Engage™ is a web based platform designed to digitize the process of booking anything from a speech to a once in a lifetime experience. Engage™ is the Airbnb for events, allowing individuals to book talent online for a keynote speech, buy tickets to talent’s pop-up events, or engage with talent in a unique, personalized way. Currently, the process of booking someone is slowed by inefficient email exchanges, scanning and faxing contracts and common questions. Engage™ puts the entire booking process in one place, making it much simpler for the user and the talent.
John Shegerian: This episode of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts, and Impact Partners. Closed Loop’s platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity, bridging gaps and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find Closed Loop Partners, please go to www.closedlooppartners.com.
John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. This is a super special edition of the Impact Podcast because I’ve got my great friends and business partners. The co-founders of Engage are with us here today. Jake Olson, Daniel Hennes, and Brendan Egan. Welcome guys to the Impact Podcast. It’s great to have you all together.
Brendan Egan: Thanks, John.
Jake Olsen: Thank you.
Daniel Hennes: Thank you for having us, John.
John: Before we get going and hearing the whole Engage story, and the story only seems to get better week over week, month over month, year over year, I want you guys to give a little background on yourselves for our listeners and viewers who haven’t met you yet before. Daniel, I’m going to start with you. Daniel, give a little bit about your background before we get going. We all know you’re the co-founder of Engage. Before we get into the Engage story, talk a little about your background. Where you grew up, where you went to school, and how you even got here?
Daniel: Yes. I grew up in Denver, Colorado. I started my first business when I was a junior in high school. It was a scheduling software for businesses with hourly employees. It’s a total disaster, as you might imagine. Like a bunch of high school kids with no adult guidance trying to run a business, but I learned a lot. I went through the process of building software, starting a company, and all of those things. I learned a lot and that kind of got me interested in entrepreneurship. I had always been interested in sports from a young age, and I’d always followed not just who was good, but what the business angles were and what the deals were.
So I went into college interested in sports business and entrepreneurship. I went to USC, and then, when I was at USC, I met our other co-founder who’s on this interview. I met Jake. We were random freshman year suitemates and Jake will get into it later, but he’s got a pretty unique story and background. The business and everything grew from Jake and I started to work together. I started managing and speaking in engagements. We’ll get to it later. But after he got the chance to play in his first game, his story just went viral to the point where we knew we needed a better solution and that’s what ended up coming together.
John: We’re going to get to that because I want to talk about the paying points that you saw when you started managing Jake. Jake, what’s your background? How did you even get here? Before we get to that, where’d you grow up and where did you go to high school? Talk a little about your background.
Jake: Yeah. I grew up in Huntington Beach, California. I was born and raised in Southern California. I’ve always been here now, so that’s just where I’m home-based. Daniel has since moved to Los Angeles and he was trying to copy me. But it’s okay, I’m [inaudible] only. I went to high school about twenty minutes away from Huntington Beach and Orange. A lot of people get confused, it’s all in Orange County, but there’s a city named Orange, as in Orange, Orange County. I’m not going to go too deep into it. I know a lot of people understood my story. I ended up going blind at the age of 12 due to cancer. I started trying to relearn how to live life after losing my eyesight, which included playing the sports I love; golf and football. I figured I could play those two sports without seeing and I’m finding out a way to do that. I did. I played golf for four years at the high school, and then played football in the last two years at the high school.
I was on varsity in both those sports, which was awesome. It took a lot of hard work to get there, but I played varsity in golf and varsity in football. I always wanted to go to USC. I was a huge Trojan fan growing up, again, I grew up in Southern California. I made sure I got the grades and getting the attention of being a blind football player, but also, getting the attention of the caliber of the team I played for here in Southern California. They were a good lead. We had coaches always looking at us, including Coach Sarkisian, who is the head football coach at USC at the time. He saw me snap and pretty much said, “Jake, I know you’re planning on coming here. If you do, there should be no reason why you can’t snap on the football team.” And once I knew that that opportunity existed, there was no going in any other direction. I knew I needed to go to USC. I knew I wanted to go play football there. And that’s what I did, and that’s how I ended up meeting Daniel, who did not believe that when he first read my room profile. The roommate profile that you put on going into freshman year. He thought I was a big jokester. But here we are, Daniel, this is no joke.
Daniel: You are real. I can confirm that you are real. Although sometimes I wonder if you’re blind or not, so the jury is still out on that.
John: For our listeners and viewers out there, Jake’s stories have been well told on ESPN. There is some great storytelling that’s been done most recently by Dan Murphy and a great team of producers on ESPN. We’re going to put both links to Jake’s ESPN profiles in this episode of Impact, so people could see Jake’s story, and the story of Engage as ESPN told it. Brendan, we’re going to get back to that. And Jake, I also love the fact that you give credit to the Armenians because you now have Armenians in your life with me. You started it, but we gave you real encouragement. It’s Coach Sark so we got to give a shoutout to Coach Sarkisian.
Jake: Sarkisian and Shegerian. It’s all of them.
John: All of the ians. We got you covered, kid. We got you covered. Brendan, you and I are long-time partners. But for our listeners and viewers who haven’t met you yet, talk a little bit about your background, how you got to run one of the biggest search engine optimization and online marketing companies in America, and how you got here. What’s your background?
Brendan: Awesome, John. Thanks for having us all on. Like Daniel, I started my first business when I was young. I was 19 when I started a leaf raking and snow shoveling business. I was employing 10 or 12 kids. I realized pretty quickly that if I had them to do the work, I could just run around and clip the money so it’s kind of cool. I got involved in stock trading in 2008 when the market crashed. I made a little bit of money doing that in 2009. I launched a trading education company that I sold three years later. And while I was doing that, I learned quite a bit about digital marketing. In 2012, I started a digital marketing agency here in Chicago during my senior year of college, which I’m still running and operating today. I worked with about 500 different companies doing SEO pay-per-click, email marketing websites, and everything in between. I’ve been fortunate along the way to meet some cool people, including the three fine gentlemen that are being interviewed here with me today. And I’m also the co-founder, CMO, and CTO of Engage. That’s a little bit of my background.
