(~7 minute read)
Straight talk: This was one of the hardest interviews I've done to date.
Why?: Because John Connors has so much interesting stuff to talk about, I could have made this 2 hours long, let alone 7 minutes.
What team builds an event series (or anything for that matter) with over 600,000 participants / customers in the first year? It's debateable whether Facebook even did that kind of volume out of the gates. What's even more impressive, is The Color Run brand never fractured with the stress of scale and being in 60 different cities.
So when this guy talks, I'm all in.
You gotta love when the boss is gettin' his hands dirty and doing it with a smile, cool socks and a FREAKIN' army helmet. It might just be the secret sauce behind building a strong brand. Photo Cred: Jenna Velardi
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
First: John is the VP of Product Development for Bigsley Event House.
Second: Bigsley is the parent company of these little events:
It’s worth mentioning that John was slightly delayed for our interview because of an incredibly "important company meeting": ie. A paper airplane competition.
Sorry to pull you away. I know it must be hard to turn your back on.
No way man. I’ve been looking forward to this.
So how big is your team now?
We have about 60 people in our office here in Salt Lake and another 20-30 remotely.
Say hello to The Bigsley Event House Crew. John shares his Lessons learned from The Color Run and working with this amazing team.
Given that you have had almost every job at Bigsley, what are you doing now?
My primary role is product development. I sit over the existing brands when it comes to refreshing things. It's important to constantly work through the kinks and continue to try and innovate there. I also oversee a small group of people that work on our new event ideas.
John and his Bigsley team just practicing their new color throws. When working at the color run your days are filled with these exercises.
So what is your process to roll new events out?
We have some structure to encourage the creative process, but we have to be careful with providing too much structure. Basically we have a set of game rules and want the team to be as creative as possible within those rules. At the same time, we subscribe to the idea that the best way to have a good idea, is to have lots of ideas. So we review 20-30 ideas a week.
I would love to be in one of those brainstorming sessions.
Yeah - they're fun.
So where did you grow up?
I grew up in Farmington, UT. A small suburb north of Salt Lake.
What was 15 year old John like?
Hah. Hmm. 15 years old me...
He’s kind of like the most transcendental version of current John. I was wearing a lot of tie dyed shirts and listening to lots of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. I read Walden for the first time. A lot of stuff that stuck to me personality wise.
That was also the time Terminator 2 came out, so that forever changed the meaning of being named John Connors.
Photo Cred: The Connors' Family Album
You know, I was debating how to bring that up, but I figured there was nothing original I could say, so I’m glad you did the work for me.
Dude, the most un-believable part about it is that my sister’s name is Sarah.
So, if you’re friends were a little tipsy, how would they describe you?
They would probably say, John is that short, bearded dude, who is driving everyone home.
When not at home, where do you feel most at home?
Probably at our events. Our team has really become like a second family, so outside of home there is probably no other place i’d rather be than at our events.
John and The Color Run Team
What would you say is your spirit animal?
Well. Fiercely loyal, kinda short dude, who likes to eat many meals each day. Given to occasional song... Very Hobbit Like.
That might be the best spirit animal of all my interviews so far. Well Done.
Thank you. I knew I had to bring my A game.
I understand you have a knack for the guitar. Do you have a favorite guitar riff?
I think I have as many riffs as I do moods. So, it kind of depends on the day. But good songs and good events have a ton in common. Their succes or failure is based on their ability to tap into a set of human and emotional tendencies.
Photo Cred: The Connors Family Album
Are you in a band now?
Only if you count, playing for my kids.
John, Ashley and the fam
I understand you and your wife Ashley were friends in college. So how did you get out of the friend zone?
Hah... As with most success stories, it was a mix of patience, strategy and luck. I somehow stayed relevant long enough for everyone else to fall out of the picture. So that was my game plan.
There's another set of cool socks.
Is it true you have a fear of flying?
Hah. That is true. But you get over that pretty quickly when you realize you have to be in 60 different places over the next year.
What’s the deal with the Utah Event Mafia?
