I had the pleasure of seeing Dan Berger at Cvent Connect in Las Vegas back in July. We chatted about the sale of SocialTables to Cvent and how the integration was going. I never could have imagined that, only a few months later, he would be announcing his departure.
Have a look at the interview.
The shock was real when I saw this tweet:
Today I announced that I’ve decided to leave @socialtables, the company I founded 8 years ago, later this month. pic.twitter.com/yPHFJ48jtA
— Dan Berger ✊🏼 (@danberger) November 2, 2019
I decided it was time to sit down again and shed some light on the reason behind such a seemingly unexpected decision. I also wanted to grasp what he learned and what he could share to inspire the next generation of event tech entrepreneurs. Because, boy, do we need more examples like these.
Dan connects to our video call from his house in Washington, DC, with his dog, Leroy, and some vibrant paintings in the background. He has his characteristic wit and directness, but it all feels more relaxed – the kind of relaxation you experience at the satisfying end of big chapter, with the anticipation of a promising one ahead.
I delved right in.
(EventMB) So that shocking tweet! What happened?
There was an opportunity for me to stay but I wanted to expand past Social Tables and do more.
I had the opportunity to do that where I was, but in the confines of a much larger organization [like Cvent] can be limiting for somebody like me.
I am not used to socializing things or to procurement processes, for example, and that’s what’s needed in a big organization. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s not for me.
I’m leaving on great terms; Reggie [Aggarwal, CEO of Cvent] and I are great friends. When I told him I was thinking about moving back to NYC, he was sad about that. It’s like losing a friend. We talked for about an hour. He was trying to convince me, but then he realized it was not about Cvent or Social Tables; it was about me, about my next chapter. And I’m really grateful for that.
The response to your announcement was overwhelming.
D: The reaction to my leaving was a microcosm of all the relationships I’ve built over the years as a result of Social Tables. Everyone from all over the world reached out in support, and I responded to every note with a customized reply because it meant a lot to me. The overall experience was a heartwarming reminder of why I’ve loved interacting with the people in this industry.
How do you feel about leaving the company?
D: I feel a sense of closure. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t planning it. I wasn’t thinking about it the first six months; we were very focused on the integration of both the software products and companies. Despite the fact that Cvent has been integrating over a dozen companies during the past half-decade, this was different because Social Tables’ offering spans both the Event Cloud (ticketing, registration) and Hospitality Cloud (the supplier network and other hospitality software tools).
It was also their first DC-based integration: it’s kind of like a remote office that’s next door. [Cvent is headquartered in Northern Virginia.] And it was an employee-based transition: our workforce was 120 when we were acquired; today we are 180.
I truly believe that Social Tables has its greatest days ahead of it. Now that I’m gone, there is more responsibility for everybody else to integrate even deeper and to go to market with new products faster. I’m incredibly excited by that. All that was left for me to do was to move out of the way.
But let’s take a step back. You’ve had quite a journey with Social Tables!
D: One of the things that always surprised me at Social Tables was how many customers we had.
Now we have three products – it’s a suite of hospitality tools – but back then, when we only had our diagramming category, I was like, “I can’t believe this is doing so well – it’s diagramming!” It seemed too simple to be so successful.
Once we decided we were going to create a kind of Microsoft Office for hospitality professionals, the bigger picture came into focus: you take those diagrams and then use them for marketing, you take those leads you get from marketing and put them in a CRM. It all started to make sense, but the story took a long time to develop.
Today, our product serves roughly 40,000 users a month. It’s used for about a million and a half events a year, and we’ve mapped out almost five-billion square feet of meeting space. We’ve come a long way.
You are one of the few who really made it when it comes to traditional business success. Growth, funding, exit. Not many can share the same pedigree when it comes to #eventtech.
D: Event tech is exceptionally hard, and to top that off, most people aren’t even entrepreneurs. You can’t call yourself an entrepreneur if you have a project or an app that doesn’t have any customers and hasn’t made or raised any money. The word “entrepreneur” is thrown around way too much.
I wasn’t even comfortable calling myself that until I sold Social Tables. Until people are willing to buy your business – until you’ve created a value that somebody else wants – in my view, you’re not yet an entrepreneur. It’s something that’s bestowed upon you; you can’t claim it for yourself.
I have met so many event tech wantrepreneurs who, unfortunately, I can’t listen to for very long because they don’t even make sense. It’s great that they’re entrepreneurial, it’s great that they have an idea, but they have to understand what their role needs to be, and they have to find a way to make their business successful most of the time without them.
Most of these wantrepreneurs have a super niche idea or they don’t know how to talk in business terms and, as a result, their businesses are essentially long shots.
Should we stay away from eventtech?
D: Quite the opposite. I’m bullish on event tech.
Events are not going anywhere. In fact, I think they will become more and more valuable as we spend more and more time on our devices, because that face-to-face time is going to be more coveted. We need to find a way of applying technology that works, that can be sustained.
Unfortunately, most of these businesses, when you’re talking about a horizontal play, are project management and things of that nature – not so much the latest kind of shiny object.
My parting advice for any wantrepreneurs out there is either 1) go very horizontal (wide) and go back to what Paul Graham calls “schlep businesses” (the business that nobody wants to touch, the stuff that is not sexy: CRM, project management, ERP, HR systems, etc.), or 2) go deep on a specific category and create a Swiss army knife. But the thing about Swiss army knives is that you have to keep adding new functionalities to it to be able to serve each event category because they’re all different.
What’s next, Dan? You have treated us to quite some action. We expect no less…
D: One of the things I’ve been focusing on is starting my own little venture fund with the thesis of creating connected communities that offer a sense of belonging. Whether that’s over a meal, connecting people, or putting on transformative events, my interests are not concentrated on just one space.
David Cummings (Pardot) has a certain set of criteria [for investing], which has been helpful for me. I’ve identified four things I can bring to the table: I can bring capital, and that’s a commodity; I can bring my network (it’s less about how you do something than who you know – who you know gets you to the “how”); I can bring operating expertise, and I think I’m a relatively good operator; and I bring subject matter expertise in hospitality.
This is what I’m bringing to the businesses I choose to invest in. I am trying to move towards creating widespread value, positive industry impact and a long-lasting legacy.
I’m not likely to invest in event tech. However, I am very energized at the thought of taking on a new CEO position. I don’t want to start something new, but I do want to go into something with really great raw materials, take it to the next level and scale it. That’s what excites me.
I have a few options in front of me right now and I’m carefully considering them.