In keeping with the theme of my last interview with In Good Company’s Adelaide Lancaster, as well as one I did a little while back with Killstress Design’s Minglie Chen, I’m profiling another small business founder – friend and colleague, Liz King. Liz’s NYC based event planning company, Liz King Events, focuses on technology integrated events as live components to the branding efforts of smaller companies and organizations. She has also developed a number of programs aimed at developing relationships and sharing resources within the NYC event planning community and beyond (which is how she and I began working together a couple of years ago).
For the first two and a half years, King ran her company at the same time as she held down a full time position planning events for the Columbia University Career Development office. Her story echoes that of many would-be entrepreneurs – people in jobs that no longer satisfy them, but who crave the opportunity to pursue a course that better fulfills their passions. Their desire to strike out on their own, in light of the financial realities of survival, may seem difficult to fulfill. However, Liz’s passion for creating a new company was built on the foundations of a strong work ethic coupled with a strategic understanding of her industry. Throw in a little good timing, and you’ve got all the makings of an archetypical American success story.
Like many profiled in these pages before her, Liz did not start out with designs on the business where she ultimately ended up. She attended Nyack College in Rockland County, NY, where she majored in psychology. After graduation, she got a job in a counseling center running 12-step groups, and she quickly learned that this was not the right field for her. As a stopgap, she took an administrative position at Columbia University. When the idea of event planning was suggested to her, she did as so many other planners I know seem to do and realized that she had actually been planning events for quite some time. The idea of making money doing this thing she loved to do began to take hold.
The next part of this story is part luck and part diligence. Liz had always been an early technology adopter, joining AOL chat groups before anyone else she knew was even online, being the first one on the block with a beeper, and later a smart phone; her inherent interest in tech positioned her nicely to be on the cutting edge of this area down the road. She was also in the right place at the right time when it came to social media. In fact, it was her early forays into Twitter that were largely responsible for formulating the idea of launching her own company.
She had created the handle @lizkingevents for herself as a logical expression of who she was – her name plus the thing she was interested in exploring. As she began the business of starting conversations with people online, she quickly discovered the #eventprofs community, a group of event industry professionals who came together around the use of that hashtag, eventually translating their virtual relationships into real life ones. It was not long before prospective clients, recognizing her affability and natural planning acumen, began to approach her about producing their events.
At first, Liz turned down these offers, as she really didn’t have a company yet and did not feel qualified to hang a shingle around a mere idea. However, one day a client came along with whom she really wanted to work, and so she took a chance and accepted the job. She has never looked back.
Her job at Columbia also morphed into one that encompassed planning on-campus career and professional development events. This gave her loads of hands-on training that would inform her freelance projects. She made sure to keep all of her own client meetings limited to off hours, so as not to damage the integrity of her full-time position. Also, since she already had a regular income coming in, she had the luxury of picking and choosing which clients most interested her, instead of feeling, as so many new business owners do, compelled to accept each and every job that came her way. In so doing, she was able to quickly hone in on her brand and craft a client resume that accurately reflected her key strengths and values.
Ultimately, King hit a point where she knew that she would have to give up the security of her day job and take the leap into the unknown of the freelance world. Key friends and colleagues, including her longtime friend and business partner Ed Wagaba, made her understand that she would not be taken seriously as a business owner until she did so. It took a bunch of fits and starts to make it happen, but she ultimately made the break, and as of the beginning of 2013, Liz King Events is her sole and complete focus.
The company currently has three full time employees, and reaches into a strong network of designers, independent consultants and volunteers when necessary for its larger projects. Major clients include the On Deck Sports & Technology Conference, Claudia Chan’s SHE Summit Week as well as a new, undisclosed client for whom her firm will be handling all strategic branding and live event production as well as participating in their actual product development.
A key differentiator in King’s business model is her decision to make her office more sustainable by creating her own events, and not just relying on the events she plans for her clients. She recognized that the traditional model of a slow and steady expansion of a client base might not pan out in this unpredictable economy. Thus, she has launched several of her own initiatives to independently power her business. The first is an online radio program called the Event Alley Show, a free online Power Branding class, and the event technology showcase known as PlannerTech. She’s also created a series of networking evenings for event industry professionals, known as The Planner Collective that has distinguished her brand nationally as a center of NYC industry activity.
For King, the biggest challenge has been the ramp up to finding that tipping point when everything starts rolling in naturally. Maintaining continuity of staffing is particularly difficult when the resources to support them are not yet flowing steadily. It would appear from the outside that Liz King Events has certainly hit its stride, but she’s still prepared for the possibility that she might have to supplement her income waiting tables or brewing lattes.
Observing her as I have done over the last couple of years, I can see that she has implemented a familiar model of testing and refining her business practices, “…knowing where the opportunities lie and keeping true to the brand.” This has included a major focus on building relationships, a hallmark of the events industry, and leveraging them in creative ways at every turn. Unlike some other planners, she prefers to work with clients who are interested in a deeper relationship involving a more comprehensive implementation of branding strategy than just the mere planning of a one-off event.
Most rewarding has been the evolution to the place where her brand is now being recognized by the ideal clients she’s been working to attract. She says, “The power of social media has been the most shocking to me.” She recommends that new entrepreneurs focus on refining their brand and remain open to unexpected possibilities along the way, and “…balancing between planning and faith.” Ultimately, “At some point you just have to decide, I’m gonna make this thing work no matter what comes my way.” She really makes it sound like the prospect of taking that leap off the cliff may not be so scary after all, doesn’t she?
Listen to the full interview here:
Deborah Oster Pannell is a writer who specializes in the arts, culture, special events and creative & innovative projects of all kinds. As Director of Communications for the tech start-up eventwist, she also manages their blog. Some of her favorite work is featured on modernlifeblogs.com, lizkingevents.com, and her own blog, shesaysyes.wordpress.com. Currently she is preparing to launch Project Mavens, a content branding firm. On Twitter @projectmaven.
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