Smart AV is an audio visual and interactive rental specialist that provides high-end audio visual equipment and technical support for exhibitions, conferences and events around the globe. This week, we are joined by Darren Poultney, who gave us the great pleasure of recording this episode of PlannersPod live right in the middle of James’ Kitchen.
Darren is the founder and CEO of Smart AV which has grown to several other companies that deal with audio-visual tech. He started the company about ten years ago, and it just so happens that they’ve recently celebrated this mark. He tells us of the inner dealings on how to run a high-end Events Company, as well as giving us some essential insights on the rapidly growing international industry.
IN THIS EPISODE YOU'LL DISCOVER
- How to start your own events business/company.
- How to install events abroad.
- How to submit an impressive application that would get your employer’s attention.
- How to work your way up the career ladder as an event professional.
0:16 – Intro
0:38 – Opening words with Toby and James
3:17 – Discover Darren’s story behind how Smart AV came to be.
4:12 – What is “AV”?
4:39 – What events does Smart AV cover?
5:03 – Smart AV’s 10 year anniversary!
5:27 – Smart AV being strategically based in Harlow.
7:05 – Find out the structure inside of an Events Business.
8:06 – “We are always growing and we’re growing organically.”
8:26 – The creation of the Incredible Pixel Group and the splitting of Smart AV
10:40 – What is “NFC” and how does Poken work?
12:55 – Learn why Smart AV is successful and had the growth it’s had.
14:20 – Find out why Darren resigned as Managing Director and became CEO.
16:06 – Finding out if applicants have the passion that’s required.
16:16 – It’s not about just doing the job, it’s about excelling what we got to do and doing it as good as we can do it.
17:09 – Is there there anything that qualifies an applicant beyond “passion”?
19:25 – Where you come in to the business might not be where you will end up.
20:39 – The different types of project managers.
22:34 – Is there a difference from people who have degrees and don’t have degrees?
24:35 – “For a company like us, we give so much more opportunity.”
25:57 – What is it about someone’s application that would get them an interview in the first place?
27:08 – LinkedIn is the curse of the modern employer.
27:38 – Writing an old fashioned hand-written application letter would stand out a mile.
28:52 – The future of Smart AV.
29:59 – Listen to the success story of Amber.
33:22 – Where you end up is entirely up to you.
33:34 – Why has Amber climbed the ladder so quickly?
35:13 – How James and Toby saved an event.
36:19 – You have to play the game!
36:59 – Managing people to get the best out of them
39:40 – Producing a huge show and how ISO helps.
40:38 – Why would other counties want to hire Smart AV?
42:13 – A first hand experience of doing events abroad.
44:26 – How does the AV Alliance work?
46:53 – What is the company looking for now and what’s next for Smart AV?
48:12 – The warehouse is the best place to learn tech.
49:43 – Organic growth is still happening for Smart AV
50:31 – Learn the plethora of the latest tech and new innovations coming in 2016
51:49 – Supplying content for clients
53:49 – How to get in touch with Darren and Smart AV
54:49 – Closing comments with Toby and James
Darren Poultney: Our clients use us because they know that we’ll go that extra mile to make things happen. It’s mainly been based on service, flexibility the fact that we invest in the latest technology. so we’re always one step ahead of the curve. They know that we will deliver what we say what we’re going to deliver.
Narrator: Toby and James are involved in amazing events all over the world. You’re listening to The Planner’s Planner Podcast, where top event professionals share real world experiences and cutting-edge ideas. Sponsored by Metropolis-Live.com.
Toby: Hello and welcome again to planner’s pod. I’m Toby Goodman and this is James Eager raring to go!
James: Always! Are you well, mate?
Toby: I’m very well man. Thanks very much. We’re pumping these out and it’s excellent work. Before we move on to you our listeners. Do you remember again those two questions in regard to your life as an event pro or an aspiring event pro that I asked you at the end the last few episodes? They were 1) Where are you now 2) Where do you wanna be in the next 12 months?
James, why is this?
James: Aha! It’s time for us to exclusively reveal that we are launching a membership site for the PlannersPod Community. Joining PlannersPod will connect you regardless if weather you are an established or an aspiring event professional to other members across the globe through a specialist membership community. Joining the community will add value to you as an event professional no matter where you are in the industry today!
Toby: That’s marvelous. It’s almost like you’re reading that, mate. It’s beautiful.
James: I promise you I wasn’t.
Toby: Well done. (laughs)
James: (laughs) Okay. Good! Alright. So we will tell you more about what that means for you over the next few episodes. We want to ensure that you’ll get incredible value from joining from the start and that’s why I’m asking you those all important questions.
1) Where are you now in your career as an event professional?
2) Where do you want to be in the next 12 months.
You can answer those by emailing me directly at email@example.com and visit us at the PlannersPod website, which will direct you to our contact there.
James, who’s on today’s show, mate?
James: Well, today– and I believe you do a lot of chatting too — I talk to Darren Poltney who is the CEO of Smart AV. They exist under the roof of the incredible Pixel Group along with three other companies, Smart Solutions, Smart Digital and Poken.
Toby: Marvelous. Once again, this podcast was recorded in person. This time in James’ kitchen with his cat slopped out in the freezing cold and me occasionally interjecting. But I do think James did most of the talking, didn’t I?
James: Well… Have a look at the transcript and find out afterwards.
Toby: (laughs) Yeah that’s right. Alright, lets do that. Okay. Cheers! We’ll see you at the end, mate.
James: See you at the end.
Narrator: Planner’s Pod is Sponsored by Metropolis-Live.com.
James: Darren, you’re from Smart AV. How are you doing today?
Darren: I’m very well, thank you. Thanks for having me.
James: Absolute pleasure. Before we talk about what exactly what Smart AV is, can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Darren: Okay, well. Back around 20 years ago I started off in the AV industry working for a German manufacturer of overhead projectors. That then translated into the overhead projectors with the tablet on top that you see in classrooms etc. etc. That’s how I got into the AV industry. And its always a question how did you get into the AV industry and no one seems to wake up one day and think, “Oh I’m starting an AV company.” or “I once got and put plasma screens in venues etc.”
