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Speaking with Michael Viljoen

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What is the position that you are currently doing?

“Well, I'm one of the founding partners for J Street at the moment. I spend a ton of time looking over the financial books. I think one of the more challenging things that I do on a day in day out basis is managing cash flow, which can be a challenge for any business.

But, a business growing at our level tends to take a lot more attention to detail. You know, it's kind of interesting in terms of business management, and I don't know this from either practical experience or education, but I've started to put together the fact that as a business grows, certain things become critically important and other things which you would think would be important don't drop off the radar screen, but you don't pay a lot of attention to them, and then later on in the process, I think you start to pay attention to some of the things that you've been ignoring for a while and then they start to become priorities.

I think at the moment we are at with J Street right now, it's critically important that we are maintaining a view on growth, and in doing that, cash flow has become so critically important and we have pop-up expenses that show up and things like that. So it's an interesting part for me, but the other part of things that I do, obviously, is I still produce and manage events and I still really really enjoy that.

There's a part of me that would like to get back to doing, you know, more of the event management and less of the accounting work, but then at the end of the day, we all take on roles here that we have to have to keep everything moving forward, and surrounding yourself with good people with a good knowledge base and good work ethic helps us kind of push the cart forward.”

So, Michael, I know that you and I have talked extensively about how both of us got started in the industry since we've been friends and business partners for so long. Did you share with everybody else, though, how you got started in the live event part of the industry?

“I think that like a lot of people, I was interested in music. I was a band geek, for lack of a better term. But back in the days when I was a band Geek, that was not an appealing term to anybody. You know, we were the band geeks that couldn't make it out onto the playing field for the most part.

So the things that I enjoyed in junior high school, high school, and some of the colleges that I had in my life were being able to be involved with music and being a musician. About the time I was fourteen or fifteen, I was already playing in rock and roll bands and clubs and things like that, which was a little young because we were way below the drinking age, and yet we were still playing in some of these clubs, which was kind of fun.

We would play Thursday through Sunday. My parents didn't see me for four days out of the week. I had a best friend who was essentially our band leader, and I would stay at his house and sleep on the couch night after night because we were practicing until twelve or one o'clock in the morning. Then we'd get up and go to school, and we’d turn around to come back and do it again or play club and wedding dates.

I think collectively we were in about three or four different bands. I later was in a small Christian rock and roll band that toured up and down the east coast and when that happened I had to change roles from being a musician in the band to start to manage some of the technical and then out of that I met a guy who ran a production business in Virginia, and that’s when I started my first role as a sound guy, and that continued for about fifteen or twenty years.

So there were several collaborations of businesses and different businesses that we started and stopped. But I think being a musician got me into the technical side of the industry. It gave me the ability to keep my hand on the musical side of what was going on. And yet I was here to make a living and raise a family, and so since then, I've been on the corporate industrial side mostly for the last thirty-five years.”

So what inspired you to start J Street productions?

“Well, like anything, I think it's an evolution. You know, you start with the fact that you've had a couple of businesses. You've seen some success, you've seen some failures, and you try to reimagine what the next step is going to look like. One of my big steps was joining a couple of production companies that were certainly bigger than I was. I had a small, mom and pop shop production company which I really could never get beyond a certain point.

Don't think in any given year we increased more than three-quarters of a million dollars, which to some can sound like a big number, but when you're trying to deal with a business that has such high overhead in terms of gear and what you have to do to maintain in the industry, it was frustrating.

But you know, I did all kinds of things, including building my speaker cabinets. When one style of cabinet no longer was acceptable to the industry, I would get in the wood shop and would chop up cabinets then I would build them and I would create what was current and then use the components that I already had in those boxes, and that got me involved with not only the cabinetry side of things but then I moved into the acoustic side of things, just parenthetically.

During this time, I spent a couple of years at Northern Virginia Community College to teach acoustics and basic electrical engineering, at least as it attributes itself to our industry, and I found that remarkable and interesting. I loved the teaching aspect of what we were doing. Ultimately, it was a recording arts technology school that I was teaching in and at that time I also owned a twenty-four track audio recording studio where we did a lot of various things. You know, you're so in love with the industry that you start to operate as a hobbyist, which can be the kiss of death in terms of trying to build a business.

So, I thought, ‘well, I've got one more big go around for me at this stage of my life,’ and Mark and I got together one evening and we had a nice dinner with a lot of beverages and we started contemplating "what if?". And out of those "what if" questions was this: what if we started a production business where we could try to use some of the experience that we've had in the past. And I think I communicated at the time that if I was going to do this, this would be the last one. So we had a nice evening, we all went home and very early in the morning the next day, Mark says I called him and I said, 'are you still serious about this?'

