Tips From The Top: One On One With Ryan Simonetti

I spoke to Ryan Simonetti, co-founder and CEO of Convene, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Ryan: People might be surprised to learn that I’m the first person in my family to go to a four-year college. What’s probably unsurprising is that my college experience heavily influenced the trajectory of my life and the eventual creation of Convene. During my time at Villanova University, my best friend and co-founder Chris Kelly and I entered a business plan competition. Each team was given the same business and had to come up with a unique plan to make it profitable. We ended up winning and that was the moment I realized we could create something, and have it become successful. Since then I’ve searched for opportunities that helped foster that entrepreneurial ambition, which ultimately helped me reach where I am now. 

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth? 

Ryan: I grew up in a middle-class town in central New Jersey and spent much of my youth in and around the hospitality industry.  My father, who has been a huge influence on me, is an entrepreneur and owned a bread delivery business, so I spent many summers as a kid on the back of a truck delivering Martin’s Potato Rolls. I guess you could say I was born into the hospitality business.  Even though my dad owned a business, life wasn’t easy for us and there were times where we struggled financially. I remember that causing a lot of stress for our family and it wasn’t easy to experience as at such a young age. It put a bit of a chip on my shoulder and it’s been a driving force in my life ever since.  When I was younger, I remember my dad always telling me, “Don’t ever let anyone outwork you. You control that.” It’s something that has always stuck with me and is part of the reason I’m so competitive and driven today.  

Adam: You closed a $152M Series D funding round last year. What are the best lessons you have learned on raising money? What should all entrepreneurs understand?

Ryan: First, it’s always better to raise money when you don’t actually need it. Second, focus on the partner, not the terms.  Too many founders and CEOs are focused on valuation and structure as opposed to the quality of the investor and whether they are philosophically, and value aligned. I’ve seen more businesses get tripped up because of bad investor alignment than I have anything else.  Lastly, everything in business is done as a team. When a business is built on being authentic, transparent, delivering a great customer experience, has strong unit economics and a clear path to profitability, raising money becomes just an exercise in proving that to smart investors. Growth for growth’s sake is not a long-term viable strategy and thankfully our thoughtful approach to building our business the last 10 years has allowed us to be very successful in raising money with great and strategic partners. 

Adam: What does the future of work look like? What trends are on the horizon?

Ryan: The future of work is about choice, flexibility, experience, and personalization. The modern-day workplace is going to shift into a more flexible, amenitized space that serves people in a totally new way. We’ve already done this at Convene by partnering with Eden Health and Hydra Studios to provide first-class access to health and wellness services in addition to our incredible food and beverage offering.  

Every day, flex space providers are taking different design approaches to creating their personalized spaces. At Convene, we design for the modern worker who prioritizes space that suits every style of working, while providing tech-enabled spaces in a distinct, elevated setting. We use data and human-centered design to increase productivity and encourage community within our spaces to help foster inspiring and meaningful connections.

Lastly, we envision that partnerships are going to play a major role in the future of work. Companies are going to continue to outsource more of their space, as well as their hospitality amenities to companies. Building owners can either choose to go at it on their own, or partner with an operator like Convene to bring flexibility and hospitality into their portfolios.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Ryan: 1. Surround yourself with people that you like, respect, trust, and are never afraid to tell you the things you don’t want to hear.  When you are building a company, you want to try and attract those types of people. Life is too short for anything else. 

2. Trust the process. As a founder and CEO, I have always looked for quick wins as early indicators of success, but building a great company is a journey filled with twists and turns. If you don’t learn to fall in love with that and be patient enough to allow things to happen as opposed to forcing them to happen, then you can get off track quickly. 

3. Culture is the single most important thing at a company and it’s also the hardest to build and maintain. At Convene, we’ve established a set of values that guide how we run the business, who we hire, how we make decisions, how we serve our clients, and how we partner. Those values have brought us success over the past 10 years while also helping our people thrive. We have so many of our team members who have started out as part-time staff with us and have now grown into General Manager roles or joined our corporate team. 

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Ryan: Being self-aware, willing to learn and take feedback, and being humble. If you know your strengths, then you’re probably aware of your weaknesses. I always say your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. If you can surround yourself with people who have complementary skill sets, aren’t afraid to tell you “no,” and want to lift the entire team up with you, then you can be extremely successful.   

In terms of taking leadership skills to the next level, young founders and CEOs don’t have experience, because time equates to experience. However, it does not mean you cannot steal wisdom. I surround myself with mentors who have been through things I haven’t, and I learn from their mistakes. I call this being in the “wisdom theft business” and it has helped me guide the company through the past ten years — even as a young CEO.   

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams?

Ryan: At the heart of Convene is an incredibly talented team, a values-based culture and our 1% better each day philosophy. The company’s core values of GRIT – genuine, relentless, integrity, teamwork – are infused in all aspects of the business and drive decision-making at every level of the organization. I can’t overstate how important our values have been to our success. When your team shows up every day to do just a bit better than the day before, you’re able to grow and achieve incredible things together. As a leader, the most important thing is to be honest, transparent, authentic, and clear in your expectations.  If you do those four things consistently, your team will flourish and can accomplish great things. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Ryan: Before Chris Kelly and I founded Convene, we went to Aretsky’s Patroon — a historic restaurant in New York City — and met with Ken Aretsky to have lunch with him. We asked him, “What advice would you give to two young founders who want to be successful in the hospitality business?” He told us three words: “Hello, coffee, goodbye.” It’s all about those touchpoints — it’s about how you feel when you walk in, the last thing you remember about the experience, and how you feel walking out the door. He told us that the most important person in the entire restaurant is the doorman, because he or she sets the tone for the hello and goodbye. We never forgot that advice and have woven that philosophy into everything that we do at Convene.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Ryan: I am passionate about supporting industry organizations and mentoring other entrepreneurs. A core tenet of Convene’s philosophy is the idea that we can both do well and do good. Convene’s donation and volunteer efforts have supported 39 different organizations working to improve the lives of people everywhere. We’ve also donated nearly $500,000 worth of space in in-kind event donations and over $150,000 in direct donations. Our team has volunteered over 1,600 hours. These efforts are something I’m very proud of. The problems facing our world are so complicated that we can’t just wait for someone else to figure it out — as business leaders we all must do our part.  

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