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Steelhead CEO Sean Combs: Why We Should Put People and Purpose Above Profit

Sean Combs is the CEO of Steelhead Productions, a live and digital event marketing company that creates virtual engagements and sustainable 3D brand environments. Steelhead is the only B Corp certified trade show company in North America and was named Inc. magazine’s Best Workplaces in 2022. Sean and his team led Steelhead through a transformational period in 2004 from a custom exhibit builder to offering full-service trade show exhibiting. He served as President of the EO Las Vegas chapter board, where he was responsible for board selection, strategic planning, and implementation of best practices to ensure chapter health and growth. Sean was also a Store Manager at Foot Locker and G.H. Bass Co.

Intro  0:04 

Welcome to The Future Is Borderless podcast with David Nilssen, we feature top entrepreneurs and thought leaders from around the world, those who bring a global mindset and a unique perspective to their life and business. Now, let’s get started with the show.

David Nilssen  0:23 

Hey there, I’m David Nilssen, the host of this show. On The Future Is Borderless, we connect with business leaders and thought, thought leaders from around the world who have what I refer to as a borderless mindset. And the purpose is to share ideas and innovations, best practices, things that will help us lead and grow both personally and professionally so that we can continue to adapt in a rapidly changing world. Now, this episode is brought to you by Doxa Talent. Doxa that helps businesses to source full time highly skilled workers from all over the world. And as a result, these companies can scale faster, increase margin and improve culture. They provide everything from accountants, sales development reps, virtual assistants, even software engineers to publicly traded companies, and even local small businesses. If you want to learn how to grow your business with offshore professionals, simply visit All right, well, let’s get on with the show today. Our guest is Sean Combs, but probably not the one that you think of immediately. This is Sean Combs, who is the CEO of Steelhead Productions, which is a brand marketing agency that specializes in tradeshow and event activations. Sean and his team led Steelhead through a transformational period from 2004 and beyond, when they were a custom exhibit builder then and now, their customers are able to benefit from Steelheads exhibit access model. And 2020, Steelhead became the first and only US company in its industry to become B Corp certified, which speaks to Sean’s passion, which is building a business that is a force for good. And it’s important to know that Steelhead was named one of the magazine’s Top Places to Work in 2022. And acknowledgement Sean couldn’t be prouder of as he prioritizes high functioning teams as a key competitive advantage for the organization. So with that, Sean, welcome to the show.

Sean Combs  2:07 

All of that is true. What you just said, all true.

David Nilssen  2:11 

Not massaged at all. Good. No, it sounds like you guys are into some really good stuff. And funny actually as I’m reading your bio it creates, I think a lot of questions for me. The first and foremost, which I think just be helpful for our audience. Because I think, some of them will be familiar with what you do. Others may not. But when you say you’re in the trade show, and I think you said event activation business. What does that actually mean like, what do you do for your customers?

Sean Combs  2:35 

Yeah, so if you’re a brand, and you use, let’s say you sell b2b, business to business. And let’s say you go to a trade show, like CES, which is a Consumer Electronics Show, for example, right? So we work directly with the individual brands to create their environment for those four days. So that’s the booth, right? If you’ve been to a trade show, there’re booth. And so we go through that creative and production process of really working with the individual brands to figure out what are they trying to accomplish at that show, and then put in part a strategy to engage the attendees to meet those ends, right. And so you mentioned in the bio there, our origins are really in creating these environments that didn’t exist, and then selling them to the brands. And then the brands would use those from show to show to show over time, this transformation that you spoke of in the bio occurred really beginning in 2018, where we said, why is it that? Well, for a couple of things, one, it seems interesting that the trade shows are all designed to have a brand, engage there, and they’re attendees in what’s new, what’s happening, what’s current, and yet this idea, or this notion that they would have to do so in an existing environment that we say created two years ago that they own, right, and like, on one hand, it’s let’s create this excitement and this anticipation. But we were putting them in these because they own them, because they spent their capital in buying them. And we shifted our mindset. I mean, that was our business model, building these exhibits, selling them, deploying them, storing them, whatever. But it really was, it was not aligned. And really what we felt was the brand’s best interest in the fact that these events are unique moments in time. And so take advantage of that moment. And let’s change it up every single year or every single show and always surprise and delight the attendee and so we’ve shifted to this model where now we make the investment in all of these exhibit assets. Our customers don’t own anything. So we’re sort of the Airbnb Spotify of the exhibit industry. If you will.

