(9 min read, maybe 8, but totally worth it)
It’s not every day you meet a guy who’s likened to a Sesame Street character. I mean, who didn’t love Sesame Street growing up. Sooo, we were really excited to sit down with our friend and former co-worker Latane Meade, aka Big Bird.
(confession: my favorite was Cookie Monster or Oscar, but Big Bird definitely got the most pub)
What we love about the story Latane is writing for himself, is that he continually shows the ability to breathe life into his crazy new ideas and knows how to make them mainstream.
(For those who need a little more enticement to read the rest: Latane is the Co-Founder of The Electric Run; Co-Founder of The Wipeout Run, Co-Founder of VAVI Sport & Social Club, CEO of Meade Lemonade and Co-Founder of Ace & Gary Enterprises.)
He's got this deadly combo of ideation and execution. So… our goal for the interview was to try understand where that entrepreneurial spirit comes from and learn from his experience.
Enjoy the interview. We sure did.
Now that's an event series!
LET'S SET THE SCENE
After playing phone tag for many weeks--damn this guy’s busy! Amidst the rainbow assortment of VAVI t-shirts, kickball photos, and league schedules, we caught up at his office in Pacific Beach. It serves as the VAVI Sport & Social Club and the Wipeout Run Global Headquarters.
Ready Big Bird?
Oh crap, I already know where this is going :) Hah!
Where did you grow up?
Virginia Beach, Virginia.
How would describe young Latane?
I would say I was very curious.
Photo Cred: Thanks to Latane's Mom & the Meade Family Album.
Hah, haven't seen that in a while.
Man that expression looks really familiar.
Photo Cred: Latane's Facebook
Any of those early businesses pay off for you?
I remember one summer when I was really young, I wanted $100 Oakley sunglasses. I saved up $120 from running a lemonade stand and spent it on those sunglasses. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to invest 80% of my savings into one asset, but you know, I STILL have those sunglasses today, so I’m happy about it.
Some people frame their first $1 bill, but you saved sunglasses.
There it is.
Latane and another guy who tends to go for the homerun.
If your friends were a little tipsy (not VAVI NYE Party drunk), how would they describe you?
They’d probably say that he goes for the home run more often than he should. I think I have a high tolerance for risk, which can be both good and bad (probably more bad).
Well, we took a few liberties and asked them :)
Bobby Peterson: In fact I am slightly drunk right now, so perfect timing. Latane is one of the coolest cats I know. He's an absolute BLAST.
Travis Davidson: Latane is part man, part Big Bird. He has a giant personality and is also a giant. He is the most selfish and selfless person I know. There is only one Latane.
[I know this is Latane’s interview, but I have to dig into this “Big Bird” Theme a bit more]
There's Big Bird himself. Photo Cred: Latane's Facebook via Kelly Szymczak
Bobby Peterson: He literally can squawk like a bird! Hence his nickname. And when I say squawk, what I mean is a series of sounds that reminds me of what a cat on meth might sound like. The "Big Bird Call" is how he likes to enter and leave rooms, or important meetings.
You had me at "Cat on Meth".
[If anyone from animal services is reading this, we in no way condone or support the intoxication of animals. Not even Catnip.]
I see you've been teaching Cam early.
Hah. You know what they say "like father like son".
Photo Cred: Latane's Facebook
You mentioned taking risks, but it seems like a lot of your risks have paid off. What's with the bad?
There’s definitely bad when you get too leveraged, and that causes stress. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less interested in getting super risky.
Any unique talents?
Travis Davidson: Let me answer this one.
Latane: Go right ahead.
Travis: His unique talents are in his head. He thinks he will be able to join the Seniors Tour in golf. He thinks he could play professional soccer, after only one year of formal training. And he thinks he can become a marketing executive for a Fortune 100 company (actually that one could be true).
Photo Cred: Electric Run "always trying to improve his game"
I don't know Travis... seems like he has a good boot to me. Old Big Bird might be a beast in goal.
So Latane, tell me a bit more about this appreciation for the sports radio host Colin Cowherd.
