News hit Tuesday, January 2, that Agenda Show founder Aaron Levant would be leaving his role to pursue another venture outside of the tradeshow and event industry.
At the helm for 15 years, Levant started the show as a way to push back on the traditional tradeshow model and help elevate emerging brands in the space that didn’t have any real platform to get their message across.
When the larger tradeshows wouldn't even smirk our way, Aaron Levant took us under his wing with his fledgling Agenda Show. He directed buyers to our rack when Ben and I had nothing but a few crumpled T-shirts and photocopied linesheets. As his tradeshow grew, so did we, so did the entire marketplace. He provided structure for a culture, he gave it a framework to sustain and succeed. If you bought a T-shirt, a pair of boardshorts, a skateboard deck, in the last 15 years, chances are that Aaron bridged that gap for you. ComplexCon? That was Aaron too. As news goes public today that Aaron is retiring from the tradeshow business, I just wanted to be the first to give this man a standing ovation. Please join me in giving the ultimate underdog a 👏🏼. And here's to the future, Ace. You always knew where to look next. Thank you, Aaron Levant. Signed, Skateboarding, Streetwear, Surf, the industry, the customers, a generation of youth, and The Hundreds
Today, with so much that has evolved within the industry and the overall retail climate, Levant says he is taking all the lessons he’s garnered from Agenda and is ready to apply them to his next big endeavor -- a start-up on a global scale that he will be launching later this year.
Although most of those details have not been revealed, Levant did share with us a few hints, his favorite moments from Agenda over the years, what he might have done differently in hindsight, and Agenda’s strategy to move forward once he departs in February.
What are the biggest lessons you took away from running Agenda for the past 15 years?
It was all lessons – I had no lessons before this. From running a company and being an entrepreneur, right up until where I am today, it’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned. Literally, my entire knowledge of how to build a business, create a team, create interest in something, how to market, do sales, how to build a community, the entire thing that I’ve ever done has been based on this one experience. I guess I could say everything. I hate to generalize, but that’s what it’s been.
If you had to force me to say what that one thing is, I would say it’s that you have to be constantly progressing and moving forward, even when you don’t have to. What I mean by that is, even when you think things are going good and everything is working, you have to challenge yourself to make yourself uncomfortable and try new things and push forward. I think that’s what happens at a lot of businesses – things become comfortable because they are working, and they get set in their strategy. The one thing I am always trying to do is progress and put myself in an uncomfortable position even when I’m in a comfortable spot. Even with this last move.
Was there one particular moment when you knew you were going to move on to the next venture? Why right now – what spurred you to do this?
I think it’s something that came to light in the past three months. The success of this year’s ComplexCon and Agenda Festival I felt that I had successfully pivoted the company in a new direction that is sustainable for the long term. That to me, culminated my experience in events and festivals. I think I’ve gone relatively as far as I can go. I could always just create more and more events, but that’s just more of the same.
I got to the point over the past three months, where, I still love what I do, but I just want to learn something different. For me, it’s about how much more can I learn and take away from this business. This last chapter I learned a lot about the consumer side, and now it’s about taking that leap and learning about a new market, and really challenging myself to go back to square one in a new industry and be successful and work my way up from the bottom. That idea was consuming me, and I’m that person who has to make myself uncomfortable.
Will the new venture be based anywhere in particular?
I’ll always be based in L.A. That’s where I’m born and raised and I’m not going anywhere. L.A. will be my homebase forever.
But the venture will touch markets in other places?
Yes, I think anything I’m interested in doing is global in scale.
With the new venture, will we see you in that entrepreneurial role again, or are you moving to an already established company?
I’m definitely going to be launching a new venture, a start-up of sorts, later this year in a different space. I use the word start-up loosely, since that can mean a lot of things. I dream big now, so some people think of a start up as someone sitting in their garage — I have big aspirations to do something really big and bold.
What were some of your favorite moments and memories along the way?
There was so many along the way – I mean, I don’t even know how many shows we did, probably like 100. I think there were key milestones – starting with the show in Long Beach and then moving it to San Diego in 2003. We grew it organically. I think the first big milestone was picking it up and moving it to Huntington Beach all by ourselves to partner with the US Open of Surfing – that was our biggest tipping-point moment.
Less than a year after that, we overtook ASR and saw this meteoric growth spree from about 2009 on. Then moving the show back to Long Beach in 2011 and again, saw huge growth in 2011. Merging with Reed [Exhibitions] in 2013 was another big one, and after that is when things really started going crazy.
