Christa Colson – Founder & President, See Agency

Since 1997, Christa Haberstock Colson has blurred the line between Talent and Agent by living large on both sides of it at the same time. On the Agent side of the line, for over two decades Christa has dedicated herself to the management, consultation and representation of the busiest professional keynote speakers and the finest corporate entertainment anywhere, booking millions of dollars annually in talent into corporate and association events.

In 2009, Christa founded See Agency, an elite team of Corporate Event Professionals, Speaker Managers and Agents. See Agency is now one the industry’s fastest-growing speaker management agencies, twice awarded spots in the top 20% on the Inc. 5000, the List of America’s Fastest Growing Companies. In 2018, See Agency ranked on the Dallas 100 List of the 100 fastest-growing private companies in North Texas.

Christa received the 2012 Above and Beyond Award and the 2016 Dottie Walters Helping Hands Award by the International Association of Speakers Bureaus. Christa is currently serving on the Board of Governors for the Association. She has presented across the US and Canada to audiences of professional speakers, and has appeared on TV, radio, and podcasts. She is currently writing her first book of ‘bookability secrets’ to help professional speakers remove their own barriers to bookings and win more business.

And on the Talent side of the line?

Christa Haberstock Colson is an accomplished Recording Artist, having written, performed and produced award-winning songs which received radio play in the US, Canada, and West Africa. Her music has won regional and international awards, earning critical acclaim “from people who know stuff.”

Christa is also a successful Improviser and Actor, co-founding Dallas’ premiere all-female improv comedy troupe, Heroine Addiction. In 2012, she co-authored, Recipes for a Funner Life.

She has also done time as a Stand-up Comedian, voted a Top 4 finalist and Wild Card Pick in Edmonton’s 2007 Last Comic Standing. Later that year, she was invited to open for Caroline Rhea and Kevin Nealon.

Christa continues to work on an assortment of diverse projects, including various web series and voice-over work. Her short-film performances are being shown to great reviews at Film Festivals across the US.

Originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, she now resides in Dallas, Texas with 1 handsome husband, 2 or 3 perfect children, and a collection of brutal yet entertaining careers.

How did the concept for See Agency come about?
At the time, there were so many new “agencies” and mediums to find a speaker; however, many of these “agencies” were not the true definition of an agency. I wanted to create something that was the true definition of an agency. So much so that I turned to the dictionary, looked up the word “agency,” and saw my company. On that page it said, “see: agency.”

How was the first year in business?
As you would expect: rocky, scary, and so many late nights staring at a laptop and a terrifying bank account.

What was your marketing strategy?
Bureaus. The very place I started. I reconnected with colleagues in the bureau industry and used their wisdom and expertise to package speakers perfectly. I came from their end, I knew the challenges they faced, so I hit them with all my marketing efforts. It really was a no-brainer at the time.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Faster than I could have ever expected. All the happy growing pains were felt! Thank God, too. I was bootstrapping this business with two small children, a stay-at-home spouse, and no plan B.

How do you define success?
If you asked me at the beginning of See Agency, I would have said success is being able to do good, have fun, and make money. Now, my definition of success is being able to do good, have fun, and make a difference. If you are doing the right thing, the money always comes (eventually).

What is the key to success?
Believing in your work, finding your passion, and putting the two together. Also surrounding yourself with people who are going to encourage you and keep you accountable throughout the process. Pride comes before the fall, so accountability partners are a big piece of the puzzle.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Don’t ignore the obvious. The right answer is so often right under your nose. Really. And it doesn’t get any less humbling when you see it and how OBVIOUS it is.

What are some quotes that you live by?
Well, the same thing as above: don’t ignore the obvious. Also, when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

What are some of your favorite books?
The Bible. And my speakers’ books. I have to say that.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
A few things push me to keep moving. One is my family. I’m a hunter and I provide for my family. I always have. Their future and well-being is first and foremost in my mind. Secondly, this business is my baby. And I LOVE it. You don’t give your babies up easily (see first point). Last, but not least, my amazing See family – my Foxes (yes we named ourselves foxes) and our speakers.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
You aren’t going to ever feel like you’re qualified. Embrace that. It will keep you from falling into pride. Speaking of, when you start actually seeing good things happen, stay humble. Remember the people who helped you and help others. Oh, and remember there is someone following right on your heels to draft in your success and maybe even steal your clients. I hate to say it but you really can’t trust everybody. Find the ones you can trust and spoil them rotten. Every day create, pivot, surprise yourself by succeeding at stuff you didn’t think you could do. And also speaking of that… fail. Over and over. Keep failing, and then you’ve become an entrepreneur. LEARN from the failure. If you aren’t learning from every interaction you have, you are wasting resources. It’s not easy – so be prepared to step into the ring and get punched in the face a few times. Don’t worry, slap some ice on it and get back in the ring. Or dirt. Or whiskey. Whatever works.