I then worked for a few companies whether that was selling or hiring AV. Different manufacturers, different distribution, different rental companies. And one day, I was working for a company, I thought, “D’you know what? I’m working for these companies. they don’t seem to get it, they don’t seem to get the service, the back up and the support. I’m just gonna do this myself.”
So naively without giving it too much thought, I started Smart AV.
James: Brilliant. I’m going to ask you really, really basic questions. For any body who’s going, “What’s an AV?” Tell me what AV is.
Darren: Okay, so AV really covers Audio Visual. So audio visual hire in my terms. So really, it’s visual primarily in Smart AV. Obviously there’s lighting there’s audio, there’s video. But primarily Smart AV is a visual company. Visual experiences.
James: Excellent. That’s great. So what sort of events does Smart AV cover?
Darren: We cover everything from exhibitions, conferences, events, awards in the UK, Europe and worldwide. It could be anything from a meeting room, right up to a conference for a 3000 people, to fashion week, to a premiere. Usually anything that’s got live events.
James: Cool. Did I ask you what year did you set Smart AV up?
Darren: November 2005.
Darren: We have literally just had our 10 year anniversary.
James: Ooh, did you have a party?
Darren: Uh… I did. Well, we did mean to have a party and it never kind of happened because we’re all so busy. So, come to christmas party in December I think that’s when we’ll actually stop and have a bit of a celebration.
James: Cool. Can you tell me just a little bit about the structure of the business? The size, where you’re based, etc. etc.
Darren: We’re actually based in Harlow, in Essex. And that’s where we’ve always been. that was strategic at the time, cause I lived in Chelmsford. But when I looked at setting up, Chelms is not great for road links. There’s one road in and on road out. If there’s problems, you’re in trouble. And at that time, my biggest client was based in Bishops Stortford. So, I based myself in Harlow so I could go to them and say, “Hey look, I’ve set up on my own. I’m only down the road. Can we continue working with each other?”
Also it’s brilliant for roads. We’re 30 minutes from Excel, there’s great road links into London, on the way to Birmingham, all over. We’ve just moved into our new head office earlier this year which is 40,000 sq. ft. It’s now 45 full-time employees, and probably another 60 that we use on a freelance contracted basis, which are pretty much full time for us.
James: Okay. It’s worth mentioning we have an international audience here. All of these places that you’ve been mentioning are about 30 mins out of London, aren’t they?
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James: So if you want to Google them you can see some beautiful places on our Google maps.
Darren: Absolutely, we can.
Toby: We’re from Harlow. It’s going to be amazing!
Darren: We welcome visitors as well with open arms.
James: So you can go on Holliday as well?
Darren: (laughs) If they like.
James: Excellent. So you touched on… You’ve got a 45 staff there. Talk to me, I presume its just not managing director of 45 equal members of the staff… You must have a structure to run a business of that size.
Darren: Actually until recently it felt like it was me, and everyone else. And we’ll probably come in some of this more later on about how the structures change. the structure as of now is I’m actually CEO… which isn’t a title that I particularly enjoy and something I’m looking to change. But I did recently was I promoted my Financial Director to Managing Director. This has only happened in the last couple of months. So he now has his team below him. He has managers from each department, where its the wear house manager, the logistics manager, the projects director etc. etc., and then that filters down to the rest of the team.
James: Ah, okay. So you have yourself as CEO, you have your managing director and then projects manager, is that right?
Darren: Yeah. Project Director who then who looks after the Project managers. We then got an operations director who looks after the operations site. So then he has a wear house manager and logistics manager reporting to him and enable the technicians etc, and the sales people outside as well.
James: So many project managers do you have then.
Darren: At the moment we have four. And that is something, where again, we’ll talk about later on we’re looking to increase.
James. Okay. Brilliant.
Darren: We are always growing, and we’re growing organically. 2016 gonna be an amazing year for us. And its all about having the right people in place and sit you, cause it’s all about the service.
James: Brilliant. Do you have any more traditional departments like sales and marketing and that kind of thing going on as well?
Darren: Yeah. We’ve recently split the company out. So until we moved into the new premises, everything was under the Smart AV banner. But what I identified was that we were doing… When we set up, we were primarily an audio-visual high company for exhibitions. And at that point ten years ago, it might mean going to Excel or Olympia and put in a 42 inch plasma screen just on the wall next to a DVD player.
Darren: We don’t do that work anymore. There’s an element of it, but we’re delivering high-end complex events with high-end equipment. So what we did was we created the Incredible Pixel Group, which was early this year. That’s now split into different divisions, which are Smart AV, which is the exhibition side of the business. So that is primarily UK, European, Worldwide exhibitions with visual entertainment equipment. We then have Smart Solutions. Smart Solutions delivers high-end projects, or the high-end delivery. So they’ll do more the conferences the awards the high-end LED jobs. And the reason we split it out was, the person who answer the phone who is maybe going to sell a 42 inch plasma to a corporate client, an event, isn’t the person who should be talking to them about doing an awards ceremony. It was for us to give as much structure internally as externally. So Smart Solutions now does that part. Smart Digital which is a new addition to the group… say for instance we’re the official supplier to the[…9:54] Show. So we will put a screen at work in within the exhibition. We will put indoor LED, outdoor LED, totems, screens, touch around the whole event. What Smart Digital does is they actually sell advertising space to the exhibitors at both shows. So it might be Boeing, B.A.E., Daso… all these high-end brands. Also we would do some exhibitions event TV. So we will create content, do interviews and actually enrich the show by doing digital signage, everything. Smart Digital does that element. The whole point is every part of the group compliment each other.
James: Oh, I see.
Darren: And in Poken, which is another part of the business, is an NFC product.
James: “NFC”, explain that.
Darren: Near Field Communication — It’s exactly what’s in an Oyster card when you go into
London. So when we touch that pad and the doors open, it’s got an NFC chip in. Poken is a little device that’s got two white NFC. So if I meet you at an event and we can swap our details, we can touch our device together, it will glow and I’ve swapped my digital business card with you.