David Nilssen  5:00 

And so who are your core customers, then it can’t be everybody. Right? So when you think about who your ideal customer profile is, like, who is that person?

Sean Combs  5:09 

Yeah. So they are brands that, well, you mentioned it right. So there’s two things there. Because you said the core customer, then who’s that person. It’s a great distinction. Because we say internally, right? We don’t do business with logos, right? I mean, yes, we help brands, but it’s really the event marketer, or the Vice President of Marketing someone who’s accountable and responsible for marketing, and oftentimes there’s a correlate between marketing and sales and in driving results. But so on the company side, companies that use trade shows strategically to connect with their customers and grow their market share, right? So that’s sort of the profile that, the person within that organization, that’s really our core customer is someone who really values the creative process. Has that open mindset of like, look, this show, yes, we do it every year, but this year is a new opportunity. And they want to create, we work best with companies and people that don’t come into every event with a bias of, hey, we always do this thing. We always have two conference rooms, and whatever, whatever, whatever. We want people who want to engage in that creative process. It’s fun. I mean, no two projects are the same. And so that’s really who the customer is.

David Nilssen  6:29 

Yeah. And I love the fact that you guys are able to sort of help people create a unique experience. And each one of those events, I mean, it’s one thing I will tell you that historically, one of my businesses that I founded almost 20 years ago, we’ve done a lot of events, right? And you spend a lot of money to buy this backdrop, but to your point, like the moment you’ve created it, by the time it’s been printed, it’s almost out of date, and then you got to hold on to it to justify that expense. And so I love how you’ve given sort of portability and flexibility to that model.

Sean Combs  6:58 

That’s really it, those are the sort of the new model hinges on really the creativity, the flexibility. The last thing I’m sure some will touch on, but is the sustainability, right? No, we hadn’t really looked heavily at what happens to these exhibits when the customer is done using them. Well, the answer is they get landfilled. And so we delve much deeper into the waste in our industry as a result of that build and what they call overseas build and burn model. So now we sort of have this sustainability piece built in. So that’s really the third leg that the that the model stands on, because we just return these assets to our own inventory.

David Nilssen  7:41 

Yeah, I love that. I want to come back to that point here in a second because this is probably connected a little bit to the B Corp that I entrusted you with there. But I thought maybe for a second, we can take a step back and just help me understand how did you even get into this industry? Like what was sort of the impetus behind you coming to Steelhead?

Sean Combs  8:01 

Yeah. Well, I was a retail manager in my youth. And so, I became sort of a turnaround specialist. I worked at Foot Locker for a while and then went over to GH Bass. And so I sort of in my early career earned this reputation as like a turnaround guy. So, underperforming stores, everybody’s got the same product, in retail, you manage year over year performance. And so I would go in and clean things up and align the team and sort of do what I thought were just micro movements that seemed really obvious and early and simple. But then ultimately we’d have this cumulative effect where I’d find these year over year store turnarounds and performance. And so that’s when I really found that I loved the building of a team and the aligning of that. And then I ended up meeting a girl whose dad had just started Steelhead, and he had just broke off from an exhibit company as a vice president of sales are relocated himself to the Pacific Northwest, because that’s, you know, late 90s. That’s where Microsoft and everything in that ecosystem was popping off from a technology standpoint. So he started Steelhead Productions, and I was the first salesperson that he hired. And in fact, in that recruitment, he was hiring a salesperson, which in our industry, we call an account executive, and I had to stop him and tell him that I’m not a salesperson. I’m a manager. And so, he is a salesperson. So he convinced me that this was management. Only later did I find out that no, in order to eat, I need to sell stuff. And so that was in 1998. In 2004, I became the general manager. And then the rest is history.

David Nilssen  10:05 

Sort of work your way up from there? That’s fun. I love that it started with meeting somebody. That’s how all good stories start.

Sean Combs  10:11 

Yeah. And that girl was my wife. And then she’s no longer my wife. But she’s our current CMO, and one of my best friends. So it all works out in the end.

