Episode #211: Julie Novack, “We Know Who Works Together…We Can Amplify Those Real World Relationships…That Is Such A Powerful Network Effect”
Guest: Julie Novack is the CEO and co-founder of PartySlate, a content-rich marketplace that connects people planning events with leading event professionals and venues. PartySlate approaches the event planning industry from a fresh angle by offering planning professionals a digital platform to showcase their work and build their brands.
Date Recorded: 2/25/2020
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Summary: In episode 211 we welcome our guest, Julie Novack, the CEO and co-founder of PartySlate. We discuss the party planning industry and how PartySlate is bringing something entirely different to the table with its content-rich platform and transparent crediting.
We get into the frustration Julie faced logging hours online trying to plan a high-profile cancer research gala, and how that experience ultimately led to the idea behind her company. We talk about the business model, growth plans, and her experience with startup incubator, Techstars.
Julie even offers thoughts on the future and some major trends she’s seeing take shape in the event planning industry.
All this and more, in episode 211 with Julie Novack.
Links from the Episode:
- 0:40 – Intro
- 1:41 – Welcome Julie Novack to the show
- 2:15 – An overview of PartySlate
- 3:51 – What it looks like to start planning a party on the PartySlate platform
- 8:59 – The social/visual aspects of the platform
- 11:04 – Best practices and things to avoid when looking to throw an event using the platform
- 13:43 – How often do people replicate what they see on the platform
- 15:25 – How party planners and other pros use the platform
- 19:32 – How does this industry look over the next 5-10 years?
- 22:46 – Improving silent auctions
- 23:51 – Origin story of the company and how it was built from scratch
- 26:59 – Going through Techstars
- 28:12 – Funding rounds for PartySlate
- 29:21 – Finding the right people for a startup
- 30:38 – Growth strategy
- 34:45 – Cities PartySlate operates in
- 35:20 – How the vision remained steady since its inception
- 36:59 – Top challenges to growing the platform
- 38:21 – Balance building a marketplace vs generating more revenue
- 40:59 – How the event industry is changing
- 44:28 – Useful resources
- 47:08 – Best event Julie ever went to
- 49:40 – PartySlate
Transcript of Episode 211:
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Meb: Hey, podcast listeners. We have another great show for you today. Our guest is the CEO and Co-founder of PartySlate, a content-rich marketplace that connects people planning events with leading event pros and venues. PartySlate approaches the event planning industry from a fresh angle by offering planning professionals a digital platform to showcase their work and build their brands.
In today’s episode, we discuss the state of the party-planning industry, and how PartySlate is bringing something entirely different to the table. We get into Julie’s origin story, the frustration her guests faced logging hours online trying to plan a high-profile cancer research gala, and how that experience ultimately led to the idea behind her company.
We talk about their business model, growth plans, and her experience with the startup incubator, Techstars. Our guest even offers thoughts on the future and some major trends she’s seeing take place in the event planning industry. Please, enjoy this episode with PartySlate CEO and Co-founder, Julie Novack.
Julie, welcome to the show.
Julie: Thanks, for having me. I’m excited.
Meb: We are live from sunny California and snowy Chicago. Are you a Chicago native? Where are you from?
Julie: I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and moved to Chicago after University of Michigan, so Midwesterner. But I love LA.
Meb: You were also a Kellogg girl at one point, too, right?
Julie: I am Kellogg. Yeah, I went to business school at night at Kellogg, and studied economics and marketing and, you know, never knew that the digital thing would explode right after I graduated. So, it was a great time.
Meb: Let’s hear about it. So, you’re the founder, CEO of PartySlate, give us the quick, one-minute elevator overview of what PartySlate is, and then we’ll get into all the details too.
Julie: Sure. So, PartySlate is a platform or website you can go to if you’re planning a large-scale event, so let’s say a corporate event, a wedding, a bar/bat mitzvah, a gala. Any type of large-scale event where you need professional planning and a venue, you can come find new ideas. We have over 700,000 photos that have been posted by leading event professionals and venues across the country. And then more importantly, you can find the best local event professionals and venues to help you bring your vision to life, for your event.
On the other side of the market, for event professionals, so let’s think caterers, venues, planners, they can come to PartySlate and actually market their business. We talked about content marketing before. They can create a free profile page, upload all their photos, their videos, and really, build their brand and drive leads.
And you may ask, how do I make money? Well, about five percent of our community, we have about 10,000 profiles, pay for a boosted presence on the platform. So, think about Instagram boosting or Facebook boosting. We provide an opportunity to get their brand in front of the right people that are planning these large scale events, and connect the buyers and sellers.
So, we are a marketplace, but we are not transactional. So, you don’t buy a $100,000 party through PartySlate, you find an incredible venue, you find an amazing caterer, by searching our platform.
Meb: It sounds like you’ve practiced that once or twice before. It’s a great delivery. So, let’s walk through both sides. First, let’s walk through, you know, the person who wants to plan a party, and feel free to jump in with, sort of, the industry dynamics too, because I imagine a lot of the challenge of this is just, it’s so dislocated all the various people that get involved in, not even a small party, but God forbid, like an enormous gala or something. But walk us through. It seems so mom and poppy.
Julie: Yeah, so it is a highly, highly fragmented industry. So, if you think about LA, you know, there’s thousands and thousands of companies that help produce events. That said, there are also some bigger players like the hotels and the big catering companies like Wolfgang Puck, you know, Four Seasons, and others, that share their work on PartySlate.
