Michael Balyasny of Attendify: “Put Your Attendees First ”

Put Your Attendees First — You need to truly understand the “why” behind your event, write it down, and also ask yourself why your attendees’ goals are, by figuring out the “why” behind their motivation to attend. There may be a lot of overlap between your goals and theirs, so in all actuality, this process may be […]

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Put Your Attendees First — You need to truly understand the “why” behind your event, write it down, and also ask yourself why your attendees’ goals are, by figuring out the “why” behind their motivation to attend. There may be a lot of overlap between your goals and theirs, so in all actuality, this process may be less work than you think. Whatever you do, prioritize your attendees and their experience; that’s the best way to ensure success with virtual events. At the end of the day, it’s their experience and the connections they make that matters most. Events are a means to an end and not an end to themselves. As such, success starts with helping your attendees achieve their goals.

As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Balyasny.

Michael Balyasny is a product and design-driven serial entrepreneur with more than a decade’s worth of experience in the software industry. As Attendify’s founder and chief visionary, he’s dedicated to advancing the company’s strategic direction and mission to bridge the gap between digital and event marketing. Michael holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California. In his spare time, Michael collects vintage movie posters from the former Soviet Union; he’s driven by the desire to learn about the artists and help preserve their underappreciated and largely forgotten work — someone’s got to do it!

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 bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, and my family immigrated to the United States when I was 5 years old. I grew up in San Francisco, but since I was a first-generation American, I was always fascinated by the former Soviet Union. So, I made it a personal goal of mine to work in Russia, or the Ukraine, as part of my career. It felt exciting to visit countries that were changing and evolving with every passing day, sometimes even in the most dramatic and unpredictable ways.

Additionally, Ukrainian culture has always encouraged and looked very favorably upon engineering, scientific, and technical professions and prioritized STEM education, and as a result, it’s become a country bursting with talented tech talent and is becoming increasingly well-known for its tech startups and entrepreneurial community. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that I ended up in a career that’s taken me to Ukraine time and time again, especially considering my own passion for technology, which was such a big part of my cultural identity and upbringing.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

I started my career in the offshore software development space. During that time as part of a project my team and I were working on, I was asked to provide product feedback and suggest some alternative ways of solving a particular problem. I was so motivated by this particular aspect of my work and instantly got absorbed in the process. I came out of that experience with a newfound and clear realization: my passion and strengths lie in creating products. So instead of continuing down a path on the service-side, I quickly decided what I wanted and needed to do in my career, which was to create new products in an effort to reimagine how we can better solve for our common business needs and challenges.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first launched Attendify, I was working out of a garage-like space, which (trust me) was far less glamorous than the similar types of startup stories we hear about occurring in the Silicon Valley. Like any new startup, I wanted to test for product-market fit, so when I launched our first product, I kept its price on the lower end compared to other companies with similar types of offerings. What I didn’t realize was that the price was perhaps too much so on lower end. This became apparent when I first spoke with one of our very first customers, who would later become a true champion and advocate for Attendify and who’d bring our technology with him into multiple companies as his own career progressed. During our conversation, this customer more, or less, told me that with our price as low as it was, he thought it might’ve been too good to be true, (to the point where it maybe even had the possibility of being some sort of scam.) The good news was our client figured that for the inexpensive cost he’d give it a try regardless, so ironically our low price point helped us in this way. And luckily for me, he loved the capabilities of the product so much that he went out of his way to advise me to bump up our pricing.

While these stories, I have to admit, are a bit embarrassing. What I’ve realized is this: every company, especially startups, have to make mistakes; they’re simply inherent to the process of learning and improving. But even more than that, what this experience taught me is the importance of having an intimidate knowledge of your audience and your customers. While this story almost sounds a bit like “Business 101,” I think it’s a meaningful lesson to learn and is one to do everything in one’s power to never forget.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

One of my favorite films is, Billy Elliot. While the movie’s plot has nothing to do with business, nor entrepreneurship, there are many relevant messages interwoven into its plot. To me, the film does an exceptional job of illustrating how much we all need others to be successful. In many ways, our friends, family, team members, or even perfect strangers, help to shape who we are, and will become. Also, it struck me that talent and effort alone are almost never enough, at least not on their own. Additionally, for me, the realization that there is so much in life that is simply beyond our individual control coupled with simultaneous recognition of the impact you can have on lives of others is comforting, motivating, and inspiring.

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

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius

Life doesn’t come with a guaranteed tomorrow. The recent global tragedies caused by the global pandemic have sadly only served to underscore this concept and while I, like everyone else, wish we didn’t have to experience this level of collective suffering, it serves not only as a reminder of the evanescent nature of life but also of our ability to choose to live fully today and aim to do and be our best with each day we have on this earth.

