Interested in growing your events? On today’s episode Amy Zaroff shares her experiences in the events industry and the core values of her business! Today is all about creating your business’ culture through core values to grow events. Check out Amy Zaroff at www.amyzaroff.com
How did you get going, what’s your story?
I always wanted to be in broadcasting and since 7th grade Ted Koppel from Nightline was my idol. I thought some day I’m going to go to DC and I’m going to work on Nightline. I never worked for Ted Koppel but I did go to Washington DC. I went to American University, became a broadcast journalism major, and I worked for all the different television stations in DC and Minneapolis as well. Back when I was a high school senior there was a show called Good Company which is now Twin Cities Live. Steve Edelman and Sharon Anderson were the co hosts and Steve was my mentor back when he gave me an internship. When I moved back to Minneapolis I started working for Hubbard Broadcasting and I loved production.
Production in any form is telling a story there’s a distinct beginning, middle, and end. And just like when you’re putting on a great show you have to carry the viewer, the attendee, the listener through the story. So there I was getting really excited.
Then my husband decided when we were twenty-five to open an authentic New York Style Deli restaurant. We had it for seven and a half years and that’s where I got the love of hospitality. The combination of hospitality and production were what fueled me to get into event production. In 2004 we closed our restaurant and just prior to closing a woman who owned a thirty-two year invitation stationary and gift shop called Give My Regards To, contacted me. She said, are you interested in buying my business. I had no clue how to sell paper or gifts or have a retail space but I knew her customer base was an upper to mid-high clientele and I wanted that clientele. So what I did, I bought the business. I turned it into event planning and design because if they were already coming to buy the invitations I was going to convince them I could throw them a great party. That’s how I got my start.
What are you doing today?
Over the years I started with social events, weddings, bar mitzvahs, general celebrations and as the economy changed, close to 2008, people weren’t buying invitations and stationary as much as they used to, most of it was going online. I’ve always enjoyed being ahead of the trend or whats next. When you’re an entrepreneur you can feel change coming. I decided I was going to bring graphic design in-house, I was going to move away from retail space. I was going to move into an office and industrial space where events came first, retail was second. In 2008 we made that change and moved to a spot in Edina. In 2010 we were getting ready to change the name of our company so people didn’t think of us as an invitation store. So I paid someone a lot of money to tell me to change the name of my store to my name. In 2010 Target called and that was a game changer for me. They said, do you do cooperate events and do you do national events. And I had done national weddings and bar mitzvahs but the only corporate I had done was local. I said yes. They gave me incredible opportunities all over the country. Once you have Target as brand profitability that’s a good thing. I live by the mantra “all you have is your name”. I would say and they would say we stand behind everything we do.
Is it just you, you do have employees?
I do, I have a great team. I have a team of 4 full-time employees. At some points its been more sometimes its been less. Right now we have a real sweet spot. We believe fake it till you make it doesn’t cut it. We surround ourselves with wonderful creative partners and our team grows as it has to.
You have a lot of experience, for our listeners out there, what are the things they can do to make their business a better business?
We created a core values document for our company. Our EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) facilitator, Sue Hawks, she encouraged us to put together our core values document and to hire, fire, reward, and review by it. That’s fine and well I know my team prescribes by these values. I have found it much more helpful to share with our creative partners and our up and coming event professionals so they can really understand what it means.
I said earlier all you have is your name, so understanding the value of reputation is one of our key values. Wherever we are in the community, you’re an extension of your brand. You can be in the grocery store and someone may come up to you who recognizes you and may ask, hey did the invitations go out for our event and even if you’re in your sweats on a Sunday in your baseball cap, you have to be on in that moment because you are representing your company. You are only as good as your last event so that means not only should it look great and be photo worthy but you have to understand what it means to work with your creative partners effectively, respectfully, with integrity all those things. There have been times where I have lost my temper and I needed my teams and my creative partners to teach me we are all in this together but there’s a better way you can say that! I’ve learned from that.
Exhibiting confidence and expertise in all that we do. We can’t fake it till we make it. If you really don’t know something as a company it’s ok to say it. As long as you say I’m not sure but I will find out for you. It’s fun when you are in a creative business to learn together. You can throw big ideas out there and see what sticks, and when you throw the big ideas out there, you can figure out how to make it work if you have the right people.
Tell us more on exhibit confidence and expertise.
When you feel like you look good, you exude confidence. There’s another thing about being confident and being an expert in something: if I tell you Sheila has the best cupcakes I’ve ever had or heard about, if I only heard about them and never met her, I’m not an expert. I’m giving you hearsay. There are many people that say I hear you’re great or I hear he is great you should use him, the only way we can know that is if we work together, then we become an expert. That’s really important too.
Hirees and partners should have the similar values as you…
Absolutely. You have to have had the conversation. Networking can seem like a chore and cold calling people to get coffee, but it’s all about the first impression. I’m a big believer, especially with people who want an informational interview, I’m going to pay more attention to you if you call me over an anonymous email.
You’ll never replace an in person interview.
Absolutely because you feed off their energy, we right here have had so much fun!
Let’s talk about no dropping the ball.
I love no dropping the ball. Here’s the deal, if I tell you I’m going to get a proposal to you by Wednesday by 3:00, if I get it to you by Wednesday at 2:30 I have exceeded your expectations. If I get it to you by Wednesday at 3:00 I have met your expectations and if I get it to you by 3:10 I have not done a great job. I don’t want you to over promise and under deliver as an employee or as a creative partner. When I am on a timeline you are on a timeline as a creative partner. We have to work together to understand whats up.
