Aaron Levant’s Secret Sauce | In episode 43 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits talks to Aaron Levant, entrepreneur and experiential guru–creator of ComplexCon, Hall of Flowers, NTWRK, and more.
Aaron Levant never graduated High School but he has started and sold many successful businesses. His expertise for most of his career was revamping the trade show for the next generation that wants an experience more than a transaction. His successes include Agenda, ComplexCon, and Hall of Flowers. But he pulled out of the industry a year before the complete shutdown of the events industry due to COVID-19 took place and started in a new venture of digital experiences with his NTWRK app.
Aaron joins us on Light Culture to talk creative vs corporate business strategies, working with celebrity investors, how to keep people interested in the digital age, and how to be authentic in the over-saturated streetwear indsustry.Read Transcript
It looks like you had a crystal ball abandoning live experience for digital. You sold off your experiential businesses a few years ago. So what did you see coming? I’m sure it wasn’t Corona.
Yeah, it’s funny you ask that because that was one of the most conflicted decisions I’ve ever made. Because I spent 15 plus years honing and cultivating a skillset around producing live experiences. In 2018 when I quit doing that and walked away from that, I was arguably at the peak of my career and success in that market. The success of running ComplexCon, which everyone was super excited about, and I was personally super excited about. It was a really fucking hard decision to make, and I was very conflicted. I don’t usually call others when I’m making decisions. But like this is one I had to call almost all my, you know, unofficial consiglieres to talk to me about it, because I was on the fence.
Ultimately, I made that jump. I don’t really know what it was, other than; I am always feeling like I’m a shark. In the sense that if I stop moving I’ll die. I don’t know if I felt I was making the right decision, but it felt right to keep moving forward. And by no means did I know this was going to happen. But luckily it landed me in the right place of getting mostly out of experiential in 2018. Because today I probably would be in pretty bad financial shape, if the majority of my career was based in that right now.
Every brand, every media company, everybody was going experiential. So it wasn’t something that was dying down. What do you think the future is now with regard for all those brands and companies that have been, so invested in the experiential?
Yeah. I’m still a big believer in experiential. And I’m still a firm believer that this is temporary. This is very real but this is a temporary paralysis. I still believe that until the end of time, people are going to go to concerts, events, and marketplaces. I still think that’s going to happen. It’s at an extreme low, but I believe it’s going to come back, because I believe very strongly in the power of face to face interaction. The strongest relationships that I’ve ever built, and the biggest business deals, have been forged over talking to someone face to face, really understanding each other’s body language. All these things I think are huge.
I think it’ll come back, but I think this is a changing of the guard, if you will. There are a lot of companies that have not innovated in a long time. Those companies are dinosaurs of the past. They will die off, and new innovative companies will come forward that bridge the gap between the new version of experiential and digital experience.
Obviously, the other byproduct of this is companies like Zoom going through the ceiling. With these new tools I think you’re going to see an enhanced speed in which we adopt virtual experience. I think a great example is like this Travis Scott Fortnight concert, the other day, that 12 and a half million people watched concurrently. That’s an immersive, interactive, live music experience. I think you’re going to see a lot of that happening. The creators of Fortnight, Epic Games, are calling it The Metaverse. You know, this almost Ready Player One-like existence that people are going to live through VR and through their computers and gaming consoles. I think you’re going to see that happening as well, and maybe some cross between physical and digital, some augmented experience. But the inevitable is the people who have not Innovated in a long time will die and be extinct, and you’ll see a new crop of experiences coming whether, physically, or digitally, or both.
That leaves room for a lot of new startups, probably. Right?
Yeah, I think there’s going to be a ton of start ups. In general, these times of extreme depression in the markets, not under financial markets, but just in the economy and in all these things, create a willingness from consumers to listen to new ideas. It also creates companies. They change their behavior forcibly, right? And my first big, successful company, which was Agenda, it really came out of the 2007 housing crisis. I was a little tiny company, doing something that I thought was cool, but I didn’t have big financing. It was very independent. And I had this big competitor called ASR, which if you remember, was the action sports retailer show that had been around for 30 years, it was the big, you know, huge behemoth. And when the housing crisis happened, all the brands lost all their marketing budgets, and they all had to look at new ways to innovate. How to market themselves cheaper. I grew my company 2000% between 2007 and 2009. That was because the recession forced people to change and look at new things. The same thing is going to happen now. A new crop of companies will become extremely successful. Successful because people are forced to change their behavior, brands and consumers.