David Nilssen  10:23 

Wow. So you were married, in the same business now unmarried as some of us unmarried people like this. And you guys are still existing in the business together?

Sean Combs  10:37 

Yeah. Is that a new term unmarried? But yeah, we are. And she’s the creative brains, I bring sort of an operational financial approach to the company, and she’s creative, and queen of our culture, and all of that. So it, like I said, it all works out in the end, and her dad lives in Mexico.

David Nilssen  10:59 

That is amazing that you guys were able to do that. And it sounds like still have a partnership just maybe a little bit differently than originally.

Sean Combs  11:05 

That is likely another podcast.

David Nilssen  11:12 

Okay. All right. Well, we’ll move on from that one. But I do think that fascinating either way. So let’s go back to the events business, because it is interesting, sometimes I walk these exhibit halls, and you see people that look very cookie cutter. And then there’s some that are just really interesting, the way that they’ve sort of, they’ve really built more of a campaign versus an exhibit, right? I’d love to hear just from your perspective. I mean, over the last 20 years, like what are the things that you think that, two or three things that people do often make mistakes on? They consistently do wrong? And then I’d love to hear like, what’s one of the coolest projects that you’ve worked on?

Sean Combs  11:49 

Well, yeah, there’s a lot to unpack there. This is an ongoing struggle for me, I would say, is, I think one of the things that we’re constantly challenging our customers and brands to do is to see the trade show as, especially in a post COVID world, right, where we haven’t been able to physically connect with our customers as often as we did prior to COVID. But to see the event, in Europe, they do this better than we do in the US, but to see the event really as a hospitality opportunity. And I don’t mean serving drinks. But I mean, a lot of the exhibit design in the United States is sort of what I would say your website, in 3d, right? In the United States, if we build a wall, we got to put a graphic on the wall. We’ve got to put a product picture and then a customer testimonial in a font that big so people can see it. And I think what we’re missing and what most exhibitors are missing is the idea that you’ve gathered everybody. Everybody is already there, right? So outside of just recognizing what environment they’re walking into, which is just your brand. Bring them in, the example I always give, for those that are listening that have been to Las Vegas, or any hotel, I would say, when I walk. I know from the outside when I’m walking into the Cosmo, the cosmopolitan here in Vegas. Once I’m in the inside, I don’t ever see any reference to you are in the cosmopolitan again, right? Instead what I’m doing is I’m just experiencing the cosmopolitan, and I’m doing that with the way that it’s laid out, which is sort of traffic flow. I’m experiencing that through the media, that multimedia that they might have around me, I’m experiencing it through lighting materials, and I’m forming an opinion about my experience based on those things. Now I go down the street, and I go into the Tropicana right, I feel differently, or different. Which one is it? Anyway, I feel something different. And so what I’m constantly trying to challenge both our design team and the brands that we work with is to say look, this is your opportunity to connect with real people. And so if you were to think of your brand like a hotel, are you more Cosmo, or are you more Tropicana or are you more Bellagio like to Vegas gets it, these hotels get it, they understand their brand, the people that the when and the Encore are attracting to stay there they’re not mad when a traveler Books A Room at Harrah’s. They don’t see that as a loss because that’s not their customer. And so I still think the industry has worked to do there. Now in terms of like cool things that we’ve done. I mean, it depends on what the objectives are, right? We have some customers we had to read sent activation, we’re look, make no bones about it, they are there because they write orders at the show. Right? So, there’s this scoreboard that just happens at the end. And so we kind of get this immediate feedback as to whether or not we’ve done well. And when they break records, and they’re like, Hey, we booked such and such millions of dollars in this four days, that was a great exhibit, like, okay, that that feels really, really good. But there’s all sorts of that, the trend is sort of how to integrate technology into these experiences. And it’ll be an interesting thing to both participate in and watch, because I still think at the end of the day, and this was proven during COVID, that these events are ultimately about connecting people. So the idea that we would draw all of these people to a location somewhere in the US, or somewhere in the world for a three or four day event and then put a headset on their face. I’m not against it. I’m just saying, okay, do that. That’s an experience that might be fun. But then what happens next, right, how are we connecting as humans? But there’s, and I’m sure we’ll talk a little about COVID. But there’s some silver linings and COVID. I mean, it was brutal for anybody in the event industry, because we stopped. But the most obvious and sort of apparent silver lining is that oh, the value of in person event has been reestablished.

