Antidote to Conference Blahs
It's that time of year - conferences pile up. Travel costs, and especially time away from the office, start to loom big when weighed against the educational, networking and rare, ephemeral inspirational value that seemed compelling when you registered months ago...but suddenly not so much so. Since I'm often paid to speak my choice is simpler - of course I'm going - but I nevertheless lament the missed opportunities.
This week I attended the 1st annual Military Influencer Conference in Dallas. It was different in many ways.
Because I'm active in veterans' programs, I was pleased to have the chance to help Curtez Riggs launch the event - doing my small part by speaking and promoting it, waiving the speaking fee and absorbing travel expenses like others at this event. Nevertheless, I've had a lot of travel lately against which I'm juggling lots of work. I went on commitment and faith. I've returned refreshed.
Having attended, I got the better end of the deal for sure. All three theoretical conference elements - networking, education and inspiration were core to this event in ways which I don't recall experiencing ever before. (I've included some social media highlights at the end of this post.)
What made it different? Let's count the ways.
A Kind and Uplifting Tone
It seems we're all troubled by the coarseness and uncivility of broad swathes of public discourse today. Yet often we fail to live up to the standard that we expect of others. We are all part of one or another group which finds reason to be aggrieved - and expresses that explicitly; justifying our contribution by the fact that "yeah, but this is important!"
Yet this event, which was naturally and fully diverse in gender, race, education, home state and professional background, was comfortably and instinctively supportive and positive. The group assembled was in fact an instant community. Attendees included spouses, spouses who are veterans themselves, veterans, active duty military, and even some with no connection - just a commitment to vets.
Nobody felt sorry for themselves - not even those who carry grievous physical and emotional wounds from some of the most brutal battles of our 15 years of war. And there was no undercurrent of divisiveness.
It was special and refreshing in that way.
The military has a reputation for being a bit cocky - at least in certain segments. In certain situations that's important and helpful - but it wasn't evident in this group that was intent on supporting each other.
Instead there was the quiet confidence of a group that knows they'll win. They may not yet be sure how, and may not even yet be clear on what challenge they're facing - but experience tells them that their grit, determination, doggedness, ingenuity and flexibility will enable them to prevail.
Behind that quiet confidence was a pair of attributes also rarely found packaged together today. Every speaker, and many attendees, had deep and proven skill sets and expertise paired with genuine humility (not the pr faux humility so common today.) That probably comes from deeply ingrained lessons of teamwork and sacrifice - but it was evident in their core. Shark Tank winners, genuine heroes, and "ordinary Joe's alike" learned, ate and drank together.
It would be too easy to let that quiet confidence mute the legitimate accomplishments in the digital marketing space (not to mention on the battlefield, in non-profits and in corporate management and operations.)
I'm accustomed to conferences where speakers are long on advice, accumulated through....extensive A/B testing. Presenters speak in the sing-songy style that's common these days, ending most sentences with an apparent question mark - searching for confirmation or validation of their "insights."
This group was different. A huge percentage have started, run and even sold businesses. Many have had success because of their digital marketing savvy - and that savvy was freely shared with the natural authority that accompanies only achievement, not simply aspiration. Further it was shared in a spirit of enabling others vs. simply establishing the authority of the speakers.
A Good Bet
Unless you've got a solid plan to outsmart Mark Cuban, take a hint from him (and many other debt and equity investors.) The veteran community is a good business bet. You've certainly heard that venture capitalists fundamentally invest in a management team, not business plans. They anticipate pivots and disruptions in the business - great management/leadership is where they put their chips and are attributes concentrated in the military community.
This conference in fact included a panel of SharkTank success stories (see some of them here), accompanied by a representative of Mark Cuban Companies. (Of course other Sharks have invested in vetrepreneurs and Daymond John is an outspoken fan.) Combat Flip Flops, Bottle Breacher and R.Riveter shared behind the scenes insights of the formative experience.
The conference itself is a case study in this reality. Retiring soldier Curtez Riggs has managed a digital side hustle for years - while performing in uniform. With this conference he put his finances and post military career on the line to realize his vision. Mike Kelly, Assistant VP of Military Affairs at lead sponsor USAA told the story of a short sponsorship negotiation. Curtez pitched it and USAA said yes. It was easy for them to gamble sponsorship dollars on Curtez' vision, because they knew he would deliver. (Needless to say, the event validated their confidence!)
