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Episode 5 - Reimagining SaaStr in the Age of COVID-19

Amelia Ibarra, SVP and GM of SaaStr, takes us through the exact moments she first knew that COVID-19 was going to upend not just the live event space, but her life and work too.

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Episode 5
Reimagining SaaStr in the Age of COVID-19

Transcript

Anthony Kennada

Welcome to the Heart of Business. I am Anthony Kennedy.

LB Harvey

And I'm LB Harvey.

Anthony Kennada

And LB, we just got through Super Bowl weekend. Hopefully your team won. I'm not sure. Are you a Bucs fan or which direction were you leaning kind of for the game?

LB Harvey

My team did not win. I was Kansas City Chiefs all the way, admittedly, mostly because I wanted to see Tom Brady lose, which is probably not, not a good... I'm a Pat Mahomes fan, too. We did watch it. Not a great second half. The Bucs kind of swept and I was a little underwhelmed by the Chiefs defense and lack of ability to get some offense going.

Yeah, so but in positive news, I did enjoy the T-Mobile commercials, a little Blake Shelton, Adam Levine, Gwen Stefani, and then, of course, the Gronk - Brady: hilarious on the concept of sort of like missed connections with bad reception.

Anthony Kennada

That's right. I'd give the entire kind of Super Bowl ad market this year a solid B. Like it wasn't a breakout year. But I definitely think the T-Mobile commercial — commercials, excuse me, were probably the top of the cake. The other highlights from my perspective, Reddit, you saw the five second commercial that they had, a little publicity stunt that they ran. And then our friends at Gong had a video as a commercial, which is super, super exciting.

LB Harvey

Yeah. It was really cool to see Gong in particular just as a product we use all the time here at Front and then also fellow Sequoia Company, get out there in the, you know, the big show, the Super Bowl.

Anthony Kennada

Totally it's inspiring from the marketing end wanting to get to a place where the Front Super Bowl commercial is is aired. Kudos, again, thanks for the folks, at Gong, for blazing the trail there. But the other video that I think has taken the world by storm ever since the Super Bowl wasn't an ad, it was actually the cat lawyer video.

LB Harvey

Oh, my goodness.

Anthony Kennada

Those that don't know what I'm talking about, the cat lawyer video is must-see TV. I believe now there's almost nine hundred thousand views, surely to pass a million views any minute now of a court hearing in Texas that was over Zoom. LB, you watched this, right?

LB Harvey

I did.

Anthony Kennada

And one of the I don't know if he was an attorney, if he was a prosecutor, whoever this person was.

LB Harvey

Or defendant, it was unclear!

Anthony Kennada

Very unclear who this person was, but he showed up with a filter on his Zoom of him as a cat and the hilarity ensued. He couldn't get the filter off. You probably know what happens next. But I think the best part was he ended the video with an iconic "I am not a cat" to just remind all viewers that he was indeed a human with a cat filter. So I thought that was just an important moment of levity in an otherwise busy season of life.

LB Harvey

And as a fellow person who sometimes struggles adjusting to new technology, maybe I shouldn't admit that as a person in tech. But it's true, the adoption curve is different for all of us. Just the back and forth was hilarious, like he was trying to get his assistant to help fix it. And yes, I am not a cat ending was just I don't know, it was like hilarious and also for me, somewhat relatable. Like I had a moment of empathy of like this guy is just trying to show up on this court case looking good, again, role unclear, and couldn't get it together to remove this kind of weird filter.

Anthony Kennada

It actually happened to me. It happened to me in a real meeting. I downloaded the Snap Camera addition to the Zoom thing and I showed up to the meeting straight up an external meeting as a talking potato and didn't know how to turn it off because I forgot that I downloaded the snap camera thing. A lot less funny when I think to your point, someone in tech doesn't know how to, un-potato themselves. But it's really funny with a Texas court hearing.

But, LB, you mentioned being slow to adopt technology. I have to ask, are you on Clubhouse?

LB Harvey

I am so not on Clubhouse. And I'd love to say I know exactly what it is and have just chosen not to join, but like, fill me in.

Anthony Kennada

Yeah, it's hard to explain. Right. Clubhouse is this public forum where you can basically, as an attendee or as an audience member, listen in on what otherwise would be pretty private one on one or conference call conversations. And so there could be investors talking about the future of SaaS companies. There could be like cryptocurrency experts talking about how to navigate the Bitcoin world and you as an individual consumer can join.

I think the coolest part of the platform is the serendipity that kind of happens where all of a sudden someone could jump into that call, be it an expert. And so unexpectedly now somebody joins or you yourself could raise your hand and say, look, I've got something to say and potentially be called up into this this conversation with some people of influence.

And so the big news from this week was that apparently Elon Musk and Kanye West are about to have a Clubhouse room that they're going to set up at some point here in the future, which again, is you can imagine the serendipitous nature of who else is going to pop into that call and what the heck are they going to talk about. These are the reasons why Clubhouse is a pretty interesting new platform that's that's been popping up.

LB Harvey

I have to admit, I'd enjoy being a fly on the wall with Elon Musk and Kanye West. I feel like that conversation is going to go a lot of different directions.

Anthony Kennada

Totally. Yeah, the path to getting Elon to adopt your product, that's a pretty good, pretty good milestone, I think, in the life of a subscription company. All right. Now it's time for a segment that we like to call Deep Dive.

So there was a great article LB that just came out on TechCrunch from Roger Lee at Battery Ventures and full disclosure, Roger was on our board at Gainsight. I had the pleasure of being Battery Ventures employee for a short period of time before for joining Front and have a lot of affinity for this group. So we'll get that out of the way. But one thing that Battery is really focused on is really these this idea of marketplace businesses and they've invested in companies like StockX and several others.