David Nilssen  16:32 

Let’s get on that thread here. I mean, to be totally frank, I generally try to stay away from COVID on these calls, because I think people are sort of exhausted by it. But although many people, their businesses fared very well through COVID, your industry obviously shut down the in person events literally got taken away. I mean, obviously, we saw COVID coming in January, it came in late January, it wasn’t until March, they really started to shut things down. But you had to in that moment, start thinking about what’s next, what’s next and walk me through your thought process and sort of what happened after the shutdown occurred?

Sean Combs  17:08 

Yeah. And I think I’ll tell it in a way that won’t be ultra-dependent on COVID. Let’s just call it an external because I think the story is not so much about COVID. Here we are. We’re a 22 year old business, our first quarter 2020, the first 75 days of that quarter had us on a run rate that was 45% bigger than an all time. We had a rocket ship on our back. As a result of this model shift that we implemented in 2018. This was really catching fire, and we were bussed. We were we were jamming, right. So March 14, we’re told to shut down and leave our building. And we all know why. That’s the COVID part, right? So at that time, we had 72 full time employees, we had another 24 in the building working subcontracted, so about 100 people working full time. And overtime at that point, because we’re just managing the growth the best we can. So 72 full time employees, September that year. So fast forward, what is that? Six months, we had five employees. So we did the pivot. We did the virtual environments. We did all of those things, right. But the reality was, is the event world was shut down. So now a little tell back, a little interesting thing is my team and I, my executive team and I, while COVID is certainly different than anything else that we have ever experienced. We had been here before, 911 In the event industry, shut us down not like for a long time, but there was an immediate and then there was a hangover effect. Right. And so that was it came at a time when we were growing and then we had to step back. We moved our business from Washington to Las Vegas in 2007, the summer of 2007. The idea there thinking tradeshow Company Las Vegas, that fits like a glove, build it, they will come well what happens next, the great recession, the financial collapse, right? So here we go again, right. So the cool thing. Well, can you tell I’m an optimist. I’m like, this is so cool. But fast forward to the spring of 2021. Vaccines are rolling out and there’s a sense that we’re going to start opening things up. So at that point in time, we developed a strategy, we knew there were some employees that we wanted to get back, right. But we also knew that there’s a cleansing that happened, we loved our team pre COVID, right. But we were started to look at things in sort of the post COVID world inside, okay. And I remember gathering the team we hired, we targeted 24, former Steelheaders, that’s what we call ourselves. And we got 23 of them to come back on board in May of 2021. And I’ll never forget, standing in front of them, thanking them for being available, and being willing to hop back on this journey with us. But I remember vividly and I’ve said it to them a couple, I’ve reminded the team a few times since that hey, look, we are under no obligation to rebuild this team in this company, with the same set of bricks that are laying over here that we tore it down with, right. So what I wanted them to know is yes, we’re back. But from my perspective, we are faced with a sweet, sweet opportunity. Because when you’re growing a business, and let’s say you get to 5 million, 10 million 15 million as you’re getting there, you’ve never been there before. So as leaders, we are making estimates, and we’re trying to project what we will need to get there. And then we’re trying to when we do arrive there, right? We’re in a new place, our business is in a brand new place at all of these revenue markers, right? I’ve never in my career had this opportunity to be like, okay, well, the switch got turned off on us. COVID was the switch. It’s this external threat, but it was just a big one, right? It was a full shutdown. And just rare is the opportunity where it like the switch got flipped back on. And I’m like, okay, well, I still think we’re that kind of company. But we’re starting from zero. So what’s interesting is, now we’re back on the road, and the visual would be, now we’re traveling that growth road, but it’s like, everything looks familiar, right? I’ve been here before, I’ve been to 5 million, I’ve been to 10 million, you just keep going. And it’s like, but you also you look at the processes. And hey, it turns out, we’ve never needed that turns out this manager, this manager or this role, or this role, or this role, we’re doing fine without that, you know what I’m saying? So it’s really a story of look, external threats. I mean, you can strategize all you want and running your business, there’s something that you don’t control. And it’s happened to us three times are four times. And I process that trauma rather quickly. And then every time and I can speak from my own experience, and the four sort of big external threats that have hit our business in 20 plus years is, on the other side has been a massive, massive opportunity to reinvent yourself. And the crazy thing is the things we’re doing now, post COVID. I never would have seen them, had it not been for COVID. Like we’re a better business now than we were pre COVID. And I thought we were a great business then. But the things that we are doing are a result of our mindset in handling things that are external to the business and then responding to them, rather than just reacting to them.

