Imagine being a hostage at your own workshop!
Imagine not having access to your own venue; having to take permission from someone else just to conduct your event. This is the crazy story of the very first Psychotactics U.S. Workshop. And while it's an entertaining story all by itself, there's a lot to learn as well for any small business owner.
Let's go on this on part one of this crazy roller coaster ride into Psychotactics land.
In this episode Sean talks about
Part 1: What went wrong with the strategic alliance?
Part 2: What did we do when the credit card company went bust?
Part 3: And how did a hurricane come to our rescue?
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Psychotactics Workshop Story: Part 1
“This transcript hasn’t been checked for typos, so you may well find some. If you do, let us know and we’ll be sure to fix them.”
“You want a room for 150 people? Is that correct?”
“Yes that's correct,” I said. “150 people.”
And then I put down the phone.
That was the booking I was making for our first ever Psychotactics workshop in the US.
And I did some quick calculations. I had watched other marketers fill up rooms with 1500-2000 people. And I figured, naively of course, that I could easily manage to sign up at least a hundred and fifty folks. And if you know anything about workshops, you'll get to know one thing quickly: You don't have a workshop unless you have a room. Because that's the first thing a client will ask. They always ask you where you're going to host your workshop, and ask for the dates.
And those dates need to be set in stone long weeks, sometimes month in advance. But hey, it wasn't like we weren't prepared.
We were so nervous about this event, that it was critical we planned about six months in advance.
It didn't help that I had never been to the U.S. before. It sure as heck was scary that I had an Indian passport. Now it's not like I wasn't already a permanent resident in New Zealand. I was, but you don't get New Zealand citizenship for five years, and so I was stuck with the Indian passport. And the passport matters. With an NZ passport I can just jump on a plane at five minutes notice. With the Indian passport, I needed a visa.
I was petrified because I was selling seats at a workshop, and wasn't even sure I'd get a visa
It's not for want of trying. I got in touch with the American embassy a few months in advance. They didn't process visas that much in advance, they told me. All I could do was buy my ticket, get the requisite paperwork and book an appointment to get the visa. There was only one glitch. They would let me know about the visa a week before I was due to travel.
And that was only part of the “problem”
On the other front we had the issue of signing up clients for the workshop. This as you can tell, was no easy task. The price of the workshop was $1500 per person. That didn't include any meals, stay or travel costs. If a client was to agree to come to the workshop, they'd have to fly or drive to get to Los Angeles. And it's safe to say that you'd end up spending another $500-$750 on top of the price tag of the workshop itself. I somehow had to make this workshop too hard to miss. I had to make it enticing enough so that people would somehow decide they just had to be there.
And so we did the Free 16-Week training course in advance.
In case you didn't work it out, that's four months of training week after week (kinda of tells you how much in advance we were getting prepared). And every week we'd have an hour's worth of teleconferences. Each of the teleconferences had their own agenda. And their own set of complications.
The complications arose from not knowing how many people would show up on the call
It was the year 2004. And back then, if you had a teleconference, you had a lot of no-shows, but still a heck of a lot of people would show up. And when we announced the 16-Week Course we got over 2000 people signing up to the free course. Should we book 500 teleconference lines? Or 300? Or 150? It was not only difficult to take a decision on the numbers but it also cost a fair packet to reserve those many lines at a time. And don't forget, we were just getting started at Psychotactics. Every dollar was extremely precious to us. Throwing dollars on excess conference lines wasn't my idea of fun at all.
Reluctantly, very reluctantly, I booked 500 lines
And roughly 150 people showed up for the first call. I instantly slashed the number of teleconference lines down to 150. Sometimes the call was packed to the brim. Sometimes not. But I figured I wanted 150 people and the most interested of the lot would show up anyway. And yes we were recording all the calls as well, so the number of downloads were still reasonably impressive. If you looked at the operation from the outside, it looked like a well-oiled machine.
Yet it was rough for us at Psychotactics
We were putting out fires on many fronts. One big front was the content that had to be drummed up week after week. On most weeks, I had no clue what we were going to cover the following week. And despite the fact that it was free, customer expectations were sky high. We'd get dozens of emails asking for the topics for all the calls. We'd get emails asking for the agenda of each call. People even asked for transcripts. And creating content week after week was only part of the problem.
The other problem was our “alliances”
As I said: I was scared. This was our first trip to the US. I had no idea where to go, what to do, and whom to trust. So I created some sort of alliance with some US based marketers. And in doing so, created a bit of quicksand for myself. I asked them to book the conference room, and the hotels on my behalf. Bing! Another mistake.