So in this article, Roger's talking about how what he calls end to end operators are the next generation of consumer businesses and what do we mean by end to end? Well, we've kind of come from this world where consumers have been interested in buying sort of point solutions versus buying everything from one vendor, and that increasingly there's a trend forming where companies are turning to call it Peloton for more than just their at home gym equipment. But they want their classes from Peloton. They want to go into the gym and actually bring their Peloton like identity record with them and do classes in the gym.

So Peloton acquired one of the larger manufacturers of fitness equipment. And so as an example, now these companies are saying we need to own the end to end food chain and give customers the opportunity to buy more from us. So from a Wall Street kind of investor perspective makes a lot of sense. Totally get it right to be able to have cross-sell into your committed install base to the long tail of customers. From the customer perspective, it's interesting.

It's it's a trend that I think might end up finding its way into the B2B kind of enterprise software space is do customers want to go and get point solutions that are best of breed or do they want to turn to incumbents and buy everything within that one kind of sphere and one category from a single company? And so I'm curious what your take on that.

LB Harvey

Yeah, I mean, I definitely think there are some places this makes sense, something that I can directly relate to in my life, as we all remember when Netflix was simply kind of a distribution channel for movies. Gosh, I mean, even back in the day, they used to send you hard CDs and disks and then they've clearly evolved. And in addition to a streaming service, they're not like developing their own content. And that makes really good sense to me in the B2B space. As someone who buys technology, I think there's some places where even as a buyer, I'd rather simplify my process and not have to go evaluate like five different solutions and deal with one partner or vendor and simplify the process.

And then there are cases where the problem you're trying to solve is so big that you want to go out and find the best of breed, even in a joint solution, and the juice is worth the squeeze to do so. So I think it's like this is going to I can believe that consolidation makes sense. The knock on it is do you get so big and unfocused as a business that you allow better point solution innovators to come and deliver something that's so much better and solves a very real problem that customers are willing to go out and buy that and it essentially steals my wallet.

So I guess my my take is like in some places this makes sense. In some places it doesn't. I don't think there's a there's a perfect answer here. I think the answer is in the middle on this one.

Anthony Kennada

I think that's right. I think at least in the B2B software side, we kind of started from this end to end space, didn't we, with the Microsofts of the world and others that gave you email and productivity software and video and active directory security work. And today there's a lot of great public scale businesses in Okta, Zoom, and Slack and others that are competing with parts of Microsoft's end to end product suite. And so we've kind of moved along as a as an industry to thinking about API based connectivity and kind of platform based technology to really kind of plug all these different things together. And seemingly that is still the future.

But I wonder if if there is a something we can learn from what Roger and the Battery team are seeing in the consumer world. They go on to say there's actually five benefits they name for why brands should own the entire experience.

The first is you get a chance to go after some very large markets. Obviously, collection of niche markets together becomes a pretty large opportunity. Second is, you're able to create a better consumer experience versus the status quo. Third, you're able to marry technology and your data as a core differentiator and moat around the company, which is really interesting, actually, if all you one common data set and one profile of your customer, but understanding kind of many, many different use cases given the product breadth, they talk about superior unit economics relative to legacy incumbents.

Again, it makes sense, given some of the ability to cross-sell, probably lower customer acquisition costs, since they're already customers in many cases.

LB Harvey

And potentially lower cost to serve and implement as well, right? Because you know, you have a larger wallet share from the start. And theoretically, the complexity of implementation isn't that much higher.

Anthony Kennada

Totally, totally agree. The last the last benefit that Roger and Battery were talking about here, owning the entire end to end chain of the business brands can build trust, which I agree with. If you've got one brand promise that connects all of these different products and all of these different products as the "how" are helping you tell a story to your customers that's really about the "why" — the unifying why. That's something you can really build on from a content perspective. That's something you really develop a lot of organic growth around. So that last part really resonates with me in general.

LB Harvey

I agree. I think like one interesting counterexample to this might be Salesforce recognized the need for internal communication outside of email, around deals. And so they tried to form Salesforce Chatter. Which would have been sort of like solving a big problem around all things revenue management and communication around that and Chatter like fell on its face and then they ended up spending, what, like way over 20 billion to acquire Slack.

So I think that's a that's a perfect— and look like now they are to your point, or Battery's point, I should say, solving this problem more holistically. But it's a great example of where a company tries to do that through their own product development. And sometimes it just doesn't make sense because the problem they're trying to solve is so big that people are willing to go and have a separate evaluation process and purchase cycle for something that looks like best in class.

Anthony Kennada

Yeah, it's so interesting. Salesforce is like the it's such a good example here because they've built a master class for this. They've developed AppExchange and the various kind of Salesforce partnership programs as a way to have a bunch of point solutions, integrate with their product as the quote-unquote customer success platform (I forget what they're referring to themselves as today). And beyond that, they cherry pick and they buy some of these folks.

And so next thing you know, you've got Marketing Cloud and e-Commerce Cloud and so on and so forth. So they're sort of straddling the line of, hey, what are we comfortable being, you know, recognizing the 10 percent market partner kind of revenue share on and what do we want to go and own? And they're able to really have some some privileged access to what businesses are doing and where that overlap makes sense.

LB Harvey

Absolutely.

Anthony Kennada

All right. It's time for actually my favorite segment, LB.

LB Harvey

Are you talking about Heartbeats?

Anthony Kennada

I'm talking about Heartbeats!

LB Harvey

All right, well, for those who are tuning in for the first time or simply need a refresher, Heartbeats is our section where we bring some of the good news happening out there in the business world. I'd still say a couple months into 2021, most of what's going on in the news feed is moderate to not amazing news.

