John Machacek, Chief Innovation Officer for the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation, has worked with countless startups throughout our community over the past nine years. He knows their ups and their downs, but most of all, he knows the questions to ask them. Here are John Machacek’s 10 questions for Kent Kolstad, Founder of Livewire.
1. Will you please tell us your Livewire elevator pitch?
Livewire is a full-service live and virtual event production company, providing audio, video, lighting, staging, scenery, and streaming for corporate events, conferences, expos, concerts, and theatrical events, nationwide.
2. Before I dive into the remaining questions, I recently learned that you first started working in the audio/visual world at age 11. Can you tell me more about that?
It’s been quite a ride! I grew up in Alexandria, Minnesota, where there typically wasn’t a great deal of live event production support happening—at most, you’d encounter your typical “meeting room” basics, maybe a projector on a cart, a small screen or TV, overhead projectors (remember those transparencies?). When I was eleven years old, I was attending a friend’s birthday party when his parents asked if everyone attending would like to head to their church’s youth group. I knew next to nothing about what that was or meant, but I went along with it. We arrived at a then-new, very large church that seated about 900 congregants for Sunday morning services. I was in awe of the big video projection screens, and large and very thoughtfully designed audio system, so I immediately volunteered in the weeks following to run the church’s PowerPoint system for worship lyrics. Over time, the audio engineers at the church took notice of my technical curiosities. They took me over to the audio side to show me how to carefully mix a large-scale musical group. With nearly 30 vocalists and instrumentalists on one stage, they taught me the value of listening carefully, and that attention to detail could make all the difference: hearing the keys during a medley of electric guitar riffs, or nudging up the kick drum volume ever-so-slightly to help energize the congregation.
Being in a church environment taught me a great deal about customer service at a young age, too. In a large-scale church environment, everyone attending has opinions—including those on-stage and off. Learning how to address professionally and courteously those that came with complaints, compliments, or constructive criticism set the stage for communicating well with much of our client base today.
Not long after I began volunteering at the church, word spread quickly in the Alexandria area that there was “this kid that could run sound for our event”, or that could “take a look at our audio/video system” or could “run our event for us.” I soon realized that this could be a legitimate business opportunity. At the time, I never envisioned myself doing it full-time—but if I had been time-tracking my work back then, I’m sure I’d find that I really was—even in middle school and high school. After a few years of building my technical expertise in audio and video, schools and wedding clients started calling to have me DJ their events, as well. Over time, I built a library of over 26,000 songs (all licensed and paid for, thank you!) and Livewire had up to eight DJs that could go out to service weddings and other events on a given weekend. We worked throughout the Upper Midwest providing these services—it was excellent training for the work we do nationally as a full-service live event production company today.
3. A misconception I initially had about Livewire was that you just did sound and light production at a live event; you know, the people in black shirts at the back of a Chamber event or something like TEDx. However, I now know of other services like virtual events and streaming, as your team helped us plan, shoot and produce the GFMEDC’s virtual annual meeting these past two years. How would you describe this service?
We believe that virtual and hybrid events hold the same possibility for audience impact that a traditional in-person event does. With that in mind, it’s critically important for anyone hosting a virtual event to realize that it takes more than just a Zoom call to create an impact for an online audience. We all had to get through the pandemic together, attending virtual meetings, seminars, etc.— what did we learn from that? People’s attention spans became much shorter, and individuals also realized they could accomplish more, or attend more virtual events, more often. People’s attention became divided. With these things in mind, we realized quickly it would be the special touches we can provide, like high-quality camera imagery, high-quality audio with musical flourishes, newscast-quality branding and graphics and more to create interesting programming on behalf of our clients that keeps their audiences’ attention. Our designed-from-scratch, custom-branded web portals for our clients’ virtual and hybrid events have been a hit. We’ve always wanted to be sure that the second an attendee walks through the door, they feel immersed in our clients’ brand and message. Our custom-branded web portals are truly the next best thing if you’re hosting a virtual or hybrid event.
4. Why or what should a company do to delve into this?
Many of our clients today came to Livewire needing only a few basic aspects of audiovisual support—a few microphones for a meeting because their venue’s sound system didn’t have the appropriate capabilities; a basic, one-camera stream of their event; or maybe seamless video switching and management of PowerPoint presentations for presenters at their annual conference because their I.T. professional simply didn’t feel they could (or maybe didn’t want to) handle it anymore.
