Meet Keith and Nathan from AV1.
Turns out, not having a business plan is how rockstar AV companies are born.
Founder and MD Keith Wootton, alongside Operations Manager Nathan Murray share all of their against-the-grain advice to building an awesome, values-driven business.
They use Sendle to scoot equipment all over the country. Time to dim the lights and turn up the bass for AV1.
Tell us all about AV1. The who, what, where, how?
Keith: Ah, the founder story, right? Well, I've worked in the AV industry since 1994. I couldn’t get my foot into music here in Sydney so I ended up as an audiovisual technician.
Are you a musician by trade?
Keith: I'm an at-home drummer, that's as far as my drum kit will ever go! I did this for over ten years until I was over it. Then, I moved away to renovate a little house that I’d bought. The phone started to ring - and I have this terrible habit of not being able to say no.
People rang and said “we’d like you to do this event, this event and so on and so forth”, and, of course, I had to earn a living. Before you knew it, I was doing quotes on Microsoft Excel, pretending to be this large organisation with all the resources in the world - and just did events and roadshows.
But it was still just you at this time?
Keith: Oh, yeah, just me. I said yes to every opportunity that came under the sun, which was all kinds of conferences, events, international roadshows - the answer was always yes. And then I'd work out how. There was a little inkling there that I’d like to start my own company - and so, it kind of grew pretty quickly between 2005 and 2009.
I ended up with at least half a dozen full-time staff, equipment and a warehouse, and we got a contract with the Museum of Contemporary Art. That was all out of demand. There was never any kind of 'right, the business plan is this… on this day, I go forth and have this many staff, and this many customers, all this inventory', you know? It grew very much like an upside-down triangle.
Then Nathan came on in 2008 - it was a 'jump on board and let’s get into it' kind of gig. There was no major structure, no HR department - well, there still isn’t, mind you - but no formal recognition of the culture. It was just about the people. I have a very simple mantra: I like working with nice people. It made for a very relaxing and confident working environment, which turned into a sum of its own parts: AV1.
When we did decide to address the culture itself, no-one had a HR degree. We just used basic human principles to apply to our business - our combined values were around basic care of each other and the environment and to walk through life gently and humbly. Subsequently, that suits the work that we do because our job on-the-ground at an event is to sit in the back corner and not be seen and not be heard, but make sure everything works well.
We're the technological experts that people want to have as an extension of their team. We never set out to be just about equipment rental, but instead the service we can provide with equipment being our currency. Over the years, we've attracted more clients and more nice people. You know, we could be in any service industry at all. Tomorrow, we could open a - I mean, not that we have the skill for it - but a hotel and work really hard at that in the same way.
So, you're saying it's about the people, not the 'thing'?
Keith: Yeah, it is. Clients don’t come to us because we’ve got the latest or greatest tech. They work with us because they enjoy doing so.
Nathan: I think when you understand that events, from the client's perspective, are very emotional experiences, you realize it’s more about the people than the tech. They don’t walk in going: 'Is that a Samsung or a Sony monitor? And what model is it?'. Instead, they say: 'Is my presentation going to look freakin' awesome, and is everyone going to say ‘that was awesome’?
When we realized that, it was really good for us. We decided to not bog them down with jargon, but rather trust that, yes, we’re going to have really good equipment there, but we won’t waste time with what it is. Instead, we’ll figure out what they want people to to experience at their event. We definitely put personality above what our staff know, and a lot of people have come here with zero experience, but become our very top, most technically-experienced people.
That, from a workers’ point of view, makes you work even harder and want to impress, because it's a sum of its parts culture. You end up standing back and saying ‘holy crap, we didn’t architect that at all, we just hired really good, motivated people.’ You can teach your staff all the textbook stuff but you cannot teach personality.
But it helps when the systems you use are easy, right?
Nathan: Oh, totally. Sendle's an example. I mean, it's not a reflection on staff at all as couriering items is a rotating responsibility, but before you, I tried several times on separate occasions to explain how to use our courier system to the team. We had cheat sheets and email instructions - yet I'd still always get a sheepish 'I know you've told me before, but what's the process again?'. With Sendle, staff just follow their nose - and everything - be it USB's, client gifts, equipment - is booked efficiently. Major peace of mind.
What's an average week for you chaps?
Keith: Very random. We’re on-call all the time. Usually, there’s a heap of quotes going out... one week there’s no quotes and I’m checking the phones to make sure they’re still working! Last year, we did 1045 events, so that means roughly 3 point something events a day. That’s equipment and people coming in and out, cables and gaffer tape going back and forth, then a proposal or RFQ being done in the background.
The goalposts for us can shift at any moment. A great example is a large corporate company (wink: a soft drinks supplier) calling us last Wednesday afternoon to put on an awards night for 70 staff - the next night. So we go - sure, why not? And pull out all the stops to make it happen.
Nathan: We were in an operations meeting getting slammed with may-day calls: 'this has just come in and it’s VIP, we need our best crew, our best gear'. That adrenaline is amazing, people thrive on being able to surprise themselves - you know, set that benchmark a little higher.