Well, A lot of what he talks about are world and societal issues, related to sports. He’s able to derive a lot of theories just from common sense. Growing up, that was something my mom always pushed. Step back and think through your problems step by step.
Your Mom is a smart lady.
Yes she is.
Shout-out to The Meade Family
So how do you apply your Mom's wisdom to your events?
We ask ourselves questions all the time about everything from how to word a marketing message to big decisions like whether we should get rid of an obstacle. Do we think the customers would like this? Is it important to our experience? Once we come up with a theory based on pure common sense, we reach out to consumers to get their feedback. The data eventually tells us the truth one way or the other. We follow the data. But first you have to take that earlier step and stop to ask the questions. It seems basic, but it’s something that has been very successful for a lot of the projects I’ve worked on.
And how do you do that when you’re so busy?
I think it’s about empowering your employees. You’re not going to be able to make every decision yourself, but if using a common-sense approach is the philosophy of your team and everyone’s bought in to it, they’re going to make that decision for you. You’re nothing without your people —that's just what it comes down to. You really need to find people who are bought into the vision you have or it won’t work.
Latane and his Wipeout Team
Is that how you built a thriving costume business?
Ha, the costume business is no more.
What?! No way! What happened?
Well, a few years back, my business partner and I saw Ace and Gary: The Ambiguously Gay Duo cartoon from “Saturday Night Live” and thought it was hilarious. We made Ace and Gary costumes and won every Halloween contest we went to. Everyone wanted to buy the costumes off of us. We had no idea people would love it so much.
A typical Friday afternoon at Vavi Sport & Social Headquarters.
So I went to SNL and created a partnership with them and got the license to sell the costumes on eBay. (Surprisingly SNL wanted to do business with us, even though we had no experience in the industry at all.) It did really well, and after a couple years, we ended up selling the business.
And if you weren’t overseeing the Wipeout Run, what would you be doing?
I’d be working at a scalable, internet marketing business. And I wouldn’t travel as much. The truth is I’m not an event guy. We have amazing event guys in our company who go out and make these events happen. That’s not my role, I’m more focused on the strategic and revenue side.
Photo Cred: Big Bird
For not being "an event guy" you play the part pretty damn well.
You’ve worked with some big brands over the years. What in your mind, makes for a successful partnership?
First: It’s never easy and every partnership is different. There are some great upside to big partnerships, like when we partnered with the TV show “Wipeout” for ROC Race we got a lot of extra PR. But keep in mind, you’re also dealing with differing opinions and approvals take a long time.
Second: My recommendation for anyone who gets involved in partnerships to find a mentor who can help you navigate the good and the bad. Finding someone who would have prepared me for what to expect, would have helped me early on.
Let's talk Electric Run, since it's kind of a big deal.
Where was the first electric run?
Orange County, CA
How did the idea come about?
Dan Hill brought VAVI the idea. We thought it had legs and were willing to roll the previous year's profits into it.
So when were you like, "holy shit, this is going to be huge"?
When we shot the first video and saw the energy. This was before we even had a website. :) Then it was really confirmed the first day we opened registration to thousands of participants.
That's got to be such a great feeling.
And when were you like, holy shit we need some help?
We had hired great people who put on massive music festivals. But with that said, we all knew this had never been done on this level before and it was going to get a little crazy.
Photo Cred: @electricrun
So, what are the biggest challenges when expanding a series and brand like the Electric Run?
First: Cost control is number one. That seems basic, but really understanding your current cost structure and what happens to your costs as you grow is critical.
Second: Consistently keeping your team motivated. It’s a grind when you’re on tour. So make sure they’re happy and they have what they need.
Last: Forecasting revenue in an ever-changing industry like events. It’s very difficult to forecast if you’ve never launched a product in a certain market. Your product might be really good, but you might have taken it to the wrong market. This happened to us — we took the ROC Race to Pomona four years ago and it did not do well at all. We chose the wrong market. But when we took it to Orange Country, we sold 11,000 registrations in two months.
