79: Ignite the 4 Dimensions of Your Events with Don Neal

Don Neal is the Founder of 360 Live media, an award-winning event strategy, marketing, and design agency that helps associations maximize the impact of their events. We talk about the reasons why people attend events, the rise of the experience economy, and the effectiveness of a premium pricing strategy.  

Listen to the podcast here


Ignite the 4 Dimensions of Your Events with Don Neal

Our guest is Don Neal, the founder and CEO of 360 Live Media, an award-winning event strategy, marketing, and design agency that helps associations maximize the impact of their events to advance their mission. Don, welcome to the show.

Thanks, Steve, it’s great to be here.

Oh, it’s fantastic to have you here. So Don, let’s start our conversation about your journey becoming the CEO of 360 Live Media and in general, becoming an entrepreneur. What was your long and winding road that got you here?

Well, I started as an entrepreneur as a kid. I started bagging groceries at the local grocery store when I was eight, bought a lawnmower, cut lawns, had a paper route, started a fireworks business and had about 10 other businesses before I even went to high school. So I’ve always had the bug to try to find ways to make money really on my own I think. I think the independence is the core characteristic. But starting 360 Live Media really came out of what I would call a conflict of visions. I worked at a firm and was trying to get a concept much like I’ve developed here at 360 live media off the ground back in 2010 and the founder of that company just didn’t see it as I did so I left and started my own shop a few months later back in 2011 April of 2011.

So how scary or exciting was this decision at the time?

I was very energized, Steve. I felt like I had a new lease on life. I started the company when I was 52, which is very late. It’s the first company I founded, so that’s not when most people start their company. I was teaching at Georgetown University, adjunct professor, graduate professor of marketing, and so I had access to a lot of talent. in the first year I started recruiting students to internship and do projects and eventually hired several of them. So we grew pretty quickly. In the first year we cracked a million dollars in revenue, actually the first nine months. And so I felt like we had a value proposition that would bear continued time and energy and investment. I invested all my own money. I didn’t have any outside capital, no board, no investors and so I felt like I’ve been set free really for the first time in my life.

What was your idea? I mean what was your concept? Did you just say, okay, I’m a communication media and event specialist and I’m just going to sell my consulting services or you had something more specific in mind how you’re going to build this thing?

Well, there probably were three factors. I don’t think I could have articulated them at the time, but I’ve chosen to work in the nonprofit sector, trade associations, professional societies, industry associations, essentially mission-driven organizations that serve every sector of society and every profession. And they have been working for the last probably 25 years, maybe unconsciously to modernize their business model. So I’m a Madison Avenue advertising marketing guy. So I thought if Madison Avenue could come to K Street, which sort of the shorthand in Washington for the lobbying alley of most of these trade associations, I thought I could find a niche to help progressive CEOs who wanted to grow their revenue in addition to growing their mission do just that. So that was the first point.

The second was that events are the primary source of most of these organizations’ revenues. So I thought if I could focus on a specific line item in their P&L and help them modernize their events and generate more revenue, that would be a kind of a shortcut. And the third factor was there’s not much competition. There’s a lot of small boutique agencies that work around the margins of associations, but I wanted to create a kind of a world-class brand that was different from all the others. So that was, in retrospect, I’d say the three forces that came together for me.

Very interesting, so you found this as kind of niche, an unexploded niche, that you could bring your Medicine Avenue expertise to and kind of raise the bar?

Yeah, that was the idea. And you don’t know in the beginning if there’s appetite or demand for that, but I did find that there are lots of very progressive, ambitious CEOs and boards of nonprofits that want to do just that. I don’t know what the percentage is, but it’s more than single digit and it’s enough to have given us a great 10-year track record of helping a lot of really, I’d say blue chip nonprofits be more successful.

That’s exciting. You know, this podcast is all about frameworks and blueprints and how people create an organization and have shortcut their way to growth. And in our previous conversation, we talked about the 360 system that you develop. So what does the 360 system do and what is it about?

Well, here’s where I would start. If you take the Jim Collins concept where he said, you know, some businesses are a genius with a thousand followers, I didn’t want to be a founder who had the entire company dependent on me. So I felt like I had to create a architecture, some strategic scaffolding, and a set of processes that allowed other people to do the work, number one, and then also to help explain to our clients that there’s a methodology, a process, a system and structure that reduces risk and in many ways ensures the impact of our work.