And so then we started a series of meetings to try to figure out how we would put this all together and what that would look like. As I said to you, you don't make these decisions based on a feeling you have on Tuesday. It's an evolution of spending a lot of time in the industry and doing a lot of things that you develop ideas of what you would like to do for your next step and right now, this is our next step.

I also remember a lot of the conversations we had after that where we were trying to talk about the framework that we were going to build a company around, talk a little bit about how collaboration plays a role inside of the internal framework of J Street Productions as a company.

The businesses that I had before were very much “me” oriented and I knew what my skill sets were. I knew what I could and I couldn't do, and if you don't know, you'll learn quickly. You just put yourself on the firing line and other people will tell you that you know, you're good at this, but you're not good at that or you're not experiencing the kind of success that you want.

So in the conversations with Mark, one of the key factors that we discussed was, you know, I know that I can get any business that I start to this point, but I really can't get it any further than that. And it became evident to me that to grow a business, you've got to surround yourself with people, and here's the trick.

You don't surround yourself with people who think like you. You don't surround yourself with people that you agree with, you don't surround yourself with people who are going to say yes to everything you bring to the table. And that is a remarkably difficult process, because even when you're good friends, even when you have a tremendous emotional attachment to the people that are around you, you're going to have conflict.

And the conflict in itself is not a bad thing. Conflict generates rapid and immediate problem solving and, as a result, can develop immediate and rapid growth. So surround yourself with very, very good, smart, talented people, but make sure they don't always agree with you. If you can find somebody on the opposite end of the spectrum, it's hard to live through, I can guarantee you. But it's actually because it gives you the ability to generate the kind of problem-solving skills that you can't have by yourself. After all, you're only ever going to look at things from one perspective.”

How does collaboration play outside of J Street, like with the vendors that you work with, with the freelancers, and with other companies?

“The collaboration part, I think, I’ll describe it in terms of a business partnership.. I think that when you're dealing with freelancers and temporary partnerships that you set up, in a lot of cases there are twenty-four-hour commitments as opposed to, you know, months or years or decades. It had to do with a mental mindset and attitude and an upbeat and collaborative view and service.

What are the challenges?

What do we have to do?

How quickly do we have to do it?

And so all of a sudden he's already trying to build the project in his head, and so that's one of the intangibles that we will notice about individuals right away. Then the other part is one of the things it's always been said about the groups that I've worked with, and I haven't. This is no tribute to me, this is just what we've tried to communicate to the people around us and how we work. Clients will often say, well, you guys have so much fun while you're working.

I don't think that happens every single time, but I think it happens most times and I think it's because we surround ourselves with people that we can get along with and that we understand and even if we don't necessarily agree with them, we know that we're all there for a common purpose and being able to collaborate and that regard, I think it is quite important. I think we end up with people around us that are like us and not like us in terms of they agree with us, but like us in terms of temperament and being able to work together.

Look, if you're going to you know, in a lot of cases we're spending ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours on job site every day, day after day after day, and I am sure that we see each other more than we see our families, which is probably a sad fact about the industry. But at the end of the day, you've got to create a situation where you can work together. I mean the thing is you surround yourself with people that you know that you can trust and then before you leave, well, you arrive and you shake their hands and you hug them and you tell them, you know, ‘great to see you, I can't believe that you're here, this is fantastic.’

But not in a fake sort of way, really like I can't believe that I got all you guys on my job again today. This is great because now I know my days are going to be easy. You know, we've worked together, we've cultivated a list of people that we try to get on every job. Now we don't always get the same go on every job, but we have a goal to be able to bring all those people that we trust into the mix and you thank them on the way in. You work hard and you play hard through the day and then, by the time you get to the end, you shake their hands and you hug them and you thank them and you tell them, I can't wait to see you on the next show, you know. And so that's not something that you can do once or twice in it and it sticks.

And quite honestly, there are so many freelancers and there are so many local bands that we work with. I know a lot of their names, but when I don't see them for a couple of months, sometimes the name can get foggy. But I will never forget them. I might forget their name for, you know, two or five minutes. I may have to get reacclimated with some people that I don't see all that often, but I know who they are.

When you see the same people day in and day out you're going to remember their names. But what I don't ever forget is whether your name comes to my mind immediately, is that I know the work that I know the possibilities for and how you behave, and in that way, you will always be my friend because I know who you are on the inside, not necessarily just your moniker.”

Talk a little bit about what things that you're interested in that are not Jay Street Productions or what ventures you're working on that are outside in Jay street productions well, or the event in general.

“I always have a lot of little things that I do. My wife and I have the most amazing relationship and I thank God every day that she puts up with me, because we had just a wonderful life. We enjoy travel, so traveling is a big part of what we talked about and dream about day in and day out. But I have hobbies like everybody else. I enjoy golf.