But you were a part of the culture itself. You had grown up in it, you believed in it, that was your life. So, is it more important to be invested in the culture and believe that others will too? Or is it more about seeing a business opportunity?
I’m a firm believer that the things that succeed and resonate with people are the things that happen organically, and don’t happen off of a well-polished business plan. When I started Agenda with Louis, nothing I was doing was informed by what I thought had a good margin. I was just trying to figure out how to make a living off of stuff that I thought was cool. At that time, it was graffiti, streetwear, graphic design, music, you know, just shit that I like. And organically, I saw this opportunity to get my friends together and do this event, and I wasn’t trying to make money. The byproduct is that, because it was organic, and it resonated, and it’s been around since 2003.
But from 2003 to 2007. I made no fucking money. I was living in my parent’s house until I was 23 years old. I think that it just happened that we were at the right place, right time, right idea, and you know, I happen to be twenty-something-year-old kid who was actually representative of the consumer group that we were selling to and people listen to me, and the economic downturn turned up the volume on my voice. And people said, “Okay. I don’t have 50,000 dollars anywhere. I have 5,000. Well, this kid’s offering me an opportunity.” And they went with it, right? And, you know, as I’ve gotten older, I think, begrudgingly, I’ve become more of a systematic businessman. I’ve learned about, you know, a budget, and a p&l, and the margin, and the exit, and the multiple, and the ibeta. These things that I’ve learned over time.
I never went to college. I never finished high school. And, you know, I almost want to unlearn this stuff because I feel like I was way better when I just went off of the feeling of what I thought was cool. I feel like I’m so much less interesting the further I go because, the organic energy or passion is really what I think drives success. So much more so than like any of this kind of institutional knowledge that I’ve picked up along the way. That I’d like to shed like nobody’s business.
Well the risk is much higher now, right? You have investors, which is great to have, but I know there also can be some pushing and urging you to do various things. Because of the profit loss, and factors that come into play. How do you handle that?
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been through two very distinct experiences. I built agenda from 2003 to 2013, and then I sold it to a huge corporate company. I went inside and worked at that company for the next five years, because I had never gone to college, and that was basically like my MBA. I basically learned business there. I had never made a budget. I just did everything by gut, so I learned like the real corporate, public company, financial structure, reporting, budgets, hierarchy.
Going back to the question you asked me our founding investor Jimmy Iovine, is a visionary. And really one of the biggest things that inspired me to quit. Talking to him, even though he’s been wildly successful at the highest levels of business–selling companies for billions of dollars. He operates and thinks of stuff like the way I thought about it when I was 16 to 19 years old. He’s not thinking about budgets, or p&l, or margin. He’s thinking about energy, and culture, and ideas. And it was enlightening to me that people were doing stuff much bigger, at a much bigger culture impact than what I was doing, even inside my big corporate company that owned Comic-Con and, you know, 500 other events. That’s why I left. Because I felt like I could go back to thinking like the old Aaron, and unlearfn the shit and get back to ideas and energy. And actually, under this new structure, yes, we’re thinking about Investors, but I was also finally able to get back to focusing on culture, ideas, and energy. And that was the most refreshing thing. That answers why I left and how I’m actually not dealing with a lot of corporate bullshit right now.
The Hall of Flowers is something that you’re also involved with, which is cannabis. And that world is similar to the world that you came from, but doesn’t really get the recognition in the mainstream media. That it will eventually, I’m sure. And here, at the same time, we know that there are people who have no real connection to this culture are also trying to capitalize on it.
Yeah. You know, I see a huge parallel between what’s happening in the cannabis industry right now and the streetwear and action sports business. Meaning, it’s about brand. There is this idea of authenticity. I think very few people, from an end consumer level, really understand the authenticity, or sometimes even in the B2B space. Because some people see this like, skateboarding in the ’90s. This is the new Gold Rush and everyone can get in and get a piece of the action.
