Why tenacity pays off
“When I left university with what I thought was a useless business degree at the time, I didn’t know what I wanted to [do, but] I wanted to be passionate about what I promoted, what I worked for, the brand,” Keith says.
Despite being unsure of many things, what Keith was sure of was a business named Sales Pursuit, which organises professional speakers and industry conferences. Yet he admits it wasn’t easy to get his foot in the door.
“I tried for over a year and a half to get a job with them, literally sent gifts, resumes, CVs [and] the like,” he recounts.
One day, he decided to bite the bullet and go to Sales Pursuit in person, asking to see the sales manager and convincing himself that he would not leave there until he was successful. That initiative secured him his dream job.
“They hired me and I was in selling Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar, Jim Rome, Tom Hopkins, [Sir Richard Branson], all the big international speakers, for a couple of years,” Keith says.
Even though Keith was passionate about what he was doing, he didn't have the skills to match.
“Back then, it was just a call list, 'Ring this person', and it was just that. The first call I ever made, the person said, 'No, who?' and just literally hung up,” Keith said.
“Then I just had to make sure I grew into that skill set, which took a bit of time. I did that for about three or four years, went overseas for about 10 and then when I came back five years ago, I got back into the industry which was more focused on the domestic speakers, MCs for conferences and events.”
As Keith’s skill set improved, his methodology did as well. No longer was it about cold-calling clients to find someone interested in a particular speaker. Instead, he focused on finding the ideal speaker for the client – which has helped his own business to flourish in a very niche market with some long-established competitors.
“Friends of mine who don’t understand the industry a whole lot will often say to me things like ‘Oh, do you know who’d be great for your books’ … thinking that it’s all about the speakers, the speaker side of it,” explains Keith.
“For my business, it’s not. It’s all about the clients initially and it’s about finding the clients, getting the clients, getting the relationship and having that conversation about what it is they want.”
To build those relationships, Keith says he first does a lot of investigation to understand exactly what the client is looking for, based on the event, the audience, the issues to address, the speakers they do and don’t prefer, as well as, of course, their budget.
He is also careful not to dictate to his clients, but to offer them a realistic range of options, ensuring the ultimate choice is left with them. This transparency allows them to see exactly why they may not be able to secure their first preference, or why he may have proposed a speaker who was not originally on their radar.
“Based on that, I’ll come back to the client and say, ‘Based on everything you’ve given me, these are your best options’,” he says.
“If their client’s fees [are] $8,000, I will come back to them with some options that are [$10,000] and I’ll come back to them with some options that are [$6,000]. It’s not just going to be always bang on [$8,000].
“It’s all about the clients initially and it’s about finding the clients, getting the clients, getting the relationship and having that conversation about what it is they want.”
“My mind is always thinking, ‘Who is the best person for that audience?’ and then from there, we can then work on the fee.”
Adding value for clients; safeguarding against channel conflict
All business owners strive to find the value in what they sell, and Keith is no exception. In some cases, trying to find value can be an uphill battle.
“[Clients] can go to my competitors because there’s maybe about, I don’t know, 10 or 12 good companies that do what I do,” Keith says, adding that another option for clients is to simply cut him out of the equation altogether and go direct to the speakers.
“[Sometimes clients will say ‘Oh look, we won’t do anything this year. We’ll save ourselves the money and have Bob from marketing do it’. I have to show the value [of my service] first.”
This value includes everything from the time efficiencies of outsourcing the research, negotiation and booking process to the exclusive agreements, speaker rates and contacts he has a professional.
“Your challenge is not really articulating the reasons why someone should get a good speaker, it’s really ensuring that the speaker that they’re looking for is right for [their] audience … that’s the crux of it all.”
Scaling the business for a sustainable future
One challenge that Keith has struggled with is how to have a healthy work-life balance, which he has only recently tackled to reclaim his peace of mind.
“Too many Saturdays are spent working and my business coach has basically said, ‘You’ve got to lock in some getaway time in the next month because it’s not sustainable’,” he says.
So that he can find time to unwind, a part-time employee has taken on more hours, which according to Keith is “needed on the support side”.
Yet with every passing day, the worry that technology will de-skill people and replace many jobs with robots passes through the minds of business owners everywhere. Keith, however, does not see this happening any time soon for Inspire Speakers.
“I book a lot of futurists who talk about … ‘Is your industry going to be the next taxi industry? Is your industry going to be disruptive like Airbnb?’,” he says.
“Originally, in the '70s, '80s and '90s, the successful businesses in my space were because they had access. The internet came in and changed it all.”
However, Keith says the one key quality that will safeguard a large number of businesses from extinction is their emphasis on an area where robots can never beat people: humanity and personal ability.
“Can a computer really determine the style and emotional value of a speaker on stage? Can they capture that?” he says.
“As a small business owner, it’s [about] spending more and more time doing that and less and less time on the process and systems.”
Business name: Inspire Speakers
Location: Sydney, NSW
Customer base: Australia-wide