John: Awesome. Let’s get right into it. Daniel, you and Jake now are roommates at USC. Jake’s career in football is taking off and the media is giving him great attention so people are calling or wanting you or him to start speaking or do some public speaking. How was this idea born? What voids in the marketplace did you see to create this idea with Jake?
Daniel: Yeah. So Jake had been speaking and sharing his story ever since he was 12; when the first ESPN piece came out. So I took over managing that second half of our freshman year and it was a very manageable flow. It was a good amount, but it wasn’t overwhelming. It wasn’t a ton. And then our junior year, September 2, 2017, he got the chance to play his first game. He snapped for USC against Western Michigan and the story went super viral. So, from there, we just started getting flooded with speaking appearance requests. And as you said, people were calling USC. People were messaging his sister on Facebook. People were writing letters to his house. People were messaging me on LinkedIn.
We realized right away that the first paying point was there was no centralized way to find and book Jake. People didn’t even know if he was available for speaking. So, right away, we realized, “Okay, at scale, there’s no centralized and efficient way to do it.” And then, once you get into the actual process, I had to drive to Jake’s mom’s house in Huntington Beach to fax somebody a contract. They didn’t want it digitally scanned. This industry is so analog, but there has to be a better way of doing that. And while all of that was going on, Ryan Harris, who played in the NFL for 10 years and won a Super Bowl at the Broncos, called me because he needed help managing his speaking. He had a decent flow. So all of a sudden, I was a junior in college with two clients and had no idea what to do.
So Jake and I started looking for this platform to make our lives easier and found out that there wasn’t one. We started calling athletes, agents, and people who book speakers. We started calling everyone we knew in the industry to get a feel for their paying points. Were they experiencing the same problems and what were they doing about it? And the feedback we’ve got was like, “Yes, this process sucks, but we don’t have time. We’re not going to put in an effort to change it because it’s going to be a hard thing to disrupt,” so we said, “Okay, but we’re college kids, we’re ambitious. We do have the time. We will put in the effort to change it.” I think that was the genesis for starting Engage.
John: Jake, now with Engage, you guys realized you’re going to do something. How do you start putting together a business when you guys have not done anything on this level before and there’s a lot at stake? It’s not just going to be your money and Ryan Harris’ money. The idea is to get other young people who want to speak and are also seeing the same paying point. So explain the journey of what you were going through and how you got going.
Jake: Yes. So again, I came up with this idea. This was pretty much in the making through a couple of other ideas we may have had starting post-college like doing something that talent space. Again, we had no idea what to do and how to make the platform. We’re both business majors. It was Daniel’s childhood friend who started the first business with them. He was the CFO for Engage. He is also a computer genius. He perhaps could have built some type of code, but we all know that one-person coding would take a very long time for the extensive platform that we dreamed of. So we were just sitting on this idea and wondering what to do with it; who we’re going to talk to and who could have built it. And sure enough, we ran into one of the crazier individuals I’ve ever met, John Shegerian. He was very helpful. He’s not only willing to listen to us and hearing our dream, which had no substance or no real tangible website or anything to it.
It was just an idea. And he said, “Look, I got a partner who does deal with both websites, coding, and all of the above. Why don’t you guys filter out this idea a little more? I’ll bring it up to him and you guys can present this a little more strategically to him.” Because Brendan is kind of a hard-ass, we’d have to get an [inaudible] in order for anything to happen. And sure enough, we did that. We filtered our idea, cleaned it up, and presented it to Brendan. I think Brendan was very skeptical, but I do think he saw the same thing in Daniel and me that you did, which was, “Hey, these kids are passionate. They’re smart. They’re outgoing. They’re going to put 100% into this. And at the very minimum or the very least, something will happen. Who knows how big it will be, but something will happen. This isn’t just going to be some dud idea that dies because these kids have passion and work ethic.” So you guys took the shot to help us build that platform, which was a process, and anyone knows it was a process. I’ll let Brendan talk more about that.
Brendan: I’m not even going to say was a process. It is a process. It’s an ongoing thing.
Jake: It is a process, yes. It was really because of John and Brendan that this idea came to fruition.
John: Jake, thank you. It’s been nothing but a joy working with both of you, young guys, ever since I met you. I’m going to go back to that in a little while. Brendan, take it from there. I call you up after I meet with these young guys in their USC commissary. and I said, “I think I got something here. I want you to talk with these guys.” Talk about your first conversation with them. How you processed it and put it through your algorithm. How you like to build things that are proprietary and special things that nobody else has done before. How did that whole process work? Walk us through your version of how these beginnings worked and what you’ve built as some great intellectual property for Engage.
Brendan: Before I talk about the platform, John, I have to say Jake hit the story. I think it’s given now that maybe he was a little kinder than he usually is. I remember having a 30-minute call with Jake and Daniel and getting off the call. And I remember you called me about 8 times during the call to check in and see how it was going. You caught up afterward, and I go, “Only five.”
John: [inaudible]. It’s exaggerated.
Brendan: It’s exaggerated by three.
John: We call it five.
Brendan: [inaudible], “John, you just introduced me to a kid who is 21 and 15 and a blind football player. Neither one of which knows anything about technology and running a business and I’ll invest a massive amount of time, resources, and money into democratizing the talent booking industry with them?” and you go, “Yes. I’m glad you get it.”