David Nilssen  23:36 

Yeah, I love that you said a minute ago, right, like trauma, you call it right. And I think for a lot of people that is right, crisis happens. It is traumatic, but I love that you said you process it quickly, and then sort of shift into finding the opportunity. I have a friend that used to say where there’s crisis, there’s opportunity, and I’ve heard him say it 100 different times. That’s both personally and professionally. So I love it. That’s how you approach it. Sean, I want to transition to something you said a few minutes ago, you talked about the sustainability element of your new model. And I love this right? I always tell people Doxa we’re the socially conscious option for offshoring. We’re trying to look at the industry from the lens of people not product and make sure that we’re sort of elevating the standard for both how we work how we treat people, how we equip people, so on and so forth. I love that you sort of moved that angle and I was fascinated by the concept that you guys became a B Corp. So I’d love to hear like what was the intention behind making that shift to a B Corp and what capability is that now providing you?

Sean Combs  24:40 

Yeah, so I mentioned my business partner earlier. So Rhiannon and I and we’ve got in Lance is another one of our shareholders. Every year, we have this big kickoff event and we set goals and milestones and whatnot. In our planning session in 2019, we sort of had, a meeting where we asked just sort of like, why are we doing this? Like, what’s the reason for doing this? Right? And then what are the benefits of a company? Right? A company is a collective, it’s a collective of people, right? And so sort of at its root, completely void of what it is we do for customers, it’s as, as our own community, our company. This isn’t 2019, mind you, it’s like no, well, we have the ability to make a great impact, a great impact on the people we bring into the ecosystem, right, which is our employees, the people that were around every single day, we can have, besides their paychecks and their benefits, we could have a really positive impact on them. An example of that is like, look, we’ve got all different salary levels and things like that here, but I think on an individual level, many employees may not think that they have it in them or the means to be philanthropic. Well, we created a, what we call the give happy Committee, which is steelheads philanthropic, arm. And by pooling everybody’s resources, they got to be part of something much greater, right. And in fact, spoiler alert, that we’ve actually just in this month, received our paperwork, give happy as now a foundation. So it’s a recognized 503. C. So that was born of that idea. So we talked about how do we impact employees, then we say, what’s the impact on the environment? How can we be good stewards of what it is that we’re doing? We had already made the transition to the access model, in terms of our, our solution to our customer would, which is a lot more sustainable for them. And that’s when I learned of B Corp through quite frankly, through like Patagonia. And I was reading stories and listen to podcasts, like I’m sure many listeners do here. Like how I built this and then I this is when I learned of the Beast B Corp certification, which is essentially using your business as a force for good. And you run what they call a triple bottom line, right, which is you get measured on your impact to the earth, you get measured on your impact to the people and that includes diversity, inclusion, things like this. And then of course, you got to do so profitably, because that’s how everybody, so that’s the challenge, right is can you run your business, whether you’re private or publicly held, certainly returned to the shareholders, but in the process of doing so create a greater impact for the people and planet. So in 2020, our big goal, our B hag right, the big, hairy, audacious goal. Our moonshot is what we called it was to become the first B Corp certified company in our industry. And it’s not for marketing purposes. I mean, there’s a lot of people that still don’t know what B Corp certification is, it doesn’t really matter. It matters to us. And, well, that’s one of the early things. So what it requires is an audit and then a total behavioral shift in everything that you do as a company. And so we had an awesome campaign where we hung these solariums in the kitchen, and every department had to hit these changing behavioral standards that then got audited by B Lab, who is the organization that certifies you. And so that was going to be a tall order to accomplish because we were so fastly growing. Again, COVID silver lining, we spent the first two months of the summer while we were retaining some employees to get ourselves over that finish line. And so I would say that it’s an initial accomplishment, but you’re never done. Because we can improve our score, we can improve our impact, we can become more sustainable despite how sustainable we may be today, we can do better, despite how inclusive and diverse we are as a company with our employees today. We could be better at that. So it’s an ongoing thing, but it’s absolutely it’s a long term commitment.