Toby: So is this a piece of hardwear that you make?
Darren: No. We are the UK partner for Poken. Poken is a Swiss product, so we are the UK partner. But again it’s a compliment to what we do. We can sit here and do a whole podcast just on Poken. It’s a massive product and it’s all to do with the whole about… return on investment, monitization, networking. Cause there’s a hub behind there where if I go to an event, I can see all the people I’ve met. I can see all the data I’ve collected cause you can touch tags and you can take information away so…
Toby: So how big does an event need to be to justify investment in Poken?
Darren: Probably 250 people.
Toby: Right. Up to…?
Darren: …We did IBC which is the broadcast show over at Amsterdam, and we did that for 10,000 people.
Darren: Because the product’s developing all the time… For instance you can use NFC now in a credit card size, but you don’t need the device. We do a lot with recruitment, like Barkley’s and things where they want to get CV’s. So they’ll give people a Poken, and they go around and touch the jobs they’re interested in. They then now know who’s interested in which job, they take information away.
Darren: Some people use it for networking, some people use it to green their event cause there’s no paper. It’s paperless. Yeah, it’s an exciting product.
James: I knew nothing about that before we started this interview. Thank you Darren.
Darren: Right, good!
James: That was an unexpected gem I wasn’t even… So, leads me onto my next question. You’ve highlighted four distinct areas of the company. Tell me — Get this instinctively as you can. — Why do you think Smart AV is successful and had the growth it’s had?
Darren: It primarily comes down to — and it always sounds cheesy — Service. The kick’s the kick. You can go to any company or companies in the UK and hire an LED wall, you can go and hire a touch screen an interactive big hit. Service and Support. Our clients use us because they know that we will deliver what we say we’re gonna deliver. They know we’ll go that extra mile to make things happen. It’s mainly been based on the service, the flexibility the fact that we invest in the latest technology, so we’re always one step ahead of the curve. They know that Darren’s always by new kit. I try not to cross-hire at all. Because I want to be in control of my own kit. If I get it from someone else, I don’t necessarily know what I’m gonna receive.
James: That makes sense.
Darren: We’ve always grown organically. So some companies are a bit afraid. “Hang on a minute, you’re getting too big. You can’t look after us anymore.” No, cause we’ve done it organically. We’ve always not just invested on a kit, we invest in the people. So everything’s grown at the same time. I think it’s just that, the whole… the marketing’s been very good we’re very very successful on branding… When we do a job people have seen us deliver, whether that’s… We’ve done Captain America for Westfield in London. They just now we’re gonna deliver.
James: I’m obviously here having a really cool conversation with you. Do you feel like you kind faced in company?
Darren: Totally. One of the reasons… Let me just go back to me resigning as MD. — I only set the company up because of the services and support aspect. The reason why my company exists is because I had to call an amount of clients that worked with me that I had worked with for many years. So that’s where we come from. As the company grew, you just find yourself being a wear house manager, an operations manager, a logistics manager, an HR manager. And actually, if I’m honest, we lost a bit of that contact with that face to face with our clients because I was still busy in the office running it. And I actually thought four, five years ago, “God if somebody gave me £10 for this company I’d let them have it now.” Because I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. So at some point you have to make decisions and say, “What’s the point of doing it if you’re not enjoying it?” So, the whole point of promoting Ryan into MD is now I’m going back to my day job. So I’m actually now going back out and seeing my clients. I’m actually going out and looking at new opportunities. I’m not going to Chimes and looking at new LED. And to be honest with you, in the last two months I love my job now.
Darren: Because it’s all about the face to face. It’s all about the relationships. Because it’s that loyalty. That’s how we get the loyalty and the repeat business.
James: Do you… I guess what I’m driving at is, do you get the ethos which is so clear — I know we’re not on video but I can feel. I could just see your enthusiasm here. Does that filter down into the wear house manager or wherever it might be?
Darren: It has to. And I’m so passionate about what we do. That’s another thing. Where the company grows I’ve not always been involved in the last two, three years when we’ve employed people. Now that’s actually something that I’ve brought back in. I now final interview everyone. Because they might have the interview of HR and they might have the interview with their manager. But once they’ve got passed that stage, they then have the interview with me where we have the real chat. And I actually find out if they’ve got the passion that’s required, and they actually understand that it’s not just about doing the job. It’s about excelling what we’ve gotta do, and doing it as good as we can do it. It’s so important. And actually the people who do get it are the ones who grow in the company and push forward. If it’s just a job… yeah but it’s all about the passion.
James: Cool. I’m actually here with Toby as you might’ve heard him interject as well. We normally do these interviews one on one, but he’s here. I know career paths and employment and that kind of thing are a particular passion of his. So… I was wondering can you ask Dan (laughs)…
Toby: Thank you. (laughs)
James: Can you ask what interests you about that one, Toby?
Toby: Well, I suppose it’s the… when they get to the final interview stage, what is it that gets them through the door, other than the passion? Is there anything that qualifies beyond passion and then… You know, what are those kinds of people looking for? Are they looking for ultimately just a bit of money and a job? You don’t want someone that’s just —
Toby: — just looking for a bit of money. You want someone, sounds like, that wants to actively get involved in something and help you grow your business, rather than just sign-in-sign-out.
Toby: First of all, how do you recognize that? Have you got things saying. “Aww you just know.” Is there something…?
Darren: There’s partly a “6th sense”. Yeah, totally. I’m just completely straight with them. I say this to them, “You are about to enter a nightmare industry, okay? This is not a 9-5 job. If you want a 9-5 job please, be happy and go and work somewhere else. Because this is 24/7 365 days a year. I want you to have a great work life. But honestly if you don’t enjoy what you’re going to do, you’re not going to enjoy the hours. You’re not gonna enjoy working weekends. You’re not gonna enjoy being the only seen in Birmingham 11 o’clock at night, because all your friends are out down the pub and you’re at the NEC. You’ve got to have an interest in what we’re going to do.” So for instance, when guys come into the wear house, I want them to have an interest in audio visual. I want them to sort of show, “Oh yeah, my dad got a new telly and I wanted to see what it could do.” If they don’t care whether its a AV or, I don’t know, jellybean machines of something, it probably and obviously won’t work out. It’s hard to find the right people.