John: Yes. We’re all the way. Here we go.
Brendan: And I go, “Wow, you’re crazier than even I thought.” And after you twisted my arm for a day or two, and after I slept on it, I realized that not only was the idea a great idea, but we’re sitting on a cool opportunity with two unique and young entrepreneurs. You reminded me that there was a day, not that long ago, where I was a young kid and getting the door slammed in my face. So, you and I talked, and we said, “You know what? Let’s give this a go. What’s the worst that can happen?” And here we are, two and a half years later, on a thriving business platform that has over 7,500 man-hours into building it. Some of the biggest partners in the talent booking space, 2200 plus talents, a live stream solution, pop-up events, sweepstakes, and pubs.
All of these different cool tools that we built are proprietary to Engage that if you asked me two and a half years ago, this would already be in the middle of 2021, I would have said you’re crazy. It’s been a fast bond and exciting two and a half years since we’ve built what I think is the best platform in the space. It’s something we’ve all talked about. There’s definitely going to be a Burger King to our McDonald’s one day, but we’re two and a half to three years ahead of them, so I think we have something special here.
Daniel: Here’s a question since Brendan [inaudible] to answer questions. I’ve always wanted to know this. How many man-hours did you think it would take going into it versus how many you’ve put in?
Brendan: I’ve been doing this, Daniel, for 10 plus years so I know everything takes three times longer than you think.
Daniel: Yes. But even, what was that?
Brendan: Everything is over budget, over time, over price, and everything, right?
Brendan: The reality is that we could have built this and decide we’re done with it, right? We could have said, “Hey, you can book talents,” and that’s it, right?
Daniel: Yes. Our original specs were much different.
Brendan: So we’ve built [inaudible] that have made Engage what it is. I’m excited every day. Like every day our team has new ideas. You guys do, I do, and John does. We’re happy to keep supporting this awesome platform because not only is it fun and cool exciting, but it’s what sets us apart.
Daniel: Great. I think that’s what’s unique. The original proposal that we sent and what we have now is just so different. It’s so different. It’s not even close. It’s really funny.
Brendan: And honestly, Daniel, Jake, and John, we have a platform that is the Uber and the Airbnb of our space.
John: Yes, absolutely.
Brendan: Logically speaking, we are so far ahead of anyone else in our industry. And that’s part of why we’re as successful as we are and why we get the attention that we get. It’s because we have the solution and the framework to do anything. And when an agency, talent, or when someone comes to us with a crazy idea, the answer isn’t no, the answer is always, “We can build that.”
Brendan: I think we have something unique. We have a cool and unique team in place that I’m excited about what the future holds for Engage.
John: So now, Daniel, just tee it up. You’re on an elevator on the ground floor and the thing is going to the 23rd floor. If someone on the elevator says, “What do you do, young man?” and you say you’re the co-founder and CEO of Engage, and the guy looks at you and says, “What’s Engage?” Answer that for our audience. And for our audience out there, to find Engage, go to www.letsengage.com. Explain what Engage is and explain where we are now after the launch; as we’re starting to grow, how we’ve grown, and what things are looking like today.
Daniel: That’s about 15 questions in one, so if I miss anything, let me know. So if I’m on the ground floor, going on the first part, in one sentence; Engage is a platform that digitizes the process of talent-making money doing what they enjoy. That means a few things. First and foremost, our core business is to help digitize booking talent for a speaking engagement. So, everything from signing contracts to negotiating to process payments can all be done through our platform. So by putting the process online and building a marketplace that allows talent that wasn’t getting attention or wasn’t getting service from their agent or agency to get booked. It allows companies that would have no way of finding them to book them. That’s the first core part of our business.
The second part of our business is the sweepstakes aspect. For example, we have someone on the Yankees, Kyle Higashioka, who’s passionate about supporting the military. So, on our platform, he’s giving fans the chance to pay and enter for the chance to win his autographed jersey, his autographed catcher’s gear, and he’s donating 100% of the entry fees to the charity. So talents can use our platform to do speaking events. Talents can use our platform to raise money for charity. Another window is our live stream features. Virtual events are not going away. Talents like doing them and companies like doing them. We have our proprietary live stream. You know one of our actor clients, Manny Montana, he loves interacting with his fans.
Our platform is the only thing out there where he can securely list his prices, get booked for the stream, and do the stream all through our platform. He doesn’t have to download an app. He doesn’t have to send out a Zoom. We have this live stream option. And then we also have the ability for talent to put on their events. One of our agency partners came to us, and said, look, “One of our NBA guys is doing a camp. We have no idea how to handle the ticketing, the payments, and the terms and conditions. Can you guys do that?” and the answer is, yes. So whatever the talent wants to do, we can help them make money doing it.
John: So you’re saying it’s a marketplace for talents who want to be public speakers and beyond. And also, for people who want to book and need speakers anywhere in the United States or around the world, they can book them through Engage?
Daniel: Right. Because one of the hardest things is finding them and figuring out how to contact them. We’re the only platform out there where they can find and book them and know that when they submit a request that they’re talking to them or their agent. There’s no sketchy middle man. There’s no rip-off. We’re big on transparency.
Brendan: There’s more about that because that’s something. I remember when you and I first met, I told you I was throwing a big birthday celebration, and we’re trying to hire some major league players to come in.
Daniel: Some [inaudible], right?
Brendan: Yeah. We had a good budget. We wanted to spend 10 or 15 grand on it. We reached out to some speakers bureaus and they took 3 or 4 weeks and got back to us with like, “We’re working with their agent. It’s this, that, the other,” and they had every excuse in the book. They finally came back to us in Chicago, and they’re like, “Hey, why don’t you hire this guy?” and I’m like, “I don’t want to hire a Philadelphia Flyer to come to a Chicago event. Are you out of your mind?” So talk a little bit more about that, Dan. I think it’s important for people to understand why Engage is different from a talent perspective.