And you know, even again, I’m flattered that you think I’m authentic in the streetwear, street culture space. I grew up working for guys like Luis Pulido and Rick Klotz, and being around guys who were really involved, from like the late ’80s early ’90s. I see myself as a derivative of a derivative of the true originals. I think there’s very few who have true understanding and true authenticity. But it’s very much, you know, the similarity between skateboarding, action sports, streetwear, and what we’re seeing in the cannabis industry today. I would say there’s some extreme parallels between those things.
Do you feel that the cannabis industry, or culture, will get its time in the spotlight at some point? Or will it always be marginal?
I think it’s been one of the biggest conversations over the last few years. It’s only going to get bigger. I think it is a recession-proof business that is only on its way to getting more and more mainstream. And I think even in relation to our current times right now, where our country has just put itself in a massive amount of debt, in the tune of trillions. Every state allowing recreational cannabis, and at a federal level, to gain extra tax income, is no longer an idea that we’re looking at from a morality standpoint. Because it will be a necessity for people to survive from a monetary standpoint, on a federal and State level.
So I think it’s only going to get bigger, more mainstream, more accepted. I think that’s inevitable. I think the amount of players in history will continue to grow.
I really hope that cannabis doesn’t get over-corporatized. And you know, Philip Morris or whoever the companies are figuring out how to use their lobbyists to take control and push out all the independent brands and retailers. So it’s just, you know, Philip Morris selling pre-rolls at CVS. I really applaud the independent creativity that we see in this business, whether I agree with what’s cool and what’s not with everything. There’s still tons of people doing cool shit. And I want that to continue. And I think no matter what though, it is going to be massive. I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Let’s stick with your Hall of Flowers. I was actually going to go this year for the first time. Burb, the sponsors of my show, were proud to be the only Canadian brand that was invited, because it’s a business-to-business curated trade show, specifically inspired and designed to facilitate the trade of premium cannabis products. So can you tell me a little bit of the evolution of this concept?
Hall of Flowers is something I’m super proud to be co-founder of. It’s a really simple idea. You know, that was at the forefront of this. So I have a couple of partners on this. My partners Josh and Rama, who have an agency called Green Street. My partner Danny, who’s the CEO of the company. Really in the early days, you know, obviously we’ve seen the opportunity around cannabis for a long time, and you know, Rama had been in my ear for a while saying, “Hey we got to do an event. We got to do an event.” I think that the real initial spark was just saying, hey – There’s obviously been events. These kind of like consumers-slash-trade events. But none of them felt like they were, this is not to disrespect anyone who does these events, but none of them felt like they were highly curated and highly produced.
I wanted to bring the production value and the quality of the curation of the event, and the presentation that we really had been cultivating in the fashion space for years, and bringing that to cannabis. It wasn’t just a parking lot with a bunch of pop-up tents that look like a skate demo. I want to bring something that felt beautiful and immaculate, and really put these brands on the platform that they deserved, and these retailers, and treat them with that type of level of, um, respect and presentation. So I think that was the mission and, you know, we sat around and talked about it for about a year.
Finally my partner, Danny, had the balls to quit his other job, where he was running one of the biggest fashion trade show companies in the world, to come do this full-time and really run after this. It’s been astounding that, in less than three years, we built something that’s as big as, or arguably this year without Corona, would have been bigger than what took me a decade to do with Agenda. And I think it only speaks to the brand, the concept, but also just the opportunity in this industry. And how many players and how robust it is, and I think we’re only scratching the surface.
Yeah, that’s amazing. And you do bring a level of design to what you do that sticks out. In any platform, but certainly in the cannabis space, where people are still grappling with the ’70s design and the hippie and stoner vibes. The design of it itself is so different from what you see coming out of that space for the most part. That’s a big part of what you’re into I suppose?
I started off doing graphic design. I have an affinity for it. And you know, always working with different artists, whether it’s like us tapping Cody Hudson from Chicago, who is a very well known graphic designer Who does stuff for Nike and tons of other global brands, to do the packaging for last season’s Hall of Flowers. Or Alvaro from Freegums, who’s an amazing illustrator and graphic designer from Miami. You know, picking some of our favorite people to collaborate on the branding and packaging, and whether we think the average attendee or consumer even knows what that is. We are the kind of guys who will spend 30,000 dollars to make a logo because we really believe visual merchandising is important. And at the end of the day, yes, some people have better quality flower, or more premium, or more organic, or whatever that is. But this is a branding and packaging game and, for our show that’s all about representing the top brands, our branding and packaging needs to be on par with those brands. And we need to create an environment where design is at the forefront.
