JR Sherman Transcript

Clint Betts:

JR, thank you so much for coming on the show. Seriously, it means a lot. I'm a huge fan of RainFocus. I want to say right up front I'm a client of RainFocus, and it is an incredible platform for people who are holding events. This isn't a plug. This isn't an ad. But I just want to say that. You're probably the first guest I've had where I actually use their software, and I'm a huge fan. So well done on building this. Tell us about RainFocus, how you got to where you are, how you became CEO. Tell us about the journey of where you are today.

JR Sherman:

Sure, you bet. I think the fact that you've used it just gives you cred, right? It's a crazy story. It's a longer one that I'm sure isn't for this session here. But, essentially, I've been in this industry my entire career, going back nearly 30 years, going back to building a services company that outsourced demand gen programs for tech companies. That was in the form of event seminars, road shows, and conferences. Honestly, I just learned firsthand very early on in building that company that the way businesses grow in B2B is through relationships, and the best way to build them is in these face-to-face environments where you can establish trust and initiate relationships. So, between events and sales and marketing, I've just been a strong believer in event.

Now, fast forward out of the services business in the '90s into software in the late '90s and beyond; I think we saw so many different vectors of technology as the Internet became available for registration processes to automating all the processes of events and companies went out and started buying up tools or building little products and then trying to piece them together, my self being one of them. My current partner, Doug, at RainFocus, he had build a big reg platform, I had built an onsite platform, and we partnered, eventually put those companies together. That seemed to be the trend in the industry. But all the while, I think it was frustrating to me and to Doug as well just that trying to connect all the different pieces of events and focusing on that left us not connecting events back to marketing and ultimately back to what I refer to as the customer's journey, so our customer's customer.

RainFocus, after building a couple of these companies and putting them together and take-privates, all sorts of things, Doug came to me with the concept that he was going to build this from the ground up the right way instead of trying to put a bunch of things that were already built together, and he got me. RainFocus is just basically 30 years of experience in this industry put to work in building a platform that scales and is unified the right way from the start. That's really how the business came about. That's how Doug got me to come back in and run it with him. It's probably also honestly why we are having so much fun and success, but mostly just having so much fun doing this in our industry, bringing this new approach of a unified platform to our clients.

Clint Betts:

Why are events so important to you? I know why they're important to me. We do a lot of events, of course. Why events? Why spend your career on that?

JR Sherman:

Yeah. It's amazing. I've always been passionate about it since that period in the '90s. B2C, the consumer world, it's just about impressions, how many times you see the brand, and where you see the brand and wanting to stay trendy. B2B, I think that there is something about human nature and interaction with other people that is really difficult to describe, which is probably why events have such a hard time describing why it's so unique and so important. But when I go to an event, maybe our own conference or one of our clients' conferences, and you spot that person across the hall or on an elevator, an escalator, there's just this visceral emotional feeling you get of, "Oh my gosh, it's so-and-so," and you want to engage. That's just this human element that I don't think will ever go away.

Look, we had the bank collapse in the late 2000s. We had the pandemic. Everyone raced off to virtual, saying it's going to be the new way to go. I never did, and I don't buy it. I think human nature wants us to be together. It wants to establish that trust and that interaction, and in B2B, that's how relationships get started, and it's how they get grown, is through this trust of a relationship. Sales plays a big role, but marketing's job is to nurture and build efficiency into that relationship and give the right content at the right time. I believe that events are the most powerful channel to do that.

But to prove it, we first had to unify all the different events companies run, from webinars and online events to all of the various physical events, conferences, and seminars, had to get that down to really our customers' customer as the center of all of that so that events and the content are just being delivered in an experience that's memorable but at the right time in that customer's journey with their brand. Then, you can really unify marketing, including events. But it really was that first step for us of events are the most powerful channel, how do you unify the data out of those and make it meaningful and prove it with the customer's journey?

Clint Betts:

When COVID-19 hit, how did you respond to that? Was it like, "Hey, the world's shutting down? No more events. Everybody, stay in their house." I know, from my perspective, I was like, "Well, that's all we do, so that's scary." From your perspective, what happened? What did you do? How did you respond to that? How did the product change during COVID?

