for community building and collaboration. We are thrilled to bring you the first in what we hope will be a long series of matchmaking success stories that started at techsytalk LIVE.
Our first tale involves two of our regular techsytalk LIVE presenters, Clara de Soto, Co-Founder of ClearHart, now SVP of Business & Product Development at Event Farm, and Brennan McReynolds, COO of Event Farm. Did you catch how they are both at Event Farm now? Let’s take a look back and see how that happened.
In 2011, Clara, along with Co-Founder, Erica Mannherz, founded ClearHart, a full-service innovation agency devoted to bridging the digital and non-digital worlds. They created turnkey wearable tech programs for some of the country’s largest events, including the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, San Francisco’s Outside Lands music festival, and the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. They even developed a nifty app called Killswitch, that allows you to remove all traces of your ex from your Facebook page, “making breakups suck less.” Then Clara gave a presentation at last year’s techsytalk LIVE conference, titled, “Wear” is the Engagement?! Leveraging Social Media, NFC and Wearable Technology at Your Next Event. Little did she know, but sitting in the audience was Brennan McReynolds.
Brennan is the COO of Event Farm, an event marketing platform offering invitation, guest registration and digital activation services. Their extensive client list includes the likes of Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Wired, Mashable and Buzzfeed, to name a few. During the time that ClearHart was developing their wearable tech, Event Farm was slowly moving into the experiential space with its own branded digital experiences for corporations and organizations. When he listened to Clara tell about the work that she and Erica were doing, Brennan knew there was a conversation to be had.
I spoke with Brennan and Clara this past week, and they talked me through the story of how they met and what’s been happening since.
Brennan – Here we are in the marketplace talking about heads up engagement, and that life should be more exciting than looking at your phones during an event, and that true data is when we’re interacting and engaging with people. Then here’s this woman who stands up on stage and says the exact same thing, and it was like, Holy sh*t, they exist! There’s somebody else who gets this and can truly articulate it and is passionate about it… So that’s when I tweeted out, nice work, we gotta talk, and Clara quickly responded, and she happened to be sitting behind me, and that was the first nerd out session of what ultimately became the team and the partnership that we have now.
Clara – We were really digging deep into what Brennan was mentioning, that “heads up” movement. With Clearhart, we felt a deep ethos around making sure that human behavior was dictating the technology and not the other way around, and that was kind of guiding the majority of our activations and projects. For instance, we created an app that removed traces of your ex from your Facebook profile… I actually have a 15-year-old sister, and seeing all of her little friends and how they engage with technology… seeing the real human behaviors there, that people want to digitally capture their special experiences, we sort of felt a bit of a calling about how to respond to that natural human behavior in such a way that wasn’t everybody at a concert holding up their phones and experiencing that concert through their phone screens as opposed to in the flesh.
Both ClearHart and Event Farm were gravitating towards the use of NFC, or near field communication technology.
Clara – It’s a chip, similar to RFID. It’s a chip that allows pieces of data or content to pass between two objects. An example of that is Apple Pay, or Google Wallet – an NFC reader that’s in your phone that when you tap it to a device, you’re able to pay… EZ Pass is [an example of] RFID – radio frequency, so it’s long range, but NFC, you have to be near… It’s funny, both Event Farm and Clearhart had the same draw towards NFC vs. RFID. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about RFID and how it’s used in the access control space, at large festivals. We were both independently drawn to NFC because of the active participation that it requires. You know, we’re not passively tracking people like they’re a bunch of cattle, instead we’re creating active touchpoints throughout an event experience that are intuitive to that space, so that attendees can actively be like, yes, I want to learn more information about X, or I want to actively check into Y, as opposed to us sending a push notification… I have yet to meet a single person who has gotten really psyched about a push notification. NFC, near field communication – it’s a chip that allows two devices to talk to each other. When we use it, we’re putting that chip either in a badge or a wrist band. I mean literally we could put it anywhere, in a decoder ring.
These two companies were definitely moving into similar spaces with their respective NFC projects: ClearHart’s Savor Band, which was used to great advantage at the 2014 New York City Wine and Food Festival, and Event Farm’s New Media Party, showcasing their digital gifting wall, as well as the announcement of their new HOVER platform, a fully integrated suite of digital services and apps.
It didn’t take long for these two powerhouses to realize that they should join forces. Clara, Erica, Brennan and Ryan Costello, Event Farm’s CEO began a series of meetings that sounded suspiciously like a romantic courtship. There was even a competing suitor in the form of another company who wanted to acquire ClearHart. But in the end, Clara and Erica decided that Event Farm would be a better home for them. On July 22, Event Farm announced the acquisition of ClearHart with the headline: Experiential Marketing of the Future: Bringing the Internet of Things to Experiences. As part of the deal, both Erica and Clara have been brought on as SVP’s of Business and Product Development to lead their HOVER and other new product development, new business and the direction of the experiential products as they continue to grow.
And it all started at Convene, during techsytalk LIVE. As Brennan says, “You meet your people, right? And that’s why I believe in the power of what Liz has built… If you really get into this space, that’s where you go to see and meet your people.” And as Brennan also correctly points out, there are many people in the industry who could be possible collaborative partners. The key ingredient to the success of such a relationship is a true alignment towards a shared ultimate vision, or some other urgent call to action.
Brennan – It was also validating, because then you realize, maybe we’re crazy, right, now we’re not crazy and alone… We’re not totally in this by ourselves, there’s other people who are equally as into this as we are…
And as I like to say, crazy with company is always better than crazy alone.