So that, again, I didn’t know that at the time. I just knew that I was working 15 hours every single day, including weekends, and I had to find a way to scale my time and energy. So I created, I’d say there’s about 30 different processes that have been codified as part of this 360 system. And each one deals with a different part of our professional services model, from event design to economic models, to marketing frameworks, to data targeting, to segmentation of audiences, et cetera. energized right now when I think about the next chapter of this company’s growth is really built on a solid foundation of replicatable processes.

And most professional services firms, McKinsey, Booz, Accenture, they have systems that people come in, they learn, they train, and then, you know, they’re ready to be client-facing after some period of time because the institutional knowledge has been codified. The second thing I would say is I trademarked and copyrighted many of these processes and systems. So I institutionalized them and I sold my company three years ago. And one of the, I think, key assets of our business was that we had these protected systems and processes that became an asset, financial asset of the company. And so I’m very energized, not just by the fact that we codified them, but they’re being used right now. I’ve become in many ways irrelevant to the operation of my company now, because we have a team of people who are excellent at doing the work.

Trademarking and copyrighting our systems and processes institutionalized our company's assets, making them integral to its success. Click To Tweet

Yes, so as an aside, I mean, you told me many years ago when we started working together that you want to become irrelevant to your company. And I kind of agreed that this is a great goal, but nevertheless, it is not an easy thing for an entrepreneur to become irrelevant, to make themselves irrelevant. So as an aside, what was the emotional side of creating a situation where you can be irrelevant perhaps or less relevant or not critically important for the organization?

Well, I worked with a client early in my startup of the company and he said, you know, this is never going to go anywhere, Don. It’s just going to be you and a handful of people and, you know, you’re going to be working the rest of your life because you’re just never going to be able to scale this thing. And so I took that as a challenge. And I also it got my attention because I realized that is not the norm for a kind of a boutique professional services shop.

And then the second thing is, Steve, really working with you years ago when we started working on some systems and processes that you brought to me as the founder to help scale the company, and when I told you I wanted to become irrelevant, I was serious. I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life. And so I didn’t have the emotional tie that the company was my identity. I mean, for a while it was, no question. My founder CEO title meant something to me for a long time, but right now it doesn’t.

And after selling my company and I’m moving into a new role soon with the parent company that acquired us and I’m so energized by that. That irrelevance wasn’t just a glib statement. I really didn’t want the company dependent on me. And I’ve worked very hard to step back. And fortunately, it’s worked. I’ve got a great successor who’s stepping in. I’ve got a great team, management team, and we’ve got these systems in place, so I’m really proud of what, you know, this company has accomplished.

Building a company isn't about making it dependent on a founder, but creating a structure that lets others execute effectively. Click To Tweet

That’s awesome. And you have the next chapter already lined out, so there’s no way for you to feel idle for a minute. So that’s good. So, going back to your blueprint and the system, you talked about the four fundamentals and the six R’s that you came up with. So what do they look like?

So two of the 30 or so systems are defined first by what we call the six R’s. And it’s the dashboard, the metrics, the top of the puzzle box, if you will, that we introduce to all of our clients, typically in the new business process. The six R’s stand for revenue, reach, retention, reputation, revenue, and ROI. And so every business is trying to reach the largest share of their addressable audience, they’re trying to retain the maximum share of their customers. They’re trying to be increasingly more relevant. They’re trying to build their reputation and their brand. They’re trying to generate revenue at an acceptable ROI.

So it’s a good way to focus the time and energy of a discussion with a prospective client around one of those six R’s. We’ve trademarked and protected them. We use them online. There’s a scoremyevent.com allows prospective clients to actually score their events on those six hours. We wrote an algorithm, 20 questions, and it produces a numeric value, zero to 100, on how well their conferences and trade shows and live events are doing. And it’s a great door opener because we don’t have to tell our clients the baby’s ugly. They self-assess and they come back and generally are pretty hard on themselves, which is a great way to continue focusing on how we can serve them. So that’s the six R’s.

And then the four dimensions of an event or conference or trade show really were born out of deconstructing our work. And we identified that there’s really four layers of any live experience, whether it’s a concert, a religious service, a trade show, even a shopping mall, you name it. And the first dimension is the physical dimension. What’s the physical environment that any live experience happens on? Number two, the second dimension is the physiological. How do people feel when their bodies are hydrated and they’re getting good flow of oxygen and they feel energized?

