Event Planning 101

One of the biggest parts of my job at the Entrepreneurs Club is overseeing event management. At the core of our club is the Get Togethers, which attract 100+ students every week and involve a C-level executive speaking, a hands on skill building activity, networking and feeding everyone in the room a free dinner. If we measured my stress levels there would definitely be a spike on Tuesdays at 6pm. 

Event planning and execution is incredibly important, and most organizations need to be good at it in order to engage effectively with their customers. Here is my short list of the keys to putting on great events:

1. You need a hook

Maybe it is a high profile speaker, a fancy free dinner or a sexy venue. Either way, there needs to be something attached to the name or description of the event that immediately entices people to come. The events  that my team put on focus on the speaker as the hook. My rule of the thumb is that for every event, I need to hit all 3 of the following requirements:

  • A big name speaker or company
  • An impressive number to attach to that speaker
  • A speaker that is high energy and knows how to give great talks

For example, “Featuring the CEO of Au Bon Pain, a $250M casual cafe chain that was named one of the healthiest restaurants in America.”

2. Logistics need to be smooth

One of the biggest mistakes folks make is underestimating the amount of little details that go into the logistics of putting on a great event. What time will the speaker arrive? Will they know how to get from the parking garage to the room? How are the chairs being set up? All of these details must be taken into account. Ideally, there should be someone on your team with a “Director of Operations” title who takes on full responsibility (with an assistant) for all of these items.

3. Timing is everything

I break events down to the minute. That means I know what is happening at 6:05 and 6:07. You need to take into account delays like people coming in late, standing up to get food, etc. Don’t underestimate these because they can add up. Before each event, I create what I call a “Logistics Schedule” that breaks down minute by minute what is happening, who is responsible for it, etc and I share it with my team. For example:

6:00 – 6:05 – Greet members – Entire team

6:05 – 6:07 – Member of the week announcement – Matt 

And so on. This way, there is never any confusion for where we are in the progress of the event or where we need to be going at any given period of time during the event.

4. You can’t do it alone

Event planning is not a one person job. If you want to do it well, it needs to be team based. That means one person is responsible for the technology/media in the room, another person gets the food, and another escorts the speaker. Make sure that everyone on the team understands exactly what their roles are and what the action items / deliverables are for them during the event.

5. A boring speaker means that YOU are boring

If your organization is putting on an event, then you and you alone are responsible for every detail, both the good and the bad, that happens at the event. If you bring in a speaker and they speak in a monotone voice, droning on about random nonsense that has nothing to do with your event, here’s what’s going to happen: the people in the audience will think to themselves, “wow, (your organization) sucks!” That’s right, they won’t say “wow, this speaker sucks!” You get blamed. This means that you need to be on top of everything that happens and exert tight control over who gets to speak to the people at your event.

6. Food is a necessity

Every good event has food, and it must be free for attendees (or at no additional cost if they paid a fee to attend the event). Few things warm the human soul more than free food. I’m not saying you need lobster… keep it simple. But feed your attendees and they will be shockingly happier. 

7. There has to be engagement

People’s attention spans are surprisingly short. Esspecially if you are targeting a younger demographic (ie people in their 20s), guess again if you think they’ll enjoy sitting through a 60 minute speaker. No way. Every good event has to be broken up into different chunks of activities.

When I plan events, I use the rule that attendees are never doing the same thing for much longer than 20 minutes. We keep it exciting and shift focus. All of our Entrepreneurs Club activities start with food and networking, then go to a hands on skill building activity, then to a speaker, then to Q&A and finally back to networking. It’s a solid framework and it works.

8. Leverage the F**k Factor

Particularly for younger audiences, people start paying a lot more attention when whoever is speaking does something that they seemingly shouldn’t. This especially holds true with dropping an occasional F-bomb to the crowd. It generally goes hand in hand with ensuring that whoever is speaking, making announcements, etc is doing it with a ton of energy and enthusiasm. 

9. I’d rather “do” than just “listen”

The best events are interactive. That means the attendees aren’t just sitting in chairs the entire time, but instead they become part of the event. Maybe they are creating some plan and pitching it to the group. Perhaps there is a competition involved where attendees break up into teams. Or maybe they just have to answer a question. Either way, people want to be involved, and it will keep their attention. Ultimately, this makes an event more fun.

