Three wise women share their strategic thinking

Stephanie Selesnick talks to three women industry entrepreneurs who share their thoughts on launching, dealing with betrayal, selling and more. Click here to read the feature in the EW April/ May 2022 magazine. 

I spoke with three smart and talented exhibition industry entrepreneurs recently about building a business and other industry-related things. They are Cassandra Farrington, co-founder, former CEO and current strategic advisor to MJBiz; Jennifer Hoff, president and owner, Taffy Event Strategies and president of Trifecta Collective; and Jo-Anne Kelleway, international ambassador, Freeman and formerly founder and CEO of Info Salons Group.

MJBiz sold to Emerald for US$120m in January; Jennifer founded and runs a show management company and co-helms a company purchasing shows, and Jo-Anne sold her global registration and technology company to Freeman pre-Covid.

SS: You’ve built significant companies. Would you share some lessons and advice learned along the way to those who want to launch their own?

CF: 1. Company culture is everything. You, as owner/founder, set the culture and reinforce it. Be true to who you are. I always wanted to give myself and others a job I liked in a place I liked going to.

2. This one’s a bit more aspirational. Don’t be afraid of the hard decisions to move on from people within the organisation who no longer fit where the company is going, or who don’t want to go in that direction. Don’t let those decisions sit too long.

3. Personally, having a partner was invaluable. You don’t have to see eye-to-eye but must have a lot of mutual respect and trust, along with complementary skill sets. It helps having someone to share the burden and keeps you from burning out.

JH: 1. When starting out, have a foundation – go into it with a core piece of business, or a solid side gig so you are financially able to pay your bills until the business gets going.

2. In my case, starting one, or two companies (as is now the case), was never in my long-term plan. It happened after I’d been in the expo industry for years. It amazes me that it’s now 2022 and that I began Taffy Event Strategies in 2014. Realise it’s never too late to start.

3. I founded a trade show management company but had to learn about a lot of other stuff including payroll, obtaining government licences, and other general business administration required as a business owner. Once you start growing, you can bring people in to take over some of these administrative areas. But, in the beginning, you wear lots of hats.

JK: 1. It’s all about the people. Find the best people to go on the journey with you. Believe in your vision. It’s why you started your company. Also make sure they have different skill sets than what you have.

2. Be prepared to be adaptable to change and develop as the world does. Go for new opportunities and stay up to date – while staying true to your core mission. Being a technology company 30 years ago, the world has significantly changed, especially in our space. Our core mission – to constantly innovate and help our clients grow their exhibitions remained top of mind.

3. Find great mentors. Being able to receive knowledge and advice from those who have been there before you - and know your industry is invaluable.

SS: One of the facts of business, unfortunately, is being betrayed. It’s not something we openly talk much about. It’s not fun and can be very expensive. Without going into detail on a specific incident, how do you handle professional betrayal?

CF: Some people are hypervigilant against being burned. I’ve always taken a different approach with trusting people. I sleep best at night knowing I gave the person their best chance and betraying me/the company was their choice. Of course, being betrayed stings and is infuriating. Ultimately, you have to move past it. I’d rather be betrayed than be paranoid.

JH: You need to think about why you feel betrayed. Analyse the actions and break them down. Sometimes it means compromise, other times confrontation. You’re the only one who can decide what you can and cannot live with. Always pay attention to the betrayers (peripherally), but be honest and true to yourself – then move on.

JK: Get over it! The saying of “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” resonates. This way you know what is going on, and what those people are up to. I like to think if someone’s copying what we do, then it’s a form of flattery – they’re elevating us, the originals.

SS: What one piece of advice can you give on selling your show or company?

CF: Build something you plan to run for the next 20 years. Only after you’ve been successful, see if divestiture makes sense. Also, know what your business is worth. If you do decide to sell, be patient with your hopes and expectations for the sale. Is there a market out there for your show? Continue to run your business as if you will own it forever, even while going through the process, maximising its value.

Selling MJBiz, we had a professional team to help – brokers, lawyers, accountants. Keep your financials clean and know where your records, projections and contracts are. It helps.

JH: Know the value you bring to the table. No one goes it alone. Working with Trifecta has opened a whole new world for me to helping to find shows and buy them. I’m lucky to be surrounded and supported by people who know more than I do in the M&A space, but I bring a lot of other things to the table, so it balances it out.

JK: Get all your ducks in a row. A few years ago, we applied for ISO accreditation, which made us document everything. The initial process took a bit over three months – documenting all processes, business plans, job descriptions, marketing plans, key accounts, etc. It all went into a Procedures Manual. Having this documentation helped us expand overseas as we knew what was required to successfully set up our operations in other countries.

When we went to sell InfoSalons, having the Procedures Manual helped a lot with the due diligence process. We had answers literally at our fingertips. I advise anyone starting a business to start documenting processes, etc. now.

SS: Last up, what do you see for yourself professionally over the next year?

CF: I’m the chair of SISO this year and am working on the transition of MJBiz to Emerald. Beyond those two things, I’m working on more of a life/work balance, exploring the future. I’ve caught the bug for the events industry and am eager to find ways to contribute to the growth of smaller businesses. Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur.

JH: It’s going to be an exciting year with both companies. For Taffy Events, we brought in Jenn Heinold to run the day-to-day operations freeing up some of my time to be more strategic in the company’s growth. It also allows me time to help Trifecta move forward. I’ve got good bandwidth and am not afraid to ask for help when needed.

JK: For the next year, I’ll be doing some travelling after being in Australia during Covid. I love our industry and am still enjoying being a part of it. Once you’re an exhibitionist, you’re in it for life!

SS: Agreed!