Physiologically, you have to be fit for the third dimension, which is the emotional dimension. How do you feel when you’re in this environment? Are you engaged, connected? If you’re an introvert, do you feel safe? If you’re an extrovert, do you have access to the energy from other people? And then the fourth dimension is the intellectual dimension. It’s where your cognition kicks in. And if you’ve got a good physical, physiological, and emotional condition, someone’s cognition and intellection and thinking can really be at its best, whether it’s to buy something, sell something, learn, engage, meet other people, advance your career, get a new job.

So those four dimensions really have helped us deconstruct events to evaluate them and say here’s the things that could be better, and here’s the things you need to do to create this four-layer cake, these four dimensions, so that your event works harder to achieve each of those six R’s I just mentioned.

That’s fascinating. We never spoke about this before, and I wish I asked you before about that. That’s a fascinating approach. So, I mean, you did say that events are the main moneymaker for an association, but what are people looking for in an event? Why do people like to go to events? What is it about the events that move people?

Well, there’s, we’ve come up with 12 reasons why people go to events, and many of your listeners might be familiar with Clayton Christensen, where he talked about the jobs to be done. People hire shoes to do a job to protect their feet. People hire toothpaste to keep their breath fresh and make their teeth shiny. So people hire events to do a job. And they hire it to get a new job, they hire it to learn and advance their professional development, they hire it for certification, they hire it to sell something, to buy something, to connect with other people, for competitive intelligence. There’s 12 reasons.

And I think the key is understanding what each of your constituents that come to an event are seeking to do, and then designing a best-in-class experience for that job to be done. Most events are built with what I’d call a mass-marketed, we make you take landlord approach. You’re just a landlord, you create a large space and you have exhibitors and suppliers and education sessions and it’s just a big hodgepodge and there’s typically a Thousand hours worth of activities that someone could do in a four or five day event and most of us are only going to devote You know eight hours a day for three days.

That’s 24 hours. So you’re never going to really be able to consume exactly the right Jobs to be done For Steve Prater, you know, so unpacking an event, creating journey maps and creating exceptional jobs to be done, experiences is what we do for organizations that are trying to modernize their events.

That’s very interesting. So, when you talk about experience design, which is the driver of your events, as I understand it, is this what you mean by that or there’s another layer to it?

Well, I came across one of the most impactful business books I’ve ever read called The Experienced Economy, written by Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore many years ago, and I’ve become, I’d say, a good business friend of Jim Gilmore’s. And The Experienced Economy really broke down how we’ve moved from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy to a service economy and now we live in an experienced economy. Experienced restaurants, experienced theme parks, experiential worship services, you name it.

What they didn’t really address in the book was how conferences, events and trade shows could be more experiential. They looked at retail, they looked at Vegas, they looked at travel, they looked at all the categories. So I really took a lesson from their thinking and we’ve become an experience design agency for organizations to create experiences that influence minds and change behavior is what I like to say. And it’s I’d say the X factor of creating an event that not only does the job you hire it to do, it does it in such a way that it makes irresistible and completely must attend. So that’s how experience design has played a big role in our company’s success.

So, I wonder, I mean, last year when the pandemic broke, you pivoted, you were the first company I know that kind of did 180, and you pivoted your business to virtual events. So how do these experience design elements and principles translate to the virtual world?

Well, if you look at what’s going to be the landscape in 2022, and I’ll work backwards, so in 2022, I think what everyone or most people have learned in the last two years, you know, video is great for certain parts of business. It’s a chance to, well, we all know of really digital commerces and digital interaction and digital marketplaces, digital learning. So what we’ve done is we’ve deconstructed events, ported through a series of filters, if you will, and said, what are the best jobs to be done in person? What are the best jobs to be done on social media, digital media, and what are the jobs to be done on Zoom, Teams, and other interactive platforms.

Pivoting to virtual events during the pandemic became a catalyst for our most successful years, doubling engagements despite the shift from in-person events. Click To Tweet

So I think we’re moving into an omni-channel event world where we’re blending the three domains, social and digital media, tech platforms for non-live interaction, and live events into a really potent, and so I think the last two years have revealed to us what the characteristics are that should be done in each of those domains. And it was really about 10 days after, you know, everybody became aware of COVID that we did our, we got hired to do our first digital event, 10 days.