I would say 80% or 90% are businesses of one to 10 people, and then the rest of it is the big hotels, the big catering companies, the big restaurant groups. Anyone that earns revenue from private events is part of our target market.
Meb: This is a very personal product market fit, because I got married a handful of years ago, and my wife and I had started the path of planning this, and between how busy we both were, I was like, “I can’t even deal with this right now. Like, this is so overwhelming.” And just an avalanche of just mess, even talking to all the coordinators, etc.
Anyway, so let’s say I wanna throw a party, whatever it may be, a local bar mitzvah in LA, which, I went to my first bar mitzvah, by the way, a couple of years ago. It was probably the best party I’ve ever been to.
Julie: Bar/bat mitzvahs are amazing. I’m actually planning my twin girls’ b’not mitzvah next year. They are the most creative, fun experiential events. We found that a lot of our corporate hosts and brides and grooms love to look at bar and bat mitzvah ideas on PartySlate for ideation, and to find new ideas.
Meb: All right, so let’s say Meb in 2020, wants to throw a party. What’s my experience? I go to the website, and then what?
Julie: Yeah, so if you go to partyslate.com, hopefully your listeners will check it out, there’s a section called “Photos and Real Events.” That’s, you can think about it top of funnel. You’re just thinking about it. Like, you may have a date, but you’re just getting started. You can actually go to real events, and you can look for weddings, fundraisers, mitzvahs, birthday, celebrations or corporate events.
You go into those sections, so let’s say you’re planning a fundraiser, and again, for fundraisers, how I thought of PartySlate is I was planning a nonprofit for a cancer research charity. I have a lot of cancer. It runs in my family. It was really important to me. I knew a great event would raise 100% more funding for this charity than if it was not a great event.
And you might say, like, “Oh, that doesn’t seem right. It should be about the charity,” but really, it’s about having that captive audience. You know you’ve been to these fundraisers, you have a captive audience. You have an incredible video. You have an amazing speaker. There is great food. That helps people get connected to your cause and want to give more. Even more importantly, that makes them wanna come back the following year, and so it’s almost like recurring donations.
When you go to the “Fundraiser Gallery” on PartySlate, you can look through thousands of beautiful, beautiful fundraisers that have been hosted all over the country, and then you can get ideas and save those ideas.
But let’s say you have your date and you’re leaning in, and you’re like, “You know what? I’m too busy. I don’t have time to plan this myself.” You can go to the “Find Professionals” section, and go under “Event Planner,” and then you can, actually, sort on planners that do nonprofit events.
So, you can click the button. There’s a nonprofit filter on the left-hand side, and then you can say, “Hey, I’m looking for an event planner in LA.” So you do the drop down. You know, there is a little bit of, like, a Yelp component of PartySlate. We like to say we’re, like, a luxury Yelp. And then you’ll find amazing event planners in LA that do weddings, or do mitzvahs, or do other types of events, but not just seeing who they are.
Then you can click into their profile page, and actually view, like, “Do I see myself working with this person? What type of events do they do? What venues have they worked with?” It’s, really, a way to filter and shorten your list of who you wanna contact.
Of course, you’re gonna talk to this person on the phone. You may even have an in-person meeting before you hire someone that’s gonna be working with you for six months or a year. But we’re gonna make it more enjoyable, a shorter time to market, and just a better experience to find those right people.
Meb: So, is that how most people do it? Do they really lead with the event planner?
Julie: It depends on the type of event. So for a bar and bat mitzvah, you get your date from your temple, like three years out, and you’ve got to get your mitzvah DJ. Like, that’s just one example. For a gala, they’ve got to get their venue first. They have to get their venue, because it’s such a big event. There’s probably only, like, three ballrooms in Chicago that hold 1,500 people, so you have to get your venue first.
So, it depends. A lot of times for weddings, people are like, “Oh, I can do this myself. I’m so organized,” just like you went through, and they’re like, “Oh, my God, this is a full-time job.” They already have their venue, but they decided, “You know what? I wanna enjoy this process. I’m gonna get an event planner.”
So, we are very pro event planners. If you need the time, and you don’t wanna do it full time, and you wanna enjoy yourself, we really say, “Get an event planner.”
Meb: So, are you guys like, I mean, and correct me, just for the audience listening this for the first time, the experience, the UX of the website, does it feel more almost like a, “Hey look, you have all these professional profiles.” You mentioned it was like luxury Yelp. Does it also have an element of almost, like, an Instagram or Pinterest where people say, “Okay, now I have my event planner, and then I can reach out to the event planner and be like, “Look, these are the type of catering that I seem to gravitate to,” or “These are the…” Is that how it works? Like, what’s the next step?
Julie: Absolutely. So, let’s say you go to Pinterest and you put in, like, fun gala ideas. You’re gonna see everything in the kitchen sink. There’s gonna be a lot of dead ends. And yeah, we don’t dislike Pinterest. Like it’s a great, free exploration, it’s great for, like, do-it-yourselfers. But when you really have this big, high pressure event you’re planning, you want to find out who did these events, how do I contact them? Could I picture myself working with them?
So, they can come, let’s say they’re doing a fundraiser and find ideas they like, and work and collaborate with their event planner and say, “Hey, I’d saved these photos on PartySlate. This is what I’m thinking. You can create an idea slate,” we call it an idea slate, so you can put all your ideas on your slate, and then actually collaborate with your planner.
We never say like, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna do exactly what this photo is.” It’s meant to be like a mood board. It’s something to inspire the event and get the conversation going with your event planner or your event designer.