Max Rice – Co-Founder & CEO, SkyVerge

Max Rice is the co-founder and CEO at SkyVerge, an Inc. 5000 company that creates software for eCommerce brands to manage and grow their stores.

How did the concept for SkyVerge come about?
I was working at a small company and had the opportunity to rebuild their eCommerce site using WooCommerce. I needed to add some custom functionality to the site and found a great article that my co-founder (Justin Stern) had written, so I asked him to help me with the project.

That went well, so we started consulting for other companies who needed help with their eCommerce stores. Most of those projects were for connecting WooCommerce with other services, like PayPal, or adding functionality like free shipping for certain products. We packaged a lot of those custom projects into general plugins that any store could download, and started selling them on WooCommerce.com.

Later, we expanded into providing solutions for other eCommerce platforms, but we kept the same approach: identify small, specific problems that eCommerce stores have and build a very focused product that solves the problem and is super easy to use.

How was the first year in business?
It was intense — we were building new products as quickly as we could, maintaining existing ones, and trying to figure out how to structure and grow the company. There was a lot of experimentation, and once we realized how big the opportunity was in eCommerce, we started planning for how we’d build the company long-term.

What was your marketing strategy?
Because we sold the majority of our products through marketplaces, we didn’t need to spend much time on traditional marketing channels like advertising. Instead, we wrote a lot of content around the eCommerce platforms that we worked with, things like how to set up certain types of stores or how to customize product pages, and it was all very relevant to store owners and operators.

We also wrote very detailed documentation for each product, so if a potential customer was searching for how to connect their store to another service, they would find our documentation for that integration and usually end up purchasing it.

That sort of content marketing was really effective for us, and we continue to use content as a way to connect with our target market.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We doubled revenue every year for the first few years, which is somewhat rare for a bootstrapped company. Early on, we also made a few small product acquisitions from other developers that helped us keep growing revenue at that pace.

How do you define success?
As a company we define success as making our customers happy — whether that’s by saving them time, or increasing their sales, or simply helping them solve a problem they’re having. I think success is also having the opportunity to work on really interesting problems with a team of smart, engaged people. There’s very few things that are as rewarding as growing a team that loves working together and genuinely cares about making customers happy.

What is the key to success?
Persistence, or as we call it in one of our core values — “true grit”, meaning persistence in the face of adversity. Anything worth doing is going to be hard, and there’s going to be challenges and unexpected obstacles, but if you push through the difficulties, you have a good shot at being successful.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I’ve learned that no one has it all figured out. You make the best decisions you can, with the information that you have, and then learn from your mistakes, and try again. We’ve made a lot of mistakes in growing our business and tried a lot of things that didn’t work, but we’ve learned from each one. Approaching everything you do in business with an experimental mindset will help you not only grow faster, but do it in a calmer, more rational way.

What are some quotes that you live by?
I’m a big fan of Warren Buffett and one quote from him that’s always resonated with me is, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” To me, that means taking a long-term perspective on everything you do, and treating everyone you work with — whether your customers, team, or partners — the way you’d want to be treated.

What are some of your favorite books?
I like biographies quite a bit, so The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow are both fantastic. They avoid the “hero worship” that some biographies have where struggles or failures are downplayed.

Recently, our leadership team has been reading & discussing both Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott and Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by L. David Marquet, and they’ve been helpful in making us think critically about our leadership style and how we can improve it.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
There’s not a single day that stands out to me, but I think the most difficult days have been times when everything seems to be going wrong. Like when an important customer switches to a competitor, or a key team member decides to leave; those things can sometimes happen all at once and it makes for a tough day at work. Being an entrepreneur can sometimes be an emotional rollercoaster, and it can take time to get comfortable with that.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Two things: 1) having a wonderful team of people who are all committed to achieving our shared goals, and 2) hearing from customers who are growing their businesses using our products and how we’ve helped make their lives better.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Spend as much time as you can talking to your customers. Deeply learn and understand their problems, and be able to speak the same language as them. The closer you are to your customer, the more successful you’ll be.