It’s kind of crazy, but there are a lot of event people from the Beehive state, for sure. Of course Travis and Heidi Snyder, the founders of The Color Run are from here. Victoria Brumfield (Virgin Sport) has called this place home. Tanner Bell (co-founder and president of Ragnar), Dan Hill (co-founder Ragnar, creator of Electric Run and Rise Festival), Kent Phippen (VP of Events at The Color Run) and I all went to the same high school.
Sooo... what your sayin is, the New York mob had the cement industry and Utah has the fun run industry.
Travis (Left) & John (Right) doing their best "not on my block" impression.
What kind of impact do you think that proximity has had?
Having a network of people who are fighting the same fights as you is so helpful. We've been able to bounce ideas off of each other a bit.
And as far as, why Utah: I think it'd be hard to overstate the influence Ragnar Relay Series had on the entire fun run space. When Ragnar started the concept of running as a non-competitive social sport was not very popular. What Dan and Tanner did was show people in Utah (probably before anyone else in the country) how powerful this can be.
Photo Cred: @RagnarRelay
So when were you like, "hoooooolly crap", we’re on to something?
Travis probably always knew. This had lived in his head for a long time. But for me, it wasn't until runners started crossing the finish line at our first event. We were just figuring things out on the fly. I remember finishing setting up the finish line as the first runner was crossing. I was literally dropping cones, sprinting to beat him to the finish line before he crossed. Right after he crossed, I turned around and watched this sea of people run across the finish line. There was this uncontrollable excitement in all of them as they were given this powder and throwing it on each other.
Photo Cred: @TheColorRun
That was the moment where I could tell we were tapping into something that was deeper than we realized. It became evident pretty quickly that we were going to be chasing a monster that whole first year.
At the end of 2011 our goal was 20 events and 100K people. In that first year, we ended up doing 60 events and 600,000 people. It was crazy, scaling so fast.
Goes to show how powerful a good idea can be. Even if you don’t have everything flushed out.
What have been the biggest operational challenges you’ve faced in the beginning?
We needed a way to ensure a consistent experience for participants while at the same time we were focused on scale and growing sooo fast. But we didn’t want to sacrifice quality and a real emotional experience at the end of each event. That was tricky to balance.
Photo Cred: @TheColorRun & @FabLifeMagazine
So what are some of the ways you manage that type of growth?
You have to be open to really, really fast iteration. You have to keep the lines of communication really open. And you have to be willing to be wrong and change quickly. We were, and still are, constantly analyzing our processes and our results. Internally, we do it though regular and open communication with the team. Externally, we do a ton of surveys. We track Net Promoter Score for every single event. We read every survey.
Our average for the Net Promoter Score for 2015 was a 76%. Which for people who track the NPS score that’s a really great score. Everyone on our team watches that number.
What are some of your biggest operational challenges you face now?
I think the biggest one is maintaining a genuine personality in the brand and keeping each event relevant in each city. We don’t want to be the circus putting on the same event in each city. So we are constantly juggling how we are going to be both nationally and locally relevant at the same time.
Photo Cred: @theColorRun
Did you guys have a customer persona initially for The Color Run Brand?
From the beginning the whole idea was about empowerment. Our goal was to find people who wanted to be active, or who wanted to run a 5k (or any distance for that matter), but for whatever reason were too afraid to take that step. So the original persona was someone who loves physical activity and excited about it, but hadn’t found a good entry point to it yet.
To do that, we started by asking what are the reasons these people aren’t participating. For example, many were nervous they weren’t fast enough, so we said, let’s get rid of the timing.
And then we dug even deeper. We knew even with timing, people would still try and make it competitive, so we added the powder on the course and costumes and music. All the things that said, "this is not a race".
It was all so that when you got done, you realize: WOW! I just ran a 5k, it was super fun and I feel great about myself. That hopefully leads them to a life of activity.
Dude - Michelle Obama is giving you a huge high five right now.
Photo Cred: @TheColorRun
If The Color Run had a sister brand, who would it be?
I think from a brand message side, we’re most focused on brands that talk about possibility and connection. So this is going to sound like a weird connection to make, but a good example is Dove.
First, we have a similar demographic. But more importantly, we are selling a very similar message.
We're not selling soap or a 5k with colorful powder.
But John... selling soap after one of your events might not be a bad idea.
