// conversationS 

Convene.

A conversation with Ryan Simonetti, CEO of Convene.

August 11th 2017 | New York City, NY

AUDIO

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Raad Ahmed:
Can you tell us in your own words what Convene is, and what pain point does it solve for people? 

Ryan:
Convene is a hospitality platform that partners with the world’s largest commercial office landlords to help them design and service office buildings to run more like full-service, lifestyle hotels. Through our “workplace-as-a-service” platform, we design and operate premium meeting spaces, event spaces, conference spaces, private workspaces, and amenities for tenants in office buildings, as well as enterprise clients and individuals that use our network. We have physical locations in four cities now, with eventual plans to extend globally. At the end of the day we’re helping our clients deliver a better workplace experience for their employees.    

Raad Ahmed:
Interesting. Can you explain to people who might not know what that reference means?

Ryan:
We all know that the way we work has changed forever, in particular because of technology and shifting demographics. Because of that, the way companies consume real estate today is shifting to be much more flexible and on-demand. Traditionally, companies would sign a ten to fifteen-year lease for their corporate office. Most people today are waking up and realizing that no CEO or founder has 10-15 years of visibility into their business. How could they ever predict how many employees they're going to have, what their physical infrastructure needs to be, and what experiences they need to deliver for their employees a decade from now? Now through the growth of co-working, and companies like Convene, there is now access to a new supply chain that’s being formed around flexible space and services being delivered to companies, their employees, and tenants. Just like Airbnb didn’t magically make more people want to travel, they created a new form of supply. That’s what we’re doing – We’re partnering with landlords to create a new type of supply that companies and tenants can consume on-demand and through shorter financial commitments.

Raad Ahmed:
And you guys are focusing more on event spaces, if I understood that correctly, or is it broader than that?

Ryan:
We started out focusing solely on meeting space, conference space, and amenities, and we’re now starting to add private workspaces and flexible-term workspaces for teams between 10 and 100 employees, all powered by a new mobile technology platform.

Raad Ahmed:
For those services, who would your ideal customers be? Do you take off the landlord’s entire contract, and then offer it to the companies on a short term basis?

Ryan:
We offer our customers a premium turnkey workplace experience; including the physical space, the technology, the services, and the support. Our primary client isn’t startups. It’s mostly larger enterprise companies that are looking to outsource part of their real estate strategy to us. 

Raad Ahmed:
That was actually one of my questions. How did you acquire some of your larger customers? I read somewhere on your site that over 70% of the Fortune 500 companies partner with you guys. How did you break into the enterprise space?

Ryan:
First, willpower! Anybody that’s ever invested in or been involved with an enterprise-based business – it’s very different than a consumer-based business – because it usually takes a longer time for enterprise companies to get traction. From the beginning, we delivered a best-in-class product and service offering, against what the competitive set at the time was; which was mainly internal corporate meeting space and local hotels. With a strong outbound effort, and having the best product at the best price point in the market, we attracted Fortune 500 enterprises onto our platform early on. By listening to them, via focus groups and through observational research, we’ve leveraged our platform over time to serve them in more places and new ways. 


Raad Ahmed:
Right. I guess for some founders out there, targeting more enterprise customers, a lot of it has to do with being persistent and getting as much feedback from them as possible to build the best product possible, if I’m understanding that correctly.

Ryan:
Enterprise, just like any business, requires you to identify the early adopters that are going to be more progressive and willing to prototype with you as you're getting into MVP one. We did a great job of making those early enterprise clients feel like they had a vested interest in the design of our product and offering, and ultimately a vested interest in our success. The companies that make those enterprise clients feel like they're a part of the founding team, almost like they're early investors, creates a type of emotional connectivity, which can help build momentum within the platform.


Raad Ahmed:
Absolutely. I saw that you guys raised, recently, congratulations on that.

Ryan:
Thank you.

Raad Ahmed:
What was that experience like? Does it get easier as you raise more money?

Ryan:
Nothing gets easier. One of the best pieces of advice I got, after asking “Does this ever get easier?” to a very successful CEO of a large company that he founded was, “No, I’m working harder today than ever before, the decisions are bigger, the risks greater, everything gets harder.” Getting access to investors does get easier as you scale, because you have demonstrated success in rounds, and credibility is already established in the market. Additionally, most of your investors are typically proactive in getting you introduced to who they think might be the next best partner in an up-round or in a follow-on, since it’s a relatively small community. That part has gotten easier. But convincing investors to write a bigger check and take more capital risk does not get easier. Our Series C, while it was an amazing outcome, it took a lot longer than we anticipated. 

Raad Ahmed:
And was that led by mainly your existing investors from your previous round, or did you have any new investors come on board?

Ryan:
It was a combination of the two. It was dually-led, both externally and internally. What’s been positive for us is, almost every one of our investors that came in post-Series A has invested in our follow-ons, even as enterprise values have increased. That’s been a big lift for us, and has given the new investors more confidence in the management team and our ability to execute. At the end of the day, the biggest risk in any business –especially as you start to get into Series C, Series D – is not product market fit, it’s execution. What an early investor indicates by investing in a follow-on is complete trust and faith in the management team to execute against their plan. 

