Thursday, May 1, 2008
Interview with Rob Johnson, EventVue
Few businesses go from inchoate idea to funded startup in less than six months, but such was the case with EventVue (www.eventvue.com), a Boulder, Colo.-based firm that develops social-networking software for conferences and related happenings. Credit EventVue's accelerated maturation to co-founders Josh Fraser and Rob Johnson and to the firm's good fortune of being one of the 10 inaugural companies selected for the TechStars startup incubation program. Techrockies.com recently had the privilege of chatting with Johnson, who is also EventVue's chief executive officer. Here's what he had to say.
What exactly does EventVue do, and how does the company make money doing it?
Rob Johnson: EventVue provides online communities for conferences. With our system, attendees can find and connect with other attendees at a particular conference. How attendees use EventVue is they create a small, simple profile, answering questions like, “What's your bio? Why are you coming? What are you hoping to get out of this conference?” We ask them to define their skill set, their experience, and we use that across the entire community to find people who share similar tags or labels.
As an example, say you and I were going to attend a Microsoft Office users' conference. I might be interested in meeting up with attendees form Colorado, and maybe you would be interested in meeting up with attendees who use Microsoft Word. To do that, all we'd have to do is access the central network for that conference and we'd get a list of attendees who fit those descriptions.
How did EventVue start?
Rob Johnson: EventVue started about a year ago. My co-founder and I were running a Web design firm at the time and my co-founder had landed a contract to build a central network for a conference in South Carolina. The conference was for venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in the Southeast region. My co-founder built the community for that particular conference.
When we attended that conference, we saw it was a big success. Those attending were walking around the floor, holding a Microsoft Word printout of the attendees that they had seen in the central network that they wanted to meet at the conference. To us, that was a clear, ringing statement: Attendees have a real need for a central network to meet and find each other at a conference.
What exactly is a “central network?”
Rob Johnson: One way to think of a central network is as an online interactive directory of those attending a conference. Before showing up, those that want to can register and create a profile that says a little about themselves, their company, what their company does and why they are attending the conference, etc.
You mentioned a co-founder. Would that be Josh Fraser?
Rob Johnson: Yes, that's him.
How did you and Josh wind up as business partners?
Rob Johnson: We were college roommates at Clemson University since our sophomore year. We had always dreamed of starting our company once we had graduated.
So, after graduating, we went ahead and set up a Web design firm, handling all independent contracts. It wasn't a very large business, though. It was just starting at the time. It was like two to three months before we landed that conferencing contract, the success of which prompted us to establish EventVue.
And that one contract convinced you to go after the conference market?
Rob Johnson: Yes, it started from that one contract. Just seeing its success, we recognized the opportunity we had stumbled into. So we decided to aggressively pursue that.
How did EventVue benefit from participating in the TechStars incubation program?
Rob Johnson: The mentorship has been the most valuable asset that we've received. Having some of the country's brightest and most experienced startup minds working on our company and our product has brought us to a level that we couldn't have reached without TechStars.
To be honest, I would say I don't think we would've gotten to where we are without TechStars. Before we joined the program, I would've thought we'd get here no matter what, but they've been crucial to our growth process.
Where would the company be today if it hadn't been selected?
Rob Johnson (jokingly): It would certainly be in South Carolina.
On that note, how do you like Boulder? Do you plan on keeping the company there?
Rob Johnson: I have a feeling that EventVue is probably in Boulder to stay. The technology support and startup community here in Boulder is terrific and it's growing every day. There's really no better place to start a tech company.
As for me personally, I have strong ties and loyalty to South Carolina, so it's very possible that, one day in the future, I will move back.
How did EventVue wind up as one of the 10 inaugural TechStars companies?
Rob Johnson: Within two days of that conference, we applied for TechStars. We must've timed it right because, within a short time, we learned that we were one of the 10 companies selected.
So we moved out to Boulder and started building a real prototype for the EventVue product. We completed the prototype by the end of the summer, after about three months. During that period, we also signed up our first customer, a conference in California. That was last July.
We saw very strong usage numbers at that conference, and we were able to leverage that strong usage and our product prototype gross over the summer into raising a first round of funding at the end of the TechStars program.
That was in September, right? What's happened since?
Rob Johnson: We've expanded to roughly over a dozen conferences. Specifically, we're making progress in the green conferences vertical. In fact, we recently provided the online community for a major green conference in San Francisco called the Ecocity World Summit.
Could EventVue do the same for a conference with several thousand attendees?
Rob Johnson: Certainly, our system can handle that. We've already done two conferences that had thousands of attendees. We built out scalability earlier this year to be able to handle that.
So what's on the horizon for EventVue?
Rob Johnson: We're rapidly revving up product and adding new functionality. In the short-term future, what you'll see from EventVue is we're working to bring more conversation into our product and using the data we have to drive more registrations for conferences.
Typically, registration varies. At some conferences, as many as three-quarters of the attendees will register with the central network. For others, registrations will hover around one-quarter. Overall, the average is somewhere around 35-40 percent.
What did you mean by “bring more conversation” into your product?
Rob Johnson: Our goal is to help our conference organizer transform his or her event from just a conference into a community of people. To do that, we want to help the organizer find ways to increase conversation and participation among attendees.
That about wraps things up. Before going, however, do you have any parting advice for other young entrepreneurs?
Rob Johnson: In general, seek out experienced mentors to encourage you and be around you to tell you when you're doing something stupid and tell you when you're doing something right. It's also very important to find people who will encourage you when times are a little more challenging than you thought they'd be.
Thanks so much for your time!