CN drops by global event tech giant Cvent’s European HQ in Euston, London, to meet CEO Reggie Aggarwal
Describing his early experience in the events industry and how it drove his quest for better solutions, Reggie Aggarwal admits it was a journey that began with sticky notes and Excel spreadsheets. Having found the pain point, however, he launched the Cvent ‘aspirin’, as he puts it. He was executive director, meeting planner and chief admin man all in one. “We needed software to automate this whole process,” he says.
The entrepreneurial story started, as they often do, with modest beginnings. “Cvent was self-funded, I lived with my parents – the classic start-up,” says Aggarwal.
The early years were not without challenges and the company came within a hair’s breadth of going bankrupt as the dotcom bubble burst.
Up to that point Cvent had grown to a staff of 125 thanks to venture capital and, says Aggarwal, “we were rolling out a lot of product, getting a lot of press, doing a lot of great things. Then the perfect storm: September 11 and the dotcom meltdown”.
Aggarwal explains he had raised $17m but the company had blown through $16.6m of it. “We had $400,000 in the bank and I certainly wasn’t a very good CEO. We had to cut 80% of our staff because we were facing bankruptcy in 2001/02.”
A core team of 25 stuck by him and Aggarwal turned to focus on fundamentals. “The next three years we were like the walking dead. We didn’t grow but at least we were not declining. The three things we realised were: 1. Hire the best people. 2. Build the best products. 3. Service your customers. That’s the secret sauce. And that’s what we did.”
This cultural ethos has carried Cvent through to 2,500 employees around the world in 14 offices today.
He identifies January 2002 as the turning point when Cvent turned cashflow positive. “That was the first time we felt independent because we actually made money that month.” The company never again went out to raise investment until 2013 when it went public.
One symbol of the company’s growth is its Cvent Connect conference, which started five years ago with 200 people. Now it is set to attract 3,500 in Las Vegas in June for its 2017 edition. Aggarwal is confident of repeating that success with the Cvent Connect Europe in October.
Aggarwal attributes the company’s success – which culminated in it being bought in November 2016 by Vista and merged with its biggest competitor, Lanyon – to good leaders. “Everything else then works out.”
“Good leaders find good people, they engage the employees they have and they come up with innovative ideas,” he adds.
And maybe that is why he rates his board’s loyalty so high, with 10 of his 12 original leading apostles still with him.
He certainly is prepared to invest in talent. Cvent University puts some recruits through up to six weeks training.
“We inculcate them to our culture and HR reports to me directly,” the CEO says. We spend up to four hours interviewing candidates, because if you get the right person you don’t have to worry about them again.”
Aggarwal is also delegating more. “I’ve learned I’ve got to get more into in the strategic view of the company. We are now able to balance the tactical with the strategic.”
As for the US$1.65bn acquisition by Vista in November 2016, Aggarwal explains the process began when he received an unsolicited offer from a large corporate competitor. “We didn’t want to sell, although it was a very good offer.”
Vista joined the fray and Cvent ran process with its banker. “We were proud to get a 70% premium to our stock price, the highest paid to a company valued over £1bn since 2002.
Now Aggarwal is back at the helm and overseeing the Lanyon merger.
The Cvent chief was in London as part of a European tour and keen to beat the drum for the power of meetings. “Nothing beats face-to-face in terms of ROI,” he says and insists the company is committed to the UK despite Brexit. “The British economy is strong. This is our HQ for the entire European market,” he says, adding that “the tailwind is pushing the industry towards more technology and automation”.
The London office employs 85 people and more expansion promised by Aggarwal, whose company now employs 850 engineers and 600 client service staff.
How does he view the huge gap opening up below the company in the vacuum created by the big merger?
“The good news is that innovation is not just the word of the day. Anyone can be disruptive,” he says.
“Our biggest competitor is really manual processes.”
He points out there are 2,500 technology companies in the MICE space. “We’ve learned you always have to be paranoid and invest and innovate.”
And the new products we can expect to see from Cvent will focus on mobile sector and on on-site tools to track the delegate’s digital footprint.
The old faithful core venue-finding product is still very much to the fore too, Aggarwal notes, now under the Hospitality Cloud brand. Aggarwal expects $15bn of business to go through that tool alone across the combined operation with Lanyon in 2017. He emphasises it is the market leader and a pay point and that Cvent will continue to invest heavily in it.
We can also expect more acquisitions. “We are an acquisitive company and can get new product out to 30,000 customers,” the CEO notes.
“No one else is putting more into their engineering effort and our 30,000 customers give us thousands of data points of what they’d like to see.” A 700-strong client service team is more than healthy back up.
Despite all the invention and innovation, Aggarwal remains grounded and quotes his mother’s advice that you still need to sell product for more than it costs to make. It was advice she had proferred during the near bankruptcy episode. She had reminded him that the rule had seemed to work for about 5,000 years and he admits the words helped him return to the fundamentals to get back on track.
Now that track is leading to Cvent solutions designed to help planners measure ROI more clearly, and that has to be good for everyone’s bottom line.