This article was contributed by Caribou Honig, chairman and co-founder of InsurTech Connect, as part of Tearsheet’s new Thought Leaders contributor program.
When I joke that my career has gone from credit card executive to cofounder of a boutique venture capital firm and now to being an event planner – “if you have any weddings or bar mitzvahs coming up, let me know” – people rarely laugh. The reaction is typically silence. Uncomfortable silence.
If it is funny at all, it’s only because it’s true. I cut my teeth at Capital One as it grew from 1,000 employees when I started to 20,000 when I left. During my tenure the company experienced a decade of hyper-growth that would have made most Silicon Valley companies envious. Though my leaving looked like a stupid career decision at the time, it led to my second act: cofounding a venture capital firm, QED Investors. With a commitment to finding and helping great entrepreneurs in data-driven sectors, I couldn’t be more proud of the firm we built.
Another decade and another stupid career decision later, I find my day occupied with launching and growing conferences along with my partner, Jay Weintraub. Great conferences. What’s-coming-around-the-corner conferences, on topics ranging from insurance to human resources, and always with an eye to the impact of technology. Yes, I’m an event planner, but only events with a grand vision.
Colleagues from my venture capital days frequently ask how a great conference begins. How do you go from an idea to over 5,000 attendees in less than three years? What happens in the lead-up to an industry event, and how much is art versus science? These questions inspired me to share five lessons I’ve learned from behind the stage.
1. Start with a focus group of one. A conference should be created only if there is an actual, named person wanting to attend an event which doesn’t yet exist. That person must describe their ideal of who should attend and what topics will be discussed. Let this be True North in designing the conference. It might seem like a paradox, but the clarity that comes with designing the event to be great for a single attendee is the best way to make the event great for all attendees.
2. Curate the first 100 attendees, individually. The first people to commit are placing a bet that the conference will, ultimately, achieve critical mass. The only way to make this happen is personalized outreach: share the crisp vision, connect it to their specific goals, and ask them to take a leap of faith with you. This is a grassroots effort – no mass emails. It requires hours and hours of phone calls, active listening, and in my case suppressing my introvert self. This step in the process is both exhausting and fundamental to launch a great event.
3. Find allies to help make the event a success, then take their needs as your priority. Conferences succeed when a community of common interests come together. Assembling that community is too big a job for any one team: it requires allies. After the first 100 attendees have been confirmed, attention turns to identify who else could benefit if the event succeeds. Among others this includes influential bloggers, consulting firms, and industry associations. Grassroots outreach is again the key. Most important, always focus the conversation on one question: how can we further their goals, as our ally, through the event.
4. Prepare yourself to say “no” to people, albeit with the utmost respect. A colleague approached me a year ago, seeking advice whether he should start a conference as a way to drum up business for his consulting firm. I had to point out that that many of his clients would apply to be on stage – and rejecting some of them comes with the territory here. Building a cogent agenda that resonates with the focus-group-of-one requires saying “no” sometimes. It’s a tough part of the job.
5. Always remember, People are the Product. I’ve polled attendees of one event I helped launch, InsureTech Connect, and asked why they came. The single most important reason comes down to the fact that everyone they want to see will be there. Conferences succeed when they bring the most compelling people together and create the right conditions for serendipity.
My career has taken an odd turn as a former credit card executive and VC. And yes, now I’m an event planner. If you have any weddings or bar mitzvahs coming up…