For me, the fleeting nature of life is profound in that it reminds us all of how precious and significant each day of our lives are, and this concept is a powerful tool that motivates me to change for the better and make every moment in my life more meaningful.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?

Prior to starting Attendify, I organized several concerts, as a side-hustle while I was in college. I was involved in several concerts for some really well-known Russian and Ukrainian rock bands that were performing in the US. This experience taught me first-hand how powerful events can be: they have an incredible energy and impact, but they’re also high-pressure. Later in my career, I started an event technology company, and since then, we’ve powered over 20,000 events and worked with thousands of event marketers and organizers to drive engagement and participation.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

Virtual events are completely new, and we’re still in the very early days of truly understanding what makes a great virtual experience. With that being said, virtual events are at their core are still events. And, we know why attendees turn to event: They want to engage with interesting, relevant, and educational content and participate in meaningful networking experiences. That said, today’s attendees also must fit virtual event experiences into their daily lives, because today, most everyone is joining from home, or remotely. That’s a unique challenge, because as an event organizer, you don’t have the captive audience you’re used to working with in-person and have to work to compete for their attention.

While the virtual event industry is still in its early stages, The Mars Society comes to mind when it comes to an organization that is an amazing example of how live virtual events can be planned to produce stellar results. Through their virtual event, their association was able to democratize interest and education in science and space exploration — a topic reserved for only a select few — across the globe. In fact, their 2020 Virtual Mars Society Convention was an unprecedented success, increasing event attendance by 2500% and expanding its exposure to millions of people. Because their team focused on creating educational and engaging programming and fostering meaningful networking opportunities, they were able to exceed their own expectations. In addition, the digital format of their convention meant that it was easier for them to secure high-demand speakers, like Elon Musk and Jim Bridenstine, which added fuel to the fire. They were able to significantly increase donations to their non-profit and capture the imaginations of people across the planet.

While the virtual event space is still in a bit of a learning-mode, it does hold momentous opportunity for the world of events. The Mars Society is a great example of how virtual events can help us reach the next frontier in our industry.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

I think it’s a mistake to look to one company, as an example, because there are so many companies that have created event experiences that awe-inspiring and brilliant in their own right. Adobe, WebSummit, Salesforce, or many other big budget events pulled off some incredible, creative ideas with super high-production value. It’s easy to point to those examples, because they are pretty incredible. However, the problem with solely recognizing these types of large-scale, high-visibility events, alone, is that most organizations can’t realistically match them. The good news for these folks is that it’s not always the huge headliners that today’s attendees are going to remember anyway.

In a virtual setting, the ROI for the attendee is more important than ever. I’m never going to say that seeing Metallica perform virtually at Dreamforce wasn’t awesome. However, one can watch plenty of concerts, films, or the like that would be comparable. In fact, what attendees genuinely want from today’s virtual events hasn’t changed all that much: meaningful networking experiences and great content. Having spent time in the tech world, which is well-known for its penchant to gravitate towards shiny objects, I would avoid the temptation of trying to chase too many shiny objects at today’s virtual events. Rather, I’d suggest that event hosts work to imagine what an actual great outcome would be for an individual attendee that would be joining his, or her, virtual event. From there, I’d recommend trying to build a framework that makes that outcome as likely as possible to achieve.

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?

  1. Forgetting the foundation of a great event — Events are about learning, networking and driving new business opportunities. This is what makes them so uniquely effective, because they enable meaningful, face-to-face interactions that are so rare these days. The number one priority for virtual events experiences is to make sure that as much value as possible is realized for virtual event participants.
  2. Trying to replicate real-life events — Trying to recreate exactly the same type of in-person experience is a mistake, because the setting of virtual events is so inherently different. It’s important to experiment with formats and do as much as one can to put herself in the shoes of an event attendee when planning a digital event. Instead of trying to copy the same tactics of the past, I recommend asking yourself the following: Whether attendees can watch more than X hours of sessions on their desktop in a row? What will sponsors get out of the experience? Will there enough networking opportunities? What happens before, during, and after the event? How does this event connect with the narrative you want to create for your brand within the context of your attendees’ lives? When you can answer these questions from this perspective, you can begin to see how to create real value virtually.
  3. Ignoring post-event experience — Running a virtual event without understanding the broader context for the relationship and conversation you want to create with your attendees represents a missed opportunity. Events are an amazing source of data and insights that can drive engagement well beyond the live event itself and help you craft higher performing and more effective sales and marketing strategies over the long run. We’re strong believers that today’s virtual events are a source of incredible valuable, especially when it comes to the data they now generate, which can inform and guide the next steps of your organization’s relationship with your attendees. My advice: get your hands on the data and put it to work in order to build an ongoing conversation and sense of community around your events, your brand, and your company.

