On the latest episode of the Technori Podcast, host Scott Kitun talks to returning guest Julie Novack, CEO and Co-Founder of PartySlate, the first two-sided digital event-planning platform to connect users directly with local event planners, venues, caterers and other party pros.
The PartySlate concept was a direct response to Novack’s own frustrating experience planning a high-profile fundraiser. Online searches for venues and party-planning ideas resulted in a jumble of wedding blogs and dead-end Pinterest boards.
But when she remodeled her kitchen, she used Houzz, a home-design platform that combines searchable visual inspo with local pros and click-to-buy products. With more than 20 years of experience in digital marketing and sales, including executive roles at Vibes Media and Razorfish, Novack saw her next move: build the “Houzz of event planning.” She launched PartySlate with longtime colleague John Haro in 2015.
“Nobody wants another chicken dinner”, according to PartySlate CEO Julie Novack
In just a few short years, PartySlate launched its platform in two more markets (Los Angeles and Dallas, in addition to Chicago), and closed a seed round of funding with an investment of $1.9 million, bringing its total funding to $3 million. PartySlate now hosts more than 350,000 curated, hi-res photos showcasing ideas for every kind of event: corporate, weddings, mitzvahs and more, as well as venues ranging from ballrooms to barns to yachts. “Our mission is to simplify the process –– to have one place you can go to find the best ideas, curated from the top event professionals in the country, and you can easily find what you’re looking for.”
Here’s an edited excerpt of Kitun and Novack’s conversation on how to plan events that don’t suck, when to hire a professional party planner, and how to ask a CEO for a favor.
- Be a goal digger
“We believe inspired events inspire people to do great things,” says Novack. “Inspired events don’t necessarily need to be expensive. But they should be thoughtful.”
Start with the basics. Why are you gathering people together? “Every event has to have a clear purpose and objectives,” she says. “For a wedding, it’s very clear: to create family memories and to celebrate.”
“And to get drunk,” Kitun quips.
“But when it’s a corporate event or a gala,” Novack continues, “raising awareness of a charity is much different than hardcore fundraising at the event itself.”
Whether your event is personal or professional, your goal should be explicit, whether it’s to fete your grandmother on her 80th birthday, kick off your latest product launch or raise millions for a good cause.
The format of the event is key, as well: is it a cocktail party? A dinner? A poker tournament? Once you’re clear on that, you can collaborate with a committee or event planner on decor, sound, food, the flow of the room, and everything else that makes a party memorable. “But if you don’t know what you want to get out of this event,” Novack says, “it’s just going to be a bunch of people in the room –– like, oh, that was nice. You’ve got to have a clear purpose.”
- Have a ballpark budget
Even if you haven’t sold one fundraiser ticket yet, “You do have to know, on a rough order of magnitude, the goal for number of people –– because that ties back to budget,” Novack says. “If you look for a new house, you can’t be like, hey, Mr. or Mrs. Realtor, tell me what I should spend. You have to have a budget range in mind.”
- Create value for your guests
A clear sense of purpose benefits not only you, but your guests. “As an entrepreneur, you have to screen and prioritize your time,” says Novack, who’s also a busy mom of three. She’s invited to scores of networking events, but they often lack focus and clear payoff. “I don’t mean to sound snobby, but I just want to know –– are investors going to be there? Can I present at the event?” If your invitees know how they might benefit, they’re much more likely to attend.
Kitun asks Novack how best to express the value of an event to potential guests: “the level of prestige, if you will. How do I convey that without saying there’s a lot of rich people here, you should come?”
“I think you can,” says Novack. “But instead, you could say that this is an event primarily focused on connecting entrepreneurs with angel investors. I think ‘angel’ implies they have money to spend.”
An in-demand headliner can also attract an audience. “Networking events –– sometimes they’re kind of random,” Novack says, noting that a good speaker can make up for any shortcomings an event may have. “But if there’s a really compelling speaker, I will always introduce myself to that speaker. And I’ve created great relationships.”
Sometimes, says Novack, the benefit is paying it forward. “I do believe in giving back. When people ask me to present on my fundraising journey to a group of young entrepreneurs, I try to do it more times than not.”
- Go ahead –– be a little extra
When it comes to big-budget affairs like charity galas, Novack sees a trend toward creative, out-of-the-box experiences. “They want to raise the bar,” she says. “They don’t want to have another chicken dinner.”
She knows the stakes are high from her own experience running the Lynn Sage Cancer Research Foundation Benefit Luncheon, which helps raise awareness and funds for breast cancer. The annual event draws over 1200 people. “In a single day, we can raise 80 percent of our fundraising goal,” says Novack. “That event not only has to be amazing for the people there, to inspire and connect people, but to get them back the next year. They have to have a good experience.”
As the CEO of Chicago’s leading startup platform, Kitun is also a frequent party guest around town. He agrees that memorable experiences are key –– events that “make me want to share with my friends,” he says. “I want to call my team members and tell them to come here, this is so cool.”
- Hire an event planner, period
Here, Novack is unequivocal: for a large-scale event, a professional event planner is a must. “Hire an expert. It is an expertise,” she says. “A lot of people think I’m an event planner. I’m a digital marketer who knows search engine optimization and websites, and we can connect you to these amazing event planners who work so hard, who have so much experience, to really think through what’s going to make this event incredible.”
While PartySlate’s forward-facing focus is on helping people create inspired events, the flipside is that it’s a much-needed platform for party pros to better market their work. “Our goal is elevating these amazing event professionals. It’s a wildly creative industry. It’s very diverse,” says Novack.
Even small-scale gatherings can benefit from professional expertise, she says. “Even if you do it at a restaurant, work with the event professional at the restaurant. Just get their perspective and ask the questions: ‘here’s how I’m thinking of the flowing of the event –– what do you think? Give me feedback,’” Novack advises.
“You can do so much with so little, if you know what you’re doing,” Kitun adds.
- Build trust
As seasoned entrepreneurs, Novack and Kitun both get a lot of requests for not just their RSVP, but their guidance. “I am happy to give advice,” says Novack, “but sometimes I when get the email, ‘I’d just love to talk about your experience,’ it’s too vague. My suggestion is if you’re looking for help, ask two or three very, very specific questions. In some cases, if I don’t have time to meet, I can answer an email.”
Kitun puts it more bluntly: “the presumptive ‘have coffee with me’ thing. Wow. You just asked for an hour and change, plus commute, of my time without knowing me.” He advises to start with an email, build an acquaintance before asking for a phone call, then work up to face-to-face meeting. “You’ve got to date first before you get married,” Novack adds.
Yet she admits that a little strategic moxie can pay off. “When a venture capitalist says, yes, I have a half hour for you, let’s do a call. And it’s local, say, great, put it on the calendar. Then before the call, say actually, I’m a block away. I’ll come to your office for the meeting,” Novack says. “That goes back to Sales 101: people buy from people they know and they trust. The best way to build trust is in person.”