Working Better Now with Steve Etzler, Founder & CEO, Business Development Institute

by Rob Levin
Published June 16, 2020

WBN Chairman, Rob Levin, speaks with Steven Etzler, CEO of Business Development Institute (BDI), on how Steven and his team are Working Better Now. Steven shares insights on:

  • How BDI has pivoted during the crisis
  • How his role as CEO has changed
  • Technology that has enabled BDI to scale
  • How WBN virtual assistants are part of the secret sauce that has helped BDI grow 

Here are clips from the discussion. The last video is the complete discussion. Below the videos is a transcript.

Steven talks about the BDI team and how his role has changed during the crisis:

Steven shares the technology tools that have enabled BDI to scale and stay agile:

Steven shares the details of how BDI gets the most out of the tech stack that they use.

Steven discusses how BDI uses Work Better Now assistants including their role and how they have become an integral part of the team.

The entire Working Better Now discussion between Steven and Rob.

Complete Transcript of the Interview

Transcription of video discussion. Please note that edits have been made for readability.

Rob: I’m Rob Levin, chairman of Work Better Now, and on behalf of the WBN team, thanks for joining us in this overall episode of Working Better NowWorking Better Now is a content series on featuring a Q&A with a business owner/executive who has developed ways to work better. Today we are fortunate to be joined by a good friend, a longtime friend, Steve Etzler, founder and CEO of Business Development Institute, otherwise known as BDI. Steve, thanks a lot for joining us.

Steven: Thanks for having me, Rob.

Rob: Steve, tell us a little bit about yourself and your company.

Steven: I started BDI a long time ago, in 2001. We are a marketing agency that specializes in helping enterprise technology companies attract or target audience through events. For many years, we did face-to-face events, and about six weeks ago, we were forced to learn how to do virtual events. We pivoted very quickly and we’ve done about 20 of them in the past six weeks, and we have another 25 planned in the next six weeks as well, so we’ve done a quick pivot. My team has done an incredible job with that, and we’re learning a lot along the way.

Rob: Fantastic! For everyone who doesn’t know, Steve and I go back, I think to about 2004. I had a media company called The New York Enterprise Report, which I founded in 2003. We did our first event in 2004; we didn’t know anything about events, so we partnered with BDI. Your business was obviously very different back then and BDI showed us the ropes, and events became a very popular and successful part of our business.

Steve, you mentioned that you just pivoted—you and I spoke about this recently. Tell us a little bit about that and how you were able to pivot so quickly.

Steven: Well, it’s amazing what you can do with the survival of your business and you want to keep food on the table for your family and be able to pay the bills. It’s quite a motivator, but we were fortunate because the types of companies that we work with, enterprise technology companies, in general, are pretty open minded to innovative ideas to basically achieve the same goals. We’re always helping them through face-to-face events, and the goals were to generate new business, attract their target audience, and position them as thought leaders on important topics facing their industry.

The only difference is, instead of doing it in a private room in a restaurant and going from city to city in a road sort of fashion like we used to do, we now do it online. We’re using Zoom meetings, the video product and things like breakout rooms to replicate roundtables and private lunches where we can connect sales reps with target prospects. So basically, we replicated and we had, thankfully, Zoom with a very easy and proven technology to replicate the experience as much as possible from face-to-face to online. So, because we had the ability—that technology which is obviously being used by everyone for everything right now. We were able to leverage that, the same approach applied in terms of how we used to do things to how we do things now, and along the way we found some very good surprises.

For example: When we used to do face-to-face events in a city, we were limited by geography. You can’t really get people that will want to travel more than a half-hour to go to a lunch event, so that sort of limited your ability to invite people. In virtual events, you know, instead of just doing a face-to-face launch in Austin, Texas, you now can do one for the state of Texas. Still taking a regional approach, because you still need to align with your clients’ sales organizations, and they are still based on geography. But you could do so and include multiple cities, so now the pool of attendees is greater; that results in better quantity and even better quality in many cases, because you’re able to focus more on getting more senior-level folks.

The other thing we learned about virtual events, which is a nice surprise, is that there’s less friction to get people to participate. Even a tour at a lunch event takes up about half of someone’s day, but a 75-minute virtual event that you can do from home all of a sudden is easier to participate, easier to get speakers, easier to even get clients to get their customers to participate as speakers. So these are some of the things that we learned in a sort of pleasant surprise, and really I believe we actually have a viable product. Hopefully things will get back to normal, and we’ll do face-to-face events, but I think virtual events are here to stay, and for certain clients and certain situations, it’s actually going to be more advantageous and they’re going to choose to do it over face-to-face events.

