The Obstacle Course of Entrepreneurship: How to Fight, Pivot and Win Every Time

By Joey Gallagher

The backstory.

It started with a company meeting. I was just a year into my business — Gallagher Staging — and decided to take on a project that most young companies of my size would never have even considered. But I knew we were ready. We’d get it done.

So there I am, standing in front of my employees, discussing this challenging project, and instead of worrying about the complexities of what I was about to tell them, I stared into fifty sets of eyes and thought about the fifty families that were now counting on this company to succeed.

A good business owner goes to sleep and wakes up with the pressure of creating not only a prosperous, profitable business but also (and more importantly) a place that provides a better life for their employees and those who depend on them. If you can achieve both, I promise it’s a win-win.

You launch a business with the intention of working for yourself, which may seem glamorous in those motivational Instagram posts but while you think you’re building a shiny path to freedom, you’re actually building the most treacherous obstacle course you’ll ever experience. It’s why some people aren’t cut out to be an entrepreneur. And that’s OK. The genetic fabric of an entrepreneur is made from long days and big challenges, coupled with a special kind of resiliency not everyone can fully embrace.

Here’s the thing about the mental fortitude of an entrepreneur: You might not even know you have it until you’re on the obstacle course and someone throws a gigantic fireball at your head. While the non-entrepreneur runs away, the entrepreneur stands tall. They catch fire then forge on, transforming those flames into energy that pushes their company forward.

The mindset.

Solid leadership is the foundation for sustainable growth, excellent customer service, employee satisfaction … it’s everything. Take care of your team and your team will take care of your company and clients. It doesn’t matter if you’re running a local bike shop with three employees or a manufacturing facility with 250 employees, the philosophy universally applies.

Being a good leader means accepting and overcoming temporary challenges. Being a great leader is a lifelong commitment to personal and professional improvement.

A great leader is passionate, and has the distinct ability to help their team members become passionate about the work as well. They also have a positive mindset, and train their employees to operate with actionable optimism. There is no problem that can’t be solved if you focus on a solution.

Even the problems of 2020.

The pivot.

This year caused a complete shutdown of my business, which had expanded from those initial 50 employees to more than 160 employees. In 2019, we were building the main stage at Coachella and Stagecoach, and constructing multiple custom sets for some of the most famous entertainers in the world. Then the music stopped.

Instead of giving up, I decided — without hesitation — to fight. I created several new businesses utilizing my hard-earned knowledge and hard-working team. The difficulties I’d maneuvered through in the past prepared me for 2020 and its never-ending hurdles. (Remember, the bigger your goals, the bigger your obstacles.)

Flexibility is critical to the longevity of a business. I’ve constantly had to shift strategies to stay relevant and weather changes in the market. Pivoting could mean altering product lines, marketing tactics or even focusing on an entirely new marketplace. When you adapt to challenges or changes, you safeguard your long-term success.

My team and I were saved because I took immediate action and made the decision to survive. But years of tough decision-making prepared me for that moment, standing at the edge of a brand-new obstacle course with unimaginable twists and turns, determined to emerge victorious on the other side. Decisions a business owner implements along the way should be calculated ones. It’s extremely crucial to listen to your gut by utilizing what I consider to be my most powerful tool: my business sense. If you are constantly connected with your employees, clients and industry, your business sense will be strong. Use it and you’ll crush the obstacle course every time.

The balancing act.

Without balance I do not consider a business successful, no matter how impressive it may be on a balance sheet. Without real balance a business will consistently fail to realize lasting success. To give their best, team members need a healthy balance of work and home life, just as every manager or CEO does.

Nobody should spread themselves too thin. Responsibility should be delegated to the team and its managers with the appropriate systems in place to ensure accountability, productivity and performance.

Balance isn’t just about profitability, it’s also about employees’ mental wellbeing. We come in contact with people every day who are struggling in their personal life or at work — it could be a neighbor, a friend, a stranger on the street or one of your employees. Creating a workplace culture that accepts the messiness of real life (and the real people who live it) will bring a sense of humanity and humility to your organization. It’s truly magical and carries over to the product or service your company is providing.