Wesley Mathews – CEO, High Level Marketing

Wesley Mathews drives the vision and strategy at HLM. He is a sales-driven CEO who has scaled High Level Marketing from an idea to 45+ employees and $5 million+ in recurring revenue. Wes can be described as a scrappy entrepreneur and strong leader with tremendous vision and great humility.

Outside of business, he enjoys spending time with his wife and four boys – kid’s sports, golfing, fishing, hockey, or just relaxing when he gets that chance.

How did the concept for High Level Marketing come about?
I moonlighted for a web company back in 2004 or so, and I watched them do everything wrong from my perspective. I loved the idea of working with small- to mid-size businesses but they burned every relationship and the process to delivery was extremely painful. I knew there had to be another way. I was passionate about helping business owners but it needed to have a high level of quality and delivery behind it. So at the time, if you want something done right or to your standards, do it yourself.

I had a vision come to me and I woke up in the middle of the night saying “High Level Marketing”. I jumped on my computer immediately, and to my surprise, the domain was available. I sat on the name for 2-3 years before I did anything with it.

I started my first company from 2006 to 2009 and what I learned – the good, bad, and ugly – helped me architect what is today High Level Marketing.

How was the first year in business?
2009-2010 was awesome. Scrappy, scary – my partner and I were figuring it out as well on the go. It was scary to hire our first employee for $10-12 an hour. I remember it like it was yesterday; we were terrified. I wouldn’t trade that year for anything as it was the scrappy foundation we were built on. My partner and I divided and conquered. He stayed in delivery and tech, while I was sales, customer service, project management, and SEO, to name a few. I was busy and had a new wife and son the same year.

What was your marketing strategy?
Sell, sell, sell – hitting the phone, generating leads by cold calling, getting appointments, then closing those appointments. We had an okay web presence but I was the lead and only sales guy early on. It was the wild, wild west.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We grew 48% the first year, 78% the next. We hit our first $1 million in revenue within three years. Today, our revenues are $5 million+.

How do you define success?
Success is a perception. I define it as my family being happy and healthy, and enjoying what I’m doing.

At first, I was chasing money, which wasn’t success. Once I aligned my true value, the money followed.

What is the key to success?
Stay motivated by knowing your “Why?” If you know what motivates you, you won’t have a hard time grinding through the difficult times. Do what you love. If you don’t love it or want to do it, don’t. Be honest! Set realistic expectations and own them.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
People are typically in three buckets: 1) with you, 2) against you, or 3) don’t know you exist. Surround yourself with smarter people than you, and aim to be the dumbest person in the room. Iron sharpens iron – being alone sucks!

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Do or do not. There is no try” – Yoga.

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” – Mike Tyson

What are some of your favorite books?
I have many, as I read about a book a week. Here are four:

Millionaire Success Habits
The Ultimate Zig Ziglar Library
Awaken the Giant Within
The Total Money Makeover

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I lost a key sales guy. He was a huge driver in the business. I made the mistake and built too much of the business around him and his sales for a few years. I had to face the future without him and we worked together for years. Tough days, but we are both better for it and grew!

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
As mentioned above, know your why. When times get tough, remember why you are doing what you do. If this isn’t clear, it will be a tough road ahead. Every so called “failure” I’ve had, I wouldn’t change them. The lessons I learned were so valuable; it may not seem like it while you’re going through it, though. Keep your eye on the prize and don’t let little bumps derail your progress towards your goal. You will always have setbacks…those are guaranteed.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Do what you want, and don’t let anything or anybody tell you otherwise. Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Want it! I had more naysayers early on who didn’t believe in me. I didn’t go to a traditional four-year college. I don’t have a Bachelor’s. Now, I’m the one interviewing Harvard graduates for employment and growing a successful business for 10 years! And I also created opportunity for many employees as well. I was terrified in the beginning, but everything is scary at some point.

Join EO as soon as you hit $1 million in revenue or an accelerator as you’re growing. Build a strong peer group. You need to be around like-minded entrepreneurs. People who have been there, done that, are great. Mentors are a must! Good luck.

Lior Arussy – Founder & CEO, Strativity Group

One of the world’s leading authorities on customer experience, Lior Arussy is an experienced change practitioner, success accelerator, corporate culture expert, and founder of design and transformation firm Strativity Group. Called “a triple threat of transformation” by co-founder and founding editor of Fast Company William Taylor, Arussy is a unique, critical, global voice helping people worldwide achieve ultimate success.