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

Every virtual event platform has a lot of room for improvement. We’re obviously in this market, so I’ll mention a few fellow companies that I think are on a good trajectory and doing some really interesting things in their respective spaces: Hopin, Swapcard, Luma, and Runtheworld come to mind. Of course, I would also humbly hope that people to check out, Attendify as well. 🙂

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

Even if you have a limited budget, you can still make your event feel professional and of high production quality. For example, ensure every speaker has access to a great webcam, ring light, and microphone. You can get all three of these items for around 150 dollars, which for the money can be one of the best investments for your event. There’s lots of great software out there as well, but it’s so hard to recommend something without first starting with the goal. At the end of the day, like any other business, or marketing strategy, it’s important to start with the unique outcome you’re looking to achieve by running a virtual event, and once your goal is clear, find the best tools and software to support you in your aim from there.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Put Your Attendees First — You need to truly understand the “why” behind your event, write it down, and also ask yourself why your attendees’ goals are, by figuring out the “why” behind their motivation to attend. There may be a lot of overlap between your goals and theirs, so in all actuality, this process may be less work than you think. Whatever you do, prioritize your attendees and their experience; that’s the best way to ensure success with virtual events. At the end of the day, it’s their experience and the connections they make that matters most. Events are a means to an end and not an end to themselves. As such, success starts with helping your attendees achieve their goals.
  2. Set Reasonable Expectations — Don’t expect your first, second, or even third virtual event to be perfect. It’s a process. So, try to be patient with yourself, and push yourself to take an entrepreneurial approach to virtual events. Try your hand at experimenting with different formats, content, and networking experiences. These first-hand learnings will go the farthest when it comes to you achieving your ultimate virtual event experience.
  3. Be Smart about Technology — Don’t fall into the trap of buying software solely based on some arbitrary checklist of features. Start with the goal of your event, and from there, work backwards to find the best solution to fit your needs. Also, beware of buying any solution based on PowerPoint-driven demos with a salesperson. Instead, I encourage you to make sure to test, try, or at the very least, see the actual products you’re evaluating. Get hands-on to get a feel for each technology yourself, and then prioritize the event experience for your attendees over individual features, or software capabilities.
  4. Prioritize Foundational Experiences — That ventriloquist, comedian, mime, or a similar type of entertainer may seem like a great idea, and maybe they are, depending on your event. However, this all ties back to your audience, and what today’s attendees really want is to learn and network. With every element you add to your virtual event ask yourself: Is this furthering my attendees networking and learning goals? Is this event equipping them with what they need to move their life, business, or the like forward? Posing these questions to yourself will help you ensure you’re establishing the best foundation upon which to build your virtual event.
  5. Keep the Conversation Going — Virtual events are opening new doors to how we can extend the value of events. Use the data, or insights, that your event generates to drive the conversation and community forward even after your event concludes. Your virtual event can easily become a part of an ongoing conversation with your event audience. So, please be sure to keep this in mind, so you can get the most out of your efforts by having a plan for what you’d like to happen after the virtual event takes place live.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

If you have an idea for an event, try approaching it like you would if you were building a startup. When you start a business, you not only need a great idea, but you also need to validate your idea, figure out the fastest way to implement a prototype, and really understand your customer and market to ensure product market fit. This same dynamic holds true for virtual events, you need to attract and retain attendees and sponsors (your customers), which means success lies in solving a problem in their lives. Make sure your event solves a relevant problem well and in a differentiated way. It’s not as hard as it may sound at first glance; in fact, in most cases, doing this will simply necessitate building an amazing community and delivering engaging content that makes an impact on their lives.

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great 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.

In today’s technologically-driven world, I would encourage people to recognize that there’s a human being behind most of your digital interactions. We all have a tendency to act with impunity when we’re sitting behind a screen. We’re not as thoughtful, not as forgiving, and not nearly as kind compared to when we interact with others in-person. We need to realize that the biggest problems facing our society require the collaboration and investment of so many people and organizations that we have no choice but to find common ground. Technology can be a hugely unifying force if we remind ourselves about the humanity that’s just behind the digital experiences, with which we’re all so enamored, and allow our shared humanity to bring us together as a unifying force to face the challenges of today and beyond.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’m a big fan of Tobi Lutke, the Founder of Shopify. I’m an avid reader, and I enjoy the process of learning from others. Tobi gives great recommendations for books on Twitter, and he has never steered me wrong with his suggestions. Shopify is such an incredible success, but despite that, he seems like a very humble, thoughtful, and positive person. Tobi, if you see this… keep up the amazing work; you’re an inspiration to so many!

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