When you book the room, the hotel only deals with the person who's booked the place. Any changes you need to make have to be routed through the person who's made the booking. As you would expect the hotel was dealing with the alliance. I was paying the bill but they were taking the decisions and calling the shots.
The workshop hadn't even started, and the alliance was starting to go pretty sour
And it was all my mistake in a way. I didn't do my homework. I got into a discussion with another marketer in the US and told him of our ‘newbie in the US' predicament. And he assured us that he'd help. In fact, he wanted to be part of our workshop. He would actually market it to his list as well, and he wasn't really interested in making any money.
I didn't think it was fair
If he was going to put in time, fly to the venue, market it and even do some public relations then in my opinion he deserved to be paid. I told him we'd pay him a percentage of profits. I forget how much it was: something like 20% or 30%. And so we got off to what seemed a decent start.
But looks can be deceiving
We were in trouble almost right away when deciding the number of teleconference lines. I wanted to have fewer and then ramp up the number if a lot of people showed up. He was adamant we needed to have more lines, seeing how many people had signed up. And while I could see both sides of the picture, there was a hitch. He wasn't paying for anything. So if we had twice as many lines, I would end up paying twice as much.
The trouble should have stopped there, but it didn't
The room was booked in his name, even though I was paying the bill. At first I thought I'd be able to attract huge numbers, but it soon became apparent that we'd only ever get to about 20-30 people. So I called up the hotel and asked them to change the room to a smaller size. Makes sense, doesn't it? You don't pay for a massive room if you've got a smaller group. That didn't sit well with our alliance. He was furious that I'd changed the room without consulting him first.
The tough part was that I had to tread carefully
For all practical purposes, the room was booked in his name. If he decided to prevent me from having the room (for whatever reason), I'd be in big trouble. I'd be at the venue (if I ever got my visa) with all those attendees, and he could effectively lock me out. The pressure was building on all sides and it wasn't hard to see a worst-case scenario for everything.
Just when you think the worst is going to happen, it doesn't
Well it didn't for us at least. We managed to sign up about 25 people. And the alliance brought along about six-seven of his clients (they didn't pay, and I was OK with that. I'll explain why later). And so we had a potential 30 or so people coming to the workshop. And a week before our visit, we went (nervously) to the American Embassy, and walked out with 10-Year business and tourist visas.
And then something completely unexpected happened
PaySystems went bust. You see PaySystems was the merchant account we were dealing with. And normally we didn't have a large amount due to us. Our clients would pay through the website, and the payment would go to PaySystems, who would in turn settle most of the bill by depositing it in our bank account.
There was always a fifteen day lag between the collection of the money by PaySystems and the deposit. So for fifteen days we were in limbo. As it happened, in the last two weeks before the workshop, many clients paid their amounts and their “food coupons” through PaySystems.
The fortnight we were collecting a huge chunk of money, they decided to go bust.
I don't know how much we lost. It may have been about $6000 or more. It wasn't just the money accumulated in those two weeks. Merchant account routinely keep a small percentage of every transaction as a “security” in case there's a chargeback of sorts. Well, guess what? They keep that percentage amount for several months. So not only did we lose the money collected in that fortnight, but also a decent chunk of “change” collected over the months.
This was proving to be a regular rollercoaster ride
And while it was at points very frustrating, it was also hugely exciting. There was nothing to do but stay on the rollercoaster and make the best of the ride. In fact, to reduce the stress we took a few extraordinary measures. One of those measures was to take all the three-ring binders with us, along with the printed covers.
I know it sounds insane
Imagine trying to put 30+ two-ring binders in a suitcase. Because it doesn't fit in one suitcase 🙂 It takes two whole suitcases. And though a binder doesn't weigh much by itself, it really starts to add up once you put thirty or more of them in suitcases. And so off we went, on our epic workshop trip to the US of A non-stop to San Francisco.
Why San Francisco and not Los Angeles?
Because Renuka's sister lived near Campbell (a town near San Jose) at the time. We needed some time to get used to things. And get over whatever jet lag we were going to run into. Besides we still had to do a fair number of things before the workshop began. Some of these things included getting the notes printed, making sure the audio guy knew what to do etc. But at least by that point we were ready to tuck into a nice lamb roast on board, Kiwi wine and good ol' Kapiti ice-cream on Flight NZ8 to San Francisco.