JR Sherman:

Yeah, for sure. Gosh, it's just so crazy to think about. I think in the beginning, we all thought it would be a few weeks, right?

Clint Betts:

Yeah. It was like, "Two weeks is stop the spread," or something.

JR Sherman:

Yeah, yeah. As it became a real thing that presented itself, that's when you had to move quickly and figure out how to stabilize. I would say I remember... I just have a visual memory, but I remember the deck that I was using to go and speak to customers, and I would say what basically not just saved us but catapulted us even further ahead during that period was the platform, what we talked about. We built this thing the right way from the ground up, focused on it, not on selling. We focused on building this the right way, and it really carried us through because we were able to transition in days, our largest clients from their physical 30,000-person conferences to virtual in 30 to 40 days and then have three times the audience show up.

But I remember the deck, and I just remember going and saying to my customers, "Hey, let's take a breath. We're in that phase where the papers are flying." I think I had a SpongeBob cartoon in there, but papers are flying, and there's fire's burning, and everyone's running around saying, "What are we going to do?" I just said, "Listen, we're in the events space, and what that means is we create memorable experiences. Within those memorable experiences, we create a captive environment, and we deliver content that's meaningful to customers because we want it to be memorable. It doesn't really matter whether that's in a room in Moscone or online for now. Let's stay true to what our core competency is, creating really engaging captive experiences and delivering meaningful personalized content to customers within it. As we learn from this, we'll probably realize there's a tremendous amount of data on where virtual can play a role in the future when we're back in person."

I think we had 100% retention on customers. Obviously, we let a lot of our customers out of their commits, which I think is just... That's who we are. We didn't hold them to anything they'd committed after they canceled. You had this temporary dip. But I think just the faith in that human nature piece that we talked about of why people want to be together... We believed that when it was possible, events would return. Hey, but we'd have this really cool learning from the virtual delivery that we engaged in over the course of that period and what role it can play in a new world where we're able to address customers in events physically again. That's where our customers saw the best benefit, is did we analyze how virtual can continue to play a role? It's not binary, physical or virtual. It's not really hybrid. It was more there is a time and a place to engage customers virtually, usually more top of the funnel, to use a term, that kind of awareness and initial interest.

Then, as we really begin to get a customer into a buying cycle, we like to meet with them in person, bring them to a conference, give them a physical experience that's memorable, have one-on-one meetings to [inaudible 00:10:36]. As you follow events, virtual and physical, I think a lot of the smarter, more innovative clients out there and companies out there have figured out how to use virtual and physical and types, sizes, and complexities of events to really nurture those relationships they have with their customers on a year in and year out basis. So that was a crazy time, but a ton of learning came out of it. I would just emphasize again, I think, focusing on having a platform that scaled and... At one point that year, in 2020, we had one conference with 800,000 people in it from 137 countries simultaneously.

Clint Betts:

Wow.

JR Sherman:

We did it. Again, a lot of platforms failed, and no fault to them, but I think everyone was focused at the time on, "Hey, let's test broadcasting to 100,000 people. Hey, it works. Great." But the complexity of the online events that people didn't plan on is you have this identity moving into sessions and catalogs and exhibitors, and as that identity moves around the platform times millions per minute, that's where a lot of the systems failed. Again, I credit the incredible platform that the folks built here at RainFocus for why it catapulted us to the front as an enterprise-grade platform.

Clint Betts:

At CEO.com, we talk a lot about self-leadership and how we lead ourselves and things like that. I wonder what self-leadership means to you, how you implement that in your life.

JR Sherman:

Yeah, that's an awesome question. I feel like I could really engage on this. It's been something my whole life. I credit the fact I was the youngest of eight kids by a long shot. My oldest brother is 20 years older than me. Not in a negative way, but I grew up fast, and I mean that in that I just gained perspective early in life, which was a blessing. I was a person who didn't necessarily compete with others as much as I competed with myself. I really believe that I push myself to do my best at everything that I tackle and that the outcome will present itself.

I like to have a vision and a set of goals on where I want to go, but I really just push myself as opposed to always worrying about what somebody else has or, where they're going, or how successful they are. It's more I know what I'm capable of, I know that I can push myself. So that's been something that I started very early in life. I carry it forward. There's been so many experiences through life that direct that. I just think reflecting, as opposed to looking at others many times, is just a more powerful way to push yourself to the next level.

