Co-Founder Event Farm, CSO at MemberSuite overseeing all of the company’s strategic initiatives, marketing, brand direction and culture.
Several months ago, I was staring at more than 15 years’ worth of work being completely wiped out. The event technology business I co-founded was heading to the garbage pile like so many other events-based businesses that have crumbled due to Covid-19.
Taking a step back to assess the carnage, it’s no surprise that if every event on the planet is canceled, the industry struggles. But what I think made this so severe is the speed at which it happened. Seemingly overnight, the industry lost its ability to operate. It would be one thing if I told you that 12 months from now you’d need to be ready for a complete shutdown. It’s entirely different if it just happens like a flip of a switch. You can argue that all companies should have disaster recovery plans and proper savings in place to withstand challenges. I get it, and we did, but this is not a normal business curveball.
In-Person Events Fell Off A Cliff
For context, this has not just affected small event-planning businesses. Even big companies with healthy balance sheets are struggling. Eventbrite, for instance, reported (login required) a 90% decrease in Q2 revenue and is hemorrhaging cash even after massive layoffs.
We were in the same boat. In March, our pipeline fell off a cliff. We had a full month with no new pipeline generated. The most important leading indicator of how our business would perform in the near future was pointing to zero. The same started happening with our renewals. We assessed our cash position and realized that we didn’t have the ability to wait out the storm, even if it lasted just a few months. Freak out time!
Flash back to six months before, and EventFarm was acquired by MemberSuite, where I currently serve as chief strategy officer. As the companies merged, we revisited our new combined culture, corporate mission and core values. I’ve led this exercise several times before, but this go-round, something new happened. We came up with an aspirational core value. It was something we felt we weren’t, but we wanted to be. We defined this value as: Be curious. A strong passion for our work is what fuels our curiosity to go the extra mile and constantly improve.
OK, back to March 2020. Option A was to lay off most of the company and hope we survived. Option B was to try anything else but that. It immediately became clear that the only way to make this work was to operate our business while fully embracing the aspirational value we set for ourselves just a few months back. Every single member of the team had to be insatiably curious and go figure it out themselves. If the team waited around for management to figure it out and build a process, we would die. I found myself, on numerous occasions, responding to messages from teammates with only this reply: Be curious. I wasn’t dismissive of the challenges they were seeking help with; I was reminding them to find the solution on their own. It was how we had to survive.
A Quick Pivot
It may seem obvious now, but getting into the virtual events business was the way to survive. The only problem: We didn’t have a product, and we didn’t have the time or resources to build one. Curiosity led me to a company that built virtual workplaces and learning technology. We partnered with that company to bring its technology to the events market using our industry expertise — all while integrating our products to offer virtual event campuses. We would provide organizations a venue to host events again, and we’d be back in business.
More than 180 days in, the results spoke for themselves. Our choice to create an aspirational value and then follow it resulted in record-setting pipeline generation and onboarding more new customers in this time than in any six-month period in the company’s history.
There are two important lessons anyone can take from this experience. Firstly, culture can be a bigger driver of a company’s speed than any other performance-based measurement. While a new idea, product or strategy may be needed to weather an unexpected storm, culture drives the development. If employees buy into the culture, they’ll be more likely to buy into a necessary pivot. Our company took the culture we established with our new aspirational value to be curious and used that as fuel to grow into this new era.
The second lesson is to understand that inspiration drives employee engagement. Aspirational values create inspiration. While other factors can drive inspiration, providing the framework for looking forward can help engage employees even when the forecast seems bleak. Don’t underestimate the power of inspiration — and the influence aspiration can have on it.
Undoubtedly, our culture of curiosity gave us the agility and speed required to pivot. Pivoting your company is never easy, especially with uncharted market dynamics. When your survival depends on change, you need deeper emotional buy-in to how you need to work and why. An aspirational value can help you gain buy-in while spurring the engagement needed to navigate obstacles. You might wonder if curiosity became one of our normal core values. The answer is no. Curiosity requires constant exploration, and your aspirational value should, too.
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