How a leading fintech events company pivoted to virtual events
It charges brands thousands of dollars to sponsor its weekly webinars.
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The founders of LendIt Fintech didn’t set out to build an events company focused on fintech; they only did so after their search for a fintech conference that fit their needs came up empty.
Back in 2013, Bo Brustkern and Jason Jones were running NSR Invest, a fintech platform that helped automate investment decisions. “I wanted to learn more about the space,” Brustkern told me. “We were an asset manager in a new asset class, and many of these securities we were investing in were brand new. The industry was kind of complex and confusing, and we needed to understand the whole thing better.” Typically in that scenario, an entrepreneur would seek out an industry conference where they could go and network with and learn from others in the space, but Brustkern and Jones couldn’t find anything that quite lined up with their niche.
It was around this time that they struck up a correspondence with Peter Renton, a fintech blogger who ran a website called Lend Academy. “He had a mailing list of maybe 3000 people,” recalled Brustkern. “He had ironed out his New Year's resolutions, one of which was to produce a conference. We were very well aligned, as it turned out.” To this group they added a fourth co-founder, Dara Albright, who had experience hosting small-scale events for financial service professionals.
A few weeks later, the four launched their very first event in a small rented space in Manhattan, relying almost entirely on Renton’s email list to promote it. “I think we gathered 325 people in a room and we had 50 people outside we couldn’t let in because it would break fire code,” Brustkern said. “It was a hot sweaty mess and people loved it.” Relying on little more than ticket sales and a few sponsors, that first event generated over $80,000.
Launching an events company
The founding team realized they were on to something. “It blew our minds that we had that much success for something that was really just almost whimsical,” said Brustkern. “The guests all universally turned to us and said, ‘when's the next one?’” The two quickly decided they’d invest the $80,000 directly into a newly formed company and host a conference in San Francisco the next year. They called this new company LendIt because they were initially focused on the online lending niche. Later, they changed their name to LendIt Fintech to reflect a broader focus.
That next year’s conference attracted over 900 people, at which point the company made the decision to expand into Europe and China. The following year, their primary “USA” conference grew nearly 300% to 2,500 attendees. It was a business built on, as Brustkern put it, “360 days worth of preparation for six days worth of revenue generation.” LendIt Fintech was able to differentiate itself from other emerging competitors through its programming. “What really set us apart from other fintech conferences was that we actually put really knowledgeable people on stage and our panels really wrestled with answering questions that the industry was grappling with. We've never been a pay-to-play.” One of LendIt’s biggest competitors allowed its sponsors to drive much of the programming. “They peaked at about 13,000 people, while we peaked at about 5,000 attendees.”
The Covid pivot
Up until 2020, LendIt Fintech’s investment in digital content was minimal. Renton continued blogging for the company, publishing a handful of articles per month. He has also hosted close to 300 episodes of the Lend Academy Podcast, a show in which he interviews executives in the fintech space.
But other than that, the vast majority of content generated through the company was done in the form of panels and talks at its in-person conferences.
You know what happened next: “In March of last year, we were faced with an existential crisis. We quickly came to the conclusion that our audience needed us now more than ever, and we couldn't wait for the return of physical events to get answers to their questions. So we really just said, ‘all right, we're a digital media company now.’”
What did this mean in practice? Well, for one, the company needed to shift from putting on one or two events a year to hosting multiple events every week. By the time Covid hit, LendIt Fintech had built up an email list of 35,000 industry players, and it had a deep back bench of contacts with leaders in the space. So Brustkern’s team began pulling together regular Zoom panels with subject matter experts, promoting the panels via the list. “We’d assembled a panel, we’d find a sponsor for it and charge the sponsor between $10,000 and $15,000 for the leads.” Attending the event was free as long as attendees handed over their contact information, which LendIt Fintech would give to the sponsor (lead generation is a common media business model).
Though the panels are available for watching on-demand, the vast majority of viewership is live. “All the things that you would normally expect from a normal conference, we did our best to reproduce that experience and do it completely virtually,” said Brustkern. “You join them, you interact, you ask questions of the experts during the Q&A, you chat with other attendees in the Zoom.”
Since launching their first virtual event in April 2020, LendIt Fintech has hosted over 100 of them. Their most popular webinars are attended by a few hundred people, which might not sound like many, but the narrow industry niche makes that audience size extremely valuable to sponsors. “The next step for us, I think, is to just dial up the frequency and amount of original content, and dial up the production quality,” said Brustkern. “And all of a sudden we're going to look like, you know, Fintech TV.”
LendIt Fintech also launched a paid subscription that costs $595 a year (or $65/mo) and has already converted about 1,000 subscribers. “Subscribers get access to virtual panels that are unsponsored and dreamed up by our content team,” explained Brustkern. “Let's say there's some sort of breaking news within our industry. We won’t just write a blog post about it. We'll get the subjects of the news on a 45-minute interactive, virtual panel and ask them about the real impacts of the news and tear into it a little bit deeper.”
Brustkern readily admits that LendIt Fintech spent a portion of the year cash strapped as it pivoted its entire business, but by the end of 2020 he felt they were on a much steadier footing. Now that the company has money to invest back into the business, his team’s next step is building out a more robust content operation, one in which LendIt Fintech is producing a high volume of articles and podcasts in addition to its virtual events.
Eventually, of course, the company can begin hosting in-person events again, but the entire business will no longer hinge on just a few annual conferences. LendIt Fintech will be a digital media company that happens to host in-person events. The existential crisis triggered by Covid forced a reinvention that left LendIt Fintech more diversified and resilient. As Brustkern put it to me, “We’ve completely changed our minds about who we are as a company.”
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