Doing what it takes, and refusing to accept failure, are attributes of this community and critical to success in business.
Business as a Uniter
It's not surprising that such an incredible group had lots of stories of business making a difference - in many varying ways.
There were Social Purpose Corporations represented (e.g. GotYourSixCoffee and Dropzone for Veterans.) Everence has the ability to include encapsulated DNA from a loved one into your tattoo - making a difference for those who have lost someone by keeping them physically connected.
R.Riveter, founded by veteran spouses, is innovating supply chain approaches to provide remote workforce continuity for spouses who face career and employment disruption with moves every few years. Lakesha Cole built a global business by necessity and now empowers other mompreneurs to do the same.
And Emily Núñez Cavness told an inspiring tale of starting her business Sword & Plow based on an inspiration that struck during a class at Middlebury College; pitching the idea at Harvard, during a blizzard and days before deploying to Afghanistan; and managing the business as she trained to be one of the first women to attend Army Ranger School. One of her greatest aspirations is bridging the social military divide in the US, and she believes business can help to do so. Maybe the digital tools available today, and those being developed, can support that - much like Cargill sees blockchain as a way to connect the farming heartland with the coasts.
Veterans Aren't Broken
As a nation we surely owe both gratitude and enduring support to veterans who bear the wounds war, visible or not, and their families. Much ink is spilled documenting our shortcomings in meeting that obligation, and the consistent drumbeat of dreary news can sometimes create the impression that veterans as a group are broken. We will honor those who fell. We will care for those who struggle. And it's fitting that St. Crispin's Day followed immediately on the heels of the conference, with Shakespeare's message of the bond among a "band of brothers."
But we must also recognize that there's a large and silent class of veterans and spouses. Those who rejoin the civilian sector and contribute to our country.
In that context, the incredible attributes, intellect, talent and vision displayed by attendees at this event bears mentioning. The military community can be a powerful force for good - of many types - in today's society.
Hire and Support Heroes
I'm sure others will dive deeper into the learnings and techniques that were shared. Among the highlights:
- Curtez Riggs announced plans for next years Military Influencer Conference (put it on your calendar if you're a digital marketer or involved with the military entrepreneurial community)
- HubSpot for Vets unveiled it's amazing new program
- Dan Alarik talked about building a real-world team that is GruntStyle
- March Marketing's Tom Aiello unveiled detailed research on buying habits of the military community
- Wes O'Donnell really has cracked the code of creating viral content...repeatedly!
- Kristine Schellhaas, author of 15 Years of War: How the Longest War in U.S. History Affected a Military Family in Love, Loss, and the Cost Of Service (view the tralier), distilled the process of writing and publishing a book into an action plan
- Happy Joe's James Dallman made branding real rather than theory
- Ryan Guina demystified monetizing digital platforms - he actually earns his living that way
- Tom Morkes makes influencer marketing work where others embrace the concept
- PR experts Josh Elledge, Paul Szoldra, and Fred Wellman deliver real placements rather than provide opaque metrics
- Mikko Alanne, the creator of National Geographic Channel's adaptation of Martha Raddatz' book, The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family, was joined by several vets who consulted on filming The Long Road Home to talk about impactful storytelling
- And of course Curtez Riggs himself demonstrated the valued attributes of the military community - not from the stage, but in the essence that bound attendees together at the event
So if you need those skill sets, track these folks down. You're not only going to be hiring top tier, proven talent....but you're going to hire a hero while you're at it.
But this was bigger than the cumulative value of the tips and tricks (albeit significant.) This was about a group of Americans who are making a difference - for themselves, their families, communities, the military community, employees and the country.
Keep an eye on this group. Hire from among them for employees, contractors and consultants.
And put next year's event on your calendar (23-25 September, Orlando, FL) and subscribe to updates. You won't want to miss it, even if you have no military connection.
Hat Tip also to the sponsors who supported Curtez (of course knowing that he was a good bet!)
USAA, ScoutComs, GovX, LifeFlipMedia, NatGeo, Blue Star Families, PCS Grades, The Hive & Co, Recruit Military and more.