Photo Cred: @TheColorRun (It's like Rainbow Brite threw up on them)
But what we believe we’re selling, is hope and a really awesome cheering section. We're selling a tool to help you become something that is authentically you and the underlying message is, "the authentic you is something worth investing in". Annnd... once you have that part down, connecting with others becomes really easy. And meaningful connections and relationships are the key ingredient to a happy life. So in a sense, we are both selling happiness.
So when you empower people to do things they didn’t think they could do and you give them a community where they can connect to other people, (so they feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves), then you create a really strong brand.
Damn brother... You definitely sound like a professor. This line is definitely going in my twitter-sphere:
"The authenitc you is something worth investing in." @TheColorRun http://bit.ly/1Tdio3f
So, in one sentence, who is your competition?
What people want are experiences, so our competition is not just other 5Ks. It’s anything you can do on a Saturday morning with your friends that cost about the same.
If you could go back in time to that first year of The Color Run, what advice would you give yourself?
Keep a journal. Honestly I think I remember what I was thinking, but I don’t. And I want to talk to that guy and tell him to have more fun. I think i got caught up in how fast we were going, that I forgot to celebrate that.
Looks like you were having fun to me John.
Photo Cred: @TheColorRun
In your work life, are you insecure about anything?
Oh man. Everything sometimes. By design I am never the smartest person in the room. So I am always wondering if I am adding enough value, giving enough support and I am not sure I want that to change. With the dynamic nature of events, once I feel like I have it all figured out, I think I will stop having any relevant contribution to make.
I saw you've recently launched a new event brand: "Soul Pose". Congrats, BTW. So what's your biggest concern with this new event series?
Thanks man. It's been a lot of fun.
When I think of biggest concerns, I always think of telling the story. So my biggest concern is how you tell the story of Soul Pose in 5 seconds. Compacting the awesome story of an hour into 5 seconds is really tricky.
Photo Cred: Soul Pose
What has been the last book you gifted or recommended to someone?
"Originals" by Adam Grant. It’s a great book. Questions some of the traditional assumptions about creativity. We have a little book club in my department and Originals is what we’re reading now.
If you are ever in Grand Rapids, Michigan, go to Hopcats and get the Crack Fries. So good!
Clearly brother... BTW is this you?
After further research, we confirmed this picture is not of John, but no one reads the subscript anyway so we thought it was pretty funny. From the annual "Crack Fry" Eating Contest.
Bottom-line: John and his team HAVE to write a book. That thing would resonate with any type of business, brand, entrepreneur or organization. Think about some fo the stuff he mentioned:
LESSON 1: They had this theory and quickly figured out a way to test that theory. The execution the first few times around wasn't perfect, but they knew their customer inside and out and created a feedback loop to continue to improve (Yes, they actually listen to their customers).
LESSON 2: From a brand and marketing perspective: IMPRESSSSIVE. They understand the power of brand positioning and handed their customers a template to authentically share their experience.
LESSON 3: Innovation is at the center of what they do. They know that everything is a cycle and instead of just milking the initial concept until it runs dry, they have a system to constantly evolve and innovate. It's so important, they enlisted a critical team-member like John to oversee it.
LESSON 4: In John's words, "We got a lot of things wrong over the years, but the one thing we definitely got right was the culture and team".
In my words, "If you're going to scale at such a crazy pace and not dilute the brand, you need a bad ass team behind you". Sooo... if you work at Bigsley and were a part of that ride the first few years, well done, we can all learn a ton from you.
Vans Warped Tour: Kevin Lyman, Founder & CEO
Manifest Justice & Obama Hope Campaign: Yosi Sergant, Co-Creator
Ironman: Roch Frey, Event Director
NFL: Katie Keenan, Director of Events
Los Angeles Marathon: Murphy Reinschreiber, VP of Operations
Supefly (Bonnaroo): Kat Tooley, Senior Director, Event Production
Virgin Sport: Victoria Brumfield, VP of Global Operations
Big Sur Marathon: Doug Thurston, President
Ragnar Relay: Tanner Bell, Co-Founder & President
Marine Corp Marathon: Rick Nealis, President
Beats By Dre: Jason White, VP of Marketing
Sea Otter Classic: Frank Yohannan, Founder & President
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