How Cvent is poised to take the reins of the $500 billion meetings and events industry

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By Matt Ward

Photography by Rachel Smith

Reggie Aggarwal likes to talk about pain points. “Find the pain point,” he says, “then find the aspirin.”

It’s an elegant business analogy from an entrepreneur whose event management software company launched in 1999, barely survived the dot-com crash and then slowly worked its way to the top, going public last year with a $135 million IPO. Today, McLean, VA-based Cvent is renovating a new headquarters there — it also has offices in Austin, Portland, Los Angeles, London and New Delhi, India — and has a healthy $1+ billion market capitalization.

Cvent’s original product was its online event management offering. In the years since, the company has vastly expanded its offerings. Its cloud-based event management platform alone has hundreds of features to help users manage invitations, control spending and target content to their customers. Cvent’s newest software comes in the form of a mobile app for conference attendees — it replaces the clunky three-ring binders, brochures and maps conference attendees used to have to lug around.

Cvent built the app for this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, and Aggarwal says it’s a perfect example of increased convenience for the attendee: “If you’re going to go to DC for the Cherry Blossom Festival and you just take 24 seconds to download the app, you can find out all the information you need. Where do I get lunch? Where’s the bathroom? Where do I park?”

But that consumer application, Aggarwal insists, is just the tip of the iceberg; the real value of the corporate conference app is in networking. Making connections in person, expanding one’s network — that’s the real reason business people attend conferences. Cvent brings that experience into the 21st century.

Find the pain point

This is how each new Cvent product gets its start. Aggarwal’s team asks: What do customers need? Where can we help them save time and money? How can we help them get better results? Through its early failings and ensuing success, Cvent has kept a focus on these questions. One member of the management team says the company’s ability to continually identify new customer needs is a manifestation of Aggarwal’s understanding of human nature — he innately senses what inspires people, what motivates them, even what scares them. So he uses that information, and he finds the pain point, then he finds the aspirin. From there, Cvent sells the aspirin. Globally.

The company, in fact, was born from Aggarwal’s own pain point, which came in the form of a thousand-person mailing list.

In 1996, as a young lawyer at Coopers & Lybrand and while pursuing a post-graduate law degree at Georgetown, Aggarwal co-founded the Indian CEO High Tech Council, a networking group for Indian senior executives from companies with at least $10 million in revenue and 75 employees. What started as an informal session at the Tysons Corner Ritz Carlton soon opened up to non-Indians and grew to an association with more than 1,000 members in the DC region. Meetings went from a few dozen attendees at four or five events a year to 600 attendees at 40 events a year. Hillary Clinton and Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, were among the speakers; then-Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, U.S. senators and Fortune 500 CEOs sat in the audience. Attendance was free and by invitation only.

The engine behind it all was this young, energetic lawyer armed with a newfangled, powerful marketing tool: an Outlook email account.

Aggarwal spent all his free time sending thousands of individualized emails to the region’s technology power players. He logged responses to each email invite in an Excel sheet and tracked the details on Post-it notes — who said yes, who said no, who ignored the email, who had changed their email address or switched companies.

“It gave me a glimpse of entrepreneurism because I got to meet all the successful CEOs in the Washington area,” Aggarwal says of his time running the nonprofit. “And, it ultimately gave me the idea to start my business.”

Boom, bust and rebuild

That idea was simple — a pill for the pain, as it were: automate this cumbersome process of sending emails, logging the responses on sticky notes and spreadsheets, and sending out follow-ups. Aggarwal wanted a software solution for event planning. The year was 1999.

“We were one of the very first internet-based software as a service companies,” says David Quattrone, Cvent co-founder and CTO. While Aggarwal is the vision at Cvent, Quattrone has always been the technician, writing code and figuring out, from very early on in the internet age, how to build a multi-tenant structure, how to deliver business-ready enterprise software over the web and how to keep the operation both secure and scalable.

With the addition of sales and marketing lead Chuck Ghoorah and IT specialist Dwayne Sye, the core Cvent team was set. The company flew out of the gate with $17 million in start-up funding and soon had 126 employees and a bustling operation.

Then, the dot-com bubble burst in March 2000, and the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 put a major damper on the events industry. By December of that year, Cvent was down to just 25 employees and facing a steep climb to rebuild.

In the darkest hour, co-founder Ghoorah recalls, the CEO called a senior staff meeting.

“Reggie got everyone around the table and said, ‘Are we going to do this as a team?’ And we all committed,” Ghoorah says.

That commitment meant Aggarwal personally signed the lease for the company’s newly half-empty office space. It meant Ghoorah took on geographical territory in Arizona and Colorado, where he flew to do lunch seminars on a regular basis (when Ghoorah couldn’t make the trip, Aggarwal would take his place). It meant the tech team, which went from 50 people down to less than 10, had to write new code, deliver the product and stabilize the platform. And, it meant the remaining staffers worked the phones and the WebEx video conference, cold calling businesses, getting rejected, making sales and building Cvent from the ground up.