My most favorite thing I’ve ever done in the history of Agenda is launching the Agenda Emerge conference in 2013, and the multiple additions of the conference that happened after that. To me, that is my most fond memory and the thing I’m most proud of – creating that educational platform around Agenda and the speakers we had and all the amazing moments that came out of it. From Nas, Marc Ecko and Shepard Fairey – all of the speakers that we had were amazing.
Another huge moment in my career here was launching ComplexCon in 2016. It took all my learnings and some new things I learned to make that happen. I then took those learnings to launch Agenda Festival in 2017.
In hindsight, is there anything you think you’d do differently with Agenda and why?
Of course, hindsight is 20-20. I learned that a lot of the action sports industry is based on relationships, more than it was based on practicality, facts or logic. A lot of it was based on who surfed with who and who were boys with who, and who worked with who at certain companies. I think I was never part of the Orange County surf bro squad. So there were a lot of learning around my failing around that, and rubbing some people the wrong way. That particularly taught me that business isn’t about who you know, it’s about what you know. And luckily, I had a good product and I was persistent, so I was able to cut through that over time, but I would say that was my biggest hurdle, that I just didn’t come from that eco-system so I was always fighting against that over the years.
Would you have done it any other way, though, looking back on it?
I just would have spent more time earlier on trying to build those relationships with the right people and would have approached things a different way. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but my style is very brash and I approach things very direct and that can be kind of a shock. I have a different style. Some of these guys are a bit more soulful, where I’m very straight to the point. I think there were times where I could have toned down my approach with certain people in certain situations, because sometimes my style didn’t always gel with everyone I came across. And that’s fine, I don’t have any qualms about it. But in hindsight, maybe I would have dealt with some of these situations with kid gloves.
At first, many people were very apprehensive to be involved in things that weren’t pure to the sports, like streetwear. That was always very puzzling to me, because I saw the direction the market was going in, and the brands and retailers were going in, and they were mixing up their product categories. But there was a sector of the industry that felt they wanted to keep things very pure, and that just wasn’t the reality of the market. That’s always been a concept that has been a bit of struggle.
With your departure, who is going to be taking on leadership roles and will Reed also play a role in that?
I’m in charge of building out the succession plan, finding replacements and building out the new org chart. I’ll go on record and say that it’s going to be a combination of new talent coming in from the outside as well as some internal promotions. There will be a couple people who will replace my responsibilities, because I was wearing several hats and we think it’s best to break those responsibilities down and make sure those roles have more focus across several people. I’ve been acting as the head of the company, as well as creative director and running ComplexCon, among other things. We want to create more delineated responsibilities moving forward. And I think that will create more growth.
It’s been the best experience of my life. I’ve met so many amazing people, and there are so many creative people and amazing stories in this industry. It’s been incredible to meet so many inspiring people who follow their passion to start companies. So many people who were my idols growing up, I’ve now got to do business with them. It’s truly been an amazing experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
And I will still be a consultant and advisor to the company, so I won’t be completely gone. I’ll still have some connectivity, but not as much on the day to day as I was. But if you know me, I’m pretty hands on so I’ll probably do a fair amount of consulting from afar. I made some jokes that I’ll probably be calling the office telling them to change the size of the font on an Instagram post, so there will probably be a good amount of backseat driving from me.
You mentioned that you are referring to this as your “retirement” from the tradeshow business, but do you see yourself staying in contact with the people you’ve made relationships with along the way – and will that intersect with the next venture?
So many of these people have become my friends. My staff is like family to me. So I’m never going to be leaving the industry, it’s still a passion. I just won’t be doing this as my job. I’m going to remain in touch with many people, and through my next venture there will be connectivity with brands and athletes and IP. No matter what I do I will have connectivity to this market, because there is so much creativity and energy here. I will be doing different things that can integrate with it, it just won’t be events and trade shows. I always see myself taking the learnings and relationships from this and transcending and weaving it into whatever I do, even if it’s in a small way.
Are you taking anyone with you?
No, the team is staying in tact. They are fully hunkered down doing this. I’m really stoked for them to step up to the plate and grow and be challenged. It’s a great opportunity for all of them. To be honest, I’m somewhat of a tyrant, and try to control too much, so I think this is a great opportunity for many of them to step up and prove in my absence that they have amazing skill sets and experience, as well. You know the team and how talented they are, so I’m excited to see them poised to do great things.
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