Meb: And so, at least, certainly, with the current state of PartySlate, most people, they’re not actually managing the actual event through your platform. It’s more of like a discovery engine.
Julie: No, it’s a discovery engine, and it’s an ideation, a thought starter, to say almost through mood board, “This is what I’m thinking. This is what I like. This is what I don’t like.” It’s almost like building a house. You can use Houzz, H-O-U-Z-Z, which I love. I redesigned a kitchen. That’s what helped me think about PartySlate, for like, kitchen ideas and collaborating with your interior designer. But when it actually comes to the general contractor doing the blueprint, and where the pipes are gonna go, and the layout, that is not on PartySlate.
Meb: Before we hop over to the pro side, for the people that wanna throw a party and use your site, are there any best practices, or say, “Look, you know, we’ve seen obviously, thousands, tens of thousand people go through this funnel. We have some suggestions on how best to optimize their time spent on the site to really get a good outcome,” and also things to watch out for and say, “Look, this is a really poor way of using this site?”
Julie: Yes, I mean, I think the most important thing is like building a house, you have to have some sort of budget in mind, on how much you wanna spend in this event. And trust me, it’s always gonna be more than you think.
But you have to have some initial ballpark on budget, and how many people you’re gonna have. Then you need to start thinking about the setting. Venues, you know, you can’t have 10 weddings at the same venue. So, you need to think about do you want outdoor/indoor capacity? Do you want a raw urban space or do you want a fairytale ballroom? What is important to you?
I guess in thinking through all those options, and I know we’re very pro planner, but these event planners have seen and done it all. They know which venues have the good sound, that don’t have the good sound. They know which ones have efficient loading docks, for loading in decor and loading out decor.
So, when you choose a venue, bounce ideas off an event planner or someone that has done things at these venues before, so that they can help you create a shortlist. If you aren’t using a planner, really, really research these venues. That’s why PartySlate is gonna save you time. Make sure you look at the type of event you’re having, and what that room looks like with an event like a gala or a bar mitzvah. We’re the only platform that lets you vision what your type of event looks like at that venue.
And then I would also look at event professionals who have worked at that venue. On the PartySlate “Venue” page, you can see every event professional that has experience with that venue. We believe the event professionals that have worked in the venue before will be more fluid in the space, will understand it more. There’ll be less room for complication. And so we feel that’s a big value proposition of PartySlate, is to look for people that know the venue that you’ve selected.
And then the final thing I will say is, you may not be a creative person, but really do your research and, like, think about what you want the experience to be. You don’t have to think about colours or things like that, but how do you want your guests to feel? And try to verbalize that to your event team so that they can help fulfill that vision.
So, the more thoughts you have, you don’t have to have the answers, the better off your team is gonna be, to actually bring that vision to life.
Meb: You know, as you’ve been doing this for years and the feedback you get, what amount of people, and I imagine it’s not trivial, come to you guys or to the planners, and see an event that’s taken place and say, “Look, I basically just wanna replicate that. I don’t care about authenticity of doing something totally new for the first time, but this looks great. Maybe I’ll change 10% of it, but this is pretty darn close to where I wanna be.” Is that something you hear never, often?
Julie: We are not the event planners, we’re a technology platform. But we see the inquiries, you know, they contact us go through our platform. We can learn a lot through that.
Really, I think when you build a house, you may say like, “I like the way this house looks, but I have a dog and I want this and I want that.” So I think it is common to say I want something that feels this way. But when you’re throwing a large-scale event, it is rare for someone that loves planning events to say, “Just do exactly what this person did.” I have never heard that.
Meb: Yeah, interesting. Well, that would be me.
Julie: Yeah, I think that’s a stereotype, but it’s probably about 70% women that are planning these large-scale events. That said, corporate events are a pretty good mix between male and female. But I think the people that do love to plan events want to create a really differentiated unique experience for their guests. And I’m not talking about, like, the training session with 50 people. I’m not talking about that type of event. I’m talking about, like, an incredible corporate holiday party, or a really cool client entertaining event.
You want to do something that is memorable, and that creates an experience and an impact on those people. So, we rarely hear, “Just do what they did.”
Meb: So, hop me over to the pro side, and would love to hear a little bit about the experience. How do they adjust their business model, you know, in 2020 for these sort of marketplaces? What’s the feedback?
Julie: Yeah, it’s a really good question, because Instagram really changed a lot of how this industry works. When Instagram and their crediting came along, an event professional, let’s say a caterer, if they post a photo to Instagram, if they don’t credit all of the event partners: the photographer, the planner, the venue, they really hurt their professional relationships with those people.
And so what’s happened is transparent crediting, meaning, hey, I used to hide who I worked with [inaudible 00:16:10] has gone away. And so now it is completely transparent who the venue was, who the caterer was, who the photographer was, who the planner was, on Instagram. Because of that, it really led the way for PartySlate to be a great platform to not only share your work, but to also build out your professional network online.
So, when someone creates a free PartySlate profile, let’s say they upload their first event, they credit eight event partners: the photographer, the caterer, etc., then we invite those people to join PartySlate, to create a free profile so that we have a great network effect, where professionals are inviting their professional teams that they’ve worked with, to create a free profile.
Like a warm intro. Instead of saying like, “Hey, this is what PartySlate is, we say, “Hey, Kehoe Designs credited you on this beautiful event you did two weeks ago. Would you like us to activate the link and create a free profile for you?” And most times it’s, “Yes,” so, you know, we have a very high growth rate.