David Nilssen  29:37 

I love the mental shifts, though, right? I mean, all those things you brought up whether it’s DEI, whether it’s the impact that we have on people the earth, what have you, it’s a journey, not a destination, right? So you’re never done. You’re always moving towards it. But I love that this sort of mindset and commitment that it requires to go down that path. And I appreciate sort of the good that you’re trying to do and I love the idea that you guys have created your own foundation to help people give fantastic.

Sean Combs  30:03 

That’s really cool.

David Nilssen  30:06 

Let’s talk about your people. I know they’re really important to you, I know that you guys have ranked very highly in terms of the best places to work. But right now there is a real labor shortage that’s happening. And in a business where a lot of what you do is delivered physically, at least I imagine that that is true. How are you dealing with that today?

Sean Combs  30:30 

It’s interesting, because I keep hearing these things that don’t seem to be true for us. And I don’t know if I hear the labor shortage, right. We’re not experiencing that. Others in town. We’re in Las Vegas. Right? I’m hearing things about quiet quitting. I’m hearing things about people wanting to work remote. And I don’t think that are untrue. I just think as a byproduct of what we consistently work out here at Steelhead, we’ve been recognized as one of these great places to work. But that’s not an accident. We literally are trying to make this one of the best places to work. And we think it’s good business. We think it makes sense. It blows me away when, I’m a part of an organization called EO and so I get to hang out with a bunch of other entrepreneurs. That’s the greatest organization ever, small plug. But I’m always I meet so many impressive people there. But I also meet people who view people just differently than I do. They view them as an expense. They view them as a pain. They view them as all of these things, anything but an essential ingredient to delivering your product and service. Like I think our human capital is more important than our capital capital, if that makes any sense. Right? And so, look, there is a labor shortage. But I think we’ve grown this team. Now, we’re in a sandbox, I mean, literally Las Vegas, but we are known, we’ve become known over time, through these, again, these micro movements, these very, very small things, a quick little story. We were busting at the seams pre COVID, right, like we had a problem. We had an office problem, like I’m looking at containers, like can we bring in containers, put them in the warehouse, convert them to offices, I’m like, we have a real problem. Well, bringing the team back, we said okay, everyone’s gonna want to work from home initially, because of COVID. But okay, this is the trend, right? So we said, that’s fine, we’re open to that we are open to remote work. And that’s great. Again, this borderless mindset, right? However, culture is important. So how do we keep the team connected? So we came up with this concept of these pop up events. And initially, the executive leadership team every month, hosted this pop up event at our facility. The idea was is to draw the app home people into the office at least for that day to connect with their other employees, right, that was the assumption. We launched these things, blah, blah, blah. Well, then we noticed something that the people were already here. The people who live locally weren’t working from home, maybe they took a morning meeting or whatever, but we found that the intent was to draw them in from their home offices. And what we ended up finding that happened fast forward seven to nine months is they’re actually here. And now every department hosts their pop ups, we fund it, but then they host it and we’ve had great we had May the Fourth be with you in May was a whole Star Wars themed thing. So now that the team has taken us and completely run with it. But a little bit of a twist to that we did have a salesperson who hightail it out of California and went to Tennessee, he’s remote, that’s great. We have remote people. And this is a cool sort of element that, I mean, while you obviously know, but like I was asking the question, how can we because look, COVID hurt the company financially big time. So it’s asking the question, how do we rebuild this team but make it a little bit differently? How do we take advantage, it’s so different. We have very cyclical business, right? So there’s times we’re looking at our detailing staff, for example, we’ve got four on staff. Sometimes we need 10 And then in the summer, I need one, right? And I don’t want to lay people off higher, higher, do all of that. We have the facility full time, but we don’t run multiple shifts in the facility. So that’s where we reached out and found Doxa in through searching through asking this question of how can we, and so we’ve got creative talent. We’ve got engineering talent, and the skepticism initially of the team, which is like, oh, that’s not gonna work, or whatever, versus now talk to the managers who lead our team in the Philippines. I mean, it’s amazing. They’re like, oh, gosh, I can’t believe we didn’t do this earlier. It’s like, we task things out the night before you come in the next day, they’re done using that time change to our advantage. So these themes of quiet quitting aren’t something I can speak to, because I think if you’re serious about employee engagement, you can avoid those things.