Toby: And when you have found them, you have to retain them. So obviously, you’re well happy to step away let other people now do their thing.
Darren: I hope so.
Toby: So do they some sort of goals, specific goals that’s set for them? Or is it quite organic in the way that you kind of say… “You’ve got a trial period and this is the ladder,” or… I guess it’s different in different departments.
Darren: It all depends, really. I mean, I always say in my conversations with them. “Where are you coming to the business, it obviously not probably where you end up.” So everyone comes in to this business depending on where you’re going. I’ve had people come in and they’ve got into the wear house, and now they’re account managers. I’ve had people who gotten into accounts, and then, believe it or not, they’ve end up in the wear house! So I’m more interested in the person, then actually where I think their career’s going to be. Cause I know things can change.
James: Can I ask you? Let’s take a job from the role that you’ve mentioned, say project manager here. Are you more — I believe the jargon that’s around at the moment is “soft skills”, as opposed to…
James: Yeah, here we go. Well, I mean the interpersonal kind of skills. That kind of thing. How the stuff —
James: People, yes.
Darren: For a project manager, hundred percent.
James: Yeah. So when you interview a project manager, what are you looking for?
Darren: From experience, most of our project managers have come, and the best ones have definately come from, where they’ve grown within the company.
James: They get it already.
Darren: Because they get it already. So I’ve got project managers that started off as admin support in the company, now they’re on site running teams of 40 people because they understand me, and the ethos of the company, what we require. There are different types of project manager. One thing that we’re really really clarified in the last 12 months is that there are different types of project managers. There are different sectors. One thing that is definitely 100% needed is, they need to have amazing administration skills. I always used to look at a project manager who was the guy who went on site that can make all the bells and whistles, and everything work. But to be honest with you, it’s all done way before that back in the office, making sure the admins are a hundred percent. So making sure that if you’ve got 40 guys in Dubai, that all the flights are right or the hotels are right or the stand plans are on, or the cable diagrams are right. That kind. That’s the most important project management.
James: But it strikes me perhaps there’s different skills in there. Doing a cable plan is very different to booking hotels.
Darren: That’s it. So for instance we’ve got different sectors within the business now. So we’ve got a Project Director who’s Amber, and she has her team where you have junior project managers. They look after the project before going on site. Then its handed over to the technical delivery team. They’re the ones that go on site and install the equipment. But they are supported on site by that project support team. It just works really really well.
James: Great. That’s such an amazing insight. Let’s take someone joining the business. This might be a bit of a contentious discussion. It’s happened in one of our previous podcasts and… I want to throw this open to debate over a few podcasts coming up. Event Management degrees, Event degrees, Hospitality degrees — what else? What do we call them? — Degrees in this industry, shall we say?
Toby: There are loads of qualifications that are offered now. But there’s no necessary, you know… normally people recognize that they’re actually running a company. I think what James is trying to ask you is. Do you value people that have had that university education in a non-traditional business like AV. Cause you know, as musicians… James actually did finish his music degree — And well done to him.
Toby: I did a year of mine —
James: And went to Blackpool.
Toby: –failed it. Because I was already working. And I couple years later I had a mortgage. That was it.
Darren: You’re done. Yeah.
Toby: I was a pro before I got my degree. Now I teach on a degree for a day a week. So there’s the irony in that. But… Does that carry weight with you, qualifications? Or what carries most weight with you?
Darren: The thing for me is… I went to university to be a structure engineer. So I actually did a course for two months. Stood on a roundabout in the rain, in the wind. “This really isn’t for me.”
Darren: It’s a difficult one for me because… I’m going to be honest with you, I’m more interested in the person. And the greatest thing for me to come and sent. So although if someone comes to me with a degree, I don’t look them any different to someone hasn’t.
Darren: I just don’t see it as a plus, I don’t see it as a minus. We don’t find many people with event degrees come through applications, Smart AV or Incredible Pixels or whatever.
James: Why do you think that is?
Darren: Because, personally, they all think they want to or they know they want to — I don’t know what it is — want to work in London for big high-end agencies delivering for high-end brands at London Fashion Week and for watch manufacturers and all this. Cause they see all these amazing events and things happening. And they think that is the life for them. The chances are they won’t be working for those high-end, high flashy events. They’ll end up working on some boring event for a pharmaceutical company running 20 meeting rooms with doctors and things that’s not quite as glamorous as what I think it would be. I think it’s a real shame because actually for a company like us we give so much more opportunity, different opportunity. Because we’re running so many types of events where there’s a conference event and awards thing in UK. You might be in London one week, you might be in Germany next week. You might be in Dubai, Quatar… Running all different types of events. Actually, we are a brilliant route to market for these guys, because I think it’s so much more varied experience? So I think what we found is we catch people on their way back from London. Cause we’re half an from London. They go in to London, and they think, “Oh I wanna work in Shoredtich, I wanna work in Islington, I wanna got out drinking champagne every Thursday.” They actually realize that life isn’t quite what it was, and actually we catch them on the way back. We’ve had quite a few people who have actually started work with us, gained experience. And then, if I’m honest, they want me cause the couldn’t get a job somewhere else. Once they’ve got the experience, they’ve gone into London, and then they’ve come back in.
Toby: Didn’t realize how good they had it.
Darren: They didn’t realize they were living the dream.
Darren: But no, whether you’ve got a degree or no degree, it’s all taken on face value.
Toby: Sorry to deviate from you plan James. But what does a job application look like to someone who doesn’t place… What is it about someone’s application that would get them a interview in the first place that makes them stand out? Because maybe they have, maybe they haven’t got a degree. They’ve got experience of course but, experience can be dressed up in many ways. We’re not sure. Is there an example of the CV or an application letter that’s been absolutely outstanding that you’ve gone, “Whoa, that’s different. Now I need to talk to this person.”
