“Focus on continuous improvement”, With Douglas Brown and Greg Friedlander of All American Entertainment (AAE)

Focus on continuous improvement. Continue to optimize what is working well for you, and don’t think that just because that’s always been the way that it can’t be improved further. Empower employees to continue to improve and expand their skills and knowledge. Develop processes and review them periodically to make sure they continue to be […]

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Focus on continuous improvement. Continue to optimize what is working well for you, and don’t think that just because that’s always been the way that it can’t be improved further. Empower employees to continue to improve and expand their skills and knowledge. Develop processes and review them periodically to make sure they continue to be as effective as you want.

As a part of my series called “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Friedlander, founder and CEO of All American Entertainment (AAE), headquartered in Durham, North Carolina. Founded in 2002, AAE provides event planners and meeting organizers with a best in class service experience when booking talent for their events. AAE has booked over 200M dollars of celebrity talent on behalf of thousands of the most respected companies and organizations in the world.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I began my career working for a sports agent in New York City where I handled marketing for their clients. About nine months after 9/11 happened, I decided to take a break from NYC to figure out what I wanted to do next. During this period, I created the All American Speakers website as a side project. I was intrigued by search engines and what made some websites show ahead of others. I taught myself about search engine optimization long before there was an SEO industry, and I built this website with some of the early SEO techniques in mind.

Our first website focused on booking athletes, coaches and sports speakers. My business idea was to take my experience and knowledge from working on the side of representing talent and create a company that represented talent buyers in the process of talent procurement for events. There had not been anyone else representing buyers, but there were plenty of agencies representing talent, and this made for an unfair advantage on the talent side. Within a couple of months, when our website started showing up in Google ahead of companies that had been in business for 40 years, I knew then that we were going to be able to grow in a way that was different from the rest of our market, and I went for it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The week before I was planning to get married, we had an event with Shaquille O’Neal. His appearance was a surprise for the audience, so there wasn’t the usual stream of VIPs coming in to meet him before the event. As a result, I had the opportunity to meet Shaq and we had some extra time to chat before the meeting. Naturally, the topic of my upcoming marriage came up, and I casually asked him if he had any advice. Shaq looks me dead in the eye and with the most menacing look and that trademark deep voice, he says: “DON’T DO IT!!!” To this day, I am not 100% sure if he was kidding. Fortunately, I trusted my gut and did not take Shaq’s marriage advice, and I’m now happily married with two beautiful kids.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I managed the lacrosse team at Cornell for four years while I was a student. Being a part of a successful Division I athletics program had a significant influence on me. There are so many lessons I learned from the coaches and players by observing first-hand, like learning about how to establish a winning culture and build something bigger than yourself. I remember the coaches speaking about sacrifice, commitment and desire to be the best at something. They demonstrated the power of communication in motivating, inspiring and connecting with others. And, they consistently reinforced that it was both a privilege and a responsibility to represent the university.

However, the most valuable lessons which have had the biggest impact on me personally and professionally were the importance of doing things the right way, treating people the right way, and building a culture of trust through honesty and authenticity. I will always be grateful to Coach Jeff Tabroni from Cornell for his wisdom and leadership in teaching me these values at a young age.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is from Zig Ziglar when he said the following: “You don’t build a business, you build people and then those people build the business.”

Following the example set by my coaches at Cornell, I recognized that no significant success happens individually. Finding the right people for the business became my first priority, and that sometimes meant choosing motivated and driven people like myself over finding people with the right skills who did not have the same drive.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

As a talent booking agency, we are in a very transactional industry that we have disrupted by developing many loyal repeat clients. Our clients are a mixture of both experienced and inexperienced event planners tasked with securing speakers or entertainment for their event. In a decentralized industry, we provide a centralized resource to these planners.

At AAE, we provide speaker, celebrity and entertainer recommendations that always have our clients best interest in mind, regardless of whether the talent is represented or not, to provide the client with the best option. We then go above the industry standard to help our clients and their booked talent to complete the event appearance successfully.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

As a partner for event planners, AAE provides the best possible talent recommendations based on past events, client budget, and theme of an event. Where we differ from other speaker bureaus in this: When clients contact a bureau that also represents their talent, they are nearly guaranteed to be promoting their own exclusive speakers and celebrities first, regardless of whether that talent is the best choice for an event. The client is not getting an impartial recommendation and might have better options out there that are not being presented.

By putting client needs ahead of talent representation, we have been able to transform our highly-transactional industry into one that is now based on loyalty and service to clients. We become an extension of the event planning team, and based on the thousands of events we have been involved in over the years, our team brings an industry expertise that many companies do not have in-house. We currently have a 96% client recommendation rate, and our service is what sets us apart.

