If there was an award for the most disastrous event of 2017, Fyre Festival would probably take the prize. Billed as “Coachella for the Bahamas,” the actual “festival” ended up resembling an episode of Lost. You’ve probably read about the logistical mayhem, the performances that never happened, and all the lawsuits that followed.
But for me personally, Fyre Festival was my MBA in crisis management.
The Opportunity Of A Lifetime
After a few years in the the ad-tech industry, I launched a New York City–based creative agency, DS Projects. Three months later I got what I thought was the professional call of a lifetime–an opportunity to select and produce all the photos and videos for Fyre Festival. Initially, it started off as a conversation to hire one photographer, then it became a proposal to manage the event’s entire content production. Everything about it seemed like a great opportunity: the money, the scale, and the chance to meet sponsors, influential celebrities, and key support teams.
We eventually got the green light and drew up the paperwork. Because Fyre Festival seemed intimidating, we all upped our game and focused on what had to be done to make sure the end product would be outstanding. Despite a few early warning flags, like rumors around late payments to artists, we still felt that the opportunity was too good to pass up. A project like this seemed like a rare fast track into the big leagues. So after two weeks of hard work, we’d assembled 35 people from 10 cities with 2,000 pounds of gear. We were ready to go.
Within days of landing in the Bahamas, news broke that the festival was not going to happen. The groundwork, logistics, supplies, and other essentials for holding Fyre Festival simply hadn’t been properly arranged. While I was regularly speaking with the event organizers, I also obsessively refreshed my Twitter feed, because at that point I knew it would be the most reliable source of information. It quickly became clear that I was on my own. Since there were no contingency plans, damage control was up to me. My small team and I managed to secure 34 commercial airline tickets and one private plane to bring every person and piece of equipment home intact.
It was an experience I never want to repeat, but here’s what it taught me.
1. Never Rush Due Diligence
In retrospect, Fyre Festival was a bright, shiny object that blinded me to the risks of getting involved. Who knows what more diligence on my part would have revealed? It’s easier to fall in love with the potential wins than to acknowledge the obstacles that might get in the way of achieving them. The bigger the opportunity, the more scrutiny you need. My real mistake wasn’t in doing no due diligence; it was in rushing that process because the opportunity was fast approaching, and I was worried about missing out on it altogether. You’ll always be under the gun, but if an alluring project is simply too big to vet in the time you have, you might be better off safe on the sidelines than sorry because you jumped in too fast.
2. Stay Calm Under Pressure For Your Team
I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t calling my parents every few hours during the height of the crisis. Truth be told, I never really knew what it was like to be an entrepreneur until my foot hit the tarmac in the Bahamas. By the time we landed and assessed the situation in Great Exuma, the Bahamian island where Fyre Festival was meant to be held in April, I already felt like I was cracking. But my team didn’t care that I was a first-time entrepreneur, and nor should they. What they wanted and responded to was someone taking action and getting them out of the situation. This was tough to recognize in the thick of the disaster, but I’m glad I did. Freaking out would have encouraged my team to do the same.
3. Protect Your Reputation
Picking up the pieces as best I could was, in hindsight, an important step toward preserving my reputation. I wanted to make sure I’d be recognized as someone who could be counted on when the chips were down.
Soon after I got home, I sent an email to Founder’s Entertainment, the organizer of The Meadows Art & Music Festival in New York, with the subject line, “I need a W,” meaning a “win.” I signed off with, “Hoping I can turn the worst L of my life into a win.” In 45 minutes, the company replied that they wanted to discuss the opportunity further. Fortunately, we made a deal, and the end result was a success, giving us the big opportunity we’d originally looked for in Fyre Festival. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your reputation is to quickly and honestly concede defeat and show how you’re ready to try again under better circumstances.
The Fyre Festival debacle brought down plenty of individuals and organizations, and it was a humbling experience for me, too. But as a new entrepreneur, the experience taught me a lot about what it takes to survive a tough challenge. With no experience, professional training, or PR consultants to bail us out, I had to rally my team and act fast to do right by the people we were responsible for. It was a trial by Fyre, and we survived it.