Darren: D’you know what, the ones where I’ve been sent a letter or an e-mail direct. I’ve seen this three or four times, we’ll have an email saying, “I haven’t got experience. I actually don’t know how to put an LED wall in, but I know that if I come into your business you’ll have my 100% dedication. All I want is a chance.” And I’m like yeah, fair enough. Then I’ll see them. If it’s just a boring CV where it actually doesn’t highlight any kind of passion or anything, and it’s just… You’ve got no experience. You’ve not really come across… It’s more difficult. Because now, cause we’re bigger, I’ve got an HR lady, and she’ll filter it before it even gets to me. So really, LinkedIn to me, is the curse of the modern employer. Because to me everyone’s like, “Yeah lets all link with each other!” But actually 90% of the people, to me, are just trying to get a job or it’s a great tool for an agency and all my staff get poached all the time via LinkedIn.
Darren: But it’s a great tool for people to connect with me direct.
James: It’s funny we were having a conversation yesterday… You were thinking the same thing, Toby.
James: No, no! This is cool. We were talking about how to connect with a particular person and it was just like… “I know. Let’s just write an old fashion letter.” Pen, paper, stamp envelope.
Darren: It would stand out a mile.
James: There we go! We’ve got our horses from the CEO of a 45 person company. Write a hand written letter.
Darren: Yeah, a hundred percent.
James: And ironically you’ve put a fentecken.
Toby: But that’s what it is, isn’t it? Because everyone went online, everything’s paperless and it’s all good and environmental and cool. However long ago it was, ten, fifteen years ago, you stood out if you had a website. Now you stand out if you write a letter with a pen.
Darren: Absolutely, a hundred percent. And at the same time you can show you can write.
Toby: Yeah. Because also you know that someone… there’s no copy and paste in. And even if they did — and if I was to write a hand letter today, the first thing I’d do would be is to type it on a computer screen and run the spell check through. Cause I could write content, but I’m not a great speller. So I’d do it, and then, that’s when I get the pen out and start getting cramp assume after about the second sentence.
Toby: I can’t imagine that I’ve actually written more than 2 sentences.
Darren: I know that I’m not the future of Smart AV. I’ve done my 10 years. Point. I’m gonna be there for as long whatever I’m there for 10 years. But I’m not the future. I’m like a sponge. I love these people who come into the business, then they’ve go new ideas. I want them to come in and make the change. I want them to come in and say, “Why’re you doing it like that? Why are we doing our marketing like this? Why are we communicating with people like this? Why are we not looking into this technology?” You know? I’m so open to change, I think that’s why when employees come in, they’re given it pretty much open floor. Alright, there’s certain things they have to do in their day. But we want them to come in and make a difference. And that’s why we want them to have a career.
James: You obviously don’t have a very fragile ego.
Darren: No. No, no, no, no. And that’s why I’m not MD anymore. Because it’s important to know whoever you are, and what you do in your business. What are you good at, and what you’re not good at. I’m not good at 90% of the things that I need to run a good business. But I’m good at identifying people who can do it for me.
Darren: And it doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter any background. I mean, Amber, if I use her as a…
James: This is segwaying to my next point. We’re hoping to get Amber on here at some point. So, don’t spoil her fun too much. Let’s hear Amber from your perspective, then we’ll hear Amber from her perspective in due course.
Darren: Yeah. Might be two completely different things.
James: And then YOU from her perspective.
Darren: That will be interesting. Uhm… Amber joined me maybe 5 years ago? So she came in the sales offices as an admit assistant.
James: Okay. How old is Amber?
Darren: Around 25, 26? — Now Amber if I am wrong, you’re gonna make me look stupid. So just remember that. 25-26. (laugh) But anyway, she came in — I’m not saying that the entry point of the business, but it was either you would go into wear house as a wear house technician, or you go into sales kind of an admin. She’s quickly been fast tracked through the business and three months ago, she was actually made a Director of the business.
James: So.. as in share… as in..?
Darren: Company’s house and everything. She’s actually on the Board as a Director.
James: Oh so not some mythical position.
Darren: Oh no, she’s not pretend. She’s a real… Right? She’s now the Projects Director. She’s now heads up the projects team, the whole delivery.
Darren: So she now for instance, just when to Dubai to the air show. She controlled the whole project from the start to the finish. She looked after about 2 million pound a business with clients direct. She also arranged the shipping for the containers to Dubai. She looks after the forty guys that went on site to deliver the event. She laids with the organizers to make sure that everything’s as it should be. She looks after the project in it’s entirety. She is — and people at the office are like, “Oh, here we go. The amber story again.” But she to me, is a success story of where you want to be as an employer. Because I don’t care about… “Oh, well you can’t promote Amber because these people were there before her and that’s gonna upset people.” Rubbish. If you want to make it at Smart AV, you can stand out and you an progress as fast as you want. I’ve got people who have been with me for 10 years. And they’re still doing the same role, really, that they were 10 years ago. And you would think that actually they were now Directors of the business etc. But some people are quite happy doing that role. And to be honest with you, I think it’s a good thing. I think people could find where they want to be then you’ve got other people to come in.
Toby: A little be of entrepreneurial and want to move — climb the ladder right?
Darren: Yeah. And amber gets me. She gets what I’m trying to do. She knows Smart AV is not about Darren Poltney. She knows that I just want us to do the best we can do. So she’s bought in to the Ethos and… You know, she doesn’t agree with hardly anything that I say we should do. And I love that! She like, “Oh, that’s rubbish. We’re gonna do it this way.” and I’m like, “Okay, Amber.” So she is the future of the business. And the team that she’s now building with the new MD etc etc.
Toby: Has she got a degree?
Darren: No! Not at all!
Darren: And also Amber’s one of those people… You know, things like this podcast. “Oh, this
Amber, we should employ her.” “Why’s she working for Smart-AV?” But she knows that there’s the career path, and she knows as the business grows, that she’s gonna grow with it. And she knows that that opportunity that she’s been given, because she deserves it. It’d be difficult to get that somewhere else. — What I’m saying is I use her in interviews to people at a time. I’m saying that you might look that you’re coming coming to the wearhouse and you’re gonna be what we call our cable guy. But I said, “You’ve got to understand that the cable guy to me is the most important person in the company. Cause we do send the kit out and the cables don’t work, then everything goes wrong. But where you end up is entirely up to you. You’re not restricted by anything.