And you never were tempted to do your own products? Whether in apparel, or cannabis, or any of these spaces that you’re comfortable in?
I’ve had various apparel projects over the years. Honestly though, I think I’ve always been better at building a platform. One of my exhibitors at Agenda said something really smart to me one time. He came up to me somewhere, some years into it, and he said, “Aaron, you know what,” He said, “You’re like Levi Strauss.” And I go, what do you mean by that? He said, “Well, you know, in the Gold Rush in San Francisco,” He goes, “You know, Levi Strauss got rich by – everyone was panning for gold and he was selling picks and shovels.” I took that to heart and I realized that that was maybe more my skill set. Everyone’s trying to do this one thing, whether it was to sell skateboards and t-shirts, or now sell cannabis. I’ve been better as a community organizer and giving everyone the tools to help get together. And some of those people will win, some of those people fail, and they continue to come and go, and I continue to provide the platform. And I think that’s really my core skill set–being an aggregator and community builder.
Social media has been a big part of your success as well, obviously, with NTWRK. When did you first feel that social media was the thing that could really make a difference in your work?
I was one of those people that was naive to it. I’m pretty young in the big scheme of things. I’m 36 now and when I started Agenda I was, 18, 19-years-old. And you know, the guys that work for me were my friends from high school. My employee number one at Agenda was my best friend, Kellen, just came back from college. And he’s like we gotta be on Facebook. I’m like, what? Like what the fuck is Facebook? Right? Like I didn’t care, but I’m like, okay go create an account. But at the time when these things were emerging technologies and my competitors were 50-year-old guys who slap their name on whatever culture audience they thought they could make a buck on. They didn’t inherently understand the importance of being early on these platforms.
Once I picked them up I was running the Agenda Instagram account myself, and just putting up cool stuff. And again, kind of the same way that the business got started, just using these things organically and just having fun with it. And I think by being early and having fun with it, and being young, and being of the culture, we had an advantage. It’s getting harder now, but you know, I think I’m always trying to jump on these things when they come around, not after they reach scale. So whether it’s trying to play with Billy Billy now, Tik-Tok is obviously mainstream now. But I was getting on that a year ago and was, you know, on the early side. So I think always trying to use whichever platform, and go where the audience is and not try to swim upstream has been important. And trying to definitely listen. I spend a lot of time when I’m hanging out, whatever it is, if I’m hanging around nine or eleven-year-old cousins of mine. Like actually asking them where do you get your information? What are you using? What are you reading? What are your friends on? I thik listening to really young people is a huge value, because I’m old now and I don’t understand.
And never writing anything off, and saying – I think a younger, me would have like easily said like, oh, that’s stupid or that’s that. Now, I don’t think anything’s stupid. I don’t think I know. So I’m like, you know what, like if that nine-year-old kid tells me that’s cool, I’m like, he knows way better than me.
Let’s talk now about your NTWRK venture. I downloaded the app and spent some time on it. And it looks great, first of all. I mean, I think up to your standards in the design side of it. Its tagline is – Shop at the speed of culture. Home Shopping Network for Millennials and Gen X. I saw somewhere else that you were being interviewed, where you said, you mentioned that to a young artist – Home Shopping Network- and they said, what’s that?
It was Jaden Smith who said that. And I was showing him our company deck. And I said, you know, we’re like QVC for the Millennial, Gen-Z audience. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “What’s QVC?” I literally had to explain it to him. Which was a funny moment. Then I realized like these young kids literally don’t know what that is. You know, which is an interesting context.
But you do and that’s what made it possible for you to come up with this concept. There’s a lot of aspects to the app and it’s platform, but the idea is having celebrities or recognized people selling product during a short period of time. It used to be done live, right?
Yeah. And we’re still doing some live. But yeah, instead of Kathie Lee Gifford selling sweaters to a 65-year-old in Minnesota watching TV ordering over the telephone. We’re selling LeBron James sneakers through mobile live stream. Still putting a personality in a product, and an idea in a video. But the way we’re delivering that and curating that on a technology and cultural standpoint are very, very far apart. So it’s really, bringing the future idea of what, you know, QVC and Barry Diller were doing with HSN and QVC in the, you know, the 80’s, 90’s.