Clint Betts:

What does a typical day look like for you? How do you decide to spend your time?

JR Sherman:

Yeah, for sure. I would say there's one structural thing right out of the gate, and that is I do try to keep the early mornings free. I've been lucky in that I'm on the East Coast, and most of my employees and a lot of our clients are West Coast United States or in Europe. So I'm able to block some time in the morning, and that's really for getting settled in my own head, seeing the kids off, getting a cup of coffee, working out, whatever it might be, before I really dive right into the craziness of the day.

Then, more than that, I've always remained... Maybe because I've always just been in an entrepreneurial situation or starting or running a business, I've just always accepted the fact that my day has to be completely flexible. That means no day looks like the other one. I can't anticipate what next Tuesday is going to look like. But I embrace that. Sometimes, it means I'm on my laptop at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. Sometimes, it means something I had planned for the evening has to be canceled, and I've got to take care of something else. It sounds daunting when you think about it that you have to approach most days like that, but if you embrace it and make it as successful as it can be, it actually can be a great way to operate.

The second thing is, rather than having ten other things that I'm involved in outside of work, with your family, right, but... So you have family, and you have work. I used to dabble in a number of different things. I've kind of honed in on youth athletics. So I run the athletic foundation here, and I run the lacrosse program, and I coach youth lacrosse year-round, just because I'm passionate about that, too, what youth sports do for kids in shaping them into young men and young women. So, narrowing down the things outside of work and family to a focus that I'm passionate about has allowed me to weave that into every day. I'm literally doing things around that any given day when I'm not with family or work. So that helps a lot, I guess. Just focus; that helps a lot in my day.

It has disadvantages, too. I have tons of friends who are in the financial industry. They can plan a trip or a weekend or a vacation two, three months out, and I always said to myself, "Gosh, I'm so envious. I can't even tell you that I'm going to be available next Tuesday." But, again, you embrace it, you get really good at it. So, my days are unpredictable, but if you zoom out, that unpredictable nature is very predictable, and you embrace it.

Clint Betts:

How are you and RainFocus thinking about artificial intelligence? How are you implementing it into your technology and your platform? How do you think it changes the events space?

JR Sherman:

One thing I'll say right out of the gate on AI, before we get into that, is I think it's driving and will continue to, I think, even more, drive the importance of events. You can't fake face-to-face, basically, is my point, and the amount of content that is questionable is going to increase digitally, and there's just going to be no replacing that face-to-face interaction that we talked about, that human need and that natural need for interaction and engagement with other people. I do think, if anything, the emergence of AI in creation of content is going to drive more need for authentic, genuine engagement and consumption of content at events. But, that being said, like many other things that come out, and this one being one of the significant here-to-stay things coming out, is that it can really help in automating and simplifying processes that were tedious, translation, recommendation capabilities based on profile data, things that you would try to automate or many times were manual.

AI plays a great role in embedding into our system to make people's jobs a bit more efficient and easier at our company and for our clients, as well as sifting through tons of data to find meaningful recommendations. So we're using it in that sense. I would just say, without giving you a lift, which is kind of boring, it's being used in various ways in our company to automate and simplify work for people in our organization, taking away the tedious practices and trying to automate those, and it's enhancing the way our platform does its recommendations and personalizes content for our customers' customers. But I think, overall, what it's doing is really, again, driving the importance of face-to-face engagement and events as the most critical channel.

We talk about, coupled with AI, zero and first-party data and the potential of a cookieless future also driving events and not just an event but the event channel as the most powerful way to engage customers and [inaudible 00:19:49] insights on their behaviors and their interests. To continue to build that relationship with them, events are going to become more and more important, AI being a big driver in that, especially recently with all of the artificial content being created. So I think there's great use for it. I think folks will probably be cautious and take it a step at a time to see where it can enhance what you deliver, simplify processes for employees, and then focus on what's real and genuine.

Clint Betts:

Yeah. It does seem like there's going to be a premium on human-to-human interaction now, right?

JR Sherman:

For sure.