That's been a nice exercise routine this past summer. Haven't done much over the wintertime, but this past summer I started riding a bicycle for the first time really from an exercise perspective, and that's been a lot of fun. I enjoy those extracurricular activities and as I'm getting older, the physical part of it is more important than even the activity, but just to stay active, especially with covid.

I mean, you know, we go from working eighteen hours a day and loading semis to doing absolutely nothing, and so that started to affect my personal life. The thing that I enjoy that is not necessarily work-related or J Street related, is still being a musician. I try to play every day if I possibly can, I have a little studio set up at my house. I rarely play publicly or out with other people at all, but the ability for me to sit down and be creative and, you know, pick up a base and play, and I've got a song list and process that I go through. That's always a lot of fun.

I enjoy a lot of construction projects, you know. I try to at least have a small construction project going on all the time because I enjoy that part of the process. So I have these things to keep me busy, but none of them are supremely important other than just continued development. I like the fact that I've always got something to do.”

What inspires you most about this industry?

“I think you can fall in love with people. I think you surround yourself with people that you like. You find people that you can trust and have varied backgrounds, and different opinions. Some of my best friends don't think the way I think, but that makes very little difference. It's about the quality of the person that they are.

For the most part, I think the best answer I've heard for this industry is you walk into a square box that has nothing in it, you build an event and the crowd goes away. In the end, you do the event, they go away and then you return it to an empty box. I think that that is probably the best description of what we do, and everything that we do may not look exactly like that, but it all stems from that kind of a process of being able to take and build something from nothing, make it look like it was there for a hundred years and then turn around or walk away and all disappear again. We throw it all back into the warehouse and we do it again on another day.”

What do those new people newer to the industry need to know that is keeping those events successful?

“The clients need to know there are skill sets that they don't have that you need to try to teach them, and one of them is that if you've got a complicated production process, you should get your production partner involved even before you sign your venue contract.

There are things that they can help you with that you're not seeing out right away because you're so wrapped up into I've got to get a space, I've got to get a space. And I've seen it over and over again. They commit to things that they really shouldn't be aware of.

What do you look for from clients?

“From a client perspective, it stems around, in my mind, trust. So I currently have a client and I was her production guy for a while and we got into a huge conflict and I was like that's it, I can't do this, not with this client. This needs to be handled by somebody else, which, honestly, is exactly what happened and then years later we have collaborated again and we have a better relationship now than we've ever had.

But the conversation that I had with her was look, I'm not a perfect individual. I'm going to make mistakes. I'm sure I made mistakes that created a rift between us. That part of it is not that important. What's important is that you understand that I am on your side and I think that what you have to do with establishing a relationship with a client is say, ‘I'm going to potentially make mistakes, but I'm going to try very hard not to make a mistake.’

There's a process in which you both need to work together to find the beginning part of a project at the end of the part of the project. But if there's no trust in between that they're you're both working at the same goal, or if they have to look over their shoulders to make sure that you're doing your job, or if they feel that you're going to make decisions that are in the best interest of you and not the best interest of them, then you're net.

You're always going to have clients like that and part of it is because they don't let you in. So you can beg to and sometimes they won't let you in, and the answer to that question is you find people that you can develop a level of trust with, and that's not necessarily the same as getting along with them.

I've got clients that I don't necessarily get along with, they don't have trust that I have their best interest at heart, and that's the part you have to maximize on that. Everybody's not going to click at an emotional level. That just makes everybody best friends. But if they know that you've got their best interest in your heart, you're not going to hide facts from them.”

Rapid Fire

Are you a coffee or a tea guy?

“Coffee, coffee all day. My favorite thing is I'll have a couple of cups of coffee in the morning, rarely three, but those first two are super important for me to be able to get going. And yes, I do have a problem.

What is one question that you wish people would ask you?

“Okay, so I'll answer it this way. I'm sure that there are dozens of questions and I'd like people to ask me, and I think it. It all depends on the circumstances and what we're talking about at the time. But I tell people this all the time. I'm not a particularly open person by definition, because I'm an introvert for the most part. I love collaborations one on one. Even having two of you looking at me during this interview puts me a little bit on the edge of the other side of the offense. But if this was a one-on-one hour I could talk and I would just love it. I love one on one interactions.

If you get five people, I will lock up like a drum. I just can't. I can't deal with multiple people. I'm not very good at social networking for that reason. But the question that I want to be asked, I don't know. I think the thing that I think about in that regard is because I'm a good one on one communicator, be careful what you ask me because while I'm an introvert and while I'm not necessarily dramatically open in a traditional sense, I'm not shy about telling you anything.