Raad Ahmed:
How big are you guys now, how many employees are you guys?

Ryan:
We’re over three hundred employees, which includes full and part-time. Because there is a facility based component to our business, where we’re physically delivering services to our clients within our network, most of the organization is sitting onsite at our locations. With that said, we do have approximately 70 employees in the corporate office as well. We expect that number to at least double over the next 9-10 months. 

Raad Ahmed:
Clearly, you guys are growing on that side. How do you make sure all of your employees are aligned with your shared philosophy, as you keep getting bigger?

Ryan:
The most important thing to have, whether it’s in a company-employee relationship, or a company-investor relationship, is values alignment. Early on, we did a great job anchoring our decision-making within our core values, which we call GRIT (an acronym for Genuine, Relentless, Integrity, and Teamwork), and a philosophy of “1% Better Every Day.” Our team, in particular our People & Culture team, have done an amazing job of using that as our hurdle when making new hires. That’s not to say skills, technical knowledge, and expertise aren’t important, but we feel very confident we can train for that. If you share our set of values, there's naturally going to be strong alignment. When it comes to hiring for values, we’ve done an amazing job as a company, which is why our culture is so strong, and why we’ve recently won the #11 Best Workplace in New York from Fortune Magazine. The way that we use our values as our North Star, has allowed us to attract a lot of like-minded people that share our passion, energy, and commitment to our customers. 


Raad Ahmed:
Did you set out your values from day one of starting this company? Or was it something that you developed as you went? I know a lot of companies out there are trying to figure out, like, what is their identity, what is their culture, am I setting this out a little too early? When is the right time to write all this down?

Ryan:
We didn’t write our values down on paper until probably year three. But to me, before there’s official values, there are beliefs. Just like people we’re born into a certain family, and raised in a certain community, and that foundation becomes a belief system, which in turn becomes your values system as a human being. To some extent, the way my co-founder Chris Kelly and I think about this is that we’re the DNA of the company. And the way we live our lives, and the things that we value, becomes the core belief system and values of the organization. The values that we ultimately wrote down are what Chris and I believe at our core to be true, as it relates to the way that we truly live our lives. Anyone can write values down on paper but how authentic are they? After about three years, we got to a point where the company’s DNA was firmly in place, and the organization was already acting and behaving with GRIT, that we felt comfortable articulate our values and putting them down on paper. My advice to other founders would be to be true to yourself, and know that your company’s culture will be the product of you and your founding team.


Raad Ahmed:
That’s really good advice. Can you share some mistakes you may have made while starting up Convene, and what you wish you would have avoided now?

Ryan:
First, the original founding team had a lack of alignment, philosophically, around values. When picking your founding team, in addition to making sure you balance out strengths and weaknesses, make sure that there's 100% alignment around core values. My co-founder, Chris and I have amazing alignment, and that’s why nine years later, our partnership is still so strong. Second, was misalignment with an early investor. We had a vision in our minds of what we wanted to build, and the pace at which we wanted to build it – neither of which was fully shared with our original investor group. And so, one of my pieces of advice for founders and entrepreneurs starting new companies, is just like you need to have complete alignment within your founding team, you need to have that same philosophical alignment with your early stage investors. That’s why I often recommend doing seed rounds with friends and family, because naturally, they're going to be aligned with your belief system, and they're going to trust your judgment. The last mistake that we’ve made is not trusting our guts. Intuition is such a powerful thing, that’s honed not only by what we feel, but also by the experiences and wisdom that is built over time. Every time we’ve made a mistake as a company, whether it was a hiring mistake, a strategic mistake, a product mistake, it’s often because we didn’t trust our intuition. I always tell my leadership team, listen to the facts but trust your gut no matter what.
 
Raad Ahmed:
How do you improve your intuition? 

Ryan:
By spending time with others and sharing wisdom, whether that’s through your mentorship network or your investor network. Wisdom is something you must seek out. Any young founder must always be in learning mode, and in what I like to call the “wisdom theft business.” It’s essentially learning from other people’s mistakes to avoid repeating them. Specific to intuition, it’s the self-reflection that happens when you make a decision that you know didn’t feel right, but you made it anyway. And when it doesn’t work out, it’s those opportunities to reflect, and think about why you made the decision and why you didn’t trust your gut. Success is a lousy teacher. It’s our mistakes and failures that really force us to grow. As I’ve gained more experience, I've learned to trust my intuition.
 
Raad Ahmed:
My last question here is, where do you think Convene is going, and what's the bigger vision?

Ryan:
The big vision is, we want to change the way the world works by changing the way the businesses work, by improving the workday experience for our clients and their most coveted resource, which is their people and their talent. I think our vision for Convene is, hopefully every office building, any class A office building in the world at some point, is powered by Convene’s platform. We’re a global a business that is impacting the way that people work on a daily basis across the world.

Raad Ahmed:
Great! I think we’ll leave it as that Thank you so much, Ryan, for taking the time.

//QUOTED

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"Success is a lousy teacher"

-Ryan Simonetti, CEO Convene

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"You have to identify the early adopters that are going to be more progressive"

-Ryan Simonetti, CEO Convene

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// NEXT conversation 

August 8 2016 | NYC