Livewire exists to not only simplify the event production process, no matter the scale or format (in-person/virtual), but also to ensure that audiences are not distracted by the event technology being utilized so that they can fully take in the message being presented on-stage.
5. With COVID, the live event industry was basically punched in the gut and then turned upside down. How did Livewire fare in all of this?
The onset and continuation of COVID-19 has been incredibly challenging for everyone, without a doubt. Everyone I know has had a difficult experience in their own way. The event production industry around the world was not just shut down, but truly shattered within a matter of 48 hours. I was on the way to a client meeting in Minneapolis when I pulled off the interstate to write all of our then-pending and confirmed clients an email to advise on how we could best move forward together. At that time, I’d only had three postponements of events come through; not even two days later, we’d lost nearly a year’s worth of live events in postponements and cancellations.
There were many considerations and decisions that had to be made in short order with a team of our size (then, around 21 employees total, now up to 30). Thankfully, our team is comprised of thoughtful, informed professionals who understood right away that anything could happen, given the global landscape.
I brainstormed a bit with our team members and a couple of friends locally and around the country, and we quickly found we could create a stop-gap for ourselves in the short-term: [email protected] Livewire. This was a live, streaming concert series we hosted from our facility’s loading dock (thankfully, event lighting dresses up any space VERY well). The series raised money for local and regional musicians that were effectively placed out of work due to the pandemic, just as we were. Across 60 episodes, we raised over $28,000 for local bands and musicians, and sponsors of the series such as 701 Communications, Network Center, Choice Bank, Codi and Steven Nowacki and Robert Gibb & Sons, all kept Livewire afloat as we continued to produce this show.
The best part? We were able to keep our staff’s creative minds sharp—and keep everyone on the payroll.
While we had a large body of work across streaming and virtual events prior to the pandemic, the [email protected] Livewire series kept us present and relevant to our audience—and probably grew it, too. When our client base was finally ready to explore virtual events, they knew they could count on us to execute flawlessly. As the “new normal” began to set in, not only did the vast core of our client base thankfully come back to us to produce their virtual or hybrid events, but we were also able to find new clientele nationally such as Amazon, Wind River and Google.
6. Another misconception I had about Livewire was that you only served a local or regional market, yet you do work nationally. What are some examples of the type of services you’re providing and where?
Nationally, we’re providing the same in-person, virtual, and hybrid event production that we’ve had the opportunity to finely polish in Fargo-Moorhead.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Fargo-Moorhead is the singular reason we’ve been able to grow and thrive the way that we have— we’ve made some amazing connections here thanks to the companies and incredible people that call this place home. In less than ten years since taking this company full-time (late 2013), we’ve only got ten states left to cross off our list! It doesn’t hurt that we are centrally located in the lower-48 while also having the benefit of a very low cost of doing business in North Dakota.
As one great pre-pandemic example, we were grateful to provide support to WEX Health’s Partner Conference for a number of years in Minneapolis, Scottsdale, and Miami. This connection led to another connection: WEX Inc.’s marketing team in Portland, Maine, who brought our team in to support a number of their all-company meetings. At these events, our team would connect each in-person event location to another: for example, Melissa Smith (CEO, WEX) in Portland would be able to have a real-time conversation with the event host in Fargo in front of all audiences, then Fargo’s event site could pass the baton to the event in Nashville, and so on. At the highest point, we had six different locations hosting in-person events with our technology and team on-site, all connected via Livewire’s two-way streaming services, with audiences in all locations applauding one another! It was wonderful to be able to create these connections for WEX, just as we’ve now done for many others, including Goldmark and Moore Engineering, locally
As a result of this national work, we’ve also learned how to ensure that our clients’ dollars are wisely spent. Many hotels and venues in larger markets have exclusive contracts with audiovisual vendors that require they be utilized for rigging, power, or other needs; sometimes, the pricing for these services can be 300% or more above our own retail rates. Our team is exceptionally well-suited to find creative solutions to ensure that these substantial and often unexpected costs are minimized or eliminated entirely.
