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September 15, 2015

Lessons for Entrepreneurs from Cvent CEO Reggie Aggarwal

At last week’s HSMAI Meet National conference in Washington, D.C., Reggie Aggarwal—founder, chairman and CEO of Cvent—shared his story about developing the cloud-based event management platform, and offered advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Working as a lawyer in the D.C. area nearly 20 years ago, Aggarwal was a founding member of the Indian CEO High Tech Council that grew to 2,000 members during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Working to manage the Council’s events (while still working as a lawyer), Aggarwal saw what he realized was “a pain point,” and realized he and his tech-savvy friends could find an aspirin. In 1999, he founded the company with just six employees. By the next year, they had 125, and Aggarwal funded the growth through applying for credit cards. He also refused a salary for himself, learned to live on $15,000 per year and lived with his parents until he was 33. “Building the company was my passion,” he said. 

Questex VP of Global Events Marilyn McHugh with Cvent founder, chairman and CEO Reggie Aggarwal

During the height of the dot-com boom, millions were invested into online event registration businesses. “Suddenly, companies were coming up and raising millions,” Aggarwal recalled. “Cvent decided to grow as well.” By 2000, the company had 125 employees—almost 120 more than it had had a year before. And then the bust came, and Cvent had already spent $16.6 million of the $17 million it had raised. At that time, the company was pulling in about $1.5 million per year and had just moved into a new suite of offices that rented for $1 million per year—and the five-year lease stipulated that if Cvent missed even a month’s payment, the landlord would have the right to demand the full contract’s rent upfront. Struggling to stay afloat, Aggarwal had to cut his team down to 25 employees and renegotiated his lease with the office’s landlord with a personal guarantee that if he couldn’t make the rent, the landlord would sue him—Aggarwal—rather than the company. 

While all this was happening, industry and local media were watching and publishing details of the company’s struggle. “A personal tragedy is one thing,” he noted, “but it’s harder in the public eye.” Competitors forwarded negative articles to potential clients and the company lost its salespeople—but many of the executive team stuck it out and stayed on. Of the 11 original executives, nine are still with the company today. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” Aggarwal said.

The Secrets to Success
And that, he said, was a key factor in Cvent’s eventual success. “Surround yourself with good people,” he said. “The DNA of a company is its people—especially when you have no assets. It’s all about the team.” 

For years, Aggarwal himself would go to colleges to recruit new team members and met every employee as they began. “I had to know I had the right team,” he explained, and offered a tip to the businesspeople in the crowd: “Pursue talent like your life depends on it, because it does.” 

When seeking members for a team, he added, look for creativity and a willingness to create a culture of innovation. “The world is changing so fast,” he said, citing Blockbuster’s rapid demise and Netflix’s meteoric growth. “Companies can get replaced. Two hundred of the Fortune 500 companies have been replaced, including longstanding brands like Kodak. Be creative, and creative disruption. Create a culture of innovation.” 

So why did Cvent survive when other similar companies failed or merged? “People get too fancy, too sophisticated. They try to grow too fast,” Aggarwal mused, then offered his next tip: “Be the best at what you do before you continue growing. Before you sell to London, sell to Buffalo, NY.” For the first nine years it existed, Cvent was, in Aggarwal’s words, a one-trick pony. “It was only domestic, only mid-market. It took nine years to build it up to where it is today. When I mentor entrepreneurs, I tell them to be the best before you expand.” Keeping a startup mentality and staying humble helps, he added, as does building a culture of both entrepreneurism and intrepreneurism—in which employees feel empowered to innovate. “Find quality people, tell them what you what and then get out of the way.” 

The Future of the Events Industry (and Event Technology)
While technology may make remote communications easier every day, Aggarwall does not believe that anything will replace genuine connections. “Nothing beats face-to-face meetings,” he said. “That’s what builds the deep relationships that lead to partnerships.” Attendees, he acknowledged, can get a stronger ROI if planners leverage event technology correctly, he said—but technology can only truly amplify an event. “It doesn’t replace it,” he said. With an estimated 61 percent of millennials preferring experiences over possessions (according to eMarketer), events are a key part of the experience economy. “Think of meetings as an intense social media experience,” he suggested. 

To that end, he said, he expects a universal single sign-on to become normal for travel going forward, including business travel. Flights, transfers, hotel rooms and event registration can all be handled by apps and kiosks that can sense proximity through IBeacon technology and take care of everything as the traveler progresses through a day. 

Event apps will recommend sessions and networking opportunities, he continued, and can even make introductions when two people with compatible interests pass by one another, sharing their contact information instantly. The apps can also suggest what aisles an attendee should walk down at a trade show and provide information on all the exhibitors. Mobile polling, already gaining traction at conferences, will become even more ubiquitous as attendees treat events like social media. 

Keynote speeches that are filmed for archives or post-event broadcast can be made available just as the session ends, Aggarwal noted, and attendees can get notifications when the video is available. And once an event is done, an attendee’s summary can be available right away, including lists of new contacts, write-ups of sessions and highlights of keynote addresses all in one place. “You can see the ROI from the connections,” Aggarwal said. “People want to do business with people they know. That’s what meetings enable.” 

HSMAI Meet National was organized by Questex, the parent company of International Meetings Review.

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About the Author: Jena Tesse Fox

Jena Tesse Fox





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