Daniel: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. Because if you’re not in the industry and you haven’t experienced it, you don’t understand it. Right now, if you wanted to go book, even if you Google, “Book Terrell Owens”, the websites that pop up aren’t necessarily websites representing Terrell or know Terrell, or anything like that. They’re just a website that puts his photo on the site and says, “Contact us for availability.” And what happens is, you contact them for availability, and they will do one of two things. It’s either they will go try to track down Terrell’s actual agent, and in the process, there’s this middleman and their business is getting in the middle, they’re marking you up about 30%. So you’re already paying 30% more. It’s either they will go try to track down Terrell’s agent or they have no idea who Terrell’s agent is so they will tell you, “Thank you so much for reaching out. Terrell is unavailable, but we have this other guy instead,” who they know and they’re marking you upon him. So, Terrell, never even knew the deal was happening and he never knew the true budget, and you are being marked up an obscene amount.
I mean, one of our agent friends, he’s Barry Sanders’ agent, he’ll call an agency that lists Barry Sanders on their website, and say, “Hi, I run XYZ company. I’d like to book Barry Sanders. What are his fees?” and the agent always tells me the same thing. They will go, “Barry’s not a very good speaker, but we have Thurman Thomas. You should book Thurman Thomas instead,” and he’s like, “Okay. What is your agency name? Where are you located?” And then they answer and then he sends them a cease and desist letter. Because agents hate other people listing and misrepresenting their guys and clients. As you say, you have no way of even knowing that until years later, but clients and people wanting to book this talent have no idea how much they’re getting ripped off, how much time they could be saving, or how they never even have any chance of getting the guy to begin with. So by creating a marketplace that focuses on trust and transparency, we list all of our agency partners and advertisers that clients can book with confidence and that agents and talent know that their guys are not misrepresented.
John: Tell them, Jake, who are the types of talents on Engage? What type of companies has been booking the talent for speaking events? Give a little taste of what kind of talent and what kind of corporations or other organizations have been booking the talent over the years since we’ve launched.
Jake: Yeah, I was just going to piggyback off of Daniel because you have never gotten that out in 23 floors, Daniel.
Jake: The first part is we help monetize what talents love doing. And that’s true. “Find, book, experience,” is our slogan. The word experience is important because you say speaking engagement, but what is a speaking engagement? What’s an experience? An experience for the audience to hear what you have to say and feel what you want to have them feel in that speech. So, yes, we do speaking engagements. But to Daniel’s point, we do sweepstakes and pop-up events, and those are also experiences. So to break it all down, although the biggest experience we help book is for speaking engagements, we do allow and help be the curator for the booking process of talent getting monetized for what they do and bringing experiences to customers.
I think that’s the best way to put it. Experience is something I think we should focus on because it is more than just speaking engagement. All speaking engagement is an experience. To answer your question, who have we helped from a talent standpoint and who we have from a company standpoint experience the talent, that all comes back down to what we’re talking about. It’s cool to see some of these talents that we knew would be our wheelhouse when we built this platform. These talents have great stories. They have their fan group. It may not be a huge fan group, but they have great stories. They’re professionals. They’re experts on their topics. They have something to go out and say, but they might not be on TV all of the time. They’re not an A-lister. They don’t have a morning talk show. You’re not going to see them throwing touchdowns on Sunday all of the time.
But these individuals have a marketplace to go out and speak to that company in your town that has 100 employees or 50 employees and we want to motivate those employees. Well, guess what? Both the company and talent need the ability to be booked and to have them be booked without an agent taking up an hour of his day taken away from that person who’s throwing touchdowns every Sunday or the person with the morning talk show. How do we do that? We created Engage. We represent a lot of A-list, but again, our majority is B-list and C-list individuals who have books and who speak a lot but you don’t know them. We do corporations who are big, but also those corporations and companies that want that 5, 10, 15 thousand dollar speaker for their annual sales meeting or for their quarterly sales meeting that you haven’t even heard of. But guess what? Those employees matter just as much as Apple’s employees you are paying $150,000 to get the star in there. It just needs to be at a different scale and that’s what we’ve done.
John: Jake, you not only have athletes and entertainers, but you also have people like Jessica Mendoza, Sarah Spain, and Martin Luther King III.
Jake: Right. We have those big A-list talent because it’s like what Daniel was just talking about. They love the transparency. They love the honesty. The anecdote that he used was Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas. But guess what? Those are both A-list talents and they don’t like to screw up a deal.
Jake: So we do help the A-list talent, but the majority of our deals are for those individuals who are not going to be focused on by those main agencies and they need us. They really need us.
John: And the clients on the buy-side are big corporations, such as Bank of America, SpaceX, and other dozens and dozens of huge brands that need great quality speakers that are done in an honest and transparent way.
Daniel: Yeah. They need to receive the same attention whether they have 50 grand or 5 grand. And that was where our platform comes in.
John: Brendan, talking about the platform and the technology. I know you’re a humble guy, but you’ve built brilliant technologies. And not only for Engage, but dozens of others clients over the last 10 years. Let’s talk about Engage now. Why is Engage technology so good? How did you create it and set us up for success from a technological perspective? What makes it so unique?
Brendan: I think any coder can build a good piece of technology if they know what they’re doing, but the challenge is finding what you need to build to fill a void in the marketplace. I think we were able to do two things. One, we’re able to take our highly talented team of developers and build a superior technological solution that’s proprietary and flexible that can morph as we needed to make use of it. But I think even more important than that is that we’ve built this with talent and for the talent. So we consulted with Jake, Daniel, and dozens of our talent advisors. And with booking companies, people that are doing the bookings, and consumers.