10. Follow up

Think carefully about the objective of your event. Was it to sell something? Or perhaps you were driving deeper engagement with your customers? Either way, there needs to be a follow up or call to action for attendees. Maybe it is an email sent out after the event with something to check out. Either way, make sure you circle back with your attendees and get their opinions on the event. Ask them what you could have done better and thank them profusely for their feedback. 

Managing Managers

As my organization has grown over the past couple of quarters, I started implementing something I had never touched much before… a reporting structure. We have Directors, who have assistants, and managers who work on the Director’s teams. PR and Social Media report up to Marketing. Video production is a part of Media, while Accounting comes under Operations. As an organization grows, having a structure like this becomes important, otherwise you’ll start to see a lot chaos, really fast.

I was first exposed to a real reporting structure during my co-op at Digitalsmiths as a Project Manager. There, I reported to the VP of Client Services who handled Project Management. However, sometimes I’d interface with the COO, but it was usually going through the VP of Client Services. Why couldn’t I work directly with the COO when it seemed convenient? Well it turns out that policy actually makes a whole lot of sense, because the COO is responsible for managing the VP of Client Services, not me. If he had to manage both of us, he’d go nuts. 

Now that I am in a managerial role, I understand why I can’t answer every question for our Assistant Directors. I’d go nuts. Instead, they work with the Directors of each division of our organization, and I step in when necessary. In short, I am responsible for directly managing the managers (and responsibly for indirectly managing everyone).

So how do you do this well?

1. Give managers the tools they need to succeed

I constantly check in with all of my Directors to ensure that things are running smoothly in their division. Whether it is a budget issue, people problem, etc, you should get there before they even have to ask for help.

2. Don’t be a stranger to anyone in the company

Having a reporting structure doesn’t mean I don’t talk to Assistant Directors. On the contrary, I talk to everyone, a lot. I value everyone’s ideas and input, regardless of role, and I ask for them constantly. I gladly step in and work with anyone on my team. But at the same time, I try to defer the details in each division to the Director leading it. Part of my job is to make everyone better and more effective at doing their own jobs, so my Directors need opportunities to figure things out on their own, make mistakes and learn. As a leader, you are there to guide them along the way.

3. Respect managers authority

Don’t hesitate to override one of your managers if you feel that are making a bad call. BUT, do so with courtesy in a one-on-one environment. Calling out a manager in front of their team is never acceptable and can create way bigger problems in your organization.

4. Be a mentor to the team

As a manager of managers, your team is going to be learning a lot of management techniques from you. That means you need to lead by example, give lots of feedback, support and ultimately act as a mentor for everyone on your team.

5. As people learn, give them more responsibility

I give younger members of my team leadership opportunities as soon as they prove themselves capable of doing quality work and collaborating effectively in a team environment. The more opportunities that you give your team to manage, the better managers that you will have to work with. 

Ownership is the Best Motivator

“It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.”

If you’re an Office Space fan, you remember this classic quote that Peter used as an explanation for why he wasn’t putting a lot of effort into his job. While the movie was dramatized, I have felt exactly what Peter has felt – a lack of interest and care for work because I didn’t feel any attachment to it. But have no fear, there are ways to instill feelings of attachment among everyone in your team through an effective company culture.

The key is ownership. I care about my stuff a lot more than I care about yours. And the same goes for every other human being on this planet. When my parents spent money on dinner, I didn’t look too closely at the prices on the menu. But suddenly when it is my money… well hold up on that $25 entree! That’s basic human nature: we care the most about our stuff.

So if that is true, what if we can make it so work is owned by the person doing it? As a leader, there are a lot of effective ways to give your team members ownership over their work:

1. Ask for input and ideas

Instead of force feeding your team ideas or tasks, ask them what they think the organization needs and how they would execute a plan. I bet they come up with something similar to what you already thought of, but the difference is that they feel like they invented it, and thus it is theirs.

2. Assign project leads

Give junior team members lead roles on less important projects. This gives them the opportunity to show you what they are capable of and make real decisions. If they fail, who cares… it wasn’t an important project and it is an excellent learning opportunity for them. They probably won’t make the same mistake next time.

