St. Louis Post-Dispatch Mound City Money column
Nov 09, 2012 (St. Louis Post-Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
At age 80, and retired for 11 years, Alyn Essman wasn't looking to get back into a chief executive's role.
That's exactly where he finds himself, though, at Chesterfield-based BusyEvent. Essman had been advising his friend, BusyEvent co-founder David Schenberg, to beef up the 6-year-old company's management team.
With the firm about to launch an important new software product, Schenberg, age 43, could see the wisdom of that advice, so he did what's difficult for most entrepreneurs to do: He stepped aside as CEO and asked Essman, who ran photo-studio operator CPI Corp. for 28 years, to take the job.
It wasn't how Essman thought the relationship would evolve when he became an informal mentor to his friend years before. But it made sense: Essman, an accountant by training, had been advising Schenberg to strengthen BusyEvent's financial controls. Essman ran CPI during an explosive growth period; if all goes according to plan, BusyEvent is about to enter such a phase.
So Essman found himself back in the C-suite. "We got to the point where I got tired of advising David to get himself a green eyeshade, so I took my old one out and polished it up," he quips.
BusyEvent makes trade-show software. It not only helps organizers run the show and attendees keep track of the schedule, but also enables vendors to know who visited their booths and speakers to get feedback from the audience.
In the newest version, due early next year, all of that will happen over mobile devices. That makes the show more efficient -- instead of going home with a bag full of vendors' brochures, you'll receive the information electronically -- and profitable for vendors and organizers.
It also vastly increases the potential market for BusyEvent. The old software required attendees to interact using handheld clickers, which BusyEvent had to distribute at each show.
The mobile app, by contrast, works on devices that most businesspeople already carry. Event organizers will essentially be subscribing to a service rather than paying for a customized product.
That's another thing Essman preached about: BusyEvent needed a scalable business model, one that could serve hundreds of events each year instead of the 20 or 30 that were using the old software.
He thinks the mobile software achieves that: "It disrupts the industry, but it doesn't disrupt the activity," Essman says. "It doesn't disrupt what people go to a trade show to do."
Technology investor Judy Sindecuse, whose Capital Innovators fund has a stake in BusyEvent, likes what she's seen of the new software. She also likes the fact that founders Schenberg and Brian Slawin realized their own limitations.
"Companies that start to become very large companies need somebody who has experience running very large companies," she says. "If you're smart and you're paying attention, you realize when you are bumping against your limitations."
BusyEvent isn't large yet; Schenberg and Slawin are the only full-time employees. Nor does Essman see this gig as a permanent interruption to his retirement. He figures he'll run things for a year or so and then give the reins back to Schenberg or somebody else.
Meanwhile, he says, he hopes to help a friend, make a difference and have some fun. That sounds like a pretty good job description.
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