When I have the relationship, over the years, there’s an unspoken understanding between me and the vendor, we know how each other works. When I have a new employee or training somebody they may not know. I encourage my team to go meet with as many people from that organization as possible so they can have their own shorthand. I don’t want them to go on the merits of the brand but because they have the relationship. So that’s on no dropping the ball and finish what you start. Fully deliver what you say you are going to deliver. You will be trusted more in the industry when you do what say you are going to do and you have the integrity and you care. For me this business isn’t just about making money, it’s about creating life’s most memorable experiences. We really need to think what that means on a much deeper level.
Willing to go the extra mile. I’m a real proponent of being proactive versus reactive and doing something before it’s asked. That’s not just for my team there’s been so many times where a creative partner has just thrown something in, going the extra mile makes such a difference! If you’re loyal to others they will be loyal to you, because we’re all in this together.
I have been plenty reactive in my career over the years. Where I learned to be proactive, in the restaurant business when you are a server or a host and you see someone’s eyes come up from the table or from whom they are speaking with you know that even if they don’t raise their hand to say excuse me, they must be needing something or they’re about to ask for something. That’s when you take that proactive mentality and go and say “is there something I can help you with.” I think that’s important. This is a really easy skill, you have to pay attention.
I want to talk about being truthful, accountable, and no blame, if you do something wrong or you made a mistake just own it. I’m the biggest proponent of this because I make a ton of mistakes and I have to own them. I have to apologize when I should and learn from it and move on. There are so many people from my business who have left the company and started their own business’. I do not see that as a problem I see it as a wonderful success story. Many are female entrepreneurs so I’m excited about that. It’s exciting to teach someone and watch them go.
The last two points are be able to handle the intensity of all situations. Sometimes with intense type A personalities passion can come across as disrespect. That is not to sugarcoat that if you’re being a jerk you’re being a jerk. If you really are feeling it, it’s not only you feeling it, but your team too. If you can’t handle the intensity of all situations the event industry may not be for you.
And lastly for our company, we live by insanely high standards. If there is a seam in a back drop we are using that’s not going to photograph well and we can’t have the seam. The fabricator may say you have to have a seam, well guess what we are going to seal the seam, make it look good, no one is going to know the seam ever existed. Those details matter, we are in the business of details. If you expect great things, great things should and can happen.
What do you tell someone who’s listening who’s thinking I don’t like intense situations, any tips?
It’s important to note it’s never personal. It’s not a personal attack on you the person, it’s the concern about the event in the moment. If you can understand that you are part of a larger mechanism to make something great for someone else and that you’re part of building an experience then you’ll go about it as exciting work. It’s not that I would say don’t join the business if you can’t handle intensity but it is a million miles a minute. There is an innate characteristic of someone in the event industry. They don’t care about being on their feet 16 hours at a time, they don’t care they may miss breakfast, lunch, and dinner and have to go through the Burger King drive-thru at midnight. There’s a whole bunch of things. It’s not a sexy business.
How do people develop core values for their own business?
Every organization has either a mission statement or a value system which is why you’ve been attracted to work for that company. As a leader, a planner, or a designer or anything what matters to you and what value can you add to the company. What can you bring to the table, what can others bring to the table, and where do you see common ground. Start with 3-5 things, what makes you tick in your business, share that, you’ll find it will resonate with the rest of the team and spark conversation.
How do I deal with team members that don’t line with the core values?
That’s a great question the book you mentioned by Gino Wickman called Traction, talks about there being a visionary in an organization, an integrator, and the leadership. One of the tools he puts forth is putting the right person in the right seat. If you don’t align with the majority of the core values and you’ve been reviewed by your leaders on whether or not you align you may be the wrong person.
It’s important to show these in the interview process. That will allow the person being interviewed to say do I fit?
What about someone on your team not adopting the core values?
As far as buying in, you lead by example. If the culture is such that everyone is following these values it’s going to just be. If you don’t subscribe to them you’re going to feel like an outsider. The mechanism that’s in place through the EOS, with this people analyzer it’s part of the review process. If you follow along with EOS and do what you’re supposed to do it does work. If you’re hiring, firing, reviewing, and rewarding by the document it will work. You have to be sure every 90 days, if you tend to have new hires, that you are referring back to it. And I would ask the question to that person, how do you feel about how these core values are resonating with you after being here 90 days?
What about making sure your customers are a good fit?
It’s on my website. These core values are on the website for a reason. I want people to know. If you read this you know there’s no BS, she really means this. Showing who you are and what you stand for speaks for itself, there are times you aren’t the right fit. Sometimes you have to divorce yourself of a client or the client of you. Fortunately that hasn’t happened in a long, long, long time. It did happen in the beginning of my career on both sides. I was just learning what I was doing, I was getting my feet wet. I owned an invitation store that happened to do parties, that was over a decade ago. When it does happen, be honest and say we may not be the best fit for you and suggest someone who may be. That doesn’t mean you think less of the person you’re referring it means you know their core capabilities and they really would be a good fit. That’s trust.
What other pieces of advice for the early on entrepreneurs?
Education, our community has many great organizations that people can be apart of. They can be apart of ILEA (International Live Events Association) the wedding community, the audio-visual community. Getting your face out there and meeting as many people as you can, informationally interviewing with people as much as possible. I see a ton of young women in the wedding space popping up because they’ve either attended an event, helped their sister plan her wedding, or really feel like they are very organized and can handle multiple tasks simultaneously. That does not make a great event planner. What makes a great event planner is the knowledge of function and form coming together seamlessly and if you don’t truly know what that means get out there and start asking people.
I love meeting with the newbies. I do not want to do wedding planning. I will tell you all the tricks I know to make you a great wedding planner, I’ll happily tell you. Go out meeting, learning, getting educated, follow people on social media. You have to get out there see and be seen in the early days especially. That’s not to say you shouldn’t later in your career as well, you have to stay relevant.
You can reach Amy Zaroff on social media as @amyzaroff