And so this section is dedicated to going out and seeking the good news stories out there in the business world, the companies that are pivoting and innovating and bringing some good news here to 2021. And we've got two interesting stories to talk about in Heartbeats today. The first, AK, that I'm hoping you can share a bit with our listeners on is the fact that Uber is going to be offering free rides to Walgreens in an effort to help underserved communities have access to vaccines.

Anthony Kennada

That's right. And I think they're partnering with Walgreens stores in key markets. But the idea is that if people book a vaccine appointment, they don't have transportation coming from these communities. They're able to obviously have a ride completely free and they're piloting this program in Chicago.

LB Harvey

Yeah.

Anthony Kennada

So hat tip to your hometown, Chicago Bulls.

LB Harvey

Love it.

Anthony Kennada

Atlanta, Houston and El Paso, Texas, which is obviously really exciting. And, you know, we love to see this kind of interaction coming from from the private sector. The reason they're part of Walgreens is they're actually playing an expanded role in the vaccine rollout starting this week as it gets direct shipments of doses and they're able to administer shots in 15 states. And LB, I know we've talked about vaccines a lot online and offline here. Fauci today said that come April, it's going to be, quote, open season for anyone that wants the vaccine is his prediction. So I'm hoping this is the beginning of the end.

LB Harvey

I really am picking up more and more optimism with with some of the information coming out. I know that some of the news is sharing that COVID's really on the decline. Obviously, we have to remain vigilant, but a lot of the spikes we saw coming out of the holiday seem to be coming down. And so it's it's good news. Good, good, good news.

And man, if we could be back in offices and traveling and just safely seeing loved ones, friends, families, et cetera, this summer It'd be pretty amazing. So speaking of vaccines and more, kind of like post-COVID world news, our second Heartbeats story is that Target is offering extra pay free transportation to its hourly employees who got COVID vaccines.

Anthony Kennada

I love it. I mean, seeing these businesses kind of step up and be able to help be part of the solution is so I mean, if you can get your heart warmed around business, this has to be one area where it does, in fact, warm. And Target in particular here is offering four hours of pay, completely free to hourly workers, give them a chance to step away and go and get vaccinated.

And actually, it turns out there's more than a dozen companies that have announced additional pay or really any other incentives to convince their workforce to go on and get the shots. The idea, I think, in general is that as supply of the vaccines increase, we're going to see community groups, local leaders and more companies like Target and Uber step up to really persuade more folks to to get the shots or help them overcome any potential barriers, whether it's a lack of child care or transportation, time off work, whatever.

So good on you Target, good on you Uber. And for anyone else who I think has a chance to really play a part of this, I think is a great lesson for all of us to learn.

LB Harvey

I love it. I love when businesses lean in and help with sort of like civic duties. Like another great example of this is businesses who support folks voting and provide the space, time and energy and financial means in a way to help facilitate that. And this feels very, very worthwhile and worthy, as well — a la voting in an elections. And so it's really, really exciting to see companies leaning in and helping remove barriers to this country and the globe, getting over this pretty devastating pandemic.

Anthony Kennada

Totally. Totally. Well, let's move on to today's interview, which I'm so excited to share. This is a story that I had been following kind of live on Twitter as it was unfolding. Some folks that are good friends of the company. But before we do, LB, I had a question for you. Do you remember the exact moment in time when you first realized, OK, the next year or whatever of my life is going to be radically different because of this virus?

LB Harvey

Yeah, I wish I could say it was like late March or April of 2020. The truth is, I definitely fell into the camp— I remember in March, I think like late March, when the shut down in San Francisco was becoming real. No one was going into offices. Because San Francisco and Tech both reacted pretty quickly and pretty strongly. I remember thinking. Oh, my gosh, I can't imagine if we're not going to be in offices until like August of 2020, and then I think it really sunk in probably November, December of this year that this thing was going to go beyond a year.

So I was late to really accept that fact, but probably kept my mental health in a better place. How about you?

Anthony Kennada

I think it did. I did not take care of my mental health at all because I do remember the moment I remember we were at a WeWork right here in Phoenix. There was about six of us crammed in a little glass office area. And we were like having conversations with H.R., are we going to shut down or are we not going to shut down? I remember looking around thinking this is probably my last time in this office for a while.

I can't remember who knows how long, but I kind of looked around a little bit and this is when the toilet paper bonanza was going on. So I rushed to Safeway on my way home, bought like a ton of frozen food that I still have in my freezer. I don't know what I was thinking, but.

LB Harvey

Were you one of the panic shoppers?

Anthony Kennada

I was a panic shopper, but it was mostly more frozen food than it was toilet paper.

LB Harvey

OK, I can I can, like, forgive that.

Anthony Kennada

I've got about 48 chicken patties still in my freezer if anyone is in the market. But I had the chance to sit down with Amelia Ibarra who's the SVP and GM at SaaStr. SaaStr, for those that don't know, is really a media company that's become kind of a vendor neutral voice into the SaaS community and subscription business community, really for founders, entrepreneurs and executives in the subscription businesses.

So they've done an incredible job. Amelia was telling me that she could pinpoint the exact moment when she first had that sinking feeling that something was about to change. And in her case, it was that they were loading in for a twenty thousand person plus conference that day when the world shut down, which is kind of crazy to consider back in March.

LB Harvey

Yeah. And SaaStr was one of the last conferences to kind of cancel.

Anthony Kennada

Right, right. On the bubble, really, as things were closing down. So we actually talk about that decision. We talk about her pivot to virtual events and kind of how that has been going and really what's next for SaaStr in 2021 in this exclusive interview. So let's go ahead and take a listen.