7. With the size of your team, staff and equipment travel and the various locations, how do you effectively manage that?
We accepted early on that every single event we produce is different: even the yearly, rinse-and-repeat, two-screens-and-chicken-and-soft-vegetables events (thanks for that phrase, Greg Tehven) have variables that certainly will change, whether that’s the schedule, branding, presenters, attendee numbers, venue or venue type, etc. As a result of this, we’ve found there’s really not a one-size-fits-all project management or CRM solution out there. We’ve also found that those live event companies that do utilize those types of platforms struggle to be nimble, creative and versatile. Our primary work suite, Google Workspace, does offer us the ability to organize information in a fast, dynamic format across scheduling, data hosting and organization and communication across our team and our clients.
There is one big thing that sets us apart from other event production companies nationally: the size and scope of our team. We’re now up to 30 employees at Livewire, whereas most live event production companies have only 5-6 full-time administrative staff, with the remaining team members usually consisting of freelancers. The danger with the latter format, particularly in Fargo-Moorhead, is that most freelancers come and go. Some graduate from college and leave Fargo-Moorhead; others work many other jobs in addition to freelancing, and some just aren’t the type that can (or want to) guide a world-class live event to success. With that in mind, our larger team allows for 1) consistency for our clients: we have the privilege of getting to know our clients and their goals, and very often the opportunity to work with them on a repeat basis; 2) the opportunity for our team to take time away from their work; to rest and recharge; and 3) the opportunity to collaborate with a team of professionals to ideate, brainstorm, and create in favor of our clients.
8. Through my work at the GFMEDC in assisting in business expansions, I know you’re making a number of improvements and investments into your building here in Fargo. What excites you about this expansion and what does it mean for Livewire?
We are very excited for the potential in our building! While we’ve been operating out of this space since 2018, we’ve only really utilized it as a warehouse location for our event operations. We’ve slowly been chipping away at a remodel that will include office space, collaborative meeting space, a large format client/team meeting space, and the ability for our Black Box Event Space which launched in 2020 to be utilized for small-to-medium sized in-person and virtual events, with or without Livewire production on-site. Not only will the office buildout benefit our team from a day-to-day perspective, but the audio and video studios we are building will feature state-of-the-art equipment to allow for audio sweetening, voiceover work, video editing and review, and turn-key virtual events at the drop of a hat.
9. If you could go back in time to Kent from several years ago, what hindsight advice would you give yourself?
This WAS and IS the path for me. Especially when I was graduating from high school in 2006, it was all the rage to be told that I had to get a degree and “get a real job.” To be clear, I did that, too: I graduated from Concordia College in 2010 with a teaching license in English Education and worked a variety of full-time stints around Fargo-Moorhead afterward. I don’t regret any of that for a second: I use that degree every day of the week in running this business, and my work with Media Productions in the early 2010s was an invaluable, life-changing experience with an amazing group of colleagues that I consider mentors and friends today; truly, the giants whose shoulders we stand on.
…But I also probably could have been less of a 30-year-old trapped inside a 16-year-old’s body. I’m younger now than I was back then.
10. What can we do as a community to help Livewire succeed?
I’m grateful to be able to say that Livewire’s in the best position it has been in ten years—we are growing, strategizing, and forging new paths to create wins, efficiencies and new creative processes for our clients and for our team. Without a shred of doubt, Fargo-Moorhead is absolutely responsible for that growth and stabilization. We are grateful to call this place home.
How can the community help? Two things come to mind—first, to keep us in mind and help others do the same! If you know of an event or project that might benefit from our work, please connect with us! There is truly no event or audiovisual need too small or too large for us to consider. We pride ourselves on being accessible and flexible to ensure every event gets the highest-quality audiovisual support possible. Not only that, but we also are glad to sponsor nonprofit and community organizations with major in-kind discounts, too.
Second, help us grow! For example, right now, if you know of anyone that might be a great fit for our organization across project management, administration, marketing, sales, etc.—I’d love to connect. Similarly, we are always open to exploring new possibilities to improve and streamline processes. If you or your organization might be able to help take our business to the next level, which we anticipate to be a true and consistent national presence based on our existing body of work and travel schedule—I’m interested.
Last, tell us what you think of what we’re doing, and share ideas with us! We are always eager to learn how our audiences feel about our work, and frankly, some of our finest event work has been the result of a scribble on a napkin. We are always all-ears on feedback.
About John Machacek
John Machacek has been helping local startups with the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation since prior to his position with the GEMEDC. Before joining the team, Machacek was the VP of Finance & Operations at United Way of Cass-Clay and a business banker at U.S. Bank.