So I think we’re going to have a product that’s going to continue to grow and evolve into the future. Plus the other benefit is that it actually got us into digital marketing because these virtual events are obviously digital now, and we can use these recordings, we can edit them, we can package marketing services around them, so we can provide additional ways to help our clients reach for target audience—not only through the people that show up at events but also the many people who don’t. Being able to use the content—and this is something you know more about than most people—being able to use very relevant leadership content to help clients connect to their audience, and even the ones that are not showing up to events, is a new opportunity for BDI and one that we look forward to.

Rob: It’s pretty cool, it’s amazing how fast you did that. Not only were you able to pull that off conceptually and execute it, but you obviously got your clients as well as attendees to realize “Hey, this isn’t a webinar; this is literally the live event experience,” just in a digital environment.

Steven: And that’s a challenge we have, because originally when we were trying to let our clients and potential clients know what we were doing, people naturally equated that with the traditional webinar. As we all know, webinars are great, they have their place, they’re great for leadership branding, they’re great to reach a lot of people, they get the message out. But they’re not great for connecting people to people, they’re not great for interaction between a sales team and prospects. It’s primarily a push relationship for the most part, and because we’re now five or six weeks into this, the education level is better with a lot of folks, but there’s still a big misconception that a virtual event equals a webinar, when in fact it really doesn’t.

The way that we’re approaching virtual events—others too, not just us—we’re really putting connection first and content second. Content is super important and always will be, especially for attracting people in the first place. But once you have them, or once they’re participating in the event, there’s a major opportunity to have people just like we’re talking to each other now, even in small breakout rooms of five, six, seven people. Similar to if you were in a private room at a restaurant, you’re in a roundtable and you’re enjoying a meal with six or seven people, you can have an intimate conversation, you can get to know five or six people pretty well, and if one of those people running a conversation is a good sales person and the other five are prospects and maybe one is a customer, it’s a pretty magical formula for making good stuff happen.

Rob: Steve, how big is your team?

Steven: Overall, we’re about 25. We do have, thanks to you and Work Better Now, we have three that we’re working with from your organization. They’re in El Salvador, and they’re really a part of our team, and then we have maybe five or six part-time folks who work as researchers helping us build lists for our clients, and then the rest—I would say about 15 or so—are full-time.

Rob: And how many of them are working remotely, in addition to the three that are from Work Better Now?

Steven: Over the past six weeks, we’re all working remotely. We’re not able to go to the office, so everyone’s working remotely now, due to the circumstances; before the coronavirus crisis, I would say there were about a dozen of us in the office.

Rob: What do you consider your role as the CEO?

Steven: Always number one is to retain my employees; certainly pre-crisis, it was employee retention, as we know the economy was super-hot. A level of talent really has a choice to work for whoever they want because they’re so valuable, and thankfully we have a lot of “A” players in the BDI team, so my job was always to foster a culture that resulted in keeping my employees and keeping them fulfilled and keeping them happy—so that was number one.

And number two was to create in a similar fashion our employer brand, so that we were very attractive when competing for talent in hiring, because we’re growing. So that was my main objective, because ultimately if you have a fantastic team—and look, we’re in the services business, so this could be different for those who are making products, but in the services business, essentially the people are the number one factor in terms of client satisfaction. You need to retain your best people and you need to make sure that they’re growing, that they’re fulfilled and learning, and that they’re achieving their personal career objectives. That’s really what was my number one job.

Now it’s still the same, but I would add a layer onto it, which is that the health and safety of my employees comes number one because we’re in crisis and it’s not only the health and safety from the virus, but it’s also mental health. A lot of my employees live in New York City, which is a very difficult place to live right now: people are in small apartments and there’s not a lot of comfortable opportunity to be outside. When you have to social distance in a city like that, it is isolating, so making sure that their mental health is good is big. We do things like group meditation. I work with a great person that helps us do that on Zoom once a week. We do group yoga, and I’m doing more one-on-one check-ins through Zoom—kind of like we’re speaking now, just with employees, and the topic isn’t about work; it’s about how are you, how’s your family, how’s your husband, your wife, your partner, are you able to get the food you need and the supplies, how are you feeling about things, and it’s really just a conversation.