So it set a course in place that has produced the best two years in the company’s history. In 10 years, 2020 and 21 have been our two most successful years, which is astounding because we were built on being a live, in-person event conference and trade show company. So I’m proud of our team that was able to not only pivot, but we doubled the number of clients that we worked with and the engagements were smaller, but we worked with a lot more clients. And, you know, we’ve got a great, I think, outlook for next year.

So, are you going to be able to transition many of these new clients who are digital only, or you who have been digital only to the live platform? Do you think that’s going to be this kind of an upsell?

I do. I think, you know, we built trust and we produced good results under difficult circumstances for lots and lots of organizations. And I think that trust is leading to a lot of, frankly, new work for next year. And because no one knows what next year looks like, you want someone you can trust to help you navigate through the uncertainty and the risk. And frankly, the margin for error next year, most organizations aren’t getting insurance payments for cancellation of events. They’ve depleted their reserves, their investments, and many organizations have to get it right in 2022, and we’re going to help them do it. And so I think we’ll probably have our next best year in 22 because we’ve got such a large base of new clients to help get to the other side.

So, switching gears here a little bit, what really struck me when we first met was when you explained that you basically have a premium positioning in the association market and you charge higher prices than your competitors. And I was wondering what allows you to do that? How, what is the value that you provide that most of the companies don’t have or cannot provide or why do they maybe buy for similar services to pay more your customers?

Well, one thing that struck me early in the first few years of the company was that I didn’t want to respond to RFPs. And so for the first, I’d say, seven years, we might have responded to one or two where we had an inside track and I knew that we would be seriously considered, if not prevail. But you know, RFPs are a race to the bottom. They’re never well-written. And almost all of the time, the people that they’re distributed to aren’t the kinds of companies that we would want to compete with.

So we made a good decision in the early years. We do a lot more response to RFPs now because the world has changed and we frankly have a bigger team that can, you know, invest in the energy to respond to RFPs. It’s still not my preference, but it’s worked better than it did. But the short answer to your question is, we help create a vision for the future. We are optimistic and confident beyond compare. And I think we help boards and CEOs see the future, put a strategy in place and then operationalize it. And I think they’re willing to pay a premium for an exponential leap into the next phase of their success. We have a term that we like to use called better sameness.

And most of our clients chuckle when they hear it, but they know what that means is they’ve been doing the same thing year after year after year. It’s kind of like that cliche, you know, somebody who says they have 20 years of experience, which is really one year repeated 20 times. And that’s kind of the case with a lot of the events that we’ve been modernizing. And just like people who are, you know, willing to buy a luxury car or a shop at Tiffany’s versus Kay Jewelers, people are brand conscious and we’ve built a premium brand and are known for being a great value, but certainly not being the least expensive company they’re going to hire. And it’s worked for us.

Now, definitely it’s worked for you. And it probably gives confidence to the client to know that they are driving a Ferrari and they’re not going to look bad in front of their audience, or maybe that’s not a good analogy, the Ferrari, but they are driving a premium product and they are taking care of their customers with a premium product. What really struck me as you explained this vision and projecting this vision, in my head, and maybe I’m biased, and some of my listeners are going to go away now. But my experience is that associations are not always seen as the most ambitious type of organizations. So how do you get the results for them, maybe even against their own ambitions? How do you have them be successful against themselves?

Well, I’ll answer that by telling you one of the best books I’ve read in the last two years is called scale and it’s about how companies and Organisms scale and I’ll give this quick example to tease your readers all mammals have 1.5 billion Heartbeats over the course of their life on average all mammals and a shrews heart beats 450 times a minute and they live about three years and a whale’s heart beats about 20 times a minute and it lives for 120 years. And humans beat at about 60 beats per minute, we live 75 or 80 years.

So the larger the organism gets, the more efficient its metabolism. And so the connection back to the nonprofit sector, associations in particular, they’re large organizations with relatively low metabolisms and they live a long time. And that has been a strength. They’ve been around many for 100, 125 years. But I will use Jack Welch’s quote, which is, if the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near. And so the rate of change has been so dramatic, not just the last two years, but the last 20.

And I think the associations that hire us are looking for that next level of growth and change. And they’re run by progressive CEOs. They’ve got boards who are willing to take a risk. They’ve got the resources to pay for our services. And they generally have either an acute problem or a significant opportunity. So you know, there’s, I believe in any market, there’s always a percentage, 10 or 20 percent, that meet those criteria. And there’s over 60,000 associations in this country, you know, and so you don’t need more than, you know, five or 10 percent to meet that criteria to have a successful market to serve.

