A Creator-Driven Events Business Designed to Kill Traditional Trade Shows
The rise of creator-driven media brands and the companies that are being built around them is well documented. It’s hard to argue that MrBeast and even lesser-known personalities haven’t changed the way people consume and buy products forever.
Most of the innovation around creators has focused on consumer media. But over the last few years, I’ve witnessed a massive opportunity for business media — and, even more specifically, business-to-business (b2b) or niche verticals.
Axios was the first business media company that proved you could launch into new verticals by building around top talent with massive followings and expertise. They leaned heavily into newsletters and put the personalities behind the launches front and center. The strategy was a big shift in the media world, but it was the start of a playbook they would use to launch into over 20 verticals.
While other companies, such as Puck, have taken note and are looking to run a similar strategy, few have gone past newsletters and charging subscriptions in any big way.
To be fair, the newsletter strategy makes sense: It has limited costs outside of the creator’s salary and benefits. The next step in the creator evolution, however, is taking bigger bets with more risk — and potentially bigger financial rewards.
Over the last few years, I’ve been obsessed with trying to connect the dots on how this could work. Now, for the first time, we are seeing real examples of what the future looks like for business media companies.
Influencer-driven B2B event companies
Business trade shows and events are an estimated $18 billion industry annually in the United States. They have seen massive investments from private equity and others because, when done right, they throw off a lot of cash and are fairly predictable, year after year.
In order to execute well on any event, a media company needs a few things:
- A high-value audience
- Industry relationships to acquire high-quality speakers
- Relationships with sponsors to help fund/sponsor the event
- A team to execute the launch and handle event logistics
Traditional b2b media companies build events around audiences, both owned and rented third-party. Often, it can take years for traditional players to build an audience of scale and quality that allows them to launch large events. Generally, it takes two things: lots of cash and time.
In the past, entrepreneurs might decide to partner with an association that traditionally had a lot of power in their market to tap into their audience, launching an event together and sharing in any event economics. These types of arrangements almost always come with politics and red tape that is littered with challenges.
Today, we are starting to see b2b media executives with traditional media/event experience tap into a new model focused on building with individuals with massive followings on social in specialized markets to launch large-scale events faster — with better economics for everyone.
A production studio model built around creators — that can scale
The most interesting example of how this could work is a new company called Advisor Circle.
Launched by Matt Middleton in 2020, the company describes itself as a product studio working with innovative companies and the most prominent people in financial services.
Prior to starting Advisor Circle, Middleton was the growth strategy director at Informa, one the largest b2b media companies in the world. While there, he launched large-scale trade shows in financial services.
After raising $1.5 million, the company teamed up with Riholtz Wealth Management to launch Future Proof — billed not as a trade show or financial conference, but as the world’s largest Wealth Festival.
For those of you not familiar with Riholtz, the CEO is Josh Brown, who has over 1 million Twitter followers and also runs the very popular site Reformed Broker. Barry Riholtz, the chairman, has a following of over 30,000 on Twitter, with his tweets focused mainly on professionals in the space.
Together, they set out to launch a new type of event that feels fresh with an ambitious goal: kill the traditional financial conference. On his personal blog, Riholtz outlined it well.
Stop boring us. Stop throwing us into giant windowless locations. Stop shoveling tedious panels forecasting the future at us. And no more wilted Caesar salad with rubber chicken…
Instead, feed our brains. Challenge us. Let us play outdoors. Fill the space with a mix of young people, women, people of color, a diversity of ideas and thoughts and approaches. Inform us of the latest technology and trends. Show us the next generation of tools that will allow us to do our business better.
And Goddamit, make it fun.
The Birth of the Festival Model in Business Media
It’s hard to argue against the idea that trade shows need to evolve; some might even say the time has come for them to die altogether.
I wouldn’t miss the 1,000 booths and bland drapery if they were to go away, but there is a ton of value in bringing people together in one place to do business and connect in person.
Advisor Circle is leaning into a new model and vibe. They launched Future Proof outside in Huntington Beach, which spans 10 miles along the Pacific Ocean.
Rather than a traditional hotel setup, they brought the speaker stages and sponsorship booths outside. From what I can tell based on the pictures, it feels more like Coachella than a tradeshow.
The idea resonated with the industry and attracted more than 1,700 attendees, which is almost unheard of for a year-one event.
The company still had to book four hotel properties, but it built a half-mile-long outdoor festival area to create a more modern approach than a hotel ballroom.
There were traditional panels on stage, but Future Proof also featured an NFT art gallery, street art from local artists and other community activation opportunities for sponsors.
In terms of sponsorships, they really run the typical playbook with a bit more flair.
The 2023 opportunities are very similar to traditional events, but they also add things like branding the perimeter fence. Additionally, instead of a meeting room, you can book a giant Ferris wheel with unobstructed views of the ocean that you can brand and host meetings at for $95,000.
The crazy thing? I know sponsors of events that will drop close to that on building a massive trade-show floor presence.
Why do that when you can have meetings overlooking the ocean on a Ferris wheel, right?