We understood what they’re looking for in a platform and what their paying points are. We’re the only solution out there that fills that void. We’re the only place where you can go and view 2000 plus people. Negotiate and contact them online. Pay online, arrange travel, and all of the various components of doing a booking. It sounds crazy, but we’re the only place you can do that right now online with [inaudible] account that we have. So I think it’s as much the technology solution as it is listening and understanding what the needs are of the people in this space, including those needs.
Daniel: That’s so well said, yes.
John: So now, guys, let’s change topics but stay on the line of a technological solution. That’s the superior technical solution. We’re all getting through to the other side of the tragic COVID-19 period that the whole world has been affected by. What happened to our business when COVID-19 hit? How did we evolve, and not only survive but thrive through it and come out on the other side as a better company? Jake and Daniel, explain what happened and how you guys got through it from both a talent perspective and a partnership perspective? it’s representing some of the greatest names in the entertainment and the sports industry and became the go-to technological solution for everyone on both sides of the equation.
Jake: Daniel, you can talk about how we contacted the agents and the talent, and they were doing nothing because there was nothing to do.
Daniel: Exactly. That’s exactly the thing. For the first time in human history, every author, athlete, speaker, musician, entertainer, and agent, we’re all unemployed at the same time. So I think we realized very early on with COVID that we had a captive audience. So as Jake said, we said, “Look, we’re well-funded,” even you and all of our other advisers were like, “Don’t worry about things you can’t control. Revenue’s not going to be there for the next few months. Focus on what you can control.” So we went out and we reached out to every agency, every talent, every guy imaginable, and we leveraged all of the contacts we had. And going into COVID, we had 300 people on the platform. Now, we have 2200 because what happened is agencies shrunk. A lot of them had to lay people off. They lost the manpower.
John: Talk to us about who. Give our listeners and viewers who are not in that world what kind of agencies we are talking about.
Daniel: We’re talking about some of the biggest in the world. CAA laid off hundreds of employees. WME and UTA. I mean, there was a spreadsheet going on that I was given access to, of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people in our industry who’d been laid off. And we sort of said, “Okay, there’s this unique opportunity,” because COVID accelerated the digitization of a lot of industries. Agents were very open to technology and very open to ideas. So we did two things. One, we seized on the moment with agents and talent. And two, we’ve built new technology. We didn’t have a live stream software going into COVID so we’ve built one. We redesigned the whole website. We restructured the whole homepage. We controlled everything we could control.
So that now, even though we’re still in COVID, these last few months have all record revenue months even before COVID. Because we’ve laid the groundwork and we’re still laying the groundwork. But I think the key was just understanding. Whenever there’s a pandemic, it’s like, “Ignore the things you can’t control and just do everything in your power.” I mean, Jake and I were always figuring out what agents can we be reaching out to. Like who do we know, what can we talk about, what can we be brainstorming on, and how do we build new technology? We did those two things and it put us in a good spot. Jake, do you think I’ve missed anything there?
Daniel: All right.
Jake: I think just from a philosophy standpoint, as you said, that was tactical; what we did there. But from a philosophy standpoint, to answer your question, John. Yes. We kind of roll with the punches. We didn’t feel sorry for ourselves that we are a talent booking and event booking platform and there were no more events allowed. In those moments, you can freak out and you can panic, but we kept our heads down and said we can still control it. And as we weathered the storm, we know that when this eventually lifts and when the storm is over, we want to be in the best possible position. All of our ducks are lined up in a row so we can capitalize on the boom that we’re seeing now.
John: And it’s not only that. Brendan, you’ve built out some new technologies for the sweepstakes, for the online events, and also using AI. Do you want to talk about some of the technologies you’ve built out during the pandemic that continues to set Engage apart from everybody else?
Brendan: We’ve built some cool stuff, John. The biggest thing about the pandemic was our live stream. We’re doing some meetings right now in Zoom so I think Zoom has become a household name. I think it wasn’t a year ago, but it is now. Zoom is not built for having speeches and having experiences with talent, so we’ve built a cool live stream that’s 100% of our platform. It supports up to 250 attendees where talent can give a speech or whatever it is. They can pop into a birthday party or whatever they get hired for. They do it all through our platform. People can join from their computer or mobile phone or tablet where they have internet access. And what’s cool about is it keeps track of how much time the person purchased. If they want to extend it longer, they can do that on the fly. Our live stream platform, they can record it and get a copy of the recording after the fact. Talent can easily manage people who are in there and answer questions. So it’s just a solution built for talent and consumers. It’s much more specific than Zoom. That was one of our cool things.
In addition, as Daniel mentioned, our platform was about a year old at that point. I think we had a much deeper understanding of the needs of our customers. So, during the pandemic, we rebuilt our platform from the ground up; both visually and technologically. There’s a lot of cool behind-the-scenes upgrades that went into that. There are a lot of new features and a lot of things that streamlined the process of booking talent. And more recently, we rolled out some cool AI solutions, where we have the data now to understand who gets the most booked on our platform and who is most likely to fit the needs of certain consumers. So we have a simple 7-step questionnaire that consumers can come to our website and answer. And based on their results, our AI will pair them with the talent that is most likely to fit the needs they have based on their budget, their location, and other factors that we factored into it.
In addition to that, our team still manually reviews those requests and helps to override that AI if it has to and get some hand-curated selection. We have built some cool things and I think we’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg. I think as time goes on, as we continue to grow, we’re going to have a new fun and exciting solutions that we’ll continue to roll out.