Anthony Kennada

We tend to remember some of the most catastrophic moments of life with a most precise level of detail, regardless of how much time has passed. As an example, where were you on 9/11? It's 20 years ago now and most of us still remember the exact time and place I know I do, I remember as a small child and growing up in Los Angeles, upstairs in my parents' room, glued to the TV, really begging my mom not to let me go to school that day for fear of what was happening in the world around us.

For most of us outside of China, it was less than a year ago that a catastrophe intersected our lives that have since become much more devastating, at least in terms of the death toll in September 11. So where were you? The COVID-19 pandemic didn't hit us all at once one morning, it sort of crept up on us and gradually and then suddenly we were right in it. News reports came in about a worsening sickness in Wuhan that turned to lockdowns and then social distancing over the course of months, not, of course, of hours. And since then, of course, tragically, over two million lives have been lost around the world. It's hard to pinpoint the moment that, you know, your life's about to change, but I guess today can pinpoint each moment where she knew that her life and work were about to be upended.

I'm so excited to tell the story of a company that has been close to my heart for for many years, my entire career, but also one that is another story of perseverance, perseverance through the uncertainty of this season. So I'm so excited to have Amelia Ibarra on the show. She's a general manager and SVP at SaaStr. And I feel like everyone knows SaaStr. But for those that don't, it's the world's largest community of SaaS executives, founders and entrepreneurs. And Amelia organizes all of SaaStr's now famous events. And she was right in the middle of executing the major conference in the Bay Area, SaaStr Annual when all of this came to a head.

So, Amelia, thanks so much for being on the show and willing to to share your story.

Amelia Ibarra

Yeah, thanks for having me, Anthony.

Anthony Kennada

All right. So we have a little tradition on Heart of Business that we start with. That's called the weird question of the week.

Amelia Ibarra

OK, I'm ready.

Anthony Kennada

All right, so we both share. Correct me if I'm wrong, some heritage from Los Angeles.

Amelia Ibarra

That is true. Yeah. Yeah.

Anthony Kennada

And we both made the move up the five to the Bay Area. Although I actually ended up leaving San Francisco about two years ago, but still have spent about 10 years there. So my weird question is this. Which of the two cities, L.A. or San Francisco, is truly the better city in California?

Amelia Ibarra

Oh, so hard. They're so different as I'm sure people know. Right. Or have a sense. I honestly feel like in my career we'll always be near and dear to my heart and it's like where I want to be. But L.A. growing up there, it's just so crazy. You hear people talking about the industry and it's not Silicon Valley. It's Hollywood entertainment. Like I have so many friends who are in the industry. So I'm like, yeah, I'm in the industry too. But like the SF industry, which is tech. So I'm going to have to go with SF on this one. But L.A. will always be near and dear to my heart for having grown up there and spent a lot of time there. And the weather is obviously a little better.

Anthony Kennada

Totally. I agree. I split the difference. I've got a, I wear a Lakers hat and a Giants hat. So it's unspoken in Dodgers circles. But anyway, I split the difference. So tell me for for the like one person listening who has not heard of SaaStr, what is SaaStr exactly? And tell us a little bit about just how you thought about events, both pre pandemic and then now how you guys are thinking about events kind of moving forward.

Amelia Ibarra

Yeah, for sure. So for those who don't know, Jason Lemkin, who is our founder and CEO, started SaaStr about 10 years ago now. It was really born out of at the time this want to give back and share information, which is really what we've built our community of SaaS CEOs, revenue leaders and founders around is sharing knowledge, giving back, giving the secrets, the playbook to how to scale. So at heart, we're really a global community of CEOs and founders who come together for the content on our website, SaaStr.com. We have an official SaaStr podcast, which Anthony has been on a few times and then famously our events.

SaaStr Annual first started and it had like this amazing lineup of folks like Aaron Levie from Box came, Stewart Butterfield from Slack came, and back then they weren't like the tech giants they are today. That was like somewhat early days and they came and shared the secret. You know, they're unscripted. So it really came out of the sense and want of building a community around like, OK, how did those folks do it? How do I do it? Let me give back and share my secret so that others can can do it right. And just really uplifting everyone together. So that's sort of how SaaStr got its start as like a blog and then turned into an event to sort of bring people together, because at the time there weren't a lot of SaaS events. There were a few—definitely not as many as there are today. Obviously there's a lot.

'And then considering COVID, there's a lot more digital events, but that's really where the events came out of. The meet-up turned into the SaaStr Annual and then the SaaStr Annual just got bigger and bigger year over year as more folks grew. And I love the stories of our events. The people who come come as attendees and they come back later as like a speaker or they have like a unicorn story. So it's really fun to see the community sort of grow up with you. Like, I haven't been in the SaaS community forever, but it has been nice just in the in the three years of my being at SaaStr to see how much have grown and where they go off to and, you know, people kind of sow their oats in the SaaS community. So that's been really fun.

And I know you you mentioned in this intro like this really remembering events and where you are when they're sort of this Black Swan event. Right. So the SaaStr Annual is our biggest event, we typically have about ten thousand folks come from all around the globe. Right. Like it's sometimes crazy how far these people fly, I'm like, "for our event?!" But so flattering. It's crazy. But I remember right. We... There was like this crazy juxtaposition moment.

I think that's what it was like two moments like like seared into my brain from now until hopefully my end times. The first one is sort of like what you mentioned, right? Like I remember it being December. We had like a small SaaStr meet up in Miami that we were just doing a casual meet up. I remember Jason's like, "did you hear about this virus? Like it might affect us." And like for those who don't know, Jason Lemkin is always like ten steps ahead, right. So he's already like reading all the news he's like calling doctors, and I'm like, what are you talking about, it's like December at the beach, it's warm, we're having a meet up with folks like what do you... What's Wuhan? I don't know what you're talking about.