We have over 10,000 event professionals and venues that are sharing their work, so their experience is they have all of these professional photos sitting in Dropboxes. They use one or two of them from those events, on Instagram, maybe they have some on Pinterest, but the vast majority of them, we call it “marketing gold,” are not being used to market their business. So, basically, what PartySlate is, within 15 minutes, they can create a free profile, upload their events, let’s say even just three to start with, but some professionals have 20, 30, 40 events.
Everything is SEO-optimized, mobile-optimized. It’s almost like digital marketing for people that have no time but want a great presence. The people that are way too busy to do it themselves, they can take advantage of our White Glove service, where we will actually build profile for them, we will add keywords and tag for Google, and then we will also include them in editorial and social media posts.
Basically, we say with the free profile, like 90% are free now, or 95%, it’s a great starter for your professional profile online. Just like LinkedIn, you can start and do a light profile, or you can get in mail or you can do all these other advanced things on LinkedIn. It’s the same thing with PartySlate.
So, start with free. And then we have a sales team that will invite them to become a member of PartySlate, and we have three different packages that they can select from. Once they sign on, it’s an annual contract. We really focus on creating a great branded presence, getting their network activated on PartySlate so they show up on all these other profile pages, and then also, you know, driving qualified inquiries to help them grow their business.
Meb: And this isn’t meant to be a softball question, but it just seems like an obvious no-brainer, that if you are a service provider pro, why you wouldn’t at least list a free profile?
Julie: Yeah, I think a free profile is a no-brainer, absolutely. But time is money. So, it does take some time, and some people are so busy that they don’t even have time to do that. But more and more people are just saying, “Oh, yeah, absolutely. We want one.” And like, within three minutes, we can create the base profile for them because we already have credited events from other professionals they’ve worked with on their profile page.
So, it’s getting easier and easier. So I think with marketplaces, once your flywheel starts moving, which ours is, it gets easier and easier to grow.
Meb: Yeah, we’d love to hear a little bit about, I mean, that this has got to be a pretty fast-changing industry. You’ve been running this ship since 2015? 2016? 2015?
Julie: Yeah, 2016 we launched.
Meb: You know, we’re into the new decade. As you look out on the horizon, how do you see this vision for how the industry will look in five, 10 years from now? Is it more status-quo, big changes? What do you think?
Julie: I think big, big changes are happening in this industry for the good. I don’t know how often you watch regular TV anymore, but in our household, it’s like Netflix and Hulu, and it’s YouTube. My kids watching YouTube. And print magazines are shutting down, so the traditional medium that people were using to advertise their brands are going away. And that’s why social media, and influencers, and podcasts, all these things are popping up as new ways to market yourself.
Again, we call it “Content marketing.” And so with that, events have become a very popular way to activate, whether it’s a brand message, or a fundraiser, or even creating family memories. They’re amplified with social media. So, we think events, and I know for a fact, budgets are getting larger and larger, because they’re not viewed just as a moment in time. There’s before the event. There’s during the event, and then there’s after the event marketing.
So, when we do our launch parties, like for example, our LA launch party, we had celebrity planner, Mindy Weiss, who’s on our advisory board, was speaking at it, along with Pauline Perry, who’s one of the top caterers in LA, and Brian Leahy, a top photographer. And so we use that as an opportunity to, really, amplify all these amazing people that are part of PartySlate and social media. And it became like an ad for PartySlate. It was like the talk of the town. People came to this event, that don’t go to events. Beverly Hills, Four Seasons, like all the big people were there.
So social media, amplifying these events are becoming like ads for the brand or awareness builders. And so we’re seeing more and more money flow into experiential events and event activation. People like Verizon, with Superbowl, have been doing this a long time. But now with social media, it is more affordable. You don’t need a Superbowl ad or a big budget to have a really cool event and amplify it in social media, write an article about it and get your word out. So, that’s trend number one.
And then with that trend, the event professionals and venues that do the best content marketing, that have a lot of Instagram followers, that have a very filled out PartySlate profile page, we see them winning an inordinate amount of business, because this is how people are absorbing content. It’s not reading a wedding magazine anymore. It’s googling. It’s going to social media. That’s how people are learning about companies.
So, what we say is, “This is really hard. Digital marketing is hard. You guys know, it’s time consuming. There’s a lot of work that needs to happen. We are here to make it easier for you to have a professionally viewable portfolio, where you can be found, you can be boosted and more importantly, connected to this and powerful network that you’ve built years building in your hometown.”
Meb: I still experience, you go to a fair amount of events, and so many are still, I don’t know how in 2020, pretty poorly-run. I would say many of the charity events, including almost every sort of silent auction one, that’s an opportunity for you to expand someday.
Julie: Yeah. I mean, we write the article about silent auctions. There are a lot of companies that that help us with silent auctions. Again, we don’t produce any events. I know you know that we’re a technology company. But we try to shine a light on the companies that are innovating in the space that can help our party hosts or the people that have budget to spend on event, to raise awareness of these great companies that are really out there doing great things.
But yeah, there’s still a bunch of poorly-run events, and it kills me. But I think the events that are really not well-run is when there’s not a clear sense of purpose of the event. It’s like networking, like, well, that’s not enough anymore. Is it networking plus sharing trends of XYZ? Like, what is the purpose of your event? If you don’t have a clear purpose, you’re not gonna have a great event.
Meb: I would love to go back in time, because I think it’s a pretty interesting story, and hear a little bit about the origin story of building this from scratch. You were, I believe, had her background in a little bit of digital, as well, in investment banking, right?
