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Fan-Tastic: Founders Speak out on Comic Con and other Fan Festivals

ReedPop Founders share how they launch and scale without compromising authenticity.

ReedPop was founded in 2009 as a separate division of B2B parent company Reed Exhibitions after early success with its pop culture launch New York Comic Con and a wave of feedback from fans and sponsors who wanted more.

Today ReedPop, led by Global SVP Lance Fensterman, geeks out with 1.9 million fans each year at its 27 events worldwide.  We had the opportunity to meet with Lance and the Fab Femme driving the brand’s international expansion, Global Event Director Mary Franklin, about launching against the grain, managing global growth and their no-compromise commitment to fans.

 

You launched a consumer content brand in a B2B events company; quite a shift in approach and audience.   How did you get everyone behind the concept?

LF:    I think what sold the parent company was essentially indifference!  We were small and pretty inconsequential so as long as nobody got hurt, we didn’t lose too much money, kept the lawsuits to a minimum then why not let us try?   And when we were first recruiting talent, we looked for anyone who was not scared off when we described what we were trying to do!   Now we’re slightly more sophisticated with how we recruit and keep everyone on board with our plan.

 

From ‘inconsequential’ to market-leading brand in less than a decade.   Did you expect to grow this quickly?

LF:  I was surprised by how quickly we were able to emerge out from under the global Reed Exhibitions brand and stand on our own.  We always tried very, very hard to stay authentic.  We never allowed any of that growth to overshadow what is truly at the heart of the fan communities.  I think that fan dedication has been the key to our growth, but to where we are today?  Not something I predicted nor did anyone in the parent company really.

 

Your team has grown and changed as well.  What do you look for in talent and how has that changed over the years?

LF:  Guts, a sense of humor, indifference to failure, a fire to win, active imagination, a desire to create and innovate, empathy and a sense of humor (it bears stating that one twice).  And staying true to our core culture and beliefs.  As we’ve grown, that’s been harder to maintain.

But now we have one of the coolest people I have ever known, Mary Franklin, driving that culture throughout our global events so we have that cohesion.

MF:  It’s essential we hire people who respect and appreciate our audiences; fans absolutely come first.  It’s a mindset Lance and I have always shared and why I decided to join the team.  I had been with Lucasfilm for 14 years and every pop convention that started anywhere wanted Lucasfilm to be involved.   But ReedPop was different; they established themselves as a talented, authentic brand in pop culture right away.

And appreciating fans means listening.  So that also means we look for people who are willing to listen, work together, put the team before their own individual agenda.

 

How has keeping a finger on the fan pulse changed as you’ve grown in size and geography?

MF:  First, the volume of fan feedback can be tremendous, but there are almost always themes.  We listen carefully to tease out the loyalties, trends and passions underneath all the surface conversations.

We know that fan feedback does vary by region.  While all our fans love popular culture, what defines pop culture differs by market.  And it’s always changing. That’s why we encourage and equip our local teams around the world to immerse themselves in different fan communities.

I have also found that successful shows are built on many layers of fan interests. Fans love when there is diversity and depth. The big stars are always exciting, but as events grow, fans want more personal and niche experiences; we probe for those insights so we can deliver more diverse experiences.

 

Let’s talk about growing pains.  What have you learned that other entrepreneurs should watch for as their startup takes off?

MF:  The leadership demands definitely shift.  On one hand, we need to be looking many steps ahead to drive our regional and global growth.  On the other hand, we are launching first-year events where the immediate, practical/tactical work often takes center stage.  We want to grow and we want each launch to be an excellent product; I have to make sure everyone takes the necessary steps to make both happen.

LF:   For me, it’s how you stay true to your culture and beliefs.  When we were a small team with a handful of events, it was easy.  No one veered outside of what we all believed in.  Now we’re scattered around the world with over 100 people.  Maintaining our culture is very hard and I didn’t realize just how hard until it started to dilute and slip away.  Early on we were very aggressive about launch and product development.  We got away from that a bit in the middle of our company lifespan.  The culture diluted and as a result, we were less innovative.  Now we have Mary leading our international teams and we recently realigned as a company and that aggressive innovation is back.

 

From startup founders to global management:  how have you adapted your leadership style?

MF:  It may sound trite, but it’s about communication and respect….and more communication and respect…and then add even more communication.   I have teammates across the globe with great new ideas every day. It’s important I make the time to stay connected and share, so we can build greater things together.

And it’s striking the right balance.  A big part of my job is “making memories” that are milestones in people’s lives. But while helping produce those memories, I also need to lead the team to deliver more commercial success.

LF:   I wish I had a formula to share!  I tell my team that every day I am leading a business the likes of which I’ve never led.  That means every day I’m trying to learn something new, stay grounded and curious.  Because when you’re not, when you lose focus on your people and talent, that’s when you learn the hard budget lesson.  Humility is the key to servant leadership, I suppose.

 

Any other advice for entrepreneurs on the verge of big growth?

LF:  Think ahead to how to be the leader your business will need once you have achieved some level of success.  And be real and honest with yourself if it is you.

MF:  My life motto: never make a decision based on fear.  Common sense, yes. Research, yes. Good gut instincts, yes. But never, ever fear.

 

Are you a fan-centric founder?  How are you incorporating customer feedback into your growth strategy?   Comment below or contact Team sheBOOM at nancy@sheboom.com to share your story with fellow entrepreneurs.

 

 

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