That you give me a straightforward question can be embarrassing, it can be things you would never communicate about in public, it could be anything. So I often tell people to be careful what they ask me because I will tell them the truth.”

Besides the Event Collab Podcast, what's your favorite blog or podcast or book, or Ebook?

“Well, I'm not great at reading, so I listened to a lot of audiobooks and I don't listen to a lot of audiobooks during the winter months because my routine is I get on my bicycle now and I turn on an audiobook and that gives me something to listen to you while I'm writing for an hour, hour and a half, and if I'm driving out to you know, some location somewhere, that's going to take an hour and a half off and put on either a podcast or a book and I'll try to listen while I'm on the way.

I'm not good about nailing down one specific thing, but I will tell you that I have one obsession that just drives my wife Insane and that is Lee Square has a base channel that I have been listening to since the beginning of Covid and I just love this guy. I love everything about him. I love the way he thinks, I love the way he interacts with people. I can't say that he has no ego because, you know, occasionally you hear things that he says that he has an ego, but he has a healthy ego. He has an ego that says that I've been playing in the musical industry for over fifty years.”

What's your favorite city to work in?

“Oh, I think still Washington D.C. I was born in South Africa, but we moved to the New Jersey suburbs when I was about five and so we spent all my growing up years in various locations in New Jersey. My grandfather and his father before him were all brought over by the German brewmeisters to open breweries in Pennsylvania and that's kind of why we ended up in that local area.

When I was nineteen, I had graduated from high school just about a year and I was working for IBM at the time and they moved me down to Washington DC and I enjoyed Washington when we were here, as you know, as we came as kids and you know we would do the tourist thing, but I always love the area. I was always a Washington Football fan for years and years and years. Even when I was up in Philadelphia, I was not an Eagles fan, I was a Washington fan.
For the most part. I enjoyed coming down here. I've always loved Washington. You know, they call it the most powerful city in the world, and in some ways, that's probably true and it's a wonderful place to be. But the things I like the most about the places here are the monuments in the city and the fact that for the most part, it has a twelve-story height limit. It makes Washington a very remarkable place to live, and the only other place that I would want to live other than here on an extended basis is probably Paris.”

Considering that this is the beginning of the Post COVID live events open up the world. Where do you think the event industry is going to be in three years?

“Well, I've spent the last two or three years trying to figure that out and I haven't been right even once. I think the only thing we can say with any certainty is that the virtual side of what we've had to develop during the COVID years is going to be with us at some point or another, whether it's streaming our events out regularly. But video capture, I think, is here to stay, and I think that the decision to allow people from outside the four walls where you're having an event or concert become collaborative and be a part of that environment, I think is going to go to continue and I don't think that there should be any risk for that.

I think people will pay for both and I think both of them have economic models that can work. Clients, however, need to attach themselves to the fact that what started as live events many, many years ago is now going to slowly and more consistently morph into better and better television production throughout the industry we're doing live events, a portion of that event is always going to be produced based on what would now be considered TV production, and I think that those monikers are going to change.

Things are going to continue to develop and change, but that's as close as I can get to where the event industry is going. People still want to be together, and we're still going to have live events, but I think the model that we had before COVID is gone and I think if you're looking to try to resurrect that in its entirety, I think you're going to miss the boat.”

What is the best piece of advice that you were ever given?

“Hmm, there are many things I've been told that have been dramatically useful to me. Probably not the prettiest to say out loud is that I will agonize over decisions that I have to make for a very, very long time and every once in a while my wife will put her foot down and say something to the effect of, ‘Okay, I'm tired of hearing about this. Make a decision or don't talk to me about this ever again,’ and so that usually gets me moving in a direction.

I'm the guy who wants to overanalyze and give things a thorough run-through before I just simply make a decision, which can be good and at times it can be very, very bad.

So what I've spent a lot of time doing is trying to figure out how to balance that perspective.”

And what does collaboration mean to you?

“You're never going to get the same answer from everyone, but I think no matter how you cut collaboration to be useful for you in life if you are looking over your shoulder and saying you know I'm not any stronger for this collaboration, that's where you have to start asking questions if you're in the right moment.”

What's the best way for people to connect with you or find you?

“Call J Street and ask for Michael and I guarantee I’ll answer. I am not a social media guru. My fascination these days is with Reddit. I've kind of given up on Facebook. Linkedin is very useful to me to kind of know what's going on inside and outside our industry. But even LinkedIn has started to become non-business oriented with a lot of the postings that are going on. So it has kind of changed its model along the way. I think most of the Linkedin folks are a little unhappy about that, that it needs to be more business and less personal opinion.”


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