3. Always give credit

If someone on your team does a great job on a project, tell everyone. Publicly congratulate them. It should never be a mystery whether someone did well or messed up. Make it abundantly clear either way.

4. Call out mistakes

It’s a lot more painful when I make a mistake and know I am ultimately responsible for it. Make sure that you team owns their mistakes just as much as their successes. Every mistake is a learning opportunity. 

I execute all of those 4 points regularly with my team at the Entrepreneurs Club. As a result, I am thrilled to have a team of happy, committed, hard working and passionate student leaders.

Bureaucracy Sucks… 5 Ways to do it Well

Let’s face it, bureaucracy sucks. It’s annoying, it impedes creativity and hinders workflow efficiency. It pisses off members of a team and can stunt progress. Yet, as organizations get larger, having defined processes and policies becomes more important. I’ll explain why with a story:

Last quarter my team at the NU Entrepreneurs Club was putting on a large event. We use a web application to send out email blasts to our members, Madmimi, and we deal with lists of thousands of email addresses weekly. A Director on my team wanted to attract more attendees to our event, so he loaded thousands of additional email addresses into our system and sent out a massive email blast. Unfortunately, this resulted in many of the emails being marked as spam and I had to explain to the folks at Madmimi that we did not mean to send “spam” and were not violating the terms of service of the product.

The issue was that when our organization was much smaller, it was ok for anyone on the team to send out blast emails since the lists were a lot smaller and it didn’t make much of a difference either way. But now we have grown into a well known brand on campus with thousands of dollars in funding and hundreds of members. We need to have strict control on our brand and how we interact with our members.  So I took the following actions:

I created clear, easy to understand policies governing how we send emails.

I wrote a brief 1 page document that spelled out very concisely who was allowed to access our email program (and re-distributed the login credentials accordingly), and what specific lists could be accessed by each person.

I wrote a brief email to my entire team notifying them of the policy.

I made sure that everyone understood the new simple policy, and I also transparently stated why we had to institute the policy: our organization has grown and we need to make sure we send only the right emails to the right lists and not make a mistake.

How do you create an effective policy?

1. Make it short and simple: No confusing language.

2. Share it with everyone: Nobody can follow a policy they don’t know about.

3. Use common sense: Only make a policy when the alternative of not having a policy is a worse headache than the policy itself.

4. Don’t make policy for the sake of policy: Do it when necessary, don’t touch anything if you don’t have to.

5. Get everyone’s input: People are more likely to respect a policy that they feel ownership of. Get their insight and have them help create it.

10 Ways to Identify Great Developers

“Developers, developers, developers, developers.”

We all know the quote from Steve Ballmer and the classic video of him showing his support for Microsoft engineers.

Ballmer’s quote holds especially true today as startups and Fortune 500’s alike viciously compete to acquire the top programming talent. This means that identifying and recruiting world class software developers is not only crucial for tech companies, but also more difficult than it has ever been. 

Throughout my experience as a web developer, entrepreneur, and Student Fellow at .406 Ventures, I’ve met amazing software developers. Here is my short list for finding the great ones: 

1. Ability and willingness to learn

I don’t care how much you know right now. Instead, I care how fast you are able to learn new technologies, adapt, and implement them. My partner last summer came into the venture as a PHP novice. The code he wrote the first month was clunky. However, he loved learning to improve the code, absorbing pages of the PHP manual like a sponge. Within months, he became a sharp PHP wiz, re-building the old code in hours even though it took him days to first write it.

2. Passion for problem solving

Writing software is all about solving a problem. Any great programmer must have that innate passion for solving problems, boldly taking on challenges and ultimately conquering the unknown.

Maybe they solve the 6 Rubix cubes on their desk in under a minute or they spend every morning manipulating a Soduku puzzle. Either way, having a knack for problem solving in an efficient, salable, and manipulable way is paramount.

3. Logical and mathematical thinking

At a very basic level, any software program is a series of commands (logic) that goes through situations and takes some sort of action based on the situation. For example: IF it is raining THEN I’ll take an umbrella ELSE I won’t take an umbrella.