Honestly, I was like, ah, I thought it was a joke almost. I was like, I don't know. There's not going to be a crazy virus that could take out like events. I was like, no, no, no. Like, I haven't heard of it. So it must be fine, right? Like it's not in the mainstream news. We shouldn't worry about it yet. And then I remember, like, I had stayed extra time in Florida to go to Disney World because I'm not so secretly a Disney fanatic. I remember being at Disney World and like I'm reading more and more articles while these lines up like. I'm like elbow like jam-packed next to people, and I start to read all these articles because I'm like, OK, I got to start looking at this like like coronavirus thing that he was talking about. Right. Just to see if we need to prep and like do anything.

And so I'm like, OK, how am I reading about this like super viral illness while I'm like jam-packed next to people in warm weather, nobody really knows about it. Like this is before people were wearing masks or social distancing. This is before any of that, right? Like literally life as we used to know it. So that was like one moment where I was like, oh my God, how is this happening? Where I'm like, next? I'm in a crowded space and yet I'm hearing about this super deadly virus that's coming out right.

You're like, shouldn't there be more information? Like should there be more available? So that was a bizarre moment. And honestly, from that moment on, which was like early December, it just we started to get more serious. It was like, OK, well, this is definitely not a joke and something to be taken, light, this is something we have to take seriously. We should start planning for as much as we can and we try to get our hands on just as much news as possible. Yes, I feel like everyone does now with COVID, but back then it was December. It was still early. There was nobody wearing a mask. There was no guidelines. People were still out. We were still at the office. So it was pretty much life as normal.

So we just started to, like, get as much information as we could try and prep as much as we could. And that's what we did in the months leading up to it. So like since the beginning of December to you know let's say mid-Feb. Obviously more news came out COVID was getting worse at that point, but the offices were still open and nothing was shut down. Some of the early tech conferences like RSA were still happening. Right.

So it was like this weird environment we sort of found ourselves in with events where it was like, OK, we're either going to be the last event to get to host event or we're going to get shut down. Right. So there was a lot of talk around that, I think famously. Right. We wrote up our health and safety guidelines for SaaStr Annual, assuming we could still have it. It ended up getting published in TechCrunch and The New York Times about like— handshakes, like wash your hands, stay six feet apart. And this is like before masks were mandated, right. So it was a little at the time, it was a bit forward thinking and some saw it as like maybe over the top. But now you're like the standard that's normal.

Anthony Kennada

Just curious as you guys were kind of building those standards. So for those that don't know, we can share that in the show notes. But definitely, potentially now is the the standard for live events when we do open up again. Did you guys talk to, like local authorities, health experts? How did you come up with with that stuff?

Amelia Ibarra

Honestly, it was a little scary how much we were on our own. Like, we did try and talk to folks. We obviously like Jason's much more a consumer of news than I am. Like, he tried to read just everything and everything he could get his hands on, about health and safety, about what to do. I mean, it helps just to be smart about things. Right. But we were almost alarmingly on our own, like we kept asking for guidelines, like who— like we were just asking who do we know at whatever health and safety department or at the city, at the state, at the county level, who can give us some guidelines to safely host the event.

And honestly, it was it was shocking the amount of the lack of information and guidelines that there were so we just came up with. OK, well, if we're saying that it is at the time touch was really a thing or we thought it was spreading through touch versus droplets, which we know now. Right. So we were like, OK, well, if it's spreading through touch, we should not let people shake hands. We we have to we were setting up the theater so that people would get chairs so they wouldn't be so close to each other. We were doing things like no contact, like food and beverage. We were putting like extra hand washing stations extra. We were making sure there's literally hand sanitizer like every two feet so that you never felt like it was uncleanly.

But I mean, honestly, a lot of it we had to do on our own. We had to find our own temperature scanning vendor. We had to find our own. We had a source, our own PPE, basically, that we could then give to our partners and speakers if they wanted it. So it was a little bit scary, right, to be so in uncharted waters. So that that was a bit scary for sure, because there wasn't as much readily available knowledge as there is now right now. Now you can find that information more readily. And I'm sure we'll still we talk about returning in person and we want to have it as safe as possible. And we talk now right about like still requiring masks, even if you are vaccinated, probably still doing no handshake. Right.

Like, we still are probably going to use some of the rules that we had come up with originally, even for a return to in person, just to go above and beyond, because above all else. Right. Like we this is people's lives. Like we want to have a safe event and we want to have a great environment that fosters community sharing and learning. And you can't do that if you don't feel comfortable. So if anything else, we wanted folks to be comfortable. But yeah, I mean that like, unfortunately, we did have to come up with a lot of it ourselves and hopefully that won't be the case this time around.

Anthony Kennada

Totally. Let's time box this because I do remember being in San Francisco for RSA, which was February. There were thousands of people in the streets when the conference was in March or was it February?

Amelia Ibarra

Yeah, it was in March. Going to be like the the first week of March. So it was like right after RSA. Right. And I remember we went to RSA. Well, what are they doing for health and safety. Right. And again, they didn't do much. But I don't this is not like a diss on them. Again, there's not that much information out there. Right. So that's understandable that they didn't have a lot of time or prep or protocols in place from the state or the county to say, oh, you need to put this in place to have a for that.

So. Yep, or if they happen, we watched it, we went, we observed it. We were like, OK, like they sort of got a pass on being maybe one of the last events to be held in SF. Right. And then we were honestly just on the phone with the venue, with any state official we could get. Anybody in Health and Safety. Our events production team. Anybody who had a line in to be like, OK, everybody just keep us posted, because this is when cases were first on the rise and they were just going up and up. And we were like, hopefully we can have our event.