In an echo of Aggarwal’s original sticky note tracking system, every new customer got printed out in big, blue letters and went up on the wall. As the display grew, spirits at the company lifted. It takes optimism to do sales, Ghoorah notes, and the Cvent staff managed to keep a positive attitude through the worst of times. By January 2003, when the company became cash-flow positive and the dust had settled, it was clear: Aggarwal had kept his senior team together, holding on to managers with degrees from Duke, Wharton and UVA, folks who could have walked out the door and into stable, higher-paying jobs at any time. The process was also a lesson in leadership for the CEO, who was simply too consumed with his own tasks to hover over his management team. “I had to completely trust them,” he says.

The experience forged Cvent’s company culture — to hire the best people, build the best products and always serve the customer. It’s having gone through the tech industry wringer, in fact, that lends real credence to Cvent staffers’ habit of referring to one another as “brothers and sisters in arms.” Today the company employs 1,450 people with plans to hire 500 more in the near future.

Hitting bottom as a business and coming through to find huge success, Ghoorah says, set all their lives on a new course. “I work with my best friends,” he says.

Drones and smartphones

It’s June in Las Vegas and there’s a drone flying over the reception hall at the Venetian, beaming video of the crowd out on social media. The keynote speaker is a graffiti artist with long blonde hair (he’s given TED Talks, too), and everyone in attendance has a Cvent-brand mobile conference app on his or her phone.

Cvent’s 2014 Corporate Meetings Summit was a splashy three days aimed at 1,000 meeting and event planners, and it marked another step in the company’s campaign to tell its story and to explain to the business world at large how powerful meetings can be, how technology can increasingly be used to improve the ROI for events, and just how large the events market really is.

“It’s a massive space — half a trillion dollars a year spent on meetings and events worldwide,” Aggarwal says.

In the lead-up to Cvent’s IPO (NYSE: CVT) in August 2013, Aggarwal and his team toured Wall Street. That meant visiting bankers and institutional investors for group lunches and one-on-one meetings in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Chicago and Baltimore to explain the case for massive growth in what was — to the established investment community — a new category: meetings and events.

“We’re not consumer, we’re not internet,” Aggarwal says. “So we had to explain to them how mission critical and how big it was.”

To wit: 25 percent of a typical business-to-business company’s marketing spend goes to meetings and trade shows. “It’s a huge part of their budget, but people don’t realize how much it is because so many different groups are doing it,” Aggarwal notes. “You have marketing, HR, training, travel. It makes a massive impact to the three most important parts of a company, which are the customers and prospects, the partners and the employees.”

Cvent’s focus is on helping organizations get more ROI from meetings and events; making events more engaging and beneficial for attendees; and helping organizations and meeting planners manage event spending. Cvent’s products include online meeting and event registration and marketing, online surveys for post-event reporting, ticketing services, event management, social media tools, and a comprehensive, worldwide online tool for soliciting bids from venues.

The Cvent Supplier Network tool is free to users. Hotels and venues can buy ads that will appear during the search, but every hotel and venue in the search area will be listed, whether they pay or not. The tool is impressive: Input what size room you want, denote any of a wide range of amenities you require, and venues will receive an RFP to bid for your business. A small army of 70 Cvent employees spent seven years researching venues around the world and building the database.

And then there are the mobile apps, which are customizable for individual events. In 2012, Cvent acquired two mobile app companies — one focused on apps for corporate events, the other on apps for consumer events like concerts and festivals.

It all adds up to a market space poised for growth. “Your gut tells you technology will shrink the meetings and events industry, with virtual meetings, with web casting, with webinars,” Aggarwal says, “but our view is to show how technology is going to increase the fact that people are going to have more meetings and events.”

Cvent’s secret sauce

Aggarwal, who was student body vice president at the University of Virginia, is outgoing, friendly and energetic. He’s been known to work 80 or 100 hours in a week, and he can’t list a single hobby. Free time, he says, is spent with his wife and three children.

Aggarwal makes a point that a lot of CEOs touch on in interviews: His company’s success is not all about him — it’s really about his whole team. With Aggarwal, this comment feels real; in fact, the senior leaders at Cvent actually call their “secret sauce” the fact that they’ve stuck together as a team since the beginning.

Aggarwal, who lived with his parents when the company was getting off the ground, likes to stay humble. He flies economy class everywhere he goes, and he shares hotel rooms during business travel just like his employees do. His office is front-and-center in Cvent’s reception area with floor-to-ceiling glass walls. His humility is even reflected in the company’s website: the “about us” section comes after a listing of the firm’s services; the “management team” link falls at the bottom of another list.

“Always remember where you came from,” Aggarwal says. It should come as no surprise that the company’s new headquarters will invert the typical corporate hierarchy. The main floor, which will include Aggarwal’s office, will be the middle of the three floors, with sales and marketing below and the tech department above. Open, internal staircases will connect the floors, and the 130,000-square-foot space will include a cafeteria and a gym.