Last but not least, the team leaned heavily into fun. The event included performances from Fitz and the Tantrums, and Big Boi from Outkast closed out the event.
“When you look at other events, they’re selling access,” said Middleton in an interview with RIABiz. “We sell an experience. We’re venture-backed and in business to be profitable. We’re running this as a business. We proved you can have a profitable event franchise by doing things differently. For the last 30 years, it’s always been the same model. We changed everything.”
The team is doubling down on the format and has plans to grow revenue by 100% and hit 4,400 attendees in 2023. It’s aiming for 10,000 attendees by 2025.
As far as I can tell, the event wasn’t profitable in the first year. But based on a few conversations I’ve had, it doesn’t seem as though it was too far away. Plus, for an experiential event in its inaugural year, breaking even is a massive win.
The team at Advisor Circle also plans to roll out a meetings platform called Breakthru in time for the event next year, exclusively for the financial services industry’s financial advice, wealth management, asset management and fintech verticals.
It seems they are going to lean in heavily to the hosted buyer model with Breakthru, something b2b has had a lot of success with over the years.
This is the tip of the iceberg in these types of creator/media partnerships, and it’s what can happen when you bring event operational expertise and influencers with large audiences together — a combination to launch big events very quickly.
Without the legacy blueprints or event models, Advisor Circle is looking at large-scale events in a whole new way.
Aligning the Incentives — everyone wins and can exit gracefully
One aspect of partnering with big-name influencers is how you structure these deals to ensure that all parties are happy and know their roles.
For example, say I partner with a big-name b2b influencer in the electric vehicle vertical to launch an event.
One school of thought is that you can pay the influencer to market your event, or maybe even do a revenue share based on certain goals and targets.
In theory, this might work. But rarely do I find that both parties are totally bought into the model. Eventually, one side gets frustrated with the other — and the parties split away on bad terms.
To be successful, everyone needs to be fully committed and have skin in the game.
I think the future model is set up more as a type of joint venture where everyone has a piece of equity in the newco that is launching the event. Roles for each equity holder need to be clearly defined to ensure everyone knows what they are responsible for.
The side that is bringing the cash to book venues and provide the support staff needed to launch these events should arguably get the larger share. An example of what this could look like is below.
The operations/media company likely doesn’t have the audience built to reach any sort of interesting-sized event. Yet why pay for ads on competitors’ sites if you find influencers who already have those relationships, but not the infrastructure, to do it on their own.
These types of setups make sense if you’re trying to launch large-scale events of more than 500 people.
I think most influencers can launch an event fairly easily with some light support in the 50–250 people range. But doing so is work and pulling them away from what they are good at, underscoring why partnering in this model makes a lot of sense.
If the event is successful — and continues to be a success after multiple years — all investors have created significant value in a company that will have plenty of people willing to purchase it outright. Alternatively, you can allow parties to sell off parts of their equity.
This is important because maybe one party wants to ring the register and sell to private equity or a large media company, but the other wants to keep building.
Will this work in any industry? The challenges
One of the things I’ve really struggled with in terms of the creator-driven b2b business models is whether there are enough personalities with deep industry expertise and large enough audiences that you can build around.
There are companies like Workweek, which has raised $7.5 million, gaining traction in certain verticals, according to a recent report from Business Insider.
The founding team of Workweek are some of the best media operators around and they’re targeting big business markets in a general way — think marketing, human resources and health care.
Much of b2b media is built around niche markets and unique insights that few individuals have. And unlike other spaces, it’s rare to find these people on Twitter with massive audiences because so many of these niche industries have been generally slower to adopt social media.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Advisor Circle and its model is that it definitely feels a lot like HLTH or Money 2020, and it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Anil Aggarwal is either an advisor or investor according to the Advisor Circle site.
I’ve yet to find any event entrepreneur on the same level as Aggarawal, who has developed a repeatable playbook that allows him to build, scale and then sell large event businesses to traditional b2b media or private equity.
This very much feels like a new spin on the model he has helped to develop, just doing it with creators vs. buying ads on traditional media outlets.
I’ve written before about the power of b2b, and how scaling means having a playbook that goes deep and using that to launch into new markets with the same strategy.
We’ve seen it executed by Industry Dive on the digital media side; clearly, they had a great exit to Informa using that playbook.
If Advisor Circle or other companies can figure out how to repeat the early successes of Future Proof in new markets by partnering with big-name creators/influencers in niche markets, I have no doubt there will be plenty of people lining up to invest or purchase these new types of event companies.
Make no mistake, I still see plenty of holes and challenges in building b2b media brands around creators, and a lot of the time I think it makes more sense for the creator to take on the risk and build around themselves vs. partnering with people to help. But the deeper I get, the more I believe there is a massive opportunity.
The reality is that some of these creators have built massive niche audiences that you can build on the backs of in order to create some new type of media assets that have a new look and feel compared to the traditional models.
But we need more entrepreneurs with traditional media experience like the team from Advisor Circle, and we need others to team up with them to make these new dynamic events happen.
Hit me up if you’re building something interesting in this space. I’d love to learn more.