Julie: Yeah, I was actually in a banking training program, like, a rotational trading program called “The First Scholars Program,” it’s now part of Chase, where I rotated through capital markets, and retail banking, and, you know, six different areas while I got my MBA at night at Kellogg. I was really drawn to marketing, and probably not the sexy area of the bank, because it was retail marketing, and you know, of course, the investment banking, commercial banking side gets more attention.
But I just loved marketing. I had the opportunity to co-found the first internet or digital group that launched online banking in Chicago. So, that was my first opportunity to create a start-up within a big company. It was a really exciting time, because a lot of the older people at the bank were like, “What’s this internet thing? No one’s gonna bank online,” and we were the evangelists saying, “This is going to change how we work, how we interact, how we communicate.”
So, for two years, I built out this group with two other people. We grew it. We launched the first website, we launched online banking. And then one of my digital agencies hired me, they’re called agency.com, so I left banking behind, and I’m like, “This is the future.” I could not be more excited to bring the tech, the creative, the strategy together. So, for 10 years, I worked my way up at agency.com, and ended up running the North American group.
After that, Razorfish recruited me to join. I mean, I ran the Chicago office and the central region, so I had about 400 people at Razorfish across three offices. Again, we were working with some of the biggest brands in the world on their digital strategy and their websites.
Then I was like, “Wait a second. I’ve been doing this a long time. Mobile is the future. Mobile, mobile, mobile.” So, a mobile company recruiter called me, and I joined this amazing company called Vibes Media, which was a mobile SaaS company that helped people with mobile marketing. I tapped a old colleague of mine to help run their tech group or to be their CTO, who is now co-founder, John Haro. For five years, we were at Vibes, and it was a great experience growing a SaaS company, and taking it from 80 people to 200 people.
But this whole time, I had this idea for PartySlate. I’ve been planning all these galas and corporate events, and I’m like, “These websites suck.” I didn’t find anything I liked. I wasn’t inspired. And then I used Houzz to redesign a kitchen, and it all clicked for me. I started putting a business plan together. I registered partyslate.com about 10 years ago, and after three years of talking about it and dreaming out loud to anyone who would listen, my husband was like, “You’ve got to do this. You’ve got to do this.”
So, I quit my job and I went all in. I raised a million dollars. I recruited John to be my co-founder. He is amazing. He’s tech and product, I’m sales and marketing, and part from getting the best talent in the city of city of Chicago to, really, build this global platform. One day, global platform.
Meb: I believe you guys went through TechStars.
Julie: Yeah, we went through TechStars.
Meb: Could you explain, just a second, what that is for listeners?
Julie: Yeah. So, TechStars is pretty prestigious incubator program. You have to apply to get in. About 1,000 companies apply. So, there’s TechStars Chicago, there’s TechStars Denver. I think there’s about 10 of them. There’s probably more now.
So, we got recruited to join TechStars, one of 10 companies that got in and out of 1,000. It’s basically, like boot camp for startups. And I’m like, “Okay, I’m this more experienced founder. I’ve run a $50 million business.” But after I started talking to the general managers of TechStars, I realized, wow, starting a startup in a tech company is different. The connections they can get us, the training, the mentors, we need this. We did a three-month boot camp called “TechStars Chicago,” and we met some great people.
The end of the program you present at a huge venue called “Demo Day.” There’s a lot of those all over the country. But TechStars’ demo day brings together investors from all over, mainly the Midwest, but people came in from all over. You, basically, have 10 minutes to give your pitch, and then really hopefully, leads to the next round of funding, which it did for us.
Meb: So, did you go traditional VC route, was it friends and family?
Julie: The first round, which we call our friends and family round, was 80% friends and family, and 20%, an amazing early venture capital investor, Hyde Park Venture Partners, here in Chicago, Ira Weiss, who believed in our vision and really looked to the success of our analog company, which was Houzz, and came into our friends and family round. And then after that, it was mainly, institutional money and angels.
This last round was led by Great North Labs, a great new fund in Minneapolis. Two brothers Rob and Ryan Webber, who had a very successful company and a good exit, and been in angel investing for many, many years, and just started their first fund. They’ve been incredible help to us so far.
And then we have investors from LA, so Wavemaker Partners, Jesse Draper and Halogen Ventures, Randy Kaplan and JUMP Investors. So, we have great LA investors. And then our new investor, New York FJ Labs, who I think you’ve heard of, are incredible marketplace investors, and really feel good that they joined our round over a month ago.
Meb: Yeah, we had Fabrice on the podcast a while back, and I’m gonna blink on this. Sorry, Fabrice, if you’re listening. But yeah, he had a great quote on what characteristics he looked for when funding a marketplace startup, or I think it may just have been founders in general, and it’s not at all what I’ve heard anywhere else.
But I think the first thing was, like, the ability to tell a story. So, like, to spin a narrative, because he’s like, “If you can do that, you can raise money, you can sell product.” I mean, it’s funny, I laugh, because in my world too, the investment side, so much of keeping clients compliant, and behaving, and not doing crazy things, and also just on the investment side, so much of it is storytelling.
Julie: Yeah, I think storytelling is really important, because how we digest information, like a spreadsheet is not the same as telling a story about the spreadsheet, about the state of the business. So, storytelling is really important.
Actually, one thing that PartySlate is really great at is storytelling around these amazing events. So, it’s not just photos, it’s actually, a description of the event. It’s the partners that worked on the event. It’s the fact that it’s 30 photos from the event, not just one, from the beginning of the night to the end, to the after party, to the food truck. I believe storytelling is very compelling, and I’m really glad that he pointed that out.