John: We have many macro trends right now that are tailwinds for us and the wind at our back. What’s one macro trend for each of you that you’re excited about? That’s the wind at our back and that’s giving us great momentum going into the second half of 2021 into 2022. Daniel, you take one, Jake, and then Brendan.
Daniel: Yes. I think the first trend and the one that excites me the most, is talent getting more comfortable with direct-to-fan monetization. Meaning, they don’t need any company to come and book them and they don’t need anyone to tell them how to monetize. If you have a hundred thousand followers, our platform can help you make money via sweepstakes or a pop-up event. And there’s been an explosion because of great companies like Cameo and Open Doors. There’s been a great explosion in talent comfort level with going directly to fans. It used to be seen as salesy or there are worse words for it. But now, not only it’s accepted, but it’s expected that talent wants to engage in this way, and it’s expected that the talent will connect with their fans on a more personal level. I’m excited about that trend because we’re seeing it grow every day and we’re so well-positioned to capitalize on that.
John: Jake, what trend gets you excited the most about tailwinds for Engage, for us, in the second half of 2021 going into 2022?
Jake: Yeah. As Daniel said, I think there’s going to be a trend in companies and talent wanting to be in person again. I think there have been some interesting and powerful conversations that we’ve had with business leaders and heads of corporations as well as people who are in the industry of different spaces to be booked. Conference centers or restaurant upper rooms or whatever are saying, “We’re just booked out for two years. We have just been booked out.” We know that everyone is trying to get their employees back in one room. They’re trying to get them motivated. They’re trying to put on these experiences to get morale back up and to get people feeling like they’re part of something bigger. We’re going to capitalize on that demand now. And the big one that, as you mentioned earlier on in this podcast, what we’re recognized for now is capturing this name image likeness with the NCAA, which is going to be big for us in the fact that there’s this whole new billion-dollar market opening up. There’s a ton of new talent opening up and all of those talents want to be able to have a constructive way to make money doing what they love, which again, back to what Daniel said is what we do.
John: Well, Jake, hold on for one second. For our listeners and viewers who just joined us, we’ve got 3 out of 6 co-founders of Engage. We’ve got Jake Olson, Daniel Hennes, and Brendan Egan. If you want to find Engage and if you want to become a speaker on the platform or book one of their speakers on their great platform, go to www.letsengage.com. Go back to NIL, Name Image, and Likeness. What does that even mean, Jake? What is the NCAA changing its stance on Name, Image, and Likeness? How revolutionary is that? How is Engage going to taking advantage of that? Talk a little bit about the fascinating new partnership Engage has with Open Doors.
Jake: Yes, absolutely. So, again, Name, Image, Likeness is something that has been prohibited from NCAA since pretty much its inception. They’re not allowing athletes, college athletes, student-athletes, and they would like you to say, to make money based on their name, image, or likeness. So just because you play a sport and are well recognized, sell jerseys in the university library, and you’re on Sports Center, and you have a million Twitter or Instagram followers, you can’t monetize any of that. You won’t see a dime of any of that.
John: And meanwhile, universities are making a fortune off of these athletes playing top-level sports. Okay.
Jake: Universities are making a ton of money, conferences are making a ton of money, and NCAA is making a ton of money. Head coaches are making a ton of money and everyone’s making money, except the actual employees. It’s what we kind of call them because that’s pretty much what they are if everyone’s making money off of them. They’re not making a dime. So we’re not going to salary. We’re not going to discuss that everyone should get this much amount money because this is a percentage of the revenue. Let’s kind of drop all of that nonsense for now and let’s focus on what is an easy solution to at least allow fairness, in my opinion, with these student-athletes. And that is allowing them to make money off of what they are known for doing, which is playing their sport. And that it won’t prohibit them from playing the sport that’s on a distraction, we don’t want that to happen because they’re well known for playing their sport well. But we also want them to enjoy the reward and reap what they sow, which a lot, in this case, is fame and popularity. They should be able to capitalize on that.
That’s what we’re going to be taking advantage of, helping these student-athletes. Again, one, guiding them so that they don’t become money hungry. They don’t forfeit what they’re there for, which is playing a sport. That comes first. Two, understanding that there’s a crazy world. There are going to be many people telling them things and trying to pitch them on these brilliant, amazing, and new wonderful things that are never going to come to fruition, which will only cost them money at the end of the day. And three, allowing them to have a platform as we do for all of our other talents. That is critical on honesty, critical on transparency, and allows them to see what is going on. And having an ability to feel those requests, just like what Daniel did when I was in college, and execute those requests easily and efficiently.
John: And who’s better than you guys? Because you guys are freshly minted two and a half years out of college to be their trusted advisors. They’re going to relate to you guys the most and are you going to relate to them the most.
Daniel: And Jake lived it so it’s even better. It’s even better because Jake lived it and made money in college so I think you’re right.
John: Daniel, you’re so right about living it. Take us a little bit into it. Give a little bit of a highlight of the great partnership you and Jake did with Open Doors. Who is Open Doors? Why is that so important to the NIL opportunity for everybody here?
Daniel: Yes. Open Doors is a platform. I would say Dabo Swinney, the coach of Clemson, called them the Nike of the Name, Image, and Likeness world. They’re the best company in the world in that space. What they do is they are a platform that helps with a few things. The first is education. They’re partnered with universities to handle their compliance and their education so they have access to hundreds of thousands of student-athletes. They also have a deals platform for social media appearances and social media endorsements. You can go on Open Doors and book an athlete to do a tweet or an Instagram post.
We’re partnered with them. You can go to Open Doors and also book an athlete to do a speaking engagement or get an athlete to do a sweepstake. So we’re coming in to help Open Doors on the speaking side and the sweepstake side. And they’re helping us by giving us access to their hundreds of thousands of student-athletes and helping us emerge as thought leaders. We’ll be teaching a master class on speaking. It’s a win-win for everyone. We get access to hundreds of thousands of kids with the company that’s best in breed in the education and compliance space. And they get a platform that brings more revenue opportunities to their student-athletes.