Prior to founding Strativity Group, Arussy spent his career in executive positions at companies like Hewlett-Packard. With an understanding that traditional change management is not working, Arussy has worked with many of the world’s top brands including Mercedes-Benz, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Thomson Reuters, HSBC, E.ON, FedEx, SAP, University of Pennsylvania, and Johnson & Johnson, among others, to recognize that the key to truly driving change for success is in putting employees at the center of transformation efforts. His methodology enabled Mercedes Benz to take the #1 position in customer satisfaction in just two years. Another client, a European logistics corporation, leaped from 3% annual organic growth to 44% annual organic growth in just two years.

The recipient of the 2015 SmartCEO Circle of Excellence Award, Arussy was also presented the 2015 “Influential Leaders” award by CRM Magazine and named the #2 Top Global Guru in Customer Service by Global Gurus. Consulting Magazine also named Strativity “A Small Jewel” in 2017 and one of the fastest-growing for the past three years. Strativity has the additional distinction of being named to the Inc. 5000 Honor Roll, reserved for firms who have been named to the Inc. 5000 list for five or more consecutive years.

In addition to his work with Strativity, Arussy is the author of seven books including the forthcoming Next is Now: 5 Steps for Embracing Change – Building a Business that Thrives into the Future (May 2018, Simon & Schuster), and his self-published Exceptionalize It! (2015), which has sold over 30,000 copies to-date. Arussy has written over 250 articles for publications around the world, including the Harvard Business Review, and multitude of magazines and media outlets have cited his work, including MSNBC, CNBC, Bloomberg TV, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, CRM Magazine, Smart CEO Magazine, and Inc.

Arussy completed his undergraduate degree at Case Western Reserve University and received his MBA from Weatherhead School of Management. He resides in New Jersey with his wife and five children. When he’s not sampling fine chocolates or collecting Swiss watches, he enjoys exploring new cultures—2.6 million miles on United so far.

How did the concept for Strativity come about?
Following years as a technology executive, I noticed a trend in which my clients failed to maximize the value of their technology investment. One of those clients put it succinctly, “Even a fool with a tool is still a fool.” It was my “Aha!” moment. They focus too much on technology and very little on organizational readiness for delivering the strategy they purchased the technology for. The world needed a way to activate strategies and do that in a effective and fast fashion. That was the nucleus of the company’s formation.

How was the first year in business?
Horrible. It was a rude awakening. I saw many of the people I counted on, due to my original relationships with them while being a powerful executive, evaporate. My first idea was a complete failure and I needed to scrape myself from the floor and start again. More humble and realistic.

What was your marketing strategy?
The strategy was twofold. The first one element was lead through opinion. Have a point of view. Do not go there with a blank piece of paper. Define your viewpoint and share it through maximum channels. At the time, I was providing articles to many magazines around the world. Free, great content in exchange for exposure. This followed by books and seeking opportunities to share the vision.

The second element was template. In consulting, you want to show the clients that your knowledge is packaged and they do not pay for your learning. I productized our offering to make them more accessible.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
In the first two years, we were in design and development mode. Following that, the pace of growth picked up quite significantly and we were experiencing three digits annual growth up until the 2009 recession. After we overcame the recession when many of our competitors didn’t survive, we continued with a double-digit growth pace, more mature, and better managed.

How do you define success?
Clients who come back for more, or when they move to another company, we are their first or second call. It is the ultimate success.

Additionally, employees who see value in what they do and find purpose in their work, that is success.

Lastly, when our clients’ customers share the excitement and appreciate the value delivered. At a cancer treatment center we designed, patients tattooed the logo on their body in appreciation for the exceptional experience they have received. It was an experience we designed and deployed. It was pretty cool. That’s success!

What is the key to success?
1) Be clear about what you want to achieve
2) Select your customers carefully. You can’t afford having bad ones
3) Support your employees and give them wings to fly
4) Do not pursue growth for growth’s sake
5) Create something to be proud of and be proud of it

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The hardest thing to develop is a trusted brand. It simply takes time and many proof points to get there. Don’t ever underestimate it, and don’t ever think that your first handful of clients is a brand.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Always do the human thing first.”

“Culture eat strategy for breakfast.”

“The right customer is always right. The wrong customer belongs to the competitors.”

“Don’t argue with the customer charge for it (and if they are not willing to pay for it, think again).”

“At the end of the day, focus on the emotional aspect of the issue and the power you do have.”

What are some of your favorite books?
Too many books to cite!

To Heal a Fractured World by Jonathan Sacks
Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
January 30, 2009. When we started in 2009, we had enough bookings to sustain us for the year. By January 30, 90% of them were cancelled. Now what?