David Nilssen  36:08 

Yeah, it’s funny, I think, I’ve talked to lots of business owners. And I think there’s sort of this split opinion, those that believe that these things are happening, but not to them and those that believe that they’re happening, and they’re suffering as a result of them. Right. And so I think your people first approach is probably contributing to that. You brought up the Philippines and you brought up the fact that you are leveraging some talent out of that area. I think I’m seeing this like, this confusion amongst people and who they’re going to be as we come out of this time, where we shut down and everyone’s doing some remote, but now they’re unsure like, are we remote? Are we in an office? Are we hybrid, what you described as sort of a hybrid strategy, right? You’ve got sort of a core team that’s there in the office, you deploy people to these locations to assemble some of the product, you’ve got people in other areas, and you got people in other countries? How do you think about building culture when not everybody’s in the same proximity?

Sean Combs  37:03 

So that was my big as much as everything else made sense to me, my big. I don’t even want want to call it a fear. It was just a question that, and I think that’s it, I think it’s okay to be curious about that. Right. I think that’s healthy. How do we and ask ourselves about how do we build culture? So one of the things that we do and this works out really, really well. I think for Steelhead and our, well, first of all, the team in the Philippines, they are Steelheaders. Like in our mind, they’re involved in everything, we have a monthly team meeting, they’re zooming in every single department we use EOS, which is the Entrepreneurial Operating System, traction, people have heard of it, I’m sure, but at its core, there’s a set of communication rhythms where everybody in the company is in a weekly meeting. And I know most people are like, oh, gosh, don’t tell us about more meetings, but their meetings to work on your department not in it. It’s not about it’s not to dues and project related and more so, it’s a chance for those doing the work to have a say in how the work gets done. And we don’t exclude our team in the Philippines from doing that, like Denise, or Nina, Kevin are Steelheaders. And so I don’t know how others are doing it. I can’t speak to that, I can only speak to how we’re doing it. And I feel really, really good about it. I love seeing their faces and they’re on zoom with Matt from Tennessee or Rhianon right now our CMO is in Mexico. And so what’s the difference? Right, the work gets done. And I think if you have a focus, and the only thing that is a bummer is they’re not at the popups. So when we do a cereal bar, they don’t get a bowl of cereal here. They can have one, so that’s the only thing but in terms of I mean, the whole company is on, we’re zooming all day. I mean, I’ll zoom someone who’s eight feet away, right? So I use Zoom as a communication tool. They’re on there, and they contribute. And there’s a lot of fun, goofy stuff going on in there. And so it was a question. I think I’ve already spoken to it enough about how important culture is here. And that was the big question is, and I was concerned for them. It’s like, I wanted them to feel a part of Steelhead. I don’t want anybody to feel that they’re not included. Right? Because you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t needed, right? And so you should feel valued all the time, no matter where you are, and I think we’re doing that for them. And I know that we’re getting the value that I mean more. I mean now I have managers like, can we have more? It’s like easy now.

David Nilssen  40:10 

It’s funny that I think no culture is perfect, right? It’s sort of like we talked about it earlier, it’s not a destination, it is a journey. And I think that the fact that you guys are trying really hard to be inclusive, that you’re thinking about it and proactive about it, that makes a big difference in the eyes of your workers, whether domestic or international, doesn’t really matter. So we’re getting close to the end here. I’d love to just a couple quick questions for you. One is, I’d love to hear where do you see your industry going from here, like the next five years? How is the industry evolving as a result of shut down and sort of the new opportunity to sort of rethink how business is done?