James: Can you pin point just two or three points why Amber has climbed the ladder so quickly.
Darren: For one, she’s very good at her job. (laughs)
James: What does THAT mean?
Darren: Her work ethos and everything. I know its a crazy term, but she just “gets it”? She understands clients, she knows how to converse with clients. She can see a problem before it happens. When you run an event or conference or exhibitions, and you’re doing maybe 50 exhibitions stands, there are going to be curve balls.
Darren: But it’s knowing what those curve balls are before they happen. It’s her dedication. She’s a brilliant man manager. It’s not easy to control forty techs on site exhibitions when they’ve been working through 11 o’clock at night 3 days a week. They’re all tired, they’re all a bit emotional. But those guys and girls, they completely respect her. A hundred percent.
James: Wow that’s quite something knowing the tech…
Darren: Well you know from your guys, yeah.
James: I know the techs can be quite boisterous when they put their minds to it.
Toby: It’s quite a male dominated world, isn’t it? Also that’s the point, isn’t it? So to have a female who’s quite possibly, quite a lot younger than the people… That’s…
Darren: It’s all down to that respect. They’re a hundred percent. And you know what? They would do anything for her.
James: That’s amazing.
Darren: They would do anything for her on site. She’s only got to say, “Look, I’m in a bit of trouble here with this one guys.” These guys would do anything for her.
James: Does she have the ability to think laterally and think out of the box? Cause we know there’s one thing designing an event on paper. Venue. We had this last weekend didn’t we Toby? This exact thing where someone had on. This is a hired wedding but someone had put a table plan together and completely misunderstood space. And someone else was instigating the table plan, should we say.
Toby: That’s where the tables go!
James: But that’s where the client wants the tables! And we’re going…
Toby: They definately don’t want the tables there because…
James: But that’s where they put it…
Toby: ..there’s no dance floor if you put the tables there, is there? But that’s where the tables are in the plan. Now there’s no dance floor. “Can you imagine if you move them over there 4ft., everything will be alright.” — And it’s like, “Okay. We’re moving the tables.” (laughs)
James: And it’s one of those things that us, with a little bit of confidence, I think we pushed something through. I can’t remember if I actually said this but I said, “I’m very happy to take this one on the chin, if it goes wrong.” But I know the risks if it was left there, will just far more catastrophic… and it didn’t go wrong.
Toby: But that was such a common sense, situation…
Darren: Commonsense, you see?
Toby: Yeah! So we’ve got admin skills, commonsense — gets the customer totally, but also gets the crew around them who understand how to cater for their needs and be clear enough front. As much as there might be big ‘ole blokes shifting gear or whatever — Understands what their looking for.
Darren: And you have to play the game. As in, the build of an exhibition can be extremely tough crazy hours. Then the four or five days maybe at the extra exhibition. Amber knows, once everything’s turned on in the morning, it’s a bit more down-time. So, we look after our guys. We have what we call a crew meal. So we take everyone out, you know? Take them out for a few beers whatever, whatever. She might speak to some of the guys and say, “Look, why don’t you take one day off wherever at and you buy and go to a water park or whatever you wanna do.”
James: I’ve been there.
Darren: Yeah It’s good huh?
James and Toby: (laughs)
Darren: But what I’m saying is, it’s managing, isn’t it? People. To get the best out of them. She’s just good at all those areas.
Toby: That’s that. And again the planning thing is. Exactly what we see all the time with our events is that, if you do everything on paper, then all you need to do is worry about looking after your team. Who are prepped cause you’ve set everything on paper. So all you need to be doing then is predicting what could possibly go wrong. And if it does go wrong, then you haven’t got to worry about any other stuff because it’s all there, so yeah.
James: We’re seeing… We’re on radio here and Darren’s furiously nodding in agreement to what’s Toby’s saying.
Darren: (laughs) I’m sorry. Yeah, yeah. But she’s extremely calm as well, you know. There’s never a panic or anything. The thing with an exhibition is that opened on that day that exhibition’s opening whether you’re ready or not.
Toby: I doubt, yeah.
Darren: And always, she knows — and it’s an ethos of mine — she surrounds herself with the best people.
Toby: I was listening to… Well worth a listen to this podcast called WTF with Mark Marren and he interviewed the guy called Lone Michael who runs Saturday Night Live for years. He’s saying stuff about, “It’s gunna go wrong in rehearsal. But whatever happens, when 11:30 comes, we’re live. I expect us to make all mistakes before hand…” He’s talking about writing comedy sketches and all these routines to making sure the lighting queues and the camera cut… and all that’s stuff that’s happening. You know, I’ve never done a perfect show, and I’ve done it since 1970 whatever… I’ve never seen a perfect show, but we know that once that it’s 11:30 and the door open, same thing, we’re going. It can never be almost a 100% seeing this, but the chances are… because you’ve got someone like Amber or you or helpers in it. If you get to the point where only you guy are seeing what might… All the people that come in as guests or visitors or delegates or whatever the event is… It’s great.
Darren: One thing that we’ve got, ISO 2012 one, which was like…
James: You’re gonna have to explain that to me.
Darren: Well, here we go. Probably should’ve said that now cuz now that I think about it… but what it is, is a sustainable events. So we work to a standard to get us that certification. Actually, with all these things… I was going to be like, “What’s the point. blah blah blah.” To be honest, because that’s what these things are. A lot of paperwork. But actually, for instance when we do a big event like the Baez show now, we have to fill in lots of reports about where things could’ve been improved… What happened on site. We sit around the table, we discuss it and move on. Otherwise you just keep churning and you don’t learn from anything. So actually, things like that, ISO, have really helped us kind of formalize how we do our reports and how etc. etc.