Clint Betts:

And what is actually created by a human versus created by a robot. It does seem like events are going to be one of those things where it's like that's irreplaceable. You can't replace going to a Jazz game, for example, in AI or something. The in-person interactions, it does seem like the value of that is going to increase. Authentic human interactions, does seem like the value's going to increase. I see the position you're in as perfect for that. That's what it is, right? You can use AI to help on the back end and do all the stuff that you said. But, man, there's going to be a premium, you would think. I don't know for sure. What if we all just went and networked with robots? I have no idea. But you would think that there's going to be even more of a premium on that.

JR Sherman:

I do. I do. I really believe that. You zoom out, and you think about all the craziness that's gone on for 20, 30 years between economic situations and AI and pandemics. But you really do need to zoom out and look at how many of these things have just improved the way we do business, improved the way we build relationships in business, and ultimately it's taken the industry forward, our industry, for sure. But if you get caught in the moment too much, you can tend to get lagged by these situations or trends or macroeconomics or endemics. I think we need to understand their importance in the scheme of time and what we're trying to deliver. I guess what drives me to do what I do... You hear people say all the time, "Oh, you got to love what you do." I don't think that's realistic to love what you do all the time. But if you're passionate about what you're trying to achieve, then you can zoom out and love the journey to get there. There's going to be times you hate doing what you're doing, but you got to get that done to get to the parts that are great.

So I just say, "Zoom out, think about what you're passionate about achieving, and make sure that the path you're on, while there's ups and downs, are getting you there." Whether it's AI or the pandemic, I'm passionate about the fact that face-to-face events as a channel are the most powerful way to grow relationships in B2B. I really believe it. I always have. Therefore, I get through the troughs, and I take advantage of the hockey stick peaks, and I zoom out, and I think in the last 20 years, where the industry has gone is unbelievable. Pandemic accelerated that. It was a difficult time, but ultimately, we're all benefiting now from what that's shown us and what we've learned. So, again, just passionate about what I believe in this industry and that human interaction.

Clint Betts:

Who's a leader or an example of a leader that you admire?

JR Sherman:

Oh, man. There are a number. I would tell you, when I look for a leader that triggers me to say I really admire that, probably the characteristics I look for are somebody who elevates those around them as opposed to looks to take charge. Again, probably an early-in-life thing. I just remember being a kid and teams picking captains, and it was always about who was the loudest or most popular that would get picked as a captain of a team. "Oh, he's really type A. He should be the captain." It rubbed me the wrong way at a really early age. Is that really what a captain should be, or is a captain somebody that strengthens the people around them and, elevates them, and raises the whole team? As I took that forward in life, I think I looked for that.

An example might be, and there aren't tons, but an example might be someone like Tom Brady. Okay, I know I'm going to get some heat for that, but, look, undeniably the GOAT, right, but never tried to be the one taking all the credit, never tried to be the one in the limelight. I'm not talking about his personal life; I'm not talking about any of that, good or bad, right or wrong. I'm just talking about the way he led on the team he was on through all of that really is what inspires me to be a leader that chooses the best possible people and then empowers them to elevate themselves because we all do better. I would say Tom did that wherever he was.

I joke with people about the leadership team at RainFocus. I call us the Led Zeppelin of leadership teams, which probably is completely lost on other generations, but Led Zeppelin was a band made up of studio artists: the very best keyboardist, bass guitarist, lead guitarist, vocalist, and everyone said it would never work because when you're that good at your function you can't collaborate, hence a Led Zeppelin, doomed to fail but there was just something about the chemistry there that raised the whole thing. If you can find those people, that's the hardest part: finding those studio artists in the function that you're leading, getting the best, and find ones that have the chemistry. I think it's humility and being genuine and authentic, and you build this trust. Those are the teams that take off. It can be a team of three, a team of 100. So, again, I would say I think Tom Brady was a great example of that. There's probably lots more. It's the one that popped in my head.

Clint Betts:

As we're heading into... No, Tom Brady is a great example of that, and it makes sense. You're in Connecticut. It makes sense that you're a Tom Brady fan.

JR Sherman:

Exactly.

Clint Betts:

That makes all the sense in the world.

JR Sherman:

Doesn't it?

Clint Betts:

I wonder, heading into 2024... We're in it now. Here we go. What are your thoughts on the macroeconomic environment and just the general... We're heading into an election year. I don't want to get political here or anything, but we're heading into this really interesting year where it seems like this is going to be a big memorable year.