Like it was going to be March 10th through 12th. All right. And I remember the Friday before we were supposed to start load-in. As many folks know in event production, you have to start loading a few days before, especially for an event at SaaStr's scale. There's a lot of booths to be built, there are stages that have to be dropped in. A/V's got to get set up. There's a lot of contractors roaming around, like a lot of hammers and nails happening there. I remember the day before load-in, we're like watching the livestream of the Santa Clara County Council leadership meeting. Right. And they're like, oh, we've just decided with the state that events over 50 people are not allowed.

Anthony Kennada

The day of the load-in is when that happened?!

Amelia Ibarra

The day before load-in. So what do you think about the day before load in? The trucks are already moving. Friday's the day they park. Thursday before they're like trucks are on their way.

Anthony Kennada

And clearly travel was, I believe, shut down at that time slot. So you have attendees like flying in at this point.

Amelia Ibarra

We had attendees flying in, we had A/V getting shipped from Texas. I had speakers flying in. I had the rest of our event production team coming in, lots of people getting on planes because to your point. Right, travel was not shut down yet, so. Right. It was like all the wheels were in motion. And we're watching the live stream and they're saying events over fifty people cannot be held. And we're all—all of team SaaStr—there's not many of us, like all ten of us, like in a conference room with some of our events team huddled watching the stream.

And there's just silence, right. Like the. The silence I've never heard before because it was so eerily quiet. And I think it lasted like honestly, it felt forever, but it probably was like 10 minutes of pure silence. And then I remember Jason was like, well, that that's that, right? Like, it's a mandate from the city and the county. Like, we obviously we shouldn't fight it. So we won't. And it is what it is. So let's just try and pick up the pieces.

And honestly, like, I took like probably another 10 minutes to recover. I was like, you were ahead of me. And you're like trying to go into action. I need like ten minutes just to not cry, but just like compose myself to like this event we've been working on for over a year can't happen now and you're like, OK, well I'm, I try and prep for everything, but you just don't... this is the one you don't see coming, right?

Anthony Kennada

Absolutely. In that moment, you're sort of gather yourself. You're trying to figure out what's next is the first thought. All right. We're moving to virtual or what was the decision like to say, OK, the show will go on in some way, shape or form?

Amelia Ibarra

No, honestly, it was let me get on the phone and let me email everyone. Right. Like, let me tell people if they're not traveling already to not travel. Because, again, to your point, there was no there still sort of isn't now. There is a bit. Right. But there wasn't a global response. There wasn't a, US, nationwide response. Like it was sort of state by state, which it kind of is still. So I was like, I got to tell people not to come. If it's literally like not, if it's illegal for us to host or event due to what happened with COVID.

I've gotta call people. So I remember, like I called my event production company first for those who weren't in the room with us. Right. I was like, OK, here's a list of all of our vendors. Let's split up this list. And you guys call these folks I'm going to call these folks, like, let's just move into action and call everybody that we can and tell them not to get on a plane. Tell them, stop, stop shipping what you're shipping. Don't there won't be a load in like it's illegal. And honestly, a lot of folks we talked to, were like, what are you talking about? Like, I'm about to get on Southwest, they're going to serve me a cocktail. Like, what do you mean you can't have an event?

Right. And I was like, I don't know. Trust me, they just said it's illegal in Santa Clara county like you can't come, don't come, get off the plane. Like literally a few folks were on the plane. And I remember being like, oh, my gosh, can you get off, like, dead serious? They're like, are you sure? I'm like, I'm serious. The event's not happening. It's illegal like, get off the plane. And they're like, okay, if you're sure... I'm like, I'm sure. Get off the plane.

Anthony Kennada

Wow. Most of us, I think back in March were still trying to wrap our head around, do I have enough toilet paper? Because that's the thing that I have to worry about. So like there's the personal weight of what was happening in the world in March and then now it's like you had to worry about that. But also you had this responsibility to thousands of people and partners and everyone. Was it hard to to focus on the work with the personal kind of toll that COVID was taking, or how did you kind of balance both?

Amelia Ibarra

I mean, honestly, and it comes and goes. Right. And I still feel like there are days where I definitely miss the office. Like, I was just chatting with one of our team members, Caitlin. We just did a webinar and I was like, it's a bummer. I can't like, you know, take you out to lunch after or have a beer with. You know, we just had a visual event last week and I was like, oh, such a downer. And the digital format that I can't see my team, like, right after. Right. Like you're such a high of, like, hosting a great event and then you're like, OK, well, cheers via Zoom.

And like, I guess everyone's just going to go sit on her couch now, like it's not the same. But honestly, it came out of a need to still stay true to SaaStr's roots. Right. Which is OK. We took obviously a moment to try and just we took a moment just to take a pause. Right. Like, OK, well, if we can't see that in person, we've told everybody who needs to be told we gave the team a break because it was like, obviously there's a lot happened, like take care of yourself and then we'll reconvene. We were talking to a lot of folks about like, would you want to do a digital event? Would you be interested? What would you talk about? Like, are you able to share any insights and learnings? And a lot of folks like Nick Mehta who's obviously a bestie of yours.

But, yeah, was chatting with us on how it was similar to the market crash and that sort of Black Swan event. So he was one of the first to do something digital with us. And then we just had a bunch of folks who were like, oh, I thought what you guys did with Nick, and I know you guys had to postpone the annual as an in-person event. Like we would come to something digital and we're like, OK, well, if there is an appetite for it, we we were typically against digital because obviously it's not the same. Like we do them now. And we host a number of digital events and we have a number of digital events slotted for 2021. And they are great because at its core and at SaaStr's core, it really aligns with us, still being able to give folks who are CEOs and founders access to people they wouldn't normally get access to. Right.