I’m not a psychologist by any means, but really, you need to stay very connected with people very closely in this day and age because there’s…I believe there’s a big problem with the whole country in terms of our mental health. I think there was before this crisis, which has made even that much more of a problem, so I’m very much in tune with that. I spend a lot of time just having conversations with my employees, how they’re doing naturally goes for the work also, so that’s good and allows me to keep my finger on the pulse of where everyone’s at and how they’re doing.

Rob: Gotcha. So it’s very similar, for those who are familiar, with Danny Meyer from Union Square Hospitality Group and Shake Shack: basically, you put your employees first and everything else kind of falls in line.

Steven: Exactly.

Rob: From a technology standpoint, what has helped your company work better now with tech and its impact? Obviously we’ve talked about Zoom, and I don’t know if you have anything else you want to add about that, or do you want to go on to some other technologies?

Steven: So Zoom is super important, not only because our product or virtual product is on Zoom, but we are using it for client communications and for team communication, so I think we’ve got that covered. We are big Slack users too, so collaborating through Slack is important. You know from a communication collaboration perspective that those are the tools we are using. We are also big users of products that I’m not sure you’re familiar with called Airtable, which is essentially a spreadsheet on steroids. It’s sort of like a web-based spreadsheet that allows you to project-manage, share documents, organize things, but what’s nice is that, every time you put data into Airtable, it’s like a database, so it updates it in other places.

When we have used it for our events—we might be managing 30 or 40 events at once as an organization—all those events are managed on Airtable and are updated constantly. So if we want to know the who/what/when/where—say about an event’s panelists and updated headshots—it’s all a data repository for information and provides the fuel to provide reporting on everything. We’re able to look at things from a dashboard, what events are performing well, which ones aren’t, so it’s really been a really valuable tool for us. It also works for automation, because we were sending out invitations all the time to people to attend our events and those invitations are automated. We use a tool called Woodpecker—I think we talked about it before—which is not well known, but it is a really great b2b email tool based in the UK. They’ve been sort of a game-changer for us in terms of allowing us to have a conversational approach to email marketing well. We invite folks and again that integrates with Airtable, and those are some of the ways that we automate business and processes that we do every day.

Rob: Any other tech tips and tricks that you can share? So you mentioned, for example, Slack—I use Slack with my assistant, but I was loath to use it with another business that I have, because of the interruptions. People sometimes just need to sit down and be uninterrupted and do some work.

Any other tech tips and tricks—you obviously are doing a great job of leveraging technology…anything that you want to share?

Steven: Yeah, I think. You know Slack, emails, they are interrupters if you let them be. I think you know some of the ways that we try to overcome that in our organization is by being really transparent about what we have on our plate and communicating that to each other, so that if my head is down for an hour because I need to write an event title or abstract for a new client, or it requires research, requires some planning to do in the morning, I might let my team know.

Slack is good, because you can create your settings to be like Hey, I’m busy or Don’t bother me now kind of thing, so using the features of those technologies to communicate with people when you want to be left alone and when you’re open to speaking is helpful for sure. But even with that said, it’s sometimes frustrating because you used to have to search email for something and now it’s like I either search email or we’re just searching in or Slack. There is sort of a downside to it, all that you know you can manage. I still feel the benefits outweigh.

Rob: Let’s talk about your experience with Work Better Now assistants. What has your experience been like?

Steve: It’s been overwhelmingly positive; we’ve had Linda for over a year. I think you talk to Claudia, who we’ve had now for over a year, and then Daniela, who just started not too long ago, is doing great. They really become an essential part of the team, is the best way to say it. We treat them like they are teammates, so it’s just that they’re based in another country and obviously we’re working with them through you and Work Better Now, so they help us in a number of different ways. They really are a support organization to our account management team. They help do back office processes, research, a lot of RSVP management.

We’re dealing with, like I said, at any given time, people are responding to attend events, sometimes 20 or 30 that are promoting at once, and it’s a tremendous amount of organization and responses that are required, because part of our approach is to take a really personal way when we connect with people. We are sending them individual email, also making them feel really special because of who they are and what they do, that they’re a good fit for our event, so it’s not like going to a website and registering. It’s a lot of personal interaction, so all of the resources that we’re using from Work Better Now really help us do that at scale in a big way.

That’s number one. Number two is we’re constantly doing our research for these contacts. Your clients say No, we want to reach, say, VP level and up, security function, IT function in this region, They also help us help our research team perform those research assignments, which all take a lot of time and effort. There is a lot of attention to detail your team has really been helpful in doing with us, so we’re very grateful for all of them and the support we get. Those are some of the things they do and some highlights about working with them.

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