John: I got it. And just recently, the NCAA lost their case in front of the Supreme Court, 9 to nothing, on keeping the Name, Image, Likeness from actually being democratized. What’s happened in the last couple of days? Explain. Are all 50 states going to get this? Where’s NIL? Where is it going in the days and weeks ahead? Jake?
Jake: Yeah. The Supreme Court just lead into what they say could end up having a Supreme Court rule on this thing with Name, Image, and Likeness. The Supreme Court was ruling on allowing these student-athletes to enjoy benefits such as laptops or other school materials and not putting a cap on that, which I think is just absurd. I don’t know why that was even a thing. But again, it opens the door for just how damning and critical that a lot of the justices were on the NCAA and what they thought of how they’ve been operating over the last 60 years. So that’s going to be interesting to see if it ever does go to the Supreme Court. I know there’s a lot of court cases are coming up again, but again, we’ve got a little taste or a little flavor of what the Supreme Court thinks of NCAA. And if you’re in NCAA, you are not feeling too happy about those upcoming cases. So in terms of what we’ll see, there’s a couple of state legislators that have created some legislation that will go into effect tomorrow.
Daniel: It’s all in the 50 states now.
Jake: Yeah, I know, but there’s actual state legislation in six states that have allowed this. The NCAA smartly was like, “We don’t want this become a, you’re in this state, you can do this. You’re in that state, you can do that,” given that there are universities in every state. They should never let it get to this, but I guess they did so they had to come up with a solution. Now, their solution is to at least override their rules for the time being and they have these impromptu rules of allowing NIL in all 50 states.
John: Brendan, what macro trend are you most excited about that’s a tailwind for us? How do we plan to scale and grow Engage in the months and years ahead? Brendan, how big can this be in your mind?
Brendan: It can get as big as any of us want it to be, John. I think the sky is the limit. We think that the speaking market alone is a multibillion-dollar market and I think it’s venturing into complimentary markets. Things like NCAA, sweepstakes, and live streams, I think it’s a multi-billion dollar potential. I’m most excited, John, about the opportunity of the market itself, but I’m also most excited about the convergence fact; that people are finally adapting technology to do things like book talent. You may not know this, but Uber, which we all think is kind of, you know? Many would think that Uber has reached its peak, but from 2016 to 2019, Uber tripled its revenue. It’s the same thing with Airbnb. They’ve been around for quite a while, from 2016 to 2019, Airbnb tripled their revenue. They’ve gained about 6 billion dollars in 2019 and Uber did about 14 billion dollars. So we’re talking about markets not related to us, but we’re talking about technology disrupting legacy industries. And I think that we are well-situated to be the disrupter in the talent booking space and I think that the opportunity ahead of us is as big as we want it to be.
John: Can this company become a multi-billion dollar venture? Can this become the next technological unicorn, Brendan? Is it going to be that big?
Brendan: I don’t think it’s, “Can,” I think it’s, “When will it,” John. I think it’s a matter of how long it’s going to take us to reach that point and reach that type of scale. I think the growth that we’ve seen over the last two years has surpassed all of our expectations. I think that where we’re going to be in another two years or another four years, to me, it’s almost scary to think about it. I think it’s going to be fast growth. I think we have a wonderful team in place. I think we have a wonderful idea with wonderful technology and wonderful people behind it. We have wonderful talents and wonderful partners. I think it’s the convergence of everything that makes for a good company for rapid growth.
John: I wouldn’t want this episode to go by without mentioning our other great colleagues and partners; Mike Coulson and Noah Schwartz. All have a huge hand in birthing and growing Engage. So again, a huge shout-out to both Noah and Mike. Daniel, there’s a lot of exciting things going on right now regarding Engage, in terms of growth, but growth doesn’t come without a price. I know there’s going to be some fundraising in the weeks and months ahead. Talk a little bit about the weeks and months ahead as we go into July 2021, going on the second half of 2021, and start thinking about 2022 and beyond. What’s going to be happening regarding fundraising to fuel our growth and all of the opportunities coming in our direction right now?
Daniel: Yes, I think we look at it and say, “Okay, fundraising is the best way to accelerate business growth.” We see the return that we’re getting on our limited marketing spend. We see what we’re doing with two full-time employees and we’re like, “Okay. If we want to scale as quickly as possible, we just need to raise more capital.” So starting in the middle of July, we’re going to start our seed round. We’ll raise a 2 million dollar round from a mix of angels, strategics, and agents. And then, from there, we’ll hire a couple more people. We’ll expand our team and we’ll be off and running. Because of all the macro tailwinds we just talked about and all of the forces trending in our direction, we need to go out and raise this money now so that we have the resources to capitalize right away and not miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime convergent of forces. So I think that is our thinking as we go out to raise money and we’ve got a really good list of people who want to be part of the journey.
John: Are people are reaching out to you saying they want to invest? How does that work?
Daniel: We’ve got a great mix of people reaching out to us. We’ve got a great mix of people who we’ve had conversations with and are reaching out too. It’s exciting. It always gets easier and easier to raise capital. The first round is brutal, right? You’re sitting at a USC dining hall, and you have no business. And then you grow a little bit this, and then it’s a little less hard. And then you get to the point where we’ve gotten to now, where we have people coming to us saying, “Hey, we know what you’re doing. We see it. It’s become more mainstream now. How can we be part of it? Is there room for us to get in?” Which is a much more exciting conversation to have than the first time. So yes, are people coming to us and asking to be part of it.