Everyone has a bad day. Ridicule or attacks will never fix anything. I strongly recommend businesses establish a company-wide culture of support. Bad days get better, but it takes a family-like company culture to turn them around. When your company is defined by balance and empathy, a bad day — or an entirely bad year — becomes just another obstacle you can and will overcome.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2020/2021 edition of West Oceanfront Magazine. To view the full edition, click here.

Wavemakers Q&A

Wavemakers Q&A: Jonnell Gailey

By Rafael Samano

Creating an unforgettable event is kind of like making magic and in the competitive world of meeting planning, Jonnell Gailey is a veritable magician. A passionate event manager with more than 20 years of experience, Jonnell holds both the Certified Meeting Professional and Certified Incentive Specialist designations. Her knowledge and expertise cover a wide spectrum of events, including: large conventions; corporate employee meetings, educational, executive and top sales professional summits; team-building functions; and special gatherings for 10 to 10,000 people. 

This week, we talked to Jonnell for a Wavemakers Q&A about her event-management approach, the state of the live events industry, and what’s changed in 2020.

You’ve managed events for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices and Disneyland, and even co-owned and operated your own company, Events Redefined. Looking back on all you’ve done, what would you say was a defining moment in your career that continues to influence the work you do today?

I actually grew up in the event industry. My hero and mentor (my mother), owned and operated the largest professional skin care trade show and educational event in the world – The International Esthetics, Cosmetics, & Spa Conference. I started my career at that conference and became fully immersed in large-scale conventions, meetings and event planning. When I left that event, IECSC had more than 50,000 attendees, 1,600 booth spaces, and 250 educational presentations over the course of a three-day event. 

After being in the industry for 20+ years, I can’t pinpoint one defining moment or thing that pivoted my career because I took away something from each opportunity. Whether it was co-owning a successful wedding event planning business or working for major companies such as Disney and Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, every experience taught me a different but valuable industry skill and lesson. What I can say is this: I’ve been surrounded by incredibly smart, strong and motivated female leadership and colleagues. I’ve learned that this industry is about building long-lasting relationships and working with passion. I’ve come to understand this industry is not for the faint of heart; the work is hard and stressful. It takes dedication, patience, creativity, and drive … but goddamn it is the best job in the world. 

This year has seen countless events cancelled, postponed or heavily modified because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As someone with a great deal of personal and professional experience in event planning and production,what was it like facing such a massive paradigm shift at the start of the year? How do you even begin to meet that challenge?

Events are always throwing you curveballs – from hurricanes to 7.5 earthquakes to loss of AC in Las Vegas mid-July to no-show speakers to disgruntled attendees to stitches after a mainstage presentation (and believe me I could go on) … I would have to say that Covid has been one of the most interesting challenges yet! “Adapt and overcome” is every event planner’s mantra. This year event professionals had to make the choice to cancel, go fully virtual or reschedule in-person events as far out as 2021. The most successful companies able to immediately embrace the virtual pivot were the ones that already had fully virtual programs or hybrid components within their in-person events. These organizations had a strong production company behind them with the ability to provide high-quality digital experiences and engage their audience. They also hired planners who were eagerly waiting for a chance to add this component to their in-person events anyway.

What changes to the industry have you noticed during Covid?

One of the most important observations since Covid is that education and training must continue under any circumstance. Networking is essential, and in-person events are the most impactful way to combine those opportunities for any organization. Our society was accustomed to face-to-face meetings, and as we start to see the live components of an event make a slow comeback, we also have now recognized the virtual components are just as important for any event to capture new audiences and expand engagement opportunities. Hybrid events were a luxury pre-Covid, now they are essential. Hybrid elements are actually expected for any event moving forward. Organizations recognize the importance of engaging an online audience and providing on-demand functionality.

What are the key aspects of putting on a successful hybrid event?

Hire the right production company with team members who are creative and capable of delivering high-quality digital experiences for a hybrid event. Next, build your virtual offerings to encourage maximum engagement for both the online audience as well as the live attendees. Lastly, adjust your content to match the needs of both audiences and provide impactful and lasting impressions. With everything you do, make sure you have the full support of your stakeholders and clients.

What would you say are some of the most common yet easily avoidable mistakes that people make when trying to put on hybrid production events?