Sean Combs  40:52 

Yeah, I think that we’re hearing a lot about hybrid, in the context of our industry is sort of live event and then hybrid, meaning a virtual component to it. I think I see that there’s, again, I think the value of the gathering has been reestablished. People found out what it was, like, to think for a long time, we were like, oh, we got to go to this show. I go to the show every year, it’s kind of an eye roll. And then without them for two years, a year and a half, everyone’s like, oh, we’re hearing from our customers who our customers are in marketing. Now we’re hearing this trend in their own business where now you have salespeople coming into them? Are we going to any shows? Are there any shows coming up? Where it used to be, hey, we’re going to the shows, marketing was telling sales, or we’re going to these shows and sales people were like, oh, no. So now we’re seeing this sort of reverse thing. But I would see, in terms of the live event, I would expect to see more broadcasting, right. So here we are live, this is what we’re doing. And those that are here and present can participate. But those that aren’t, can now participate in a different way, see what’s happening and see it live. So I think that’s a good thing. Again, if I had my druthers, I think there would be more hospitality infused into these things longer, just more opportunity to connect. But I’m afraid unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about this when it comes to live events. And I’ve just learned this over 21 years and three massive external things happening. We’re in a very susceptible business in terms of these external threats, be it the economy, be it terrorism, be it pandemic, or whatever you want to call it. So I think you’ve got to just take full advantage of the opportunity in front of you. And so while they are going, go with purpose, have a plan, stand out. I think we’re in good shape.

David Nilssen  43:00 

Yeah, it sounds like you guys are doing a lot of things right. I want to just ask you one last question. The best leaders that I know are avid learners, they’re constantly looking at how they look inward and continue to grow as people professionals, I mentioned this in the beginning of the podcast, what are you learning about right now? What are you excited about?

Sean Combs  43:21 

Oh, man. I mentioned my participation in EO that’s one of the big reasons I’m a member is I just constantly learning from what other people are doing, or not doing their successes, their failures. I think there’s two sort of things that I’m grateful for one, I think most that Nomi would agree that I’m a pretty low ego guy. And I think that allows me to open up my mind to just understand that I don’t know everything. That’s not to say I’m like, short on confidence. But it’s this curiosity, man, it like, I just love the fact that we are moving through time. And I just have this most basic belief that what we know now will be outdated, and especially now we’re on this hockey stick of technology, right? I mean, holy, I mean, it’s like the iPhone was like 12 years ago, and it’s like mind blowing, what we’re doing now. Right. But I learned podcasts, I mean, I’m a podcast junkie, books. I’m fortunate to be paired here at Steelhead with a lot of other people who are also avid learners. So in fact we have a leaders are learners, which is a monthly luncheon, where we’ll either watch a TED talk or we’ll read a book. There’s always something going on. So I think that’s the other thing is surrounding this podcast called borderless, right? It’s like,  I surround myself with other people who were learning. There’s a constant exchange of ideas. If I’m at any sort of event talking to another entrepreneur, ultimately, whatever we’re talking about, he’ll be like, someone will be like, oh, have you read this? And like, oh, no, here we go. Another book recommendation. So I think it’s everywhere. I mean, the information is everywhere. There’s a lot of ideas, not all of which are good. But just be open. I mean, I’m open to yeah, we’ll try that. That sounds cool. And I love the biggest thing outside of your industry. I mean, man, you got to zag when everyone else is zigging, and some of the best stuff comes from other industries.

David Nilssen  45:51 

I couldn’t agree more. It’s so funny. I think if I were to try, in some of my previous businesses, we’ve been leading certain industries, right, even if they were niche. It’s hard then to if you’re already in a position that you’re leading, which clearly you are in your industry, if you go outside your industry then to see what are other people doing to see how that may apply. And that that ability to look at others and learn from their experiences, but apply it in your own context is really powerful. Well, let’s put a pin in it there. We’ve been listening to Sean Combs, the CEO of Steelhead Production, excuse me, Sean, where can people go to learn more about the work that you do?

Sean Combs  46:32 

We can go to Exhibit happy is our tagline and brand promise or they all go to the same place which is our website but follow us on Instagram, TikTok. Yeah, we’re TikToking, LinkedIn, all the places you would expect to find us, we’re there.

David Nilssen  46:56 

Awesome, we’ll capture the handles for each of your social channels offline, put those in the show notes, but thanks again for being on the show today.

Sean Combs  47:04 

Thanks. Great. Thanks for having me.

Outro  47:07 

Thank you for listening to The Future Is Borderless podcast with David Nilssen. Be sure to click subscribe to future episodes so you can hear from more top entrepreneurs and thought leaders and we’ll see you again next time.

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