Great developers will many times think, speak and act in similar ways that they program. If I videotaped some of the arguments my CTO and I had, I bet we could easily transcribe them into basic logic arguments and turn them into a web app. Look for people that love math and logic, those skills translate well into development.

4. Flexibility

If a developer seems married to one programming language or stack, run away. It might be Ruby on Rails today, Python and Django tomorrow and picking apart some Node.js or Scala next month. Once you understand the fundamentals of Object Oriented Programming (OOP), it is fairly simple to go in between these different languages. You want someone that is flexible, a jack-of-all-trades in the programming world. They don’t have to start out this way, but must have the willingness to learn and explore at a rapid pace.

5. Readiness to re-code

When I was was first learning to program, it drove me nuts that I had to constantly re-do work. But that is the nature of the beast: as you learn and get better, it is essential that you optimize whatever code you are working with to function at its best, and unfortunately that usually means scrapping old code and starting from line 1. Any experienced developer knows this, and they need to be ready and willing to re-code when necessary without grumbling about it. I was a grumbler, and I learned fast the error of my ways.

6. Being a team player

Every engineering team is just that, a team. There are multiple developers working towards the same goals and writing different parts of the same application.

That means you want someone who doesn’t mind picking up where someone else left off, deciphering someone else’s code or comments and ultimately working in a collaborative environment. Developers that go with the attitude of “mine mine mine!” are probably not going to be a good fit.

Make sure they take this very seriously, even if it’s a team of 1 right now. 

7. Playing well with non-techies

Any strong startup team is not just made up of developers. There are designers, business people, and investors, just to name a few. The engineering team must be comfortable working with other stakeholders in a cross disciplinary environment. There will be project managers and product folks suggesting ideas for the product, which at times might be unfeasible or simply wrong.

I want to hire the engineer that doesn’t criticize or shrug off a flawed proposal, but instead takes the time to explain the problem to decision makers that might not have a technical background.

8. Code formatting

When most developers start out, their code looks like crap. Nothing is indented, views mix with business logic, and the madness goes on. A good developer quickly learns that formatting code well so it is readable and properly commented is very important. When responsibilities shift, it makes a world of difference for engineers to be able to look at code and understand exactly what it does and what other pieces of code it interacts with.

9. Emphasis on documentation

In addition to clean formatting of code, having proper documentation can make everyone’s lives a lot easier when code needs to be reviewed or edited down the road. Keeping a log of every function (along with its parameters), file, and database table is a great habit to get into. It is not as annoying as it sounds, and the consequence for not doing it is a guaranteed headache when you have to sort through 50 files to figure out what 5 little lines of code do.

10. A fun, hardworking, good person to be around

I follow the golden rule of “do not work with assholes.” I don’t care how much of a code master you are, if you’re not nice to other people in the company, if you put others down, or don’t respect authority, then you won’t work with me. I’d much rather train a hard-working, smart, and fun new developer then a self-labeled expert that is rude or arrogant. Choose your team with this rule, hire slowly and fire quickly when there is a culture problem.

If you need to figure out how someone’s going to treat the other people in your company, take them out to a meal or two. When you get a chance before you order, take the waiter/waitress aside and ask them to bring out the food either late or slightly incorrect. Then, see how the engineer reacts to the situation. Do they complain or talk beyond the server’s back? Or do they politely communicate the problem like a nice, understanding human being?

Every startup is going to have ups and downs, and if someone loses their cool at a minor issue in a restaurant, you might not want to be rely on that person when it’s crunch time and you’re a month away from running out of money. 

Are you ready to become a great developer? Awesome! Here’s what you should do:

  • Get on Codecademy: It is the hands down best place on the Internet to learn how to code, co-founded by my friend Zach Sims.
  • Get some books: I recommend ones like the PHP Cookbook that walk you through every key area of the language and provide a ton of real world examples (with real code) to play around with.
  • Start hacking: Play around with code. Make up an idea for a mini application and hack it together piece by piece. It’s going to be clunky – that’s ok, you’re learning!

Good luck!

Thanks to Kirill Klimuk and Drew D’Agostino for their input on this post.