JR Sherman:

Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Like we were talking about a bit ago, this is going to be one of those moments. You could get caught zooming in too close and start getting caught up in it, or you could zoom out and say, "Eh, we've seen this before." We're headed into a crazy period of time here, elections and chaos and all of the questions around all of those things and the polarization of our nation compared to even just ten years ago. But as human beings, we always find a way to push through these things, so maybe be aware of what we're headed into. Be cognizant of its impact. But zoom out and make sure that we're not losing focus on what matters. For us, for example, that is continuing to innovate the best platform for unifying the event channel for our customers. We will continue to do that. It's what we're passionate about. We don't get distracted from that because of current macroeconomic conditions, other things, but we're cognizant of them and how it impacts what we're doing.

It's so hard to predict what this year will look like, but you know you're headed into a crazy one. We talked about AI and pandemics and everything, but I do believe that even in a questionable economic time, if you go back to '07, '08, what we learned back then about human nature and about business is going to play a role in this one. That is, there's no more important time to be out in front of your customers, the ones that you have those relationships with, the ones that you need to fortify trust with, no better time to be in front of them in events than in a challenging economic time where you need to assure them that you're there for them and that you're going to continue to provide them what they need to make their business successful.

So I think what we'll see is... Who knows? I don't know what we'll see. But I think what we'll see from our industry is organizations that are leading are going to say, "We might want to, instead of shrimp, offer chicken, and we might maybe take a lower venue or break it up into regionals," but there's no important time to be leveraging experiences to get your salespeople and your content live in front of your customers and assure them that you're there for them as you go through this. Yeah, so we'll see. It'll be really fun to catch up and think about this conversation in 11, 12 months, right?

Clint Betts:

Oh, for sure.

JR Sherman:

Like, "Hey, how'd it go so far?"

Clint Betts:

For sure.

JR Sherman:

Who knows? But, yeah, we're cognizant, aware, understanding of how it's going to impact things, but we're zooming out to say we're focused on continuing to improve what we're passionate about.

Clint Betts:

Finally, at CEO.com, we believe the chances one gives are just as important as the chances one takes, and we ask this question of everybody to end every interview. That is, when you hear that, who gave you a chance to get to where you are today?

JR Sherman:

Oh, it's a great one. You ever hear that thing about generations skipping where it's like if you were the neglected kid, then you give your kids tons of attention? If you were brought up with nothing, then you tend to spoil your kids. It's that generational rotation. I had a wonderful childhood and early development, but it was hard work, given nothing. No chances were afforded me. I wasn't lucky. I had a nickname, Black Cloud. But what that did is it makes me very conscious about giving chances, and I look for people who are genuine, they have integrity, they're self-motivated, and I love that. I always look for them to give them that chance that others might not.

If I reflect, I think the best one I can come up with would be my partner now, Doug Baird, who I had done one of these roll-ups with him, and he had left, and I... We did a take-private and a carve-out, and I'm in the big PE world. After that was completed, I took a year off, and I was being approached with a number of really great opportunities to build other companies further, these growing businesses of size that they wanted to scale and being offered these positions. Doug came to me and said, "Those are great, but together, I think you and I can finally do what we believe is needed, and that is revolutionize the way organizations approach events with technology. Let's unify this channel. We can do it right. I've got it up and running, but I need you to come in."

I'm thankful to him for giving me the opportunity to come in and lead this business with him. Again, I love him, and I love our team, but that was... I thank him more than he knows for coming and pulling me back in to do this with him this time. We're having a lot of success, a lot of fun, and these are people... Best relationships I'll ever have in my life, so I'm thrilled that he gave me that chance.

Clint Betts:

JR, thank you so much for coming on the show. Seriously, I genuinely love the product. I love RainFocus. I love what you're building here. I think it's crucial. I can't imagine it doing anything but growing even faster. Given the rise of AI, I really think that in-person interaction becomes even more valuable. The human-to-human connection becomes even more valuable. Thank you for coming on. I'm sure we'll talk again.

JR Sherman:

For sure. My pleasure. Thank you so much. Really appreciate the time.


Daily Newsletter

For Leaders

Subscribe to the newsletter read by the world's most influential CEOs.