And how has social media impacted things in your mind?
Social is interesting. In a way, it created our industry. Sure, there were races before us with lots of people, but social media allowed the industry to expand at a rate that never existed before. It allowed you take an idea to a new market and get thousands of people to your event. But what created an industry could also kill an industry.
Do you have advice for people who are trying to drive registrations through social media?
With social, there are some tactics that drive registrations and some that don’t. What I can say is that data tells you pretty clearly what works and what doesn’t. We look at data all the time and when we test something, we know if it worked. Make sure you’re dedicating budget into the things that work.
From a social engagement standpoint what did you learn from the Electric Run experience?
Well, I learned that you can grow too fast. I mean, we did 300,000 participants in year one!
It was such a rocket ship, but it didn’t allow us to dive deep into the data on things like how much it costs to put on each event and where we can get more efficient in our cost controls. We were doing surveys and getting high-level feedback, but didn’t have someone on a daily basis diving into the feedback and making adjustments as much as we should have.
Photo Cred: @ElectricRun
With ROC Race, we only did one event per year for the first three years, which gave us a lot of time to tweak and get the product right. You don’t want to take too much time because the competition can come in and leave you in the dust, but there is a balance.
Speaking of ROC Race (now Wipeout Run), you're expanding down under. That's huge.
Yeah, we are really excited about it. We have some great partners there.
Speaking of partners, what was it about Luke Hannan and his production team in Australian, that gave you the confidence to make the leap with them?
We worked with Travis Snyder at Electric Run and he always spoke highly of Luke and the team. We've been shocked with the success there. We sold out ROC Race Melbourne in 3 days and sold out Sydney ROC Race in 5 HOURS. Luke is also responsible for creating my latest nickname. He called me Larry at our first meeting and it stuck ever since at the VAVI office. Thanks Luke.
You don't really look like a Larry.
Riiiight. Whatever... keeps people entertained.
If your son Cam wanted to get into the event business, what one piece of advice would you give him?
Well, I'd first ask him if he wants to give up his weekends, work 18 hour days and potentially lose his life savings in one event? COOL, HAVE AT IT KID.
Awesome. Thanks Dad.
Photo Cred: Big Bird & Little Bird
Who should we interview next?
Do it. No more excuses! Even if you fail, you'll be better off... It might just take you a while to believe that.
Simply put, we need more Latane Meade’s in this world. He could just as easily go run marketing at some big company, but he’s chosen the path of events and entrepreneurship. As you know, that’s not an easy path.
If I think about the “between the lines” stuff from my time with Latane. I can see that how that entrepreneurial spirit can feel like a blessing and a curse at times. He’s constantly pushing himself into new territory (that's really dang stressful). But... if anyone is going to do it, Latane is the one to make it happen. Annnd, I have a feeling we’re about to see something big from him and his team over the next few years.
We're excited to give you guys updates along the way.
Run to Feed The Hungry (Largest Turkey Trot in the World) -- Head of Communications, Kelly Siefkin
Charity Water & Charity Ball -- Chief of Staff, Lauren Letta
Fjuze (Netherlands) -- Founder, Klaas Rohde
TechCrunch Disrupt -- Event Director, Leslie Hitchcock
Endurance SportsWire & Outdoor SportsWire -- Founder, Tina Wilmott
Academy Awards -- Event Director, Cheryl Cecchetto
RunningUSA -- Programming Director, Christine Bowen
Wasserman Media Group -- Head of Social, Zack Sugarman
Brighton Marathon -- Co-Founder, Tim Hutchings
Beats By Dre -- VP Marketing, Jason White
San Diego Zoo -- Events Director, Rachel Paulson
Sundance Film Festival -- Managing Director, Sarah Pearce
Challenge Family -- Director of Communications, Victoria Murray-Orr
If you want to get the interviews on the reg, we can email them to you. Sign up below (in the purple box).
Lennd is an operations and workforce management platform for events. We're currently in a private beta with some of our favorite events around the globe, but if you want to sign up for early notice as we bring on more events and organizations, you can do that here.