Stewart came back and spoke, and this was before the Salesforce acquisition. So back in April, he did our first digital event that we did that was sort of born out of the need to keep the industry moving forward. And he came and he was I remember he had like a Parks and Rec background on his Zoom. He was just like in his attic or something crazy, totally unscripted and was just chatting with us, giving advice to folks. And I'm like, this is why SaaStr's not killable in that sense. Right? Like, totally. Yes. We had this very terrible Black Swan event, which is like, yeah, we can't have an event.

But obviously what's going on with COVID is way worse than us not being able to host an event. But it's nice that we can still deliver value to both and still have a sense of community even in this time. So that's sort of where it came out of. And then we just did more and more of them because folks just kept coming. So we just kept getting them.

Anthony Kennada

Well, let's talk about the value side of community, I guess. I think the reason we started this podcast, we talk about Heart of Business. We think that the intersection point of companies and brands and their customers, that's the sort of heart of any company. And of course, for you all, it's it's the community members. It's the speaker community. It's not just obviously the folks that come to consume from thought leadership and best practices, but those that would say earlier they grew up in SaaStr.

So as a speaker, as a as an audience member, as just a member of the SaaStr community. So as you think about that, the connection point between you all and maybe even connection point between folks within the community. Did that happen that at Annual did happen in the virtual format? Did you see evidence of connection and learning and you get good feedback from your audience that, hey, like you all pivoted and you were dealt a tough hand. But, hey, I really got a lot out of this.

Amelia Ibarra

Yeah, for sure. So it's something where definitely it's nice to get that feedback and engagement from our community members. Right. We're so used to having it at the in-person event rate. Folks will come up to us and be like, oh, even me, which I'm like, how do you even know feel like how do you know who I am? Like, obviously, like people try and like, you know, talk to Jason all day long at our events, like, are you Amelia are you going to like does this? Kind of, yeah. And they're like, oh my God, this is such a big event.

Like I found a new hire or I made some new friends or I people get funded at than usual. I'm like, oh, they're like I literally have like they would show me like the physical like notebooks full of like notes like I've got my team back. There's like a large contingent of like all these come every year. They literally have their SKOs, then they go to SaaStr. Like it's this super nice community feeling that I love having in person, because obviously you feel like the energy in the room and people are just so, so nice to hear those stories come out of it. And the digital format. Right. We're trying to do that.

Obviously, it's not the same because we're not all in the same room. But I have heard folks who are still uber grateful for the learnings. I've had more international folks reach out since we've gone digital. We're like, I could never afford to go to the SaaStr Annual so it's awesome for them that they can get the digital content and come to some of the three events that we've had digitally because it's been like this new resource for them that they couldn't tap into previously. And so that's been great. And again, there are still folks who are doing meetings, and meeting through faster and they're still getting funded.

They're still finding their next great hire and just making a lot of— I've personally made a lot of good connections with just some of the folks that have either attended or been the speaker or whatever it may be related to SaaStr. So it's nice to have a community and have the community support us in that way so that we could keep going, because there were definitely times, where like personally I was like, "Should we keep doing this?" The world is so crazy right now. You get a bit deflated. Just being home. You can't see your team, you're like, "are events the right thing to do?".

Anthony Kennada

For sure. I think if anything, it's taught us the importance of community and belonging in our lives. Right. So I think we're all OK with virtual. And to your point about inclusivity, I think it's interesting that for folks that could never come live, be it budget reasons, family reasons, health reasons, that you've given them kind of a new window. Do you see that? Do you see, like hybrid events continuing being a thing kind of moving forward or is it live or virtual? How do you guys think about the learnings coming out of 2020.

Amelia Ibarra

This is like the number one question I get from any folks that I meet with lately, right? It's something where I'm like, OK, let's all take a beat and define hybrid, because I do feel like there's two hundred different definitions for a hybrid event. Like, if you're just going to do a return to in-person events and livestream hall one or whatever it may be, that's not really a hybrid event. Like that's just livestreaming your event, which SaaStr has done since like the first SaaStr Annual. That's not really new. Not really reflective of a truly hybrid event or of the times.

Right. So it's like internally we we sort of think about it perpendicularly meaning like this is like a phrase that Jason coined. Right, of like you have to think about doing almost completely separate events that have an intersection. Right. Feel like there's a completely digital component to, let's say, the SaaStr Annual and there's a completely in-person component to the SaaStr Annual and at some intersections they cross. Right. But what do you think about the implications for hybrid? It sort of break down really fast, which is why we don't super love this term hybrid.

Right. Like, for instance, our digital events start really early Pacific coast time like 7:00 a.m.. Right. That's when most people tune in. That's when the most people watch again, because globally it's either late in the day or afternoon for them, even though it's super early for us. But 7:00 a.m. would be a ridiculous time to ask people to come in person to like a San Francisco based event. Right. They'd be like, I have to get up at what time? Like, I'm not ready for that yet. Right. So that alone is like it's already starting to break down there, like first thing in the morning. So we try and when we're in the midst of our planning right now in the thick of it and we're trying to think through, OK, how do we make them sort of perpendicular so that it's a really great digital event if you're just visually it's really great in person.

If you just come in person and at some crossroads, they meet like we combine some sort of networking, we have some sort of other offering response or so that they can meet both parties. We will we will, of course, stream some of the content to the digital audience and then we'll have some content that's just digital only. And like it doesn't mean that if you're in person, you can't while you were getting ready, watch the session that we're we're streaming live. Right, because it is early and then go to sessions in person later in the day. So that's sort of how we're thinking about it, because I just feel like hybrid has become this almost lazy term of like I'm gonna livestream and I'm going to have some faces from the Zoom on like that at the in-person stage and that's sort of it. And I'm like, not really of value to them either.

And it's not really a value to the in-person folks if at some point they don't intersect. So that's really what we're trying to to nail down.