James: That’s kind of it. That’s really interesting. So, lets pull it back… We’ve gone far–
Darren: (laughs) Sorry there…
James: No, I love it! This is why I love podcasting cause we start at one place and end up somewhere completely different.
James: Couple of things that you want to ask… We were gonna talk about the Baez show but I’m thinking, why not I talk about that with Amber in due course. You’ve touched on what goes out. — Actually quickly answer me this completely as this. Why would a Dubai, which I know has some great event tech out there already, why would they take a kit from Harlow in Essex? All that journey.
Darren: That’s a good question. Something that is becoming more and more of an issue even in Europe where companies are probably looking to use more of a local supplier. Maybe either it’s corporate social responsibility etc. etc… In Dubai, maybe five or six years ago, the quality of the equipment that you got in that region wasn’t the latest, greatest, wasn’t up to date. That’s actually changed. There’s tons and tons of equipment in Dubai now. The difference, still to an element, is service and support.
Darren: Cause we’re the official supplier for Farnborough show. We’re actually, believe it or not, the official supplier for the Chilly Air Show. Which is always an interesting one. We don’t struggle for techs to go out one to that one. We’ve got the Sigaporean air show, which is in February this year. So our clients, because of the nature of the industry, they want to work with the same suppliers all around the globe. Whether that’s because they’re an air defense or because of security… Or it’s because a lot of the time that equipment’s bespoke.
Darren: So we might put a 3 meal interactive touch LED wall in for a client. Well they can’t get that in Dubai, so it’s got to come from us. So really, it’s because we go from each venue each country. They have the same stand builder, they have the same company doing the…, the same company doing the AV… It’s an all in solution.
James: I think the other thing, correct me if this correlates with yours, it’s a risk thing as well. I remember firstly… Our last experience in Dubai wasn’t very good. The in house Kit was fine, the quality of the techs was dreadful. I did quite a bit of work in India. And a similar thing going on there. Except we did a gig in Calcutta, which is number 3 or 4 in pecking orders of cities out there. Which is phenomenal. I mean the techs… I mean, the kit was okay. It wasn’t, but the techs were brilliant. I mean, the sound guys were the same quality as we had here. But then we went to Deli, it was awful.
Darren: It’s a lottery, you see? (laughs) It’s the AV lottery.
Toby: It’s a total Lottery! It’s around the global stuff when you talking about essentially needing people with language skills and all that. And as soon as you got — So for us it was clear. They want a western band. They flew us out. We’re a western band, we could only speak english. — and it’s about the lottery of having a tech that speaks english. And there’s so much colloquialism around stuff. — I dunno… you’re headphones could be cans, or whatever. You know, that takes so long to explain to someone… So that’ was around that time we were starting to do that international work, was the time when we decided that whatever happens, there’s a whole other level of investment to fly equipment out. So we’ll obviously work very hard to make sure there is stuff there. If there isn’t, a budget to fly out. But we will always, always, take an event tech with us. Who can be on board or whatever. Because at least he can do stuff that we don’t know how to do. Technically on a mixing desk… and if there’s a team of guys Indian guys, local guys or whatever… They can at least see what his fingers are doing they can go off and do that. Because, the risk to the client is–
Darren: It’s huge. And also the person who’s normally making the decision and who they use isn’t paying for it. So they’re worried about their own job and they know that if they work with us all stretches off. They’ve got enough to worry about. But we are also member of something called the AV Alliance. We’ve become a member maybe 3 or 4 years ago. Actually there’s only one member in each area. So we cover the South, and actually Birmingham. What that means is… I think there’s around a hundred members now all over the globe. So if we’re doing a job for a client in Brazil, they might come to say like, “Well you’re not in Brazil, how can you help us?” We can go to our local AV alliance partner in Brazil, and I can guarantee the quality of the service and support because all the members are of the same ethos… On the quality of supply, equipment quality. So that now has opened a lot of doors for us where we’re transparent with our client. If we are not going to use our own equipment, we’re transparent. We’ll say, “We’re working with this partner because I can guarantee you the quality.” Or I say, “I can’t guarantee you the quality of this client — in wherever country — Sweden. We’re going to ship our own kit.”
James: That’s interesting. Very interesting.
Darren: Where as a lot of companies kind of pretend that they’re doing everything, but they’re not.
James: Smoke and Mirrors.
Darren: Yeah. No, we’re completely transparent. Because it’s all about our relationship. It might be that for instance we say we’re gonna send one of our project managers, but we’re using local techs. Or we say, “Right we can get the Kit, but we’re not sure about the techs.” Which they can send their crew out. We would always do it at the most cost effective way without jeopardizing the event in any way. And the AV Alliance has really made a difference there for us. Because otherwise you do go into Europe, or the Middle East or wherever, and you are going to be unknown.
James: Exactly. I think we’re there! So Darren, how do people get in touch with you?
Darren: Obviously, like all the normal mediums, you can follow us on twitter or instagram for real time updates at SmartAVhire. I’ve got my own twitter which is @DarrenPoultney which, I’m not very good at twitter, but you might find some funny and interesting things along the way. We also have our own blog which we would like for people to follow. We’re working hard to evolve into a information on trends like this and thought pieces for those of you in the Events industry. There’s such a gap there. So please, keep an eye out for the blog.
James: Yeah, subscribe to their blog.
James: Anything else? Have we missed any the mediums?
Toby: No, I love it. I’m just gonna go off the buy a nice pen and some paper.
James: Buy your pen and paper. Let’s go to W.H. Smiths and get old school. That’s the end of our Event Tech episode with Darren Poultney. Thank you for joining us.
Darren: Thank you very much. Good fun!
James: Speak to you soon.
James: So Toby, that was my interview and I believe quite a bit of your interview too with Darren from Smart AV. What did you take away from that?
Toby: Okay. Well exactly, it was a great interview. Loved being in a room with a CEO. I think that’s a first on PlannersPod isn’t it?
James: Definitely. I think he’s our first CEO.
Toby: Of a company with more than one or two people.
James: Indeed. Are we technically CEO’s as well then?
