My name is Joe Baumgartel. I’m the CEO of Symposium, a company I co-founded. Symposium allows people to sell any live video service they have to offer. This includes tutoring, consulting, counseling, coaching, teaching, or any form of entertainment; experts can take their service and turn it into a product that can be packaged and sold over the internet. You set your own rates, choose your own schedule, and decide how you want to sell your service.
The biggest thing we’re working on now is breaking down barriers so that anyone who has a talent or service can use the Symposium platform to connect the providers and users by providing the marketplace for anyone in the world to sell and/or find those services.
Many of the other live service platforms have operated as gatekeepers for lesson-givers, tutors, influencers, and entertainers. They’ve tried to get in between people and their audiences to control the interaction between them, but Symposium is focused on assuring that everyone has a chance to be an entrepreneur and reach people with their live services, without interference. The experience people want to have on a platform is to meet service providers and hosts they’re interested in, not the ones we try to spoon-feed to them. We want to create an even playing field and let everybody in, letting them rise and fall based on how good their services are and how the audience reacts to them.
Progress for us is two-fold. Symposium measures how many people are interacting on the site: how many people are visiting and how active people are. But more importantly, we try to measure success based on the service providers in the system. Are they making money? Are their audiences happy with the service they’re receiving? Are they having a good experience on our platform? These are the things we value when evaluating our progress.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
I’ve always been into entrepreneurship, as it’s always been in my family. My grandfather owned the same business for 50 years. I cleaned his shop when I was a kid. I’ve only held jobs, where I wasn’t my own boss, for very short periods of time in my life. I’ve always been working for myself.
Make sure whoever you’re working with is someone you could imagine working with for a long time.
I started as a musician and a music teacher. Even when I was working with other bandleaders or teaching at a school, I was always a contractor and made my own choices as to whether I wanted to be working. It always had to be something I believed in and really wanted to do because I had that entrepreneurial spirit.
While I was a musician for most of my life, when I was 27 I decided to branch out and see what else I could do. I dabbled in computers for a while, which was in my blood. My dad was a software engineer. As soon as the World Wide Web was available, I had a Pentium 90 Computer in my house with a dial-up modem, looking at text-only websites. While I was playing music full-time, I started going to school at the University of Chapel Hill to learn to code.
Music is about making people feel good, whereas software can be so much more. Apps like Uber have a meaningful effect on people’s lives, allowing people who previously couldn’t easily get somewhere an opportunity to conveniently travel. That’s the kind of effect that attracts me to software: being able to reach more people with a different kind of meaningful, lasting experience than what music could provide. And that is the kind of experience we are creating with Symposium.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
When I made the transition from music to software, one of the first things I was interested in was live video. I was developing live video years ago before Facebook Live and Periscope hit the market. The people I was working with were constantly talking about how the phone was going to eventually be the main live source of things, giving the average person the capability of a reporter or a live entertainer.
I developed a couple of apps and was focused on that when I got a phone call from a friend of mine. He was working on something that he described to be like a Rolodex for live interactions with people. He needed to help developing it and reached out to me since I was already working on similar projects. I thought the idea was really cool, being able to get a hold of someone and pay them for their time in a live situation. It’s something I could’ve benefited from during my career as a musician. There were times when I couldn’t find many teaching or playing gigs, and when I tried selling my services online to provide lessons, there wasn’t much available. The few services that did exist operated as gatekeepers. I became frustrated trying to find someone to work for online. At the time, I didn’t yet have the tools I needed to do it myself.
But when I got the call about Symposium, I told my partner Troy that I wanted this to be something that could’ve helped someone like me back then. What if we could create a marketplace full of services that anyone could provide, and what if we could make those live services into packageable products over the internet? That was the goal, to turn a live service into a product. Any appointment could be packaged on Symposium the same way a product is sold on Amazon. On Symposium, you can create a listing that explains what your product is, within a market where people can search to find what they're looking for. As the seller, you can also have a link to your service to advertise it any way that you’d like. And that’s how the idea was born.
Pretty soon, we were building the product. We were a tiny little company. I was the only one of my partners not in Las Vegas and we were interfacing all the time over video. That was really helpful in determining the experience on Symposium because I was going through the everyday pains of video conferencing. We got the thing built and tried to market it, but we found that people didn’t really know what we were talking about. Even though live video became ubiquitous in our lives, people still didn’t really understand the idea of live services. Then the pandemic hit. Within a week after lockdown, I started noticing a switch in people’s responses when I spoke to them about Symposium. Now they would instantly get it. That changed the journey, as more people were looking, more big players were in the space, and more people were seeking a certain user experience online. Ever since then, we’ve been going at it full force, tweaking, and tweaking. We have enough people coming to the site at this point that it’s easier for us to optimize things for the user base. Now I feel we’re pretty far ahead in the live video space as far as private sellers go. We know a lot more about what private sellers want online, who their audience is, and what their audience needs.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, operations are around the clock. We’re constantly developing and tweaking our message. The biggest thing right now is optimizing the current Symposium experience for the newly enlarged audience we’ve been encountering. As we figure out what the users need now, we also get a feel of what they’re going to need in the future.
While we do have plans for future years, we try to stay focused all the time in the immediate future. What is someone going to need 3 months from now, 6 months now, etc.? I’m really focused on getting our hosts to the point where they’re the money they’re making on Symposium is as viable as a full-time job. We want to grow a provider-based and have it scalable enough to where the hosts don’t need any other service or workspace to earn a living. That is what points our ship at this point.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
When it comes to business development and software development, I’ve learned that most of what you read from reliable sources is true. If you try to deviate too much from the norms around accepted business practices, you will suffer. That doesn’t mean you stop thinking outside the box, but rather if you don’t start with what is inside the box first, you’re going to experience a lot of hurts. Every time I don’t do a thing that I know to be a best practice according to experts, I see myself having to deal with the consequences later on.
At the same time, you have to be careful to not get mired in the thoughts of other people. Don’t compare yourself too much to others when measuring your approach against those you admire in business and development.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My favorite suite of tools is Microsoft 360 suite. I’m an old school internet soul. I love all the original companies and Microsoft is the company. I see Microsoft as a really resilient, trailblazing force. In my opinion, Office 365 is the best product suite hands down. It’s been under development for the longest time and it never stops being developed.
Microsoft Teams is something we use and is a great example of how the company keeps on innovating and finding new ways to do things. Dropping files and conversations, scheduling, and conferencing are all in one place and that is really useful for our team.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
When it comes to podcasts, I love Gimlet Media and the content they produce. Without Fail is a great podcast. You learn about people who have been working in well-known companies like Netflix and go behind the scenes to get the full backstory. You’re taken into the experience of them being in the garage during the development process. It’s inspiring to hear about troubles, trials, tribulations, great discoveries, the excitement, and how it was handled from the inside.
They also have a great podcast called StartUp where they chronicle the life of Gimlet. You see their growth from the very beginning where they don’t have a dime to getting to the point where they’re selling to Spotify for $200-$300 million. And you can understand how they ended up in that position. They go through everything from the pitch, to the investor, the founder discussions, how do you decide what a founder is worth in a company, all these different things that you don’t necessarily think about unless you’re growing a business.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Entrepreneurship is not for everybody. There are a lot of ups and downs, not just financially, but emotionally too. At times, it can provide you a lot more time to be with your family and other people who you love, but it can also cause you to be separated from them for long periods of time.
There are moments when the company really needs you, and as an entrepreneur, you have to be there for your company all the time. A lot of it comes down to depending on yourself and picking out good people whom you can trust. The best advice I can give is to make sure whoever you’re working with is someone you could imagine working with for a long time.
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