Every entrepreneur knows running a business is hard. But Jason Soultan felt people just weren’t talking about it enough — and so he set out to turn that around.
By day, Soultan is design director at Soul + Wolf, the digital agency he co-founded some 12 years ago.
But for the past 18 months, he has also been working on NO/BS, a conference designed to scrap the bullshit and the chit chat of business events, and cut through to the realities of how to get things done.
As a small business owner and creative, Soultan tells SmartCompany he found himself attending a lot of business, startup and creative events, both in Australia and internationally.
But it was rare that the content at these events resonated with him. It wasn’t providing the kind of inspiration, motivation or concrete advice he needed to help build his business.
He wanted to hear from those who have been-there-done-that. He wanted to learn about “how they’ve navigated issues, how they’ve got funding, kept the lights on, as well as managing to be a creative or a developer,” he explains.
“It’s about being inspired and hearing people’s stories and struggles, and just cutting through all the crap,” he adds.
“Just tell the real story and not sugar-coat it — that’s what we want to get out of it.”
Next week, NO/BS is running its inaugural ‘digital reality check’ conference in Melbourne, in a bid to get people talking about the harsh realities of business life. Even those who have come out on top have had a struggle to get there, Soultan says.
“There are people at the top of their games who often feel the same, and have gone through the same shit. We don’t necessarily get to hear that a lot,” he explains.
And this is a pervasive problem in the business space, particularly in Australia.
“Nobody wants to be vulnerable, nobody wants to look as though they’re struggling or doing it tough.”
“You need to be focused”
With about a week-and-a-half to go before the inaugural NO B/S event, Soultan has sold about 300 tickets, a number that is “almost at the ambitious target”, he says.
“We’re getting close to that break-even point,” he adds.
What’s also encouraging for the first-time event founder is that corporates have been buying tickets in bulk to send whole teams along.
All sales have been off the back of organic social traction, and some modest paid social campaigns.
“The budget hasn’t been there for much else,” Soultan says.
When asked about the business case for putting on an event like this, Soultan admits that at this stage, there isn’t really one.
“As corny as it may sound, I was trying to do it for the benefit of the industry,” he says.
“It’s definitely not a money-grab — I’m losing money.”
He does admit there may well be some benefits for Soul + Wolf as an agency; he will likely be meeting people he wouldn’t have otherwise, creating new connections and building on his own personal reputation.
And, if the event goes well and grows, it could become a profitable endeavour in the future, he says.
But, it’s far from a money-making scheme.
“We weren’t doing it for that intention,” he says.
“I’m trying to give people an alternative and do something different, and to put on an event I want to go to.”
If we look ahead a few years, while Soultan can see NO B/S becoming a staple on the startup events scene, he’s committed to keeping it boutique, even considering a hard limit on the number of attendees.
“I would have a cap on numbers — a number that we’re happy with that we can fit into a nice venue — and keep it that way,” he says.
“If you go any bigger you need multiple stages, and I think any more than two stages, or two main points of focus is probably too much.
“If you really want to learn, you need to be focused.”
Founding a brand new business conference in an already fairly crowded market didn’t come without its challenges for Soultan.
Others in the industry have told him the first year is always the worst, he notes.
“It’s definitely been tough. I’ve hardly slept in the last 12 months,” he says.
“I’ve been doing a lot of the creative work after hours myself.”
The founder has got the event off the ground with a few relatively small sponsorship deals, and even getting those sponsors on board was “a lot tricker than I thought it would be”, he admits.
And, ironically, he’s had to contend with “a lot of people bullshitting”.
A lot of sponsors say they would love to help, and promise to support the event next year. If it goes well.
“I get it from a commercial perspective,” he adds.
“They’re not going to sink any money into something that might not exist next year or might be a failure.”
Soultan also found himself contending with a challenge he didn’t expect to face. He had planned to have a 50-50 gender split for speakers, he says.
But, when he approached women speakers to gauge their interest, he says he struggled to get them on board.
“That’s the reality of it.”
In the last few weeks leading up to the event, he managed to bring four more women speakers on board, helping address the gender imbalance.
“But at the beginning, it was very tough.”
“They come out of the woodwork”
Finally, Soultan has also found a dearth of support from the Aussie business community — something that’s left him feeling a tad disappointed.
“It’s a very cliquey industry here. People are only going to help you if there’s something off the back of it for them,” he says.
In the end, most of the support he’s got has been from sponsors and contacts in the US, he says.
“I get it’s a first-time event and people don’t want to take that risk, you almost get more support overseas than you do locally, and it’s a real shame.”
At the same time, he’s found people who haven’t worked with him before approaching him, asking to exhibit or speak at NO B/S.
“Now I’ve obviously got something to offer,” he says.
“It’s funny how they come out of the woodwork.”
This challenge in dealing with the rest of the industry has dulled the shine of the NO B/S event, but it’s also part of what it’s about — cutting through the crap of business, and talking about what’s real.
That’s something that’s lacking in the Australian landscape, and something Soultan feels strongly about.
“There are so many people out there that are like car salesmen … I hate it,” he says.
“That’s what the industry has become here.”
It doesn’t get easier
Having already grown one business over the course of 12 years, Soultan has thrown himself right back to the beginning, launching a whole new, very different, venture.
“I’ve almost had to build a thick skin again,” he says.
“Every rejection you get is tough to take.”
And it doesn’t get any easier the second time around.
“I’ve had to go through all those motions again — the emotions, the ups and downs, the sleepless nights,” he explains.
“Imposter syndrome comes into it a fair bit too. What gives me the right to run this type of event?”
In fact, he says, if anything, he’s found this process even harder than building Soul + Wolf.
“Maybe I’ve been doing it too long I can’t remember how bad it used to be,” he muses.
“But starting something from scratch has been hard.”
SmartCompany will be attending NO/BS as a media partner.