As any business leader could tell you, conferences are big business. In 2016, the event industry generated $325 billion in direct spending — through hotels, catering, exhibitions, and events centers — and an even more impressive $845 billion in business sales.
There’s no denying the power events have on the economy itself — in fact, for every dollar spent on face-to-face meetings, $1.60 is generated for the American economy. Big businesses, too, receive benefits; many use these events for networking, building partnerships with other firms, and providing professional development opportunities for their employees. They enter the room with big names and leave with an even bigger stack of business cards.
But what about entrepreneurs? Many of these events can be isolating for startup founders or leaders of growing companies; without name recognition or existing relationships, they struggle. Trust is earned through repeated exposure, and these unknown brands grapple with simultaneously building trust and earning interest. That means these events — while very instructive — may not be designed to truly help the world’s entrepreneurs.
The future of entrepreneurship hinges on bringing people and tech together, as Hollis Carter of Baby Bathwater explains, and the format may not look the way we expect.
Building for Entrepreneurs
Carter and his co-founder, Michael Lovitch, established The Baby Bathwater Institute to provide entrepreneurial support they didn’t see available elsewhere. Combining entrepreneurs who were all building businesses and using technology in different industries — through software, automated platforms, and split testing — was important. “We wanted to reduce the posturing that happens at a lot of events,” Carter explained. “People try to be transactional, but we’re about supporting visions of running and growing a business. That’s why we don’t go after a specific industry.”
The institute started its flagship events — two annual excursions to Powder Mountain in Eden, Utah — four years ago. The four-day events are all-inclusive experiences off the beaten path, featuring an outdoorsy vibe, complete with farm-fresh meals, spas, and live music. The goal was to have people leave their wallets and business cards at home — no pitching allowed — and create a setting that would allow people to talk openly.
“I have an obsession with mental health and its impact on entrepreneurs,” Carter said, “and it can be a lonely world, building a business and facing insecurity. Entrepreneurship is up and down for the whole family; it’s important to create a community to support them through the big wins and devastating losses.”
The events featured a “Choose Your Own Adventure” format, allowing entrepreneurs to avoid the school-like atmosphere found at many other events. “Most entrepreneurs hated school,” Carter laughs. “When they went to events, they felt like they were back in a school environment — here’s your name tag, your worksheet. We encourage people to only go to talks that are relevant to them so the participation at those sessions is really high. If it’s not relevant, go grab a bottle of wine and meet with others.” The goal, he explains, is to allow entrepreneurs to pick and choose the sessions and in-person meetings that will have the biggest impact on their businesses’ growth and future.
Baby Bathwater’s event schedule expanded to include members-only events twice a year; in 2018, the group is hosting an event near Split, Croatia, for the first time, and it believes this experience will accelerate everything it’s done before.
The five-day Croatia Island Takeover in June takes place on a private island; the event attendees will be the only people there. It continues the setting of Baby Bathwater’s other events — no conference rooms, no hotel food, no selling — but amplifies the ability for people to be truly present. With some opting to bring significant others and content discussing the entrepreneurial lifestyle on the docket, “people will be more grounded and authentic,” Carter said.
This shift will allow entrepreneurs to move even further away from the box-ticking mentality that surfaces at many conferences. “Content is a cool thing to bring people in, but then they’re there for the conversation. They’re in the grow-and-scale phase, and they really want conversations about that,” Carter explained. “They’re not worrying about who’s paying the bar tab.”
Carter says they’re well-positioned to have fulfilling conversations: “We take a clinical approach and do a full intake: Who do they want to meet? What skills do they bring? We make recommendations to each person.” He says entrepreneurs are busy but know they need to network and meet people in order to grow their companies; because the events are curated, their time is spent more effectively — Baby Bathwater’s team does the networking at other events and attracts the right people to its own.
Making It Pay Off Over the Long Run
Eliminating distractions and refocusing entrepreneurs on exploring the issues and problems they’re faced with has paid off, not just for Baby Bathwater’s team, but for its attendees as well. “Not being transactional has actually produced more partnerships,” Carter admitted. “Entrepreneurs find people they genuinely enjoy, and we hear often about people partnering or combining companies. That’s why we also have a mix of people who provide services and have brands so they can meet in a casual environment; bigger companies are sometimes born from the resources they bring.”
Talking to others who have been there, done that has helped many learn to shift how they handle their time, money, and energy. “I’ve met lots of smart, successful people who have creative, innovative companies…but I don’t necessarily want to spend a weekend with them,” said Bert Jacobs, the co-founder of Life is Good. “Everyone here is accomplished, driven, intellectually stimulating, kind and understands that even though we run businesses…we’re animals.”
Likewise, Jenny Thompson of SafetyPIN Technologies said her experience with Baby Bathwater events taught her “things I wouldn’t learn for three years if I did not come here.” Carter says that seeing how individuals have benefited from Baby Bathwater’s events has been affirming, but the team doesn’t want to stop there: It wants to help provide tactical support for its members, too.
“We want to focus purely on incubating and supporting the people here,” Carter said. “The next stage for us is getting more hands-on and seeing how we can help them move into new industries and address gaps.”
Carter says the way to keep entrepreneurs learning is through building relationships and providing support, not merely trading business cards or playing up tech specs. “Business isn’t speed dating,” he says. He believes it’s time event organizers stopped acting like it — and take a genuine interest in their peers and supporting one another.