Why I Take Every Meeting

I meet with a lot of people. It’s kind of ridiculous – in a given week I might have the privilege of sitting down with dozens of talented, passionate people in the community and learning more about what they do, how I can help them, how they can help me and how we might be able to work together in the future

This is the essence of networking. Networking is not just exchanging business cards, that is the worst way to do it. Instead, you need to form meaningful connections with people. Take a genuine interest in what they are doing and be a good listener. Let them talk about themselves and not the other way around. 

To foster this mentality, I generally take almost every meeting that comes my way. Some I have a feeling might not be so productive, and others I am incredibly excited about. But as a college senior, I can afford to spend a good amount of time meeting new people and learning new things. The big idea behind my policy is that you never knew who you might meet. Sure, a meeting could be a dud, or you could be talking to future business partner, best friend, spouse or mentor. 

A mentor of mine that epitomizes this philosophy is Ryan Durkin, the COO of CampusLive. As an executive, Ryan is willing to meet with people, give them advice, make connections, and share his wealth of experience. He is a role model for the entire community.

Remember, your network is one of your greatest assets. The relationships you have can provide tons of unknown opportunities, so it is a worthy investment to foster them. Here are the action items:

  • Get some business cards. They are still important to have to share contact information.
  • Get on LinkedIn. That site should be your best friend. It is a virtual rolodex and it’s free. 
  • Get out and talk to people. Go to some startup events or just find people on their company websites and send them an email to set up a meeting. 

Can you Read? Technical and Financial Literacy

2 Things Business Students Must Know

Managers in today’s economy cannot just be good at one thing. On the contrary, they need to have an exposure to almost every facet of the business that they are managing if they are to succeed. Does that mean you have to be a network engineer in order to run Cisco Systems, or a chef in order to run Nabisco? Certainly not. However, it’s tough to manage what you don’t know. Last year in the NU Entrepreneurs Club, I was the Director of our Startup Challenge, the largest division of the club. This year as President, I manage that Director, and 23 others. I know what they have to deal with because I did it myself before.

I believe that for any business-oriented student graduating today, in addition to whatever your major concentration is in business, you need to be literate in two key areas: technology and money. A lack of understanding of either is a gaping failure point for an organization. Let’s look at each one:

Technical Literacy

This means that you can talk the tech talk. Do you have to be the CTO? No. But, you need to understand the language, the acronyms and the terms that engineers use. You need to be comfortable speaking to engineers and have a solid understanding of how they think and how they work. You should be able to approximate about how long a technical project will take, and about how much it will cost. Advantages:

  • Earn respect from the engineering team… engineers want to see business people who at least have the desire to understand tech
  • Pay the right price for tech projects because you understand what it takes to complete them
  • Gain opportunities to leverage technology that you understand to increase efficiency and reduce costs in your business

Financial Literacy

A balance sheet can be confusing. Do you know how to calculate comprehensive income or loss? Your company just bought a new server – how should we deal with the cost of that asset and how should we depreciate it? These are questions that should not be reserved for just your CFO or Controller. Advantages:

  • Ability to talk to finance and accounting teams and understand their needs 
  • Insight to know when there is a financial problem in your company, not enough cash flow, etc.
  • Skills to review a company’s financial statements before your join the team to ensure it is in good fiscal health

Ready to become technically and financially literate? Great! Here are the action items:

Clarity as Clear as Glass

“Assuming makes an ass out of you and me.”

I make it a point to focus on clarity with my team. This plays off the old saying that “assuming makes an ass out of you and me.” I may have an idea for a project, or a specific deliverable that I need someone on my team to take care of. If you want something done right, you need to be explicitly clear with exactly what you need, the format you need it in and the deadline. I use bulleted lists, bold things and use key words like “action items” and “deliverables.”

If I am on a team and get these kinds of instructions from the project manager, there is no excuse to get it wrong, because it is so drop dead obvious, and everyone knows it. 

It’s really easy to be clear. Use the following guidelines when outlining instructions:

1. No big words.

Use simple language that is easy to read and digest.

2. Don’t write long paragraphs.

Bulleted lists are your best friend.

3. Bold what is important.

People’s eyes will go right to it.