It's nice to arrive in a place where you have someone waiting for you
Having Audrey (Renuka's sister) and Mangesh (her husband) around was a real blessing for us. We walked into a ‘chauffeur-driven' set up. If we wanted to go here, there or anywhere, we would be willingly ferried around. We didn't have to work out how to get an internet connection. We just walked into their home and connected our computer to their wi-fi. The fridge was loaded with more food than we could possibly eat (though we did give it our best shot). And as we settled into the California lifestyle, our days were filled with endless wine, rum, margaritas and massively-sized chip packets (all food was jumbo-sized, at least by New Zealand standards).
Once the partying slowed down it was time to get back to work
We didn't know what to expect in Los Angeles. After all we were arriving there just days before the event. So we decided to print out all the sets of notes at a local Kinko's (Kinko is a stationery chain in the US). Remember we had two-ring binders?
Well it seems that the US had mostly three-ring binders. And while we got Kinkos to photocopy the set of notes, we forgot to tell them that they would go in two-ring binders. As you can imagine, they had to work out some additional costs, but hey at least they got the notes to fit in our “Kiwi” two-ring binders.
We also had to make sure we recorded the event
So we managed to hire a professional sound guy (he was from Oakland). And after some cordial chats we were able to get him to understand what we needed. It was still going to cost us about $3500 or so to record and edit the audio, but hey let's face it: In the workshop, we were talking about recording what you do (the three prong system). There was no way we were going to goof up on the recording. We just had to get it right.
Our alliances wanted to get it more right than us, as you would expect
They demanded three microphones. One for me, and two for them. They wanted massive speakers in a room, when in fact a room for thirty people isn't that large at all and even computer speakers do the trick. We were beyond arguing at this stage, so we gave in to the demands no matter how crazy. We had bigger fish to fry.
Remember the stuff we printed at Kinko's?
We printed about 35 sets of notes. Each set consisted of about 100+ pages or so. And the math is easy. That's 3500-4000 pages. Ever tried stuffing about four thousand pages into suitcases? It makes me laugh now thinking about moving that much paper around (and let's not forget the three-ring binders). What we did next was even more nutty.
We decided to get on a Greyhound bus Why Greyhound?
Why not hire a nice car and drive to Los Angeles? Or at least take a flight? I don't know what possessed me, but as a child I had brochures and booklets about Greyhound. And for some weird reason I wanted to get on a Greyhound. This presented a whole bunch of new, unwanted problems. The trip itself was fine. It was getting to a Greyhound station and then from the Greyhound station that was a bit of drama in itself.
The Greyhound bus station was far away from everything
Of course at the San Jose side of things, it was easy enough. Audrey dropped us off. And the trip was very pleasant (despite everyone asking us why on earth we were going by Greyhound). By the time we got to Los Angeles, we were quite edgy.
I went off to get a cab or shuttle and some guy kept pestering Renuka. Nothing too dramatic, but she was glad when I got back. I can't exactly remember how we got to the hotel, but it was some crazy circuitous route that involved Los Angeles airport. I know this because I reckon I saw LA airport about five or six times while we were in that city.
I can tell you I was nervous
I'd done workshops in New Zealand. Yet somehow I expected Americans to be different. I can't explain what I expected. But I was nervous despite the fact that no one could see it. I wasn't sure how things would turn out, and where we'd run into our next hurdle. We found our room, and it was absolutely wonderful. Clean, neat. Very nice bed. And as we opened the drapes, there it was: The most welcoming sign of all.
It said: Air New Zealand
Our room was facing what seemed to be some sort of Air New Zealand building. And instantly a smile crept onto my face. I could see that things were really going to swing our way from here on. It's funny eh? Little things calm you down. Under different circumstances, I could have seen that sign, and not be in the slightest bit interested. And here it was, a mere sign, acting like a lighthouse on what I perceived to be a stormy night.
Stormy? It was balmy…
From then on almost nothing went wrong. The biggest drama of the next few days was the Atkins diet. Apparently, this new diet was out, and people were gobbling “protein” instead of “carbohydrates.” Apparently, the hotel's breakfast was too “carb-based”.
But it really wasn't my problem. It was the hotel's problem. You see we used to serve some sort of meals at our workshop. At least a muffin at breakfast and some lunch and then coffees through the day. And you may never realise it till you do a workshop, but these meals eat into your bottom line like you can't imagine.
What's worse is that the feedback forms then switch to food
When you cater, and ask someone about the workshop, they invariably have something to say about the food. If the food isn't up to their mark, or they're on some crazy yo yo diet, they'll find all sorts of holes to pick. What you've gone and done is reduced the impact of their workshop experience, because you catered. So long story short: No catering. This was the last workshop we ever catered for. Truly speaking it wasn't catering. The participants had bought “meal coupons” and they were using them accordingly, but we were still being told about catering issues.