When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?

I definitely don’t fit the mould of a typical CEO — owning a business was never my plan. I have always been a very competitive person, and I saw a way to disrupt the talent booking industry. By first focusing on people (our team and our clients) and then leveraging the power of technology (via the internet initially, then by building our own proprietary software that we use every day,) we’ve been able to grow faster than many other companies in our market.

What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?

I am definitely still driven by the same two things: surrounding myself with great people and the power of leveraging technology to provide a valuable service. Since my early days starting AAE, when the business grew faster than I realized it could, I had the vision of creating an amazing team and collecting a group of people who genuinely enjoy their work at AAE.

The one thing that has changed though is that I could not have ever anticipated the fulfillment I get in return from the team that I’ve assembled. My team repeatedly inspires and amazes me with their hard work and dedication to our company. This was most evident in 2020 during the pandemic when I was placed in a position of making hard choices including furloughs and salary cuts. I was not about to lose the team I’d worked so hard to assemble here, and that is exactly what I told all of them..

My team stuck with me throughout some very challenging months in 2020, and I am extremely proud of two things. First, my company will be starting 2021 with more employees than we had at the start of 2020 before the pandemic. Second, we have seen such tremendous growth in our business that we are starting to surpass pre-pandemic revenue from the prior year.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

From an early time during the pandemic, we pivoted to supporting our clients through their transition into virtual events. This was a significant pivot in that we went from less than 1% of all events we booked as virtual, to well over 70%. We are continuing to expand our virtual event expertise as the technology and trends are changing quickly in this space.

In 2021, we’ll be working to help event planners safely transition back into in-person events. This will include advising on ways to transition to what our industry calls hybrid events, which is when you bring an in-person event to the virtual space at the same time, to allow attendees to choose whether to attend the same event in person or virtually. I think this is where our industry is headed for some time to come since people have such varied perspectives on travel now, and it also focuses more on improving the attendee experience which is always our goal.

The topic of this series is ‘Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue’. Congratulations! Seven figures is really a huge milestone. In your experience what was the most difficult part of being able to hit your first million-dollars in sales revenue?

The most difficult part of growing AAE has definitely been the speed at which we’ve grown. The website has never generated less than 500,000 unique visitors in a year. What I stumbled upon in 2002 turned out to be a once in a lifetime opportunity, one which I was not fully prepared for. Essentially, the business grew so quickly that there was no time to build out the proper infrastructure. No process, no lead tracking, no CRM, no marketing, no outbound sales. We were just chasing business, being overwhelmed with what was in front of us, and just trying to get through the day. In the early days, the business was 100% based on leads generated through the internet and we simply could not keep up. We had always had more business than we were prepared to handle, and we eventually had to pause, reinvent our plan, and build the company the right way.

Could you share the number one sales strategy that you found helpful to help you reach this milestone?

Our strategy goes beyond our sales team and throughout the entire company: act with a sense of urgency. We understand that our clients and prospects are busy people, have deadlines, and are likely working on multiple projects. We want them to know that we respect their time, and one key way we do this is by our responsiveness and quickly getting them the information they need.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you or your team made during a sales process? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One time, early on, a young salesperson mistakenly thought that a prospect was inquiring about George Clooney’s speaking fees — no doubt Mr. Clooney would command a significant fee (well into six figures), which was communicated to the prospect. The prospect was in shock at the number they heard relayed, but the salesperson confidently confirmed that the suggested fee range was simply fair market value for Mr. Clooney. When the salesperson hung up the phone, he realized that he actually misread the request. The event planner was actually asking about a much lower-profile speaker with a very similar name, which definitely explained the prospect’s reaction to the high fee quote. Needless to say, he called the prospect and cleared up the misunderstanding, but it’s a comical lesson we share with new employees to highlight the importance of paying attention to details.

Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Recruit the right people (competitive yet team-oriented) and invest in them. This doesn’t mean that they need sales experience by the way — some of our best salespeople we’ve hired came from other roles. Figure out what motivates them and provide incentives that energize them. Celebrate all wins (big and small) throughout the whole company, and most importantly, listen to them. They are your front line with clients every day and are often the first to identify new potential business opportunities.

Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Prioritize culture. I’ve always hired employees based on fit with our company’s culture. It is important to us to have a highly-collaborative, close-knit team. A great way we do this is by bringing a pair of teams together for lunch together each month. We also celebrate weddings, anniversaries, births, birthdays, and workaversaries too. These gatherings are incredibly important to building the culture we want at AAE. I’m glad we’ve been able to continue them virtually until we return to the office.
  2. Celebrate wins. I’m competitive and I love to win. I also love to pass this love of winning to my team. We’ve built a great number of incentives and rewards for our team to celebrate success. We have a bonus pool that gets contributed to when we reach certain sales goals, and then gets divided at the end of the year across every single employee. In 2019, that number was over 9,000 dollars per employee! Weekly, when we reach targets, we have what we call “Summer Friday” which means when we reach our targets, we can leave early on Friday. Even though it says Summer Friday, we do this year-round. Our last and most unique way we celebrate is that we have a prize wheel in our office. When life-events happen, milestones are met, or goals are reached, employees get to spin the wheel and earn prizes. Our spin ceremonies have continued virtually and it is a fun and exciting way to celebrate together.
  3. Focus on continuous improvement. Continue to optimize what is working well for you, and don’t think that just because that’s always been the way that it can’t be improved further. Empower employees to continue to improve and expand their skills and knowledge. Develop processes and review them periodically to make sure they continue to be as effective as you want.
  4. Encourage innovation. Your employees are the best source of inspiration. Reward them for being innovative and for taking the initiative to improve the business. Celebrate and incentivize innovative ways of thinking. Don’t forget that technology is another area of any business that consistently needs innovation to stay optimized.
  5. Be brave. When the event industry entered a downward spiral in mid-2020, we saw one month where revenue was down 90%. Talk about scary. Instead of following the lead from some of our competitors who quickly laid off nearly half their staff in a panic, My leadership team supported my decision to take a chance on the strength of the team I’ve built. I agreed to forego my salary, we furloughed less than 10% of our team, and most of the remaining employees took salary cuts. Instead of cutting back, I invested in marketing during the downturn from the pandemic, which allowed us to finish the year strong. We rehired all furloughed employees and restored salaries, even paying each employee back the salary they had lost during those few months. I’m excited now that we are starting to see monthly revenue surpassing our pre-pandemic monthly records. The reward was definitely worth the risk.

What would you advise to another business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Don’t be afraid to ask for input from your team. What new ideas or suggestions do they have? Even the process of asking your team what would help them can be incredibly motivating and empowering..

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Even in the early days of the company, AAE dominated search results for speaker and celebrity names. While this is good for business and continues to bring new clients and revenue, we also found ourselves dealing with a lot of celebrity fans who were looking for free ways to meet their favorite pop icon. As we have learned more about our event planner clients over the years, we’ve been able to build lasting relationships with clients and grow our repeat business tremendously. Our clients have always been happy to publicly recommend us. The most effective way to find the right new clients is word-of-mouth from your current clients.

Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

  1. Always operate with a sense of urgency. Event planners always have a lot going on, and most of the time, are operating with short timeframes and limited availability. Our entire company follows this strategy both for our external clients and our internal colleagues. Ultimately, we value people (clients and employees) and this is the best way to demonstrate that value on a daily basis.
  2. Go above what’s expected. While our primary business is booking speakers and celebrities, it is not uncommon for our team to be asked for their advice or feedback on other key event planning decisions. A big part of our success is that our team always does their best to answer any and all questions they can and to be available even during off-hours to answer them.
  3. Be customer-centric in everything you do. Whether it is running through a practice session with a client, expanding our website functionality, or selecting speakers for an upcoming event, our team always goes back to the client first. Defining who they are, what they need, and providing them with valuable guidance, resources, and support throughout their entire experience with us is what keeps them coming back year after year.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

I have long prioritized client retention and repeat business, and we have two primary initiatives to achieve both. First, we always ask for client feedback. We are always looking to continue to improve. Second, we compensate our sales team more for repeat business, which in turn, encourages them to build lasting relationships. I believe many businesses compensate their sales team more for generating new business vs repeat business. In my mind, this is backwards. I want our agents to prioritize client retention and relationships, both of which have been key to our success.

My advice to limit customer churn is to build those relationships, earn the trust and develop customer loyalty. When you provide impeccable service and value, customers will want to continue to work with you.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The internet literally changed my life and has impacted the lives of countless employees, former employees, clients and speakers who have secured work through our services. Had I not had access to technology combined with my curiosity, who knows what I’d be doing right now! It pains me to think that not everyone has the same access to the same tools, especially through the past year where reliance on the internet became critical due to the pandemic. I would hope to inspire a grassroots movement that brings internet access to people (especially kids) who might not have the means to do so.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love the chance to meet Warren Buffet. I try to emulate his humility and philanthropic nature. His wealth never changed him. He still lives in Omaha. But when it comes to business, he is legendary. He uses the wealth he has created to do good in the world.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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