Toby: Oh, we are. Big time CEOs
Toby: So here’s what I took away from Darren. Lovely guy, clearly. This is what you need if you wanna work in a company like Darren’s, or be a successful event professional. Here it is! So number one, have passion. I.E. If you’re not showing passion for what it is and you’re just looking for a job, that’s not gonna appeal to him at all. As someone who is looking for people to recruit.
James: I think passion is essential in this business. You need it if you’re going to wanna work 18 hour days to work your way up the ladder and end up working for a company like Darren’s. You need to be passionate. It’s going to be hard, but you could see the rewards a clearly there.
Toby: Yeah, that’s right. And you said that in the most passionate way I’ve ever heard you speak. So thank you.
James: Oh yeah.
Toby: Ok, cool. Number two, I love that write letter thing. And it was funny we were chatting about it the day before. Not on the podcast. But yeah, that kind of… the value of a handwritten letter directly to a CEO. Which brings me onto my next point, which is: You better know who you’re writing a letter to. Don’t write a letter “to whom it may concern”. I guess it’ll get lost in the fanmail or whatever. Or in the admin part. It needs to be directly addressed to the person that you want to speak to. So if there’s a company you want to talk to, for example, Smart AV. You need to know that Darren is the big boss. And actually, if you take the time to hand write a letter to someone like that, he’s gonna pay attention. So that’s a really amazing tip to get to someone like Darren.
James: Yeah. You may not necessarily hand write the letter. I think it was actually us, which mentioned that. But it’s doing something to make yourself stand out. He said the blandest thing you could do is just send him a CV listing what you got in year 10 gymnastics or whatever.
James: He wants stuff which is relevant and gonna show passion to the business.
Toby: What did you get in your 10 gymnastics?
James: I can’t remember, but needless to say it wasn’t good.
Toby: Really? Oh okay.
James: But I reckon you were a demon weren’t you?
Toby: Oh, I was amazing. Absolute demon, yeah. Of course. Okay number four! If possible, with regards to the person the you’re writing to. If you just go, “Look, I’m really passionate, really love to work with you.” That might well be enough to get you an opportunity at the ground level and work your way up. Which is absolutely brilliant, of course. If possible, you can also identify with that person in your letter, what you can do to specifically help them. Rather that it being all about you, and you needing a job. That’s really important isn’t it?
James: Totally. It’s all about adding value to a situation. Darren clearly said that he’s looking for the staff which are gonna take his business forward, or Smart AV forward, for the next 10 years. They’ve just celebrated their 10 year anniversary. He’s done ten years, so it’s now looking for the future of that business. And he clearly stated Amber being the obvious one which kept popping up. You will hear from her in due course. — Is of looking for young staff to develop and those people which show fire and passion. He can vied a place, or there are places where those guys could really really shine.
Toby: Yeah, I love it. Alright, mate. and then the last one is just you know literally is that willingness to learn. That’s the other thing that I took on. You can have passion in spades, but if you sit there and say “I’ve got passion!” Then that’s not doing anything, is it? So you need that passion as a driver to learn new skills and be open to stuff. Like you were saying, some people start in the wear house and end up in the office and actually vice versa in some cases too! So, willingness to learn. And to be honest, if you guys are looking for a job and this sounds like you, then we’ve just handed you a job on a plate potentially. Isn’t that amazing of us? We definately deserve a 5 star review for this on itunes.
James: Yep, yep. The link’s on our profile on the page 5 star review. We would love it.
Toby: Cool, cool. So James what did you take away and those few other things you’ve mentioned to me?
James: There’s loads of stuff. The interesting thing which always happens when we’re producing these episodes is we always have a conversation before. Obviously, we’re kind of chatty guys and the danger is we start the conversation too early before we’ve hit record. And then, we stop recording it at the end, conversation continues, and more nuggets of gold come out. And one which didn’t come out is he mentioned, only really in passing actually, a guy called Ryan who is his Managing Director which Darren stepped down from the management role or… stepped up to CEO, depending how you look at it. Darren is, I believe he said, we might need to be corrected here but he’s 28, I think. He’s a young guy to heading up that company so I’m sure, he’s got a story to be told there.
Toby: No doubt. So we did end with a guy who’s got the strength to step away from a company that’s working for him so he can drive around, have a swim in various places. Which he also told us of Mikee and Joyce. And driving to your house and sitting in you kitchen table and talking to us. So, you know, amazing achievement really to be able to you know have your time back and have a company working and doing it’s thing, without you really needing to be inside it all the time.
Jame: Yep. The dream is to stop firefighting and get out of there and do things that you enjoy, isn’t it?
Toby: Yeah, no doubt. Luckily for you he enjoyed coming to your house.
James: Who wouldn’t?
Toby and James: Hmm….
Toby: I dunno, you’ve got a pink front door at the moment. You have to explain that in the next episode… Right, okay! For more info about Smart AV and the Incredible Pixel Group, I’m gonna give you two websites and the rest will be on the PlannersPod page. First of all ipgroup.co.uk/ will get you to the umbrella of all of his companies. And you also get to http://smart-av.com/
You can find us in the usual places. Facebook.com/metropolislive Twitter: @metropolislive
And then number one, podcast always directly available via iTunes where you will leave us a 5 star review cause you know you want to. You’ll also find it on Stitcher if you are an android person. Just search for Planner’s Pod on those two platforms. Company notes media and links for this podcast will be on PlannersPod.com
Once again, you know you wanna give us a 5 star review on iTunes because we’ve just essentially, maybe even got you a job. I don’t know. This episode is that good.
To you our listeners, again. I have two questions in regard to you life as an event pro or an aspiring event pro. 1) Where are you now? 2) Where do you wanna go in the next 12 months?
You can answer those questions by emailing me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or via the PlannersPod.com website. So that’s: Where are you now? Where do you wanna go in the next 12 months? Part of that is gonna be joining our membership community. So that’s really exciting and we’re looking forward to filling that with great content for you when you do join. Until next time. Thanks for listening. James, thanks mate!
James: Thank you. It’s been delightful being with you, Toby.
Toby: Always. I know it is. Thank you very much! Alright, see you later!
James: Bye bye.