Orate founders Sara Capra (left) and Veronica Eklund. (Photo courtesy of Orate)

This week, a start-up building a system to match organizations with candidates for speaking engagements seeks advice on how to test the technology’s viability. –Dan Beyers

The entrepreneurs

When a keynote speaker cancelled last-minute on event planner Sara Capra for a South-by-Southwest session, she wished there was a quick and easy way to find a replacement or even pull from the pool of attendees at the popular tech and entertainment gathering. Capra shared her thought with fellow event planner and friend Veronica Eklund, and at the urging of another friend, the pair pitched the idea during a start-up event and Orate was born.

The pitch

Veronica Eklund, co-founder & CEO of Orate

“Having last-minute cancellations is a huge pain point for event organizers, but they want a trusted source to find speakers. Event organizers often don’t have the time and connections to find and book the best speakers themselves, and they also might not have the money to book expensive options through speakers’ bureaus.

“Orate has created a better and more efficient way to match organizations and their audiences to the best person offering a specific expertise. We look at a lot of different factors: Information about the speaking engagement, the audience make-up, and the format an organizer wants a person to speak in – whether they want a keynote or a panelist or a workshop presenter. We also analyze information about the organization requesting a speaker, information about the specific engagement, how speakers have been rated by similar audiences, and review historical data about what types of speakers have played well for the organization’s audiences in the past.

“Right now we’re doing this analysis manually, but we’re working on an algorithm to automate it. We have an incredibly high satisfaction rate. Everything we’re learning is going into tweaking our algorithm to making it better and better for picking the best speakers. Currently we have more than 2,000 speakers in our database from all over the country. Most speakers are registering on our site through referrals or partnerships. Previously, we have invited speakers to create their own profiles and set their own fees on our site.

“We’re trying to reduce the amount of touches we have to do through our sales cycle so event organizers have all of the tools and information to make good speaker choices on their own. We take a small cut of the speakers’ fees and we charge a small fee to the organization booking the speaker. When Orate is fully automated, event organizers will be able to use our platform to request speakers based on the parameters they set. Then the algorithm will return five to 10 targeted suggestions, and with one click users can request proposals from specific speakers. Speakers will be able to interact and negotiate contracts directly with organizers through the platform. Eventually, we hope to provide this automation to existing speakers’ bureaus as well.

“We are working through the transition to fully automate this process of booking speakers. As we build the technology, we’re trying to figure out the best way to truly test the viability of full automation. How do we know how much the market is willing to go through this process on its own, versus needing someone to walk them through it?”

The advice

Liz Sara, board chair of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business

“Before you determine when to the make transition to fully automate the site, you need to make sure you have all the elements for success in your system. The last thing you would want is to have an event planner try to use the automated site and not find speakers they are looking for. They would be unlikely to come back and try the site again.

“To avoid that scenario, my suggestion would be to narrow your approach for now. Rather than trying to capture the entire market of event planners, focus on a particular vertical – an industry sector like manufacturing, technology, energy or the environment. Or focus on a particular subject area, for example the current election cycle. Then use social media and LinkedIn to make sure you have all the best experts in your database in whatever area you decide to focus. Another option is to research the key conferences in the industry(ies) you chose, and see who the speakers and panelists are – then reach out to them to register on your site.

“Then go to the event planners and encourage them to try the Orate system. Beyond corporate contacts, focus on trade associations. The Washington region alone has such a high concentration of associations, which are event-planning machines, holding countless conventions, workshops, trade-shows and face-to-face events for their members around the world. They are always looking for new speakers.

“Taking a vertical rather than horizontal approach can be the fastest way to gain traction and test whether your automated approach will really work for planners. If they successfully use it and like it, you know you have something that you can expand to additional verticals and beyond.”

The reaction

Eklund

“The possibility of someone using the automated site and not finding the speakers who will work for them is one of the reasons we want to test the viability of the process before actually automating it. There are many other reasons for this as well, including wanting to avoid wasting time and money building something that doesn’t work.

“Trade associations are our largest customer segment at the moment. They are part of the vast majority of speaker bookings that are not being served by existing means out there because they often don’t have the budget to go to a bureau or agency. We have found that once we have success in a specific association industry (i.e. recreation and parks associations) it is certainly easier to land other similar clients (i.e. various state-level associations). However, even though they are in the same industry, there is no trend to the types of speakers or topics they are seeking, since many have a different vision for the audience experience at their events. For this reason, focusing on a specific vertical has been a major challenge.

“Unfortunately there is no cut and dry way to target the folks booking speakers in one or two specific topic areas, especially considering there is not a consistent title for our buyer. In 99 percent of cases, event planners are not even involved in the speaker decision process. They are the people who take over to handle the logistics once the speaker is booked. They are often a good link to our customer, but they are still at least one level removed.

“We believe that there is a way for us to test the viability of a fully automated process, while still doing things manually. Currently we are calling this our Wizard of Oz Approach, where we make the process look automated to the end user even though we are behind the curtain pulling the levers. This will allow us to avoid the problem of not being able to produce viable suggestions in some cases, and allow us to understand if we can empower organizers to make great speaker decisions with confidence in an inexpensive way.”

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.