Meb: This business has been alive for a few years. Talk to me a little bit about your growth strategy. Tell us about how many cities you’re in, and how you achieved expansion thoughtfully, but also to be able to get this out.
Julie: Absolutely. So, our market strategy, our growth strategy are based on two sides of our market. So, on the event professional side, we really leverage these incredibly strong local networks. These networks often expand from city to city. So, for example, a lot of New York event planners do events in Palm Beach and Miami, because their clients go there for the winter. A lot of Chicago planners do events in Colorado and Arizona.
So, as we bring on these new events to these profiles, all of a sudden, we start building networks in these other cities. So, so many people ask me, “Hey, why did you choose Miami before other cities?” I said, “Because Palm Beach is like the sixth borough of New York.” So, we actually got all these intros. People, actually, from New York, flew down to our Palm Beach launch party, because so many of their clients are down there, and their relationships.
So, to how we grow on the professional side, is leveraging the power of the network and the connections of these real world relationships that are extended through PartySlate. On the consumer side, we are all about content marketing, and search engine optimization, and social media, and editorial.
So, we get all these incredible events posted by these event professionals. They’re all incredible, highly compelling photos. We package those and optimize the profile pages, so when you go to Google and you search, for example, “Bar mitzvah venues in LA,” PartySlate will likely be on the first page, because we have tons of bar mitzvahs, we have these amazing venues, and we’re optimizing our pages for search. Don’t do it right now, because hopefully, we…just kidding. Hopefully, we show up on that page.
We are getting better and better more authority on search engines so that more and more people, when they’re searching for top event planners in Chicago, or they’re searching for rooftop venues in LA, that PartySlate will show up.
Also social media, all the content we have, we amplify through Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and LinkedIn. And you might say, why LinkedIn? LinkedIn is an amazing channel for us, because a lot of corporate planners are there. It’s a business community. Venture capitalists are on there. I will say we haven’t invested in Twitter a lot, because it’s not that relevant to our industry. But I do know venture capitalists are on Twitter, so I try to at least, keep our page full, but it’s not that strategic for us.
So, our number one platform is Instagram. So, it’s just @partyslate. I’ll make a little plug, please follow us. We have 100,000 followers, highly, highly engaged. And then after that, it’s again, Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn.
Meb: That’s interesting, how quickly the world has changed. You know, it’s funny you say that about LinkedIn, because we consistently hear that from a lot of people, that they have a great experience advertising on there.
Julie: Yeah. And we are all doing organic, not advertising, I should mention. Yeah, and I think for recruiting, I’ll be honest, we’ve had mixed results on LinkedIn, because sometimes you just get too many candidates. But we really found the organic reach.
What I mean by organic is, let’s say I speak at a high-profile event I’m doing. When this podcast goes live, I will for sure, post the on LinkedIn and get a ton of engagement. And we’ll put it on our PartySlate profile as well, and we will maybe get five or six times the engagement on LinkedIn than we will on Twitter.
Meb: Yeah, I’m smiling. As you were speaking, I just added PartySlate on Instagram, and I, like, already wanna click on about three or four of your articles. Says, “Marc Jacobs got married here. You can too.” And then of course, for my audience, it’s a bunch of nerds. I say that lovingly. It says, “Calling all the Harry Potter fans. You need to see this magical bar/bat mitzvah.”
Julie: It’s funny. We do try to balance our messaging between corporate, gala, mitzvah, wedding. But I will say the social events and the experiential corporate events are the ones that are more highly engaged with.
Meb: What cities are you guys in?
Julie: So, we’re in 14 cities. I mean, if you count the Hamptons and Napa, 16. We started in Chicago, and then quickly expanded to LA, and New York, and Miami. After that, we really penetrated the San Francisco. We’re growing in Dallas and Houston. And we’ve had recent launches in Boston, Phoenix, DC, Atlanta. I’m sure I’m missing things. Oh, San Diego is great. And then we just had an event last month in New Orleans that was absolutely incredible. It’s Sapphire Events, who are amazing planners in New Orleans.
Meb: Go back a few years, how different does the vision look in 2015 than today? I mean, was it something where it looks exactly like you planned it out, or were there some, sort of, dead ends or roadblocks where you said, “Man, we’re gonna try to do this, and this was just not a good idea”?
Julie: We have not pivoted. We’ve stayed true to the vision. I think it’s nice that we had, again, an analogue company with Houzz and what they’re doing, but we’ve really stayed true.
I think what we underestimated was the importance of this network component of our platform. I think that’s something that’s a plus to us, that the highly, highly connected nature of this industry, like, they’re having dinner parties every week and networking events, and it’s not just because they plan events and they’re social, it’s because the referrals flow very freely amongst these groups.
So, the DJ could get the lead first and then refer the venue. The venue could get it first, and refer the photographer. The photographer could get it first, refer the planner. And so the closer their relationships, the more referrals they’re gonna get. And they’re meaningful referrals, the large events.
And so for us, the fact that we know who works together, who works at what venue, and that we can amplify those real world relationships, almost like LinkedIn. Like, I look you up and how many overlapping contacts we have, and I have something like, “Oh, you know, so and so, I know so and so.” That is such a powerful network effect for PartySlate. I think we underestimated how much this will help us, how many initiatives we can do around this network effect to make the platform that much more valuable.
Meb: What’s been some of the bigger challenges? Is it, simply, staffing up? How many people do you guys have now?