  1. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. Being creative is different from being complex. 
  2. Know your stakeholders and audience objectives and build a program that offers engagement and excitement while fully meeting your attendees’ specific needs.
  3. Engage your online attendees; make them feel like they are part of the event. You have 30 seconds to capture the virtual attendees’ attention before they decide to start checking emails and social media. Make them feel “seen.”
  4. Make sure your microsite easily integrates with your mobile apps, website, and registration system(s). It must be user friendly and esthetically pleasing visually.
  5. Vet your suppliers and make sure they fully understand your goals and objectives and have the ability to deliver the type of hybrid event you envision.

In the future, what do you see as the longer-term effects on the popularity and pervasiveness of hybrid and virtual events?

Hybrid is here to stay and the current pandemic has opened the doors for stakeholders to see the importance of hybrid components. Virtual offerings allow for flexibility among an organization’s network, marketability of the live events and generating that all-important FOMO. Virtual event components can also increase attendance numbers, add an additional revenue stream, expand sponsorship opportunities, and facilitate engagement among audience members who would not have otherwise attended. 

What advice would you give to someone trying to start an event production career right now?

At this very moment our industry is making a slow comeback. The best way to get started is to roll up your sleeves and jump right in. Event production, festival programming and hospitality are common majors in colleges now and there are so many avenues for events and meetings. Start investing time in professional organizations like MPI, the Event Industry Council or PCMA. Take classes and find industry network opportunities. Volunteer, intern with production companies, apply for positions at hotels. And while I proudly boast that this is the best industry in the world and has its glamorous moments – it is also extremely stressful and hard, it requires long hours, sweat, and sometimes tears. It is a sink or swim profession and you just have to dive in and make it happen.

What’s on the horizon for you? 

I am constantly looking to push myself and adapt to the changes of the industry. Pushing myself creatively and becoming a leader in the digital event space is at the forefront of my career path and the future’s looking bright.

Marketing Trends

The Not-so-subtle Art of the 2020 Pivot

By Rafael Samano

Oh, 2020. (Insert long, drawn-out sigh.) This year created historic challenges that also sparked some historic solutions. Focused on problem-solving, businesses gravitated toward one game-changing concept: the pivot. Against the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic, these pivots were difficult to execute but essential for sustainable success. Examples abound of brands that profitably pivoted this year, so it only makes sense to examine what they did and how they did it as a template for what this marketing maneuver can do.

Get online

An online presence can increase exposure and brand awareness, provide opportunities for social selling and augment a business’ ability to market and sell goods online (e-commerce). Plus, an online presence leaves actionable footprints and customizable insights that often translate into growth. Data like interactions and conversion rates, demographic breakdowns and successful consumer touchpoints can be harvested to create profitable marketing strategies that stick. A successful online presence will guide what a businesses’ next steps should be while providing a pandemic-proof storefront where a brand can not only exist but also thrive.

Reexamine Target Customer Types

For a business mid-pivot, reexamining target customer types is key. For instance, Alamo Drafthouse, a restaurant movie theater chain, pivoted to three separate aspects of its business: a curbside restaurant service, a video on-demand venture for classic movies and a theater venue rental company. Classic movies satisfied the theatergoing loyalists, while the restaurant and theater rentals appealed to late-night foodies and small businesses looking for safe venues with in-house catering. None of these services were revolutionary; they were simply a clever reworking of Alamo Drafthouse’s current capabilities to fit the needs of consumers today

Spotify also stands as an excellent example of a pivot based on reexamination. In the early days of the pandemic, Spotify saw an exodus of advertisers, which left the company with rapidly depleting revenue. Spotify had to act quickly and pivot or risk hemorrhaging cash. Data demonstrated an increase in podcast listenership during the early weeks of stay-at-home orders. Spotify reacted by creating an extensive library of original podcast content, and partnered with established creators and celebrities for audio-related projects. With a renewed focus on podcasts, Spotify emerged stronger and better positioned to combat future crises.  

Pivot your Product

In any given challenge (but especially COVID-19), it is important to think about those most deeply impacted and determine if there is an opportunity for your business to help. For Nike, it was clear the company could pivot to meet the nationwide call for personal protective equipment (PPE), which included face masks, face shields and gowns. Nike had the production facilities, materials and distribution network to make the necessary equipment and deliver it to health professionals nationwide. Producing PPE helped Nike stay afloat in the short term and increased brand loyalty from consumers who recognized that the company was pivoting for good.