The new offices are designed specifically to be hip, to help the company attract young talent. “You’ve got to find talent, you’ve got to retain your talent because that’s your most important asset,” Aggarwal says.

Every new hire at Cvent, no matter which office they will work in, spends several weeks in McLean, VA, going through Cvent University, which includes talks from each of the company’s senior leaders. “It’s like a mini MBA,” Aggarwal says. “It makes them better entrepreneurs.” As head of a fast-growing company, Aggarwal is keenly aware of the need to use training as a tool to impart the company’s culture and to foster new talent — he calls this “scalable DNA.” That is, taking the true identity of the company and imprinting it on the entire workforce, whether they’ll staff offices in India, London or the U.S.

Emotional support

Cvent founding investor Sanju Bansal says he provided Aggarwal with a lot of intellectual support in the early years. As a start-up CEO, Aggarwal had tons of questions, and Bansal — his partner at the Indian CEO Council and just a few years his senior — was there to answer them.

Now, post-IPO, Bansal says, he offers a different type of support. “There’s a level of courage required at this stage of the company, to continue to grow it,” Bansal says, noting that Cvent took almost 15 years to grow into a $125 million firm — now, investors will be looking to Aggarwal to replicate that growth, and quickly.

“We have to build a new Cvent every 30 months from here on out,” Bansal says. The type of support he offers his friend now, Bansal notes, is mostly emotional.

And that, perhaps, is a word that gets at the root of Reggie Aggarwal. It’s not just a business connection that people are looking for when they attend a big meeting or conference; it’s not just information from the keynote speaker. It’s inspiration. It’s that positive feeling Aggarwal wants his attendees to leave with, the feeling that, “Wow, that event was really worthwhile.” At its essence, it’s about human connections. “Business gets done with meeting people,” Aggarwal says.

And this, from a Northern Virginia tech guru who’s been working this space almost from the start of the internet age: “If you look at anything in life, it hasn’t fundamentally changed in 50 years. I don’t care what anyone says. I look at what I do on a Sunday: spend time with my kids, we go to the park, we eat lunch together, my wife and I may take a walk.” Aggarwal still thinks of his dad, working the phone tree, getting the word out about his engineer’s club, expanding his network. It’s a neat perspective for a guy who has employees and offices all over the world, whose company is traded on the NYSE and who has massive expectations for growth and profit riding on his shoulders: it’s not all that complicated — business, life — if you remember that it’s all about relationships. CEO

Matt Ward is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, MD. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

THE MAKING OF AN ENTREPRENEUR

Reggie Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Cvent, was born in Kansas. His older sister was born in India, and his older brother was born after her in Canada. Their parents, Ved and Nina Aggarwal, had immigrated to Middle America so Ved could get his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Kansas State University. Ved Aggarwal’s subsequent jobs as an engineer took the family around the country for a few years until they landed in Alexandria, VA, when Reggie was in the second grade.

Reggie Aggarwal recalls that his father served as president of a local Indian engineer’s group. In his youth, Reggie found it odd that his father would work all day and then spend his evenings organizing the group, making phone calls and attending meetings.

“I remember when I was a kid, thinking that I want to relax when I get home,” Aggarwal jokes. He adds, “My father was always very encouraging of being an entrepreneur. And I felt the excitement when I organized [my first] event, because when you organize it, you know everyone and you feel good when they say, ‘Hey I had a great time, this was a worthwhile three hours’ — there’s something exciting when the president of a Fortune 500 company tells you that at a young age.”

LOYALTY, DEDICATION AND THE HUMAN TOUCH

MicroStrategy co-founder Sanju Bansal was Cvent’s initial investor — he also cofounded the Indian CEO High Tech Council with Reggie Aggarwal.

SmartCEO asked Bansal how Aggarwal managed to hold his management team together through the tough times after the dot-com bubble burst and to carry that team — which remains largely intact today — all the way through to the company’s IPO and beyond.

It’s about leadership, Bansal says, and it comes down to the following three things.

Loyalty: “Reggie is incredibly loyal to the people around him,” Bansal says, adding that Aggarwal is a great communicator, which itself engenders loyalty. And he makes an emotional connection with the people on his team. “If you’re in that boat with him, you feel that loyalty back,” Bansal says.

Dedication: “He spends a lot of time thinking through what he is about to step into,” Bansal says, noting that once Aggarwal decides to take on a task, he goes all in. “We used to call him the Tasmanian devil,” Bansal jokes — but he points out that knowing the CEO is working extremely hard inspires team members to push themselves as well.

The Human Touch: “He has a sixth sense about the world around him,” says Bansal, who has known Aggarwal since the late 1990s. Aggarwal understands people and has an intuition about what drives them. “He can meet somebody for five minutes, and he can give you an hour debriefing on them.”