I decided to keep all the employees and just lower salaries and find ways to survive. It was dark as hell and scary. Some employees told me, “I know that if you fire us you have better chances of survival.” It was painful. I did the human thing first. Overall, it worked out, but it took many sleepless nights and endless days to get there.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The success stories that clients share with us about how our work transformed them. We have a privilege to be there with people and organizations during tough times. When they emerge victorious and proud, it is rewarding.

I had a client who asked me once “Why didn’t you fire us? We were so difficult” and I responded “I guess I had more belief in you that you had in yourself.”That is what sustains in me the belief in our clients and their people combined with in depth experience and expertise on how to help them.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Be there for the long run. Factor in that you will fail. We all do. Develop mechanisms to get up fast. Failure is not personal, although it does feel that way sometimes.

German Garcia-Fresco, PhD – Founder & President, Xtreme Park Adventures

Photograph by Daniela Blason

Dr. German Garcia-Fresco is the director of the Adaptive Neuroscience Research Institute (ANRI) and the chief scientific officer of Aretanium. He is also the author of the book Train Your Brain For Success. He obtained his PhD in molecular neurobiology at the University of North Carolina. He has received numerous awards including the President’s Award for excellence in genetics and biochemistry. His research has led to advances in the field of neurobiology, contributing to mechanisms involved in neurodegenerative diseases. His research has been featured in top scientific journals as well as the New York Times and several news channels around the world. German is also a certified nutritionist and brain health coach. He has a passion for learning and has been trained and perfected in areas of neuromarketing, persuasion, and cognitive decision making.

Asides from his scientific interests, he is an avid speaker and a successful entrepreneur. He has opened and successfully operates a variety of different multi-million dollar companies, including his most recent venture developing brain health products for consumers. Over the last few years, he has been focused on the behavioral aspects of brain functioning specifically decision-making, emotional control, and creative enhancement. He is currently trying to develop techniques to increase neuronal performance and developing educational brain programs for children and adults. Dr. Fresco has been featured in several popular channels like MSNBC, Inc. 5000, and most recently, Forbes Magazine.

How did the concept for Xtreme Park Adventures come about?
I was an avid paintball player. I really liked playing and competing and it got to the point where I wanted my own place to play paintball so I rented a piece of land and started a paintball field to play with friends. Then, it just turned into a multi-million dollar amusement park! But it basically started as a passion.

How was the first year in business?
My first year I didn’t really care. My first month in business I made $350, but the second month I made $5,000. It was a very easy year to be honest, and lots of fun.

What was your marketing strategy?
I didn’t really have one at the time since I wanted to do it for fun. You can say word of mouth at that time.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Well, pretty fast to be honest. It went from $350 the first month to $83,000 that first year. Then, on our second year, we made about $200,000 and just kept really scaling every year for the last 10 years. We have grown around 1,500% in first 8 years.

How do you define success?
Good question. I believe success is in the eye of the beholder. I believe everyone defines success differently. Some people believe making a million dollars is success, others getting a degree, and others like my mom define success based on the success of her children! So, there is no right or wrong answer, and I also believe it can change over time. As long as you feel you are getting there, and you feel you are being successful, then you are.

What is the key to success?
I will give you ONE key to success which most people wont give you: having a proper-working brain. This is why I wrote the book, Train Your Brain For Success. You can never be successful if you do not take control of your brain. The decisions you make on a daily basis dictate your success and that is dictated by your best friend: your brain.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Many lessons, really, like do not be too naive because life is not as easy as a YouTube video selling you success makes it sound. If it was, then we would all be rich and famous, and again, back to the brain, I’ve learned that without proper care of your brain you can’t get anywhere.

What are some quotes that you live by?
None really. I am not a quote type guy. except perhaps “Never never never give up.”

What are some of your favorite books?
Too many. I own hundreds of books, and read all the time, but to mention a few: Think and Grow Rich (a classic), Brain Rules, Mindset, and my book of course!

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I guess the toughest part is that it never stops. The second thing for me is that acquiring customers/leads is the single most difficult thing. Harder than getting funding, starting a company, running it, etc. Getting the people is not as easy as it sounds and it can drain your bank account trying to get them.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Never never never give up. I am pretty positive and I am pretty good at realizing when to quit on a dead project. I do not get discouraged. I own several companies in different areas and it keeps me relaxed knowing that it is almost impossible for all to fail at the same time.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
READ READ READ from verified sources. Learning is a key factor in success and decision-making. Don’t get too frustrated. Most people fail so you are bound to fail. Just keep trying. Eventually, time is in your favor.