Jayna Cooke was on a flight to Chicago eight years ago when she struck up a conversation with the man beside her. At the time, she was working as a buyer for Neiman Marcus. Her seatmate, Brad Keywell, ran a handful of companies and told her she ought to consider a potential job at one of them. Cooke was skeptical and called her mom after the flight landed. “My mom Googled his name and said, ‘You need to go take the interview,'” she says.
Careers are full of these kinds of twists of fate–chance meetings and partnerships struck up in unexpected places. For Cooke, that meeting was the start of a shift from fashion to technology, and one that eventually led her to become CEO of the startup Eventup, a kind of Airbnb for event venues and corporate group experience packages.
After meeting with Keywell, Cooke, now 32, began working for Echo Global Logistics, a transportation management company that Keywell cofounded. She then became vice president of business development at Groupon and in 2012, helped start the Eventup sales team in Chicago.
While many entrepreneurs are tasked with turning their fledgling idea into a business, Cooke had to turn a startup that had never gotten the proper footing into one that was actually successful. And she’s risen to the occasion. The online marketplace, which was languishing after its 2011 launch, was revamped and rebranded last year under Cooke’s leadership. Today the company includes 29 employees and a constantly growing list of more than 15,000 event venues, with corporate clients like Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Coca-Cola.
Cooke spoke with Fast Company about taking on the challenge of turning a dying company around and lessons she learned along the way.
Cooke had initially joined Eventup in 2012 as chief revenue officer. At the time, the company was focused on getting customers and then trying to match them with the right venues. But while the company had secured $2 million in investments, Cooke could see that the business model just wasn’t working. “I said, ‘I’ve been in the rodeo enough. This isn’t sustainable. This isn’t going to last,'” says Cooke. She decided to leave and focus her efforts on a nonprofit she’d started called ClosetAngels.org that sells used designer clothes and donates the proceeds to a children’s hospital.
But in 2014, after keeping an eye on Eventup, Cooke and Keywell decided to take over and revamp the business. By that point, Eventup had become a shell of a business. The first thing Cooke did as CEO was call as many venues and businesses she could, asking what the company could do to make a product that would be of value to them. “I got on the phone and called everybody,” she says. “I still make at least 100 calls a day to different venues.”
She found that offering not just venue options for events, but group experience packages was something both companies and potential customers found appealing, which helped shift the business model. Venues also wanted to have a stronger online presence. Today Eventup offers not just venue booking information but also group activities that appeal to company team building like poker nights, cocktail hours, and early-morning raves. Venues also are featured on a more visual interface, and instead of focusing on getting customers first and then matching them with venues, the company created a platform where venues and clients could connect on their own.
Cooke knew that if Eventup was going to stand a chance as a business, it had to have a much sleeker and more user-friendly interface. She set about hiring a developer who could turn the site into the kind of product that could compete in the online marketplace space.
She also focused on figuring out who her best and most valuable customers would be. At Echo Global Logistics and Groupon, she’d made a name for herself as someone who could close multiyear, multimillion-dollar deals. She knew the trick to growing the business meant finding customers who would come back and do business with Eventup on a regular basis.
Cooke broke down the market to determine where the greatest spending was coming from. While weddings were an obvious major events market that required plenty of venue scouting, she also knew they were one-time occasions that wouldn’t lead to long-term relationships with repeat customers. She realized that the biggest piece of the pie came from corporate spending, which makes up about 80% of the market share. Those were clients planning corporate events and team-building activities–the kinds of people with budgets and recurring needs that might make them ideal repeat customers. Cooke started focusing on attracting venues and experience packages that would appeal to corporate team-building exercises.
No matter how strong your vision and how many hours you’re willing to work to make it happen, if you can’t find the right team to back you up, you’re at a loss. For Cooke, this part of the business has been the toughest to master. “People are the X factor to me,” she says. “I haven’t come across that many amazing people who make me say, ‘I want this person to be on our team to do the job.'”
Whenever she’s hiring, Cooke prioritizes two factors that she says are important to the culture of the company: kindness and resourcefulness. “You get so much more from people if you play nice in the sandbox,” she says. “People come to work because they really like the people they are surrounded by.”