You're a B-Corp and a company that leads with values. Do you think that makes you more competitive to new clients?
Keith: Our eyes are always wide open for progress. When customers find out about that, they’re impressed by it. Look, our hardest thing to do is to lay all that stuff out in front of the customer: here are the thousands of things we do everyday, not only for events, technically and logistically, but for the community, for ourselves.
It’s hard to put all of it into words or a PowerPoint presentation you’re going to show to a client. But when they do look into that and engage and see - they tend to gravitate and stay with us. Sure, we’re a business that needs to generate sales, but it’s not your standard model.
Nathan: I’ve certainly worked at another company, you know, same industry but very, very different culture, and I remember them - much more than we are - looking over the fence all the time. Almost getting into a bit of an arms race, drifting away on a satellite, competing and completely ignoring that human element of the client and that relationship that’s the ultimate thing. Competing with themselves to their own detriment - that's just not good business.
Keith: Well, that’s it. Forget about your competition. Just look after your customers and they’ll come back over and over. And then you have no competition. No, kidding, granted - of course you’ll always have competition, people need to get three quotes and what have you, but ignore the normal operating procedures that happen in your industry and then just do something completely different.
Even when we were looking at our branding… we printed out every website of every one of our competitors in Australia, pinned them up on the wall, and really, they all looked the same. You just needed to change the logo. So, we decided to have our websites opening splash-page be a pink overlay with penguins walking along in nature.
Why have a penguin? Well, why not?
Love it! So how does Sendle help an AV + events company work more efficiently?!
Nathan: We’re a different type of logistics company: we’re moving things around the country, around the world - and normally that’s with a human that’s going with them to set it up. But we have a whole bunch of stuff we need to send around the country that doesn’t necessarily require a human to go with it, because we can send it to our staff interstate and in WA, Victoria and Queensland.
Even within the CBD of Sydney alone, sending something to our venue with Sendle's flat-rate means that I’ve only got to worry about a one-way fee. If we’re sending a delivery driver, we’re paying their wages, for Sydney traffic, an accident on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. For a thing that needs to get from A to B, even that from a cost-saving perspective is major.
Another plus was being able to relinquish the bottleneck that was the crazy courier web-page, figuring out who had the clipboard and book of coupons in their drawer - deciphering the dark art of what they were and how they worked. It was an overnight change, you know: here’s the login, no-one needs to get the scales out anymore, because this is a satchel, that's a shoebox, that's easily a carry-on. From an efficiency perspective, it changed our workflow significantly.
Now, especially with the B-Corp thing, where we’re having to scrutinize our supply chain at every point, we're always making decisions to change things to be slightly more ethical. So, having a 100% carbon-neutral courier for our city and interstate logistics - cherry on top. Sendle for us was a no-brainer.
What's next for AV1?
Keith: Goodness gracious, what a question! We’re just sitting here with a catcher’s mitt.
Nathan: In the short-term from an events perspective, the biggest thing on the radar is Vivid, which is coming up at the end of May. And a lot of people know about this in terms of the city lighting up, but there’s so many events that occur once Vivid starts. One thing is for sure, you start your day thinking you know what's coming, but really, anything could happen at any time. It’s amazing.
One of the most random ones I ever had was for an art bar - it was a phone call saying ‘we have a 2 meter Styrofoam crab that we need to hang, and it needs to be done safely so that no-one gets hurt’. So, I hung up the phone and realized that my day was likely figuring out how to safely hang a styrofoam crab. We'll always be problem solvers. That’s what we do.
Keith: Sometimes I’ll present to students and invariably I’ll always get asked the question: ‘what’s the best event you’ve ever done?’, and my answer is always: ‘we haven’t done it yet. The next event will be the best one.’ So, who knows what’s around the corner with AV1?
Could get a phone call today for something completely random, and you know what? We’ll make it work.
Some inspo on how AV1 demonstrate their values in business:
- In-kind sponsorship, including production/video services, AV equipment, mentoring and training.
- Women in AV - a group founded by one of AV1's staff to improve gender equality in the AV industry.
- Every Little Bit Helps - our staff stay at hotels when working interstate, so we encourage them to collect unopened toiletries and bring them back to donate to women's shelters.
- TAFE programs - participating in personal development programs, such as Aboriginal and Cultural Awareness, Mental Health and Workplace Resilience.
- Traineeships - we have partnered with TAFE, Artsready and ACFIPS to provide live production traineeships.
Learn more about the rise of generation green.
Your main takeaway from today:
Dare to be different. Much of Keith and Nathan's against-the-grain advice is really what sets them apart. Not saying no to anything may seem counter-intuitive to much of the entrepreneurial advice floating around - but it might present some amazing, unplanned opportunities for your business. Remember: being different is eye-catching, it demands attention and makes people stop and think.
The Sendle Team
Images courtesy of both Sendle and the AV1 team