4. Format documents.

Use tables, use visuals. My professor and serial entrepreneur, Bruce Russell, explained it best that the important stuff should jump right off the page.

5. Be careful with acronyms.

I only use acronyms when my team either knows them, or I want my team to learn them by searching on Google.

6. No extra information.

Tell people what they need to know. Nothing less, nothing more.

What are the advantages of clarity?

  • Less mistakes
  • Less frustration
  • Faster delivery times
  • Things get done right the first time
  • Happier team

So, next time you are writing a Goliath email that seems more like a Harry Potter novel, take a step back and ensure that things are concise and the important information is abundantly clear.

5 Ways to Be a Great Mentor

Especially in the world of entrepreneurship, having great mentors and being a great mentor is crucial. Mentors can act as guides for a young entrepreneur, helping them avoid classic mistakes, making key introductions and serving as a teacher far after college graduation day.

Over the past few years I have had multiple mentors, and been a mentor myself to others. As President of the Entrepreneurs Club, a key part of my role is to act as a mentor to all 640 of our members, and especially to the younger students leading the club on our executive team. On top of that, I am honored to have quite a few great mentors to guide me, such as Graham Brooks at .406 Ventures, Gordon Adomdza at Northeastern University, and Ken Coleman, co-founder and former EVP at TimeTrade Systems.

So what makes a great mentor? There are varying degrees of how intense the relationship can be. In some cases, it is just a check in once in a while and an open line of communication to ask questions. When I play the mentor role, I like to take a very hands on approach. Especially for my younger colleagues, my goal is to give them tangible feedback, advice points and action items that they can use to advance their careers. More specifically, I suggest a mentor does the following:

1. Be critical

I call my mentees out a lot, anytime they make a mistake. I clearly explain to them where they fell short and how they can improve. It’s much better they hear this from you so they can improve for when it counts.

2. Focus on soft skills

This means proper business acumen, wording in emails, etc. I am constantly reviewing sent emails / any written doc (ie a resume) with my mentees and making suggestions for improvement.

3. Make introductions

And make a lot of them. Build up your mentees’ networks. I make many intros via email and suggest my mentees set up meetings.

4. Guide, don’t do

Be sure to make suggestions, but never give orders and never do the work for your mentee. I always use the phrasing when making a suggestion "I would consider doing X"

5. Suggest tangible action items

I always provide, in bullet list format, clear ideas for my mentees to consider executing to contribute to and advance whatever they are working on.

Ultimately, the relationship will depend on the time, flexibility and personality of the both the mentor and the mentee. If you want to find a mentor of your own, there are plenty of great programs in Boston to help you, like Sean Lindsay’s Founder Mentors or Northeastern University’s venture accelerator, IDEA.

I’m Back! Update on the Entrepreneurs Club

Alright, I admit it – I’ve slacked on this blog. I mean seriously, my last post was in October. But have no fear, I’m back with the energy and enthusiasm of a kid after eating an entire box of oreos (or me, after eating an entire box of oreos…)

The past semester has been an incredible journey. In addition to finally being a senior, I took on the reigns as President of the Northeastern University Entrepreneurs Club. I first got involved with the club my freshmen year when there was rarely more than 15 people in the room at any given meeting. Now, our team has grown the organization to be one of the largest at the university, attracting 100+ students every week to our kick ass Get Togethers, where we invite a passionate speaker, network, build skills and enjoy free pizza with our community of student entrepreneurs.

By the numbers since September, Entrepreneurs club members have launched 17 new student ventures, picked up thousands of dollars in funding, signed up hundreds of new customers for Zaarly, mentored 40 low-income high school students, invited 11 CEOs and founders to speak and created leadership opportunities for dozens of students at Northeastern.

The club has grown like no other, and it is all thanks to the entrepreneurial attitude of our members. Students have created new programs, reached out to C-level executives, led activities and ultimately demenstrated how Northeastern’s worldclass programs prepare students to not only get lots of job offers, but to create their own jobs.

This role has been one of the best experiences I have had the privilege of earning during my college career. I have learned so much about managing people, scaling an organization, event planning and execution, fundraising and a myriad of other invaluable skills. I’m looking forward to continuing the momentum this upcoming spring semester!