So maybe it’s not so much the ambition that drives them, but maybe the fear of the fear that this the rate of change is accelerating outside and they don’t want to lose momentum and they want to kind of get back into the game. And that’s when they reach out to you and they want them to turn their fortunes around and get them back on the growth class again. Is this the kind of thinking that maybe they have sometimes?

It is. And I think, you know, there is a significant risk aversion. We all have a risk aversion to something. I heard the former director of the CIA, General Michael Hayden say one time that risk is threat times vulnerability. Risk equals threat times vulnerability. I’ve never forgotten it. I quote him all the time. And if you think about the threat in the last couple of years, the threat has been somewhat existential for a lot of organizations and their vulnerability being a low metabolism organization. It’s not good to be low metabolism and be steady as she goes when the world is changing at lightning speed. So I think the risk is much higher.

So I think organizations are not just hiring us because they’re ambitious. They’re hiring us to mitigate the risk as an insurance policy versus a accelerant. So I’ll take it. I mean, I’ll take either one of those motivations, but I probably would say, if I’m honest, that we’ve been hired more as a insurance policy and risk mitigator than we have been a growth accelerator. That’s, you know, I don’t know what the breakdown has been over the last 10 years, but it’s probably been more than 50% on the mitigating risk side.

Yes, and I wonder whether that to some extent true for private companies as well, that there’s more people who hire consultants for fear of failure than from, you know, the desire to be even more successful. That fear of failure is the biggest motivator. Maybe that’s not just in the association sector, it’s in the private business sector as well. It’s probably the case. Let’s talk a little bit about the future. I mean, you mentioned that you sold your business, and I wonder how you did that. I mean, it’s a relatively small professional services firm. I mean, it’s growing, but it’s still not several hundred people. I know that at the time you got multiple offers. How did you do there?

Well, seven years into the founding of the company, three years ago, and I have to say, Steve, I wish I could, I’ve never really understood the why behind this, but we were approached by four different organizations within less than 60 days unsolicited. We weren’t for sale. I didn’t have a book. I didn’t have a broker. I didn’t have any feelers out there. And the range of companies that approached us were, it was a private equity firm and there was a large multi-billion dollar conglomerate. There were a host of different kinds of organizations. And there was a organization called Smith Bucklin, which is a large association professional services firm, 70 year plus history.

And I hit it off with their CEO in our first meeting and we were highly compatible from a culture values standpoint, et cetera. And it wasn’t even close. I mean, really it wasn’t even close in even frankly considering the other offers. So this was what I knew. It was a place I wanted to work, you know, given the structure of the acquisition for the last three years. So I just have to, I think it was Louis Pasteur said fortune favors the prepared mind. I’d like to think that we were prepared, but it was a lot of I’m just going to call it luck. Maybe we just got I think we got lucky. And it was a moment in time when the universe opened up. And I believe in the law of attraction. And so I think we were doing good work and we attracted some interest from the from the marketplace.

Certainly, when the door opens, you have to be ready to walk through it and you did just that. So it’s not, you know, luck. I think there’s also a definition of luck, which is when preparation meets opportunity. Kind of the same same idea, differently phrased. Yeah. So excellent. So if people would like to learn more about 360 live media or would like to connect with you personally, where can they find you? Where can they find your company? How can they reach you?

Yeah, I would love to hear from any of your listeners. You can reach me at don@360 livemedia.com. And our website is 360livemedia.com. So take a look. And I would love to hear from any of your leaders. I want to I want to say you didn’t ask me to do this, but kind of an unsolicited plug, Steve, you were an important part of helping to crystallize my thinking and to put some, I would say, business rigor around systems and processes and help this company get to the next level. So I’m grateful to you for your advice and counsel and the intensity you brought. I consider myself an urgent, intense person and you and I, I think, really worked well together. And I’m grateful for that and grateful to have a chance to share this podcast with you and your listeners.

Well, thank you, Don. Thank you for your comments as well, as well as coming to the show. And I certainly had a lot of fun and I think our listeners have as well, so Don Neal, the founder and CEO of 360LiveMedia. Thank you for coming and thank you for listening. And please, if you like this podcast, please don’t forget to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or subscribe to YouTube and stay tuned because next week I’ll bring another exciting entrepreneur to the show. to the show. Thank you.


Important Links:

This entry was posted in . Bookmark the permalink.