Other than food we had some minor hiccups
It's easy to run up a coffee bill of $1000 or more for a three day workshop
And small additions of meals or cookies can all add up considerably. It may sound petty to worry about expenses and you have to remember why you're in business. You're in business to make a profit. You don't spend months ramping up to a workshop, then do the workshop and then hoof it back home—only to find you've lost money on “catering”. Catering can absolutely eat into your profit and leave you in the “red”. And that's not a pretty sight. Or a nice feeling.
So the simple solution is no food. Find a venue which has plenty of food around it and then let the participants find their own food. They don't overeat (and hence stay awake) and there's no grumbling. And you don't go home broke. Now that's a happy story, isn't it?
The aftermath of the Workshop
So we were done with our workshop in Los Angeles. And we'd planned to go east heading to Chicago where we were scheduled to do some speaking engagements. And then off to New York, Florida, New Orleans before heading back to California. Chicago was a good stop because we got to see the city for the first time—and liked it too. Except that the speaking engagements were all over the place. One engagement was to a group of business owners. The other was to some folks in real estate investing. Both went incredibly well, but only one paid any dividends. And there's a lesson here, of course.
If you want to do free speaking engagements, pick them carefully
It may seem all very obvious to you that you need to speak to the right audience, but when you're starting out you'll clutch at any straws. And in the process you'll speak to audiences that simply have no need for your product or service. Now this isn't a waste by any stretch of the imagination. Every speaking engagement is worth its weight in gold. You know how some idiot coined up that term “people fear speaking more than death”.
Well the big reason for the fear is just a lack of practice speaking to all kinds of audiences. If you keep speaking on a consistent basis, the fear does go away (And if it doesn't go away, there are EFT techniques that will help you relax yourself and make the fear go away). But I digress…
So there we were headed east and then onto this grand tour of the US till a hurricane stopped us in our tracks
We did our sightseeing in New York, taking a nice break in New Jersey and then planned to head to Florida. And when we looked around, we were the only ones heading in that direction. Everyone else was headed away from Florida. So prudently we changed our plans, did a little detour to meet an old acquaintance in Washington DC and then headed back to California.
And good thing too, because we'd have been in a lot of trouble if we hadn't turned around
You see we'd recorded the workshop in California. And we'd promised there'd be a recording for those who'd paid for the recording. Well all hell broke loose when we got back. We found the sound guy (we had this professional sound guy, remember?) was editing the workshop audio to exclude all ums and ahs from the recording.
Today I have barely a few ums and ahs but back then there were hundreds of them.
And as he edited he kept track of the time, inflating the editing bill considerably. At one point he also decided to put in some opening music to each audio. No problem there till we realised he wanted to charge a royalty on every copy we ever sold (yes, in perpetuity). It was time to pick up the credit card, buy some royalty-free audio and put it into the audio. And at least that fire was put out.
But there was still the issue of listening to every audio file
This activity had to be done because we had to put the content details and the time stamp on the CD. So we needed to know which files were going on which CD, do the design of the CD and blah, blah, blah. There was also the “tiny” issue of paying our strategic alliances what we'd promised. Which was all very fine, except they insisted on an item by item costing.
So there we were having to dig up every single cost to present to the “alliances”, when in fact we were paying them from our profits (They hadn't brought in a single paying customer, so we were paying them from the profits made as a result of selling to our own list).
Anyway, Renuka is a bit of a maniac when it comes to storing even the cost of a single staple. So we had the information needed, but it was still galling (and very frustrating) to have to give this silly account when we shouldn't have had to do anything like that at all.
And the months ticked by. We ate, we worked. We did a few trips. And then we ate and drank some more. Till it was time to leave. And get back to New Zealand. No Greyhound this time 🙂 Just good ol' Air New Zealand—and almost in time for summer too!
So what's the moral of this story?
Every workshop has three core components. The pre-sell. The workshop itself and at least a week of post-workshop stuff (if you sell products/services or recordings of the workshop). Taking into consideration all of these factors is pretty important because it takes the stress off you.
We got lucky with that hurricane. If we'd not turned round and gone back, we'd have dragged all the work back to New Zealand and been a lot more stressed. Because we worked in “vacation time”, we were able to simply tidy up the good, bad and nasty bits with minimal effort.
And that was International workshop No.1. There wasn't going to be Workshop No.2 till the year 2006. Amazing as it may sound, that workshop wasn't even planned. It was just something I thought up on fine day in February. And yeah, there's a story in that too. And you'll find out soon enough…
Coming Up Next: The Psychotactics Story—Part 2.