Julie: We have 32 now, and I think the staffing, the good news is in Chicago, there’s probably about 10, like, business to consumer platforms. It’s not like Silicon Valley, where there’s a million of that. We have done a great job recruiting and getting top talent here, so I think that’s… It’s always hard to find developers, and of course, that’s not super easy. But I think that’s not one of our top challenges.
I think for us, the event professionals, they know us. We are getting our brand out there. We are growing. I think we can do more this year, to share what a great resource this is for example, for corporate planners in our target cities that work at corporations, that could use our platform for inspiration.
Same for brides. I think, for bar/bat mitzvahs we’re doing a great job, because no one’s writing about them, and no one’s writing about galas. Like, we’re the only one. But we need to do a better job, and we’re hiring, for example, an email marketing person, we’re hiring a product marketing person. So, expanding the marketing team and really focusing on what we call “Growth loops,” that’s where the platform itself helps us grow. So, you could refer friends. You can refer event professionals. Really making our community help us grow, I think that’s what our main focus needs to be in 2020.
Meb: It seems like such a challenge when you have a business like yours that’s doing well and growing, and you’ve clearly, found something there, you know. But at the same time, and I’d be curious to hear, you know, if for someone who has a lot of professional investors, how much they love to, meddle would be the wrong word, provide proactively wonderful constructive advice, maybe it’s the correct way.
But there seems like infinite monetization angles that you could actually bolt on at some point. How do you balance, like, building this actual marketplace also, the ability to, if you wanted to, you could probably flip a switch and generate a bunch of other side businesses and households. How do you handle that distraction?
Julie: Well, I think our board has been very, very supportive of us really focusing on this subscription model. So, really, it’s an annual subscription that almost operates like a SaaS business. So, anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 a year, depending on what package you have. All they have to do is close to two to three new clients. And they also have it as a sales tool, so there’s a lot of ROI value that the professionals get us.
So, until we get to be a $50 million, $100 million business, we don’t wanna be distracted by brand advertising, for example, or think about e-commerce or gifting. We are gonna stay very focused on this subscription model until we’re at the scale where we can start thinking about a second revenue model.
So, you know, Houzz didn’t add commerce till they were like, you know, eight or nine years in, and really positioned as the leader in home decor, home design inspiration. And even that, who knows if that’s what they’re gonna double down on or whatever?
Our future vision is we wanna create this incredible platform to build your brand, to drive leads, but also be an indispensable sales and marketing tool for these event companies. So, as we provide what we call “Network independent value,” so, for example, just sharing their photos on this beautiful profile page, many hotels say that this is better than their own website, for sharing their work. So that’s a network independent value that will help us grow.
We plan to drive more and more network independent value for these professionals, so that even if they’re in Kansas and we haven’t launched there, and by the way, we have event professionals with profiles in Kansas, we just haven’t launched, they can create a page that will add value to their business.
Meb: Good. Well, we have 1,500 acres of farmland that has nothing on it right now. We can have one of the weirdest and remote events in western Kansas…
Julie: Oh, awesome.
Meb: …before we plant any wheat next year. Just kidding. That’s right. Maybe we’ll be your first customer.
Julie: Yeah. And I think the other thing I’ll say about, you talked about the industry changing, we really believe inspired events inspire people. You talked about going to some of these stale events. It’s just, like it’s not helping anyone, right? If you are gonna have an event, make it inspirational. It doesn’t necessarily need to mean huge budgets. It could mean an incredible speaker, incredible music, incredible lighting. Like, it doesn’t have to be a million dollar event.
If you create an inspired event, it could inspire those people to, maybe it’s buy your product. Maybe it’s being invested in your fund. Maybe it is to donate to a charity or create family memories. PartySlates’ mission is to, really, inspire people around the world to plan these incredible events, and to give them the ideas they need at their fingertips, and find the best people that can bring it to life.
There’s plenty of platforms out there for do-it-yourselfers, that’s just not what PartySlate is about. Of course, we’re gonna have people that are taking ideas, that’s fine. You can’t stop that. But we’re about the people that really wanna create a thoughtful, inspired event, and want to provide the right experience for their guests, that’s memorable and meaningful.
Meb: We’ve been considering it, actually, for a while, about hosting some sort of in-person ideas. And my fallback default has always been just like, “Hey, let’s grab a bite or happy hour, and just anyone can show up.”
But having a more deliberate and intentional process of designing the actual experience, I think is a really good idea. We’ve gone as far as talking about doing some ski weekends, etc., because again, I go back to it. And so maybe we’ll spend some time on your website later.
But my God, there are so many events you go to, the question is, you know, is the person that designed this, is the goal of just an event for them, or is it actually for the attendees?
Julie: You always wanna think, first and foremost, about the attendees and what experience you wanna create for the attendees. If you then create a great experience for them, it will fulfill your purpose of the event.
Meb: Yeah, the silent auction one, half that go to I’m like, “Are you guys actually trying to not raise money? Because this is, probably, the worst way I would design this.” My favorite was one local they had, where they had a bunch of wine and then they were auctioning off, I even can’t remember what, at the end. And the way that they were doing it was, clearly, not well explained, and half the people were a few glasses of wine in.
It was, I don’t even know what you’d call it, sort of a snake bidding process, where the final person that bid won it, but if you bid any point up to that, you owed that amount of money.
Julie: Okay, that’s a horrible experience.
Meb: Horrible for everyone, because all these people that didn’t know, somehow ended up owing, like, hundreds and thousands of dollars.
Julie: And they didn’t get the product.
Meb: And they didn’t get the product, and they were embarrassed because they had no idea. And everyone started like…Oh, my God. It was a disaster. I’m not gonna say who it was.