John: You know, Jake, this is a great business story. This is a great sports story. You, in many ways, are the Rocky Balboa of your generation; in beating cancer and beating all of the odds. But there’s another side of the story, one that I wrote about last week. I’m going to attach that letter for the people who follow me, Impact Podcast, and ERI. That goes about, one of the other reasons Brendan and I got behind you and Daniel, was also the chance to make a big difference and make a huge opportunity to create change that hasn’t been done before. We’ve always felt that. Why should all of the leaders of technological disruption companies and technological unicorns be guys that look like Zuckerberg or Bezels when Sara Blakely and other wonderful entrepreneurs should be celebrated? Why aren’t there any entrepreneurs being celebrated that don’t look perfect like you or me or Jeff Bezos or Sara Blakely?
And you happen to be blind and handicapped. There are 61 million people that are handicapped that don’t have the hope that they can break through or be part of the entrepreneurial American dream. And now, with you leading with Daniel this successful venture, that chance is going to be realized. You will be their hope and you will represent light to the 61 million disabled people just in this country. Of course, other people around the world are going to be watching, that is also not perfect. But not perfect doesn’t mean that they don’t have something huge to offer. How do you feel about being a huge icon for a generation of handicapped people? Not only in the United States but around the world, 61 million-plus, then can now become part of the entrepreneurial dream just like Jake Olson.
Jake: Yes, I think it’s a huge opportunity, John. As you said, as we grow and get this more off the ground and solidify ourselves as that huge tech company, people can see our progress. There’s going to be a huge opportunity to have that conversation with a lot of people and saying, “Hey, why did you choose a blind person? As you said, a disabled person, who couldn’t maybe do something that a sighted person could do. You knew that there’s going to be more challenges or a different way of doing it.” And your answer is going to be very important to other leaders, as you said, there are gentlemen and women that we are so used and accustomed to seeing out there. You are saying, “Look, I took a chance on this because I looked past that disability. I looked past what was in front of me and I looked at the individual for who they were. They were smart. They were passionate. They were courageous. They knew what they were wanting and I knew that individual was going to go get it regardless of the path you took to get it.”
That’s a very important thing. A lot of people need to understand that just because someone doesn’t do something the same way you do it or has been done throughout history, it doesn’t mean that we marginalize or completely excommunicate this population or the certain people from ever having a job that we deem only can be held by certain people like you said. So it’s going to be a huge opportunity and responsibility for us to share that because it is very troubling to see the unemployment numbers that are in the disabled community. There shouldn’t be these numbers, given that the vast majority of them have a place to work. We all know the meaning, the purpose, the hard work, and the joy that working gives you. And for someone not to have that for the sole reason that there are other people on this planet saying, “You can’t do that,” or, “We don’t think you can do that,” that’s got to be disappointing and frustrating for those individuals.
I’ve known people who’ve been brought in for interviews and the employer finds out they’re blind and they’re ghosted. They never called again. They’re pushed out because the employer would rather have a sighted person than a blind person. Unfortunately, that’s just the world we live in, but we’re changing that, John, Brendan, and Daniel. So thank you for taking that responsibility on and we’re only going to take on more of that responsibility as we grow.
Daniel: There’s something you said a while ago when we were freshmen about this, that I think just stuck with me and I think is important. It’s like, just because you’re disabled, you can do everything that a normal person can do. Your mind works. You can do everything. Sometimes, you just have to find a different way and people need to be willing to see the value in finding a different way and understanding that. It’s like you took Calculus, you just had to do it all in your head. You can do all of those things. You just have to find a different way to do it. So I hope people understand that there is more than one way of doing things. And when you work with people to find a different way, great things happen. John and Brendan found a different way. It resonated with me so I wanted to make sure that got mentioned.
Brendan: And I think I can add to that. I mean, there are things that Jake does that amaze me every day compared to someone who can see, right?
Brendan: Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. One of the coolest things working with you guys that I experienced over the last three years is just the uniqueness and the ways that Jake thinks of things that are different and that brings tremendous value to our company that we wouldn’t have if you could see.
Daniel: Well said. It’s an advantage. It’s a huge advantage and not a disadvantage.
John: Two things, guys. First of all, Jake might have more visions sometimes than people that have eyes. That’s true. Second of all, it gets also pushed under the rug and as sort of a sidebar to the core story. But in one of the ESPN profiles on Jake, it’s very clear. Jake got into two universities, USC, which he went to, but he also got into a very small but sort of known university called Harvard, which he turned away from. He didn’t get into Harvard because he just was Jake Olson. He got into Harvard because of his great grades and because of his work ethic. So the fact that he got into Harvard and USC and chose USC, again, what makes Jake great is that anything he undertakes, he over-delivers on. And that’s why another great part of Engage continues to succeed. It’s because of you, Daniel, because of Jake, and of course, because of Brendan.
I just want to thank you all for today’s interview. We’re going to continue to tell the Engage story as we evolve it over time. I’m going to continue to have you guys back on and share different views of what’s happening and how we’re growing this thing for all our listeners and viewers out there. If you want to learn more about Engage, if you’re a speaker and want to join or if you have an organization that wants to book one of our great speakers, please visit www.letsengage.com. Daniel Hennes, Jake Olson, and Brendan Egan. You’re not the only three great partners of mine. You’re also three of my best friends on the planet. Thank you for being part of this great journey. It’s just an honor to have you guys on the Impact Podcast today.
Daniel: Thank you, John.
Jake: Thank you, John.
Brendan: Thank you, John.
John: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking platform revolutionizing the talent booking industry. With thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and business leaders, Engage is the go-to spot for booking talent for speeches, custom experiences, live streams, and much more. For more information on Engage or to book talent today, visit www.letsengage.com