Anthony Kennada

That's super interesting. You know, I have got a big conviction behind events myself and my last company. You know, I think the story of an event team without a global pandemic is already a story of resilience and patience and pulling off the impossible.

So just having having had a seemingly a front row seat, at least on Twitter, to to your guy's story, I just can't commend you all enough for putting the customer first in your decision making, pivoting and really kind of delivering a lot of value to the SaaS community last year. All right. Before we close, we have one last segment. It's called Speed Round. So you have five seconds or less to answer each of the questions below. Are you ready?

Amelia Ibarra

All right. No pressure. I'm ready.

Anthony Kennada

Here we go. The best book you've read recently is...

Amelia Ibarra

What is the title of the book I'm reading? It's called "You Should Talk To Someone." It's not a book I would normally read outside of pandemic times. It's a book written about a therapist who breaks down and goes to another therapist. Mental health is obviously something that I've become very fascinated with from a team perspective and from a personal perspective.

So it's a really great book because you get these insights into like a therapist who is she's a real therapist. She's like talking about some of her clients that she had, but also how she eventually goes to therapy herself and sort of her journey around it. It just it's been a crazy good read. Even if it's like it doesn't sound like your cup of tea, it actually might be. It's just so fascinating because it opens your mind is the length of questioning you would normally ask yourself, like interactions. You're like, oh, I do that. Oh, that's great.

Anthony Kennada

Yeah, that's awesome. I'm writing it down here at my side. Check it out. And you also. Awesome. All right. The next one. What is. Your favorite podcast, of course, not this one or SaaStr's podcast.

Amelia Ibarra

Oh, um, you know, ironically, I used to really love the Robinhood that I really like. I say that now, although I like the bite sized version of it, like 60 seconds and it was like the best news of the day, but I feel like I can't say that one. But honestly, I have to give a shout to Harry Stebbings, who's our podcast host. He does the SaaStr podcast and also the 20-Minute V.C., which is such a great podcast. Um, and then I really like The Daily, it's from The New York Times, The Daily's just a great one. And that was one where I used to listen to it on my drive all the time and I still listen to it now.

Anthony Kennada

Speaking of your drive, work from home or work from the office?

Amelia Ibarra

I want to go back to both. Like there are days where I like working from home because I can zone out and get things done. Yeah. And there are days where I completely miss the office and the energy of the office and I really feed off that. So I do think when SaaStr— SaaStr's become distributed, but I want to go back to sort of a mix of both.

Anthony Kennada

Awesome. A couple more here. Favorite purchase you made during the quarantine.

Amelia Ibarra

Got an easy but embarrassing one. You know, I've invested in a pair of house slippers. They're like Ugg house slippers. They're like slides, technically, if you know what a slide slipper is. They're super comfortable and I can't really wear shoes all day around the house, so.

Anthony Kennada

That's awesome. I got I'll join you on this one. I got a weighted blanket. It might have changed my life. Totally. The last question, what's a brand out there B2B, B2C, whatever, that you admire the most.

Amelia Ibarra

Oh great question. I used to work for a number of B2C brands, so this is hard. Um, you know, I love I love what the makeup brands are doing out there today. I just think there's not really one in particular that I admire the most. But I used to work for a number of makeup companies. I'm always fascinated about what they're doing and I think how they think about influence marketing and how they think about ecommerce, how they're trying to use things like Clubhouse is just fascinating to me. So I'm going to cop out and not give you a specific one. But that's one where I just like, you know, I still watch a lot of YouTubers. So I'm just like.

Anthony Kennada

All right Amelia. Thank you so much for being on the show, for sharing your story. We can't wait to be a part of SaaStr virtual, live, whatever perpendicular version comes out in the future we're in. So excited.

Amelia Ibarra

Yeah. Thanks for the support and thanks for having me, Anthony.

Anthony Kennada

Awesome. Thanks so much.

LB Harvey

That interview was incredible, and I can't imagine being in the world of live events as the pandemic hit, right. Like just talk about very akin to the travel industry, the restaurant industry, lot of shakeup going on in the event's world. But there were a couple of things that really struck me.

First of all, the value of one to one deep personal relationships always matters, but it really shows up in moments of crisis. And the fact that Amelia stayed up until past midnight on the day that they canceled to call everyone and adjust to them and travel plans and just explain the situation. Of course, you can always do that as a business, but it's a lot easier when you have already built the trust and have that relationship and you're already starting that conversation off from kind of a place of of credibility and empathy and understanding.

And so I think as businesses, we just can't underestimate the ability to make that pick up that phone and make that phone call and having that be a lot easier and facilitated by already having a credible and deep personal relationship. And then the second is that while I still believe in clearly, Amelia does, too, there's no substitute for that. Energy of in-person virtual events do offer the possibility to make things a lot more accessible. Right. And SaaStr wouldn't have been able to get Stewart Butterfield if not for the ease of jumping on a video conference.

And chances are they wouldn't have had seventeen thousand people attend and join if it were alive. So there is something about that interesting balance between getting in-person events back up and running and some pent up excitement to do so because there is something irreplaceable about that energy.

But also just thinking through how COVID may have permanently changed the landscape of event space and how virtual is going to be a thing. And there's some benefits like accessibility that are probably here to stay.

Anthony Kennada

Yeah, I totally agree with that. LB. Well, look, that is all we have for this episode. So please remember to hit subscribe on Apple podcast Spotify wherever you listen to a podcast. And if you enjoyed the show, please leave us a rating and review as well.

LB Harvey

As a reminder, you can follow the Heart of Business podcast, as well as other great stories on how teams and customers are working together to make missions possible by subscribing to front page editorials like we've recently launched for founders' executives and customer facing teams. Follow us on Twitter @frontapp or by going to frontapp.com/blog.

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