Finding Flow: An Entrepreneur’s Journey In An Event Tech Blue Ocean
Finding Flow: An Entrepreneur’s Journey In An Event Tech Blue Ocean14-Jul-2017
When Stephen Bowles graduated from high school, a friend who had worked at the Nickelodeon and MTV networks introduced him to the behind-the-scenes world of live-event production. It was the kickoff of a ten-year (mostly freelance) career managing cameras and webcasts at concerts, corporate meetings, and product launches that led him to a discovery—a production process begging to be automated.
Feeling the pain of a manual process
The minute-by-minute execution of a live audio-visual production (a high-level keynote, for example)—a process guided by run downs, show flows, cue sheets, and scripts—is largely manual. The norm is to plot everything out on an Excel spreadsheet, update it as needed, and pass hard copies around so that everyone on the production team is on the same page when the action starts.
One problem with a paper-based production schedule, Bowles explains, is version control. It’s a “living and breathing document that changes and evolves,” he says. So, Using a printed copy of an Excel spreadsheet means that inevitably someone ends up working off the wrong version and a change requested during the rehearsal never makes it to the live production.
Another issue with using Excel spreadsheets to manage the show flow is that it kills collaboration. Live-event production is an inherently creative endeavor. Team members from the creative director to the cameraman to the event planner often have ideas to contribute. But even with Google Sheets, a more collaborative alternative to Excel, it’s hard for the whole team to weigh in effectively.
Closing in on a Blue Ocean opportunity
Bowles’ idea was to develop software to automate the live-event production workflow with transparency and collaboration. He worked with a software developer who was also a “live-event guy” and built the first version of Shoflo, software for building and sharing production run downs, schedules, and event documents in real time on any device.
When Bowles came up with the idea for Shoflo, surprisingly there was nothing like it available. “A lot of companies were building event management software focused on what goes on outside the ballroom. But once you walk through the doors of the general session room, you walk into a different world that’s managed by a different team with different stakeholders. That was Shoflo’s world—event production software,” he explains.
The first version of Shoflo, released in 2012, was accessible via a local area network (LAN). Bowles and team beta-tested it with some client “friendlies,” but it didn’t go well. Tethering it to a LAN meant that as soon as a user moved outside the network perimeter, access to the platform terminated. So, they rebuilt it in the cloud as a software-as-a-service platform that users could access from anywhere in the world, even before the event.
Selling software in the event space
As fortuitous as they are, Blue Ocean opportunities still come with challenges. “We are the first in the market, at least in our tier, so we have an incredible responsibility to educate our customers," Bowles says. But the time it takes to educate prospective buyers extends the sales cycle. “That was something we didn’t anticipate,” he adds.
For example, Bowles had to convince many of the early prospects that the benefits of an efficient production scheduling process outweighed the “tried and true” process they had cobbled together with Excel or Google. Plus, where there is no perceived pain, there is no budget. So, another obstacle for Shoflo was to explain to prospective customers that the cost of using free software isn’t actually zero.
Addressing a niche process (production scheduling) inside of a niche category (event production) embedded in a niche industry (corporate events) didn't scare Bowles into believing that the market for Shoflo was limited. Although the corporate-event market is huge, he (early on) expanded his definition of events to include collegiate and professional sports and houses of worship.
Even though Shoflo eventually attracted funding, in the beginning, the company had to get the word out on a limited budget. Bowles recounts the steps from those lean days to the present:
- Focus on the product. In other words, develop something that is easy to sell.
- Leverage social media as much as possible.
- As sales increase, collect email addresses of the users and begin marketing to them. "In this industry everybody talks. It's very viral.Even if you have one customer, you might have 25 users, and they can be your influencers," he says.
- When you can afford it, start participating in trade shows. Shoflo exhibits in youth sports and professional sports shows, as well as the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show and InfoComm.
- When you have the budget, hire a direct sales team to follow up leads, make calls, send emails, and build relationships.
In 2016, Shoflo took the top honor in the ibtm Technology and Innovation Watch Competition. It had come a long way in a relatively short time to beat out a host of formidable and highly innovative competitors. It was deemed the most innovative product in the field in part because it was “the first end-to-end management software focused on the producing and technical planning of an event,” writes Corbin Ball, Chairman of the judging committee.
To break into a crowded market requires patience, optimism, and a methodical march to the goal line. But there is something to be said for the entrepreneurial impulse to “find a better way.” Being the first to solve a problem is a rare opportunity that Bowles takes seriously. But helping the very people who sit right where he sat is a job he relishes with enthusiasm. “My cupeth overfloweth with awesomeness every day,” he says.