Julie: I’ve actually done a lot of these things. I’ve never heard of that technique. I don’t think it’s a best practice. I will say, in fairness to the amazing people that do the silent auctions, which I have no patience for, I could never be a silent auction chair, is that the margin on those donations are almost 100%. And so when you do them and you get the products donated, and I know it looks like, “Oh, there’s a huge silent auction,” but the amount of donations raised from the silent auction, like all drops to the bottom line.
Meb: What other resources outside of PartySlate? You mentioned Houzz, which I had actually never heard of.
Julie: Yeah, it’s H-O-U-Z-Z. So, if you’re redesigning a kitchen or a bathroom, it’s an amazing, inspirational site to find every possible thing you could want.
Meb: Yeah. Any others in the same ballpark, that you rely on or you think have been particularly wonderful as particularly interesting resources? Blogs, Instagram accounts, anything.
Julie: Well, I think the PartySlate Instagram is the best, so please follow us. But for events itself, of course, I always tell people, the best place to start is Google. There isn’t one dominating platform for the industry.
I think we are in a good position to be that event inspiration platform, but there are many other platforms out there, like, for brides and grooms, and for wedding registry. Of course, we’re watching the competitive landscape closely, but we feel like we’re in a good position to win in that space.
I mean, I think the interesting trend on marketplaces are things like Thumbtack, and others, where it’s more for like, “Do you need a plumber? Do you need a driveway guy?” whatever, where you can just put in what you need, and then people get back to. That’s something that we talked to Fabrice about. So, we launched our concierge program in LA, New York, and Chicago, and it’s gonna be more city soon, where if you find a venue and you’re like, “I just don’t know what to do,” you can click our concierge, fill out a quick form, and then we will get back to you with three suggestions.
Meb: I really like that idea, because for a lot of people, like myself who are somewhat inept at this whole process, I mean, narrowing it down to a universe of even, hey, here’s a handful of reasonable choices. I don’t even care if they’re the best. I just don’t want them to be the worst.
Julie: Yes, I think it’s the narrowing down that we’re really working on. On our side, what other pieces of information can we provide to help you narrow it down? We think the best thing is that full photo portfolio that you can really, “Oh yeah, I could picture my event here,” and, “Oh, here’s who they’ve worked with.”
But we’re also going to add other things like endorsements and dollar signs, to give an indication of is it luxury? Is it ultra-luxury? Is it what we call “Lovely”? We’re really getting that information to help you. But if you do need help, we launched concierge about three weeks ago. We’ve had about 400 inquiries since then. And if you can imagine each event, like, $50,000 or even $20,000 that’s a lot of money flowing through PartySlate, and that’s why we tell our event professionals and venues, there is no downside to having a free profile. If you’re too busy to build it, let us help you.
Meb: As you look back on, not just PartySlate, but also your prior career, and this could be personal too, what’s been the most memorable event that you’ve been to? And it could be in a good way, it could be in a terrible way. Anything stick out in your mind, from someone who’s not only planned but also attended probably hundreds?
Julie: I guess I will have to say my wedding, because that was my first large scale event that I planned. That was 15 years ago, and it was at the Four Seasons in Chicago, who is a premium member of ours. So, full circle.
Gosh, having everyone from your life in one place, and my design vision coming to life. I guess since I’ve been, in probably seventh grade, I’ve just loved bringing people together. It’s one of my favorite things to do, so it’s not a surprise that PartySlate is my passion project. It’s so, so important to me.
We have these fabulous, over-the-top, in a good way, incredible launch parties that are almost too great to name, but I will say a few. The incredible Hamptons launch party, where all white and beautiful at the Parrish Art Museum with Amy Katz, was absolutely, incredible. We had our four-year anniversary in New York with gourmet advisory at Canvas. It was just, again, such an incredibly inspiring night to celebrate four years in the business.
I think the things about the events that are different is not just, like, a band and food. It’s about the experience of how people walk in, how people are greeted, not just the Instagram-friendly places to take photos, but the full experience of the PartySlate brand, the themes brought through the drinks, the printing of the PartySlate logo on top of a cocktail.
Like in New Orleans, we actually had your picture that could be printed on top of a martini. So, it was just an incredible, incredible customized experience that represents our brand. There are too many to mention, but needless to say, our events are incredible.
Meb: Good. When you come to LA, we’ll co-host one with you.
Julie: Okay, I’d love to.
Meb: Well, we’ve got to start winding down here, but I forgot to mention, you mentioned a couple of times, some corporate partners. Is that something, whether it’s Four Seasons or Wolfgang Puck…
Julie: Those are our premium members, so those event professionals I was talking about. Those are people that we help promote and manage their profile pages for them. They’ve got a lot on their plate, but some of the biggest brands in the industry are trusting PartySlate to represent their brand and to build their business.
So yes, we work with the Four Seasons. We work with the Ritz, Wolfgang Puck. I mentioned, Mindy Weiss, celebrity planner in LA is on our advisory board. We are working with incredible, incredible people.
Meb: Very cool. Well, Julie, I think you’ve nailed it, but if people wanna follow you, PartySlate, the place to go?
Julie: Yes, partyslate.com, partyslate, @partyslate for Instagram and Facebook. Of course, you can find us on LinkedIn, as well.
Meb: Julie, thanks for joining us today.
Julie: Thank you so much.
Meb: Listeners, we’ll add show notes links to mebfaber.com/podcasts. Try the show, leave a review. We love to read them. Shoot us firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for listening, friends. Good investing.