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Meet Jeff Kidd of BrightPipe

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jeff Kidd.

Hi Jeff, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
BrightPipe provides audio visual services to the tradeshow industry but the path to getting here was not as straight forward as you might think. Our company started from a senior design project at Georgia Tech. Dan Shamanski and I were electrical engineering students and built a fish tank controller that ultimately launched our company. In our early years, we had day jobs that paid the bills while we did midnight engineering on the kitchen table of our apartment. Over the years we have reinvented ourselves several times to evolve with the changing technology landscape. 

We went from fish tanks to web site designers to corporate intranet projects to ‘gun for hire’ freelance developers. One day we got a call for a project with a large healthcare company to automate a reporting system for their tradeshow booth. That program was so well received at their tradeshows that they asked us to launch it to their nationwide salesforce. The global event manager at the company asked me to come visit their office to talk about data capture for all of their tradeshows. We met in the morning for a brainstorming session for what I though was going to be another contract programming job. After lunch, my contact asked me to sit in a conference room. A few minutes later she returned with her entire marketing team and said, ‘please explain your product’. That completely took me off guard because until that moment it was just an idea not an actual product. I painted a picture for them of how the concept would function and they all agreed to ‘give it a try’ at their next event which was only a few weeks away. It was a huge opportunity with a large international pharmaceutical company so we programmed like crazy and the rest, as they say, is history. The project was big success and they invited us back for all their events. We became the go-to technology team for this client and that ultimately lead to us taking over all the technology services for their events. That same company, now 25 years later, is still a BrightPipe customer.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
There have been many struggles over the years – some beyond our control and others were self-inflicted. We have learned a lot about business since we started back in 1991. Things beyond our control were the financial situation back in 2008 and the 9/11 event in 2001 which halted events for a while. The most recent pandemic challenge was the most difficult by far. The event industry went into a deep freeze, we survived 18 months with zero revenue. That was something we never saw coming. 

One of our biggest self-inflected challenges was not hiring the right people – our people are the single most important resource. During the pandemic, we reinvented our company culture, refined internal processes, and developed new solutions for face-to-face marketing in the post-covid world. A big part of our work during the pandemic was creating a hiring process that almost guaranteed the success of every new hire. COVID was really a springboard for success for BrightPipe. While most of our competitors shut down their operations, we actively looked for ways to be better. When events started to re-open we were ready to go with the right people, products and systems in place. Most of our competitors were shaking out the cobwebs trying to figure how to get started back up again.

We’ve been impressed with BrightPipe, but for folks who might not be as familiar, what can you share with them about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
BrightPipe has a fanatical customer base. Our clients call us the gold standard in the A/V industry – we have worked very hard to achieve this reputation. Our client base was built almost exclusively from word-of-mouth referrals. It’s shocking to say, but our technology-focused company didn’t even have a web site until about 4 years ago, considering we have been in business for 32 years and used to do web site design that is an embarrassing thing to admit. We focused on quality and service and the rest just took care of itself. We compete with the 800-pound gorillas of this industry and consistently win against them.

There are a lot of companies that did not fare well through the pandemic. We took that time to invest in ourselves and our company. We always knew that the event industry would return because studies consistently show that one of the main reason people attend events is for networking and spending time with colleagues and friends. One of the very best things about tradeshows is the face-to-face engagements. My business partner and I spent a lot of time learning from others on how to be successful. Over that 18 months period, I read over 30 books and we spent a lot of time brainstorming for the future. Our challenges were staying motivated, creating a better company culture and hiring the right people.

Staying motivated at the start of the pandemic was difficult. One helpful book for us was Who Moved My Cheese. This book was on the NY Times Business Bestseller list for over 200 weeks. It was a timely find for us – this very simple story about two mice was the pandemic personified. Change happens, we have to anticipate it, we have to look for it and we have to adapt to it. We need to embrace change and be ready to move quickly. In business it is sometimes easy to blame other people or things for the challenges we face but if we keep our eyes peeled there are often times clues we can pick up on to get ahead of the problems. And even if it is a total surprise we have to pick ourselves up and keep hunting for our cheese.

I’ll admit that prior to the pandemic we didn’t really have much of a company culture. It isn’t something we talked a lot about. We found the book The Ideal Team Player which was a catalyst for a big change. We clearly had not been looking for the right kind of people for our team. Yes, we have gotten lucky with a few folks who we are grateful to have on our team. But we were surrounding those good team members with others that didn’t support them. The Ideal Team Player gives fantastic insight into three simple qualities of Humble, Hungry and Smart. We actually grade our employees on these three virtues now. We now look for people that have these three traits overlapping in a ven diagram. This book was an eye-opener for us as to why some employees were great and others didn’t fit in. Everyone that works for us now is required to read this book.

Post covid our staff level dropped by 75%. We lost some to other industries, some to lack of confidence in the event industry and a few even said they would rather stay in mom’s basement playing video games rather than come to work. We did not fire anyone – the people that left did so on their own. So our challenge was how do you build back a team and keep the new culture values still in check. The book WHO turned out to be a great resource to accomplish this. Gone are the days of having a 1-hour interview and deciding there and then if we are going to hire someone. The WHO book lays out a process to ensure that the candidates you bring in are vetted over a series of interviews to almost guarantee the person you hire is right for the job and for your company.

The last resource I will share with you is the Entreleadership program from Ramsey Solutions. The advisory group pairs you with other business owners to solve each other’s problems as a group. The weekly team report allows your staff to give you feedback on how things are going – it is an invaluable tool to keep a pulse on how your team is doing both at work and home. Their Smart Dollar program is offered to our employees to help them manage their personal finances with private coaching so they can get out of debt and start planning for their financial future. The program also has a huge library of business-oriented education materials. Any business owner who feels alone in the struggle should consider looking at this resource. My advisory group has a coffee shop owner, aircraft painter, pharmacy owner, hair salon owner, surveying company owner, an electrical services company owner, oil pipeline company owner and a several others. It is an eclectic group to say the least. The big surprise was that we all have the same challenges regardless of industry. Having this group of like-minded people to run ideas and problems by has been such a blessing for us. If nothing else at least we know we are not alone and this group intentionally starts each meeting celebrating each of our successes – something that business owners sometimes forget to do.

Is there a quality that you most attribute to your success?
Being Humble 
Define success collectively and not individually.

Being Hungry
Always look for more – more to do, more to learn, more responsibility.
Think about the next step and be ready for the next opportunity.

Being Smart
This is not about intellectual capacity – smart means having good common sense about people. Know what is going on with you team. Ask good questions and listen to what they are saying. Every big problem stated out as a small problem and paying attention to your team is critical to managing this.

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