And you’re also creating content at the same time that is shot. Like short films. The content, that’s the fun part. Like QVC, you know, if you know what it is, you think of like someone standing at a counter selling you a sweater, right? That’s part of what we do. And we have fun, like almost doing are funny, almost like the Saturday Night Live version of that. But we also are out there making films with musicians and athletes that cost us fifty or a hundred thousand dollars. We also have really low-fi content that we’re making in the field with iPhones. So there’s a range of content, but I think we have the ability to tell stories whether that’s in an expensive way, in a cheap way, or in a fun way. So we’ve done everything from working with Nike and the Native American focused charity that they work with called, N7. And making a very serious, you know, docu-style series, you know, piece of content about the Zuni tribe. All the way to doing a skit with DJ Khalid and Eric Andre, that’s very tongue-in-cheek and, you know, ridiculous sketch-comedy, Tom Green style. And I think we can do it all. We just want to have fun with stories, products, and personalities.
Do you think of yourself as a media company, or how do you position your company?
I think the one thing I want to do with NTWRK is very similar in the way of the ideology of ComplexCon. Which if you try to define what ComplexConn was and what we created there, it wasn’t a music festival. It wasn’t a TedTalk. It wasn’t a food festival or film Festival. It wasn’t a streetwear convention, or a swap meet, or an art fair. It was kind of all of those things, and you couldn’t really define it. And that’s kind of what made it cool.
With NTWRK, yes, we’re kind of like home shopping television, we’re kind of like Snapchat. We’re kind of like, you know, an editorialized media site, a media company. We’re also doing digital events. We’re going to be an events company. We’re going to do education. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as being one thing, because then you can define us. I want people to just, you know – like, what is that? It’s NTWRK. We want to be an aggregator for anything we think is cool, even if it’s dramatically different, and the audience that’s watching those two different things have no relation to each other. I think that’s a beautiful idea of like what we can be.
But you only have it on the mobile platform. Is that going to remain that way? Because, you don’t have a website, for example, that duplicates what you have on the phone.
So here’s the interesting part, I spent my whole career doing these events, right? And the beauty of why I was successful in the event industry is because I didn’t know anything about it. When I go and think about doing events now, I know so much about it, I become paralyzed with fear.
So going into a content digital media and e-commerce company. I don’t say, I didn’t know anything, but it’s just not my area of expertise. My ignorance was bliss in digital media and e-commerce that the conventional wisdom would have said, “Do this on YouTube. Do this on Instagram. Go to where the audience is and publish your content in a platform.”
But what I soon learned is by creating our own platform, even though it’s harder to get people there. When I get them there, I have 100 percent of their mind share. What we’re all in a war for is consumer attention and mind share. Because there’s just so many options of where your attention can go these days. So when we get someone on that platform, we’re not competing with an algorithm, or paying for reach. We’ve got them on there and we own that customer in a real way. Where on Instagram, I saw a retail company I won’t name, because I want to be respectful, who tried to do a very similar idea. They put you know, they already had a massive mailing list. They have 800,000 followers on their Instagram. They try to their version of a QVC for youth culture. And they launched it about three months before we launched. And I kicked myself. I said, why did I overthink this? They didn’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to build a platform. They just went on Instagram live and they were selling right off there to their audience of 800,000. But when I saw them go live, only a thousand people tuned in. Because Instagram is crowded. And you have to – You get suppressed by the algorithm. You’re competing with hundreds of thousands of other relevant stories. And when we went live we got 50, 60, 70 thousand people to tune in on a platform that’s just ours with way less people on it. So, you know, what I stumbled upon is having a hundred percent of mind share on our own platform is a million times more powerful than having one one-thousandth – if that – one one millionth of mind share on a more popular platform. I know that was a long-winded answer, but I think that’s the key that I’ve kind of learned.
And are you also looking to make exclusive deals with a talent or in brands with regard to product?
Always. That’s what drives a platform. At ComplexCon, the meaningful thing was all the brands that made exclusive sneakers and merch that you could only buy there. That’s why people bought tickets. If a platform doesn’t have something meaningful from a content or product perspective, then you’re not going to go there. And the app is just the delivery mechanism of those things.