business

Why I Want To Attend Spark.me 2019

Spark.me is a yearly conference taking place on the rugged and beautiful coast of Montenegro. It has become one of the most carefully curated business and internet conferences in Southeast Europe. Over the years, it has attracted a growing following of attendees and industry leading speakers in the fields of branding, marketing, business development, innovation, and startup ecosystems.

The obvious reasons for attending Spark.me in 2019: 

Networking: Spark brings together professionals from across the spectrum from different industries. A conference this diverse in attendees and speakers allows you to meet new friends, possible new business partners or clients. It gives you as the attendee an opportunity to succeed in growing your business and network. 

Education: Spark provides a unique learning experience. Since the goal of the conference is not to be the biggest, the organizing team designs an experience geared toward learning and developing skills. 

Location: The location of the conference in the past has been amazing. Located just outside of Budva, the conference was held on the sunny coast of Montenegro. This year, the conference is receiving an upgrade by moving to the Bay of Kotor specifically Porto Montenegro in Tivat. The picturesque location serves as the perfect backdrop for a convergence of industry leading minds.

These are the oft repeated reasons for attending Spark.me, and they do factor heavily into why I attended in the past, and will do so this year again.

(You can still pick up tickets for Spark.me happening May 25-26.)

However, there are a few more reasons. These are usually what I tell people to really sell them on the experience. 

The real reasons to attend the Spark.me conference…

Spark.me is a carefully curated experience.

The time and energy that the organizing team puts into not merely running through a checklist to make sure the conference happens, but carefully crafts an experience is evident. The planning happens almost year round. The speakers who are chosen are particularly selected. The stage is thought through from an audience’s perspective. The ambiance is geared toward those attending. Spark.me is not only a conference, but a designed experience. 

Secret sauce of the organizers…. They care!

The event is put together by a community which cares about the larger community. The beauty of the Spark.me conference is in the details and attention paid to little things leading up to the conference, during it, and afterwards. 

If you pay attention to social media, you will notice different members of the team connecting with potential attendees and answering questions. During the event, the organizing team give recognition for special days (including birthdays) of attendees and create an experience even for the speakers. They notice the small things because they care. 

The opportunities to meet the right people. 

While we all know that a major reason to go to any conference is for the opportunity to network. However, the Spark.me offers the opportunity to make sure you are meeting the right people. With a conference planned so closely around the experience it provides, it easily attracts like minded people not only from the immediate Balkan region but from across the globe. In 2018, Spark drew 580 people from 28 countries. This type of diversity in a close setting brings the right people together to make change happen, encourage new ideas, and perfect existing initiatives. 

Lastly…

For Startups, Spark.me brings the opportunity to pitch and learn from investor coupled with the opportunity to win a trip to be seen in the TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019 Startup Alley, on October 2-4, 2019.

I’m looking forward to Spark.me and seeing a community that has welcomed me over the last 5 years. Watching this conference grow from relatively early stages in 2015 until today has been exciting. I look forward to seeing what speakers, the conference will bring to the stage. I can’t wait to see friends that make yearly pilgrimage. And I look forward to making new connections that will undoubtedly last through the coming years. 

If you do visit Spark.me in May, check out some of these tips on what to do during this time of year.

Boat Milica: A family's Story

On a cooler than normal day last spring with a bit of overcast and wind, my family along with a visiting friend decided to do something that we had not done in the two years of living in Montenegro, take a boat tour around Skadar Lake National Park. After asking our friends from Undiscovered Montenegro, Ben and Emma, they recommended Boat Milica. Within a few hours, we were off for our 3 hour tour around the largest lake on the Balkan Peninsula.

We arrived in Virpazar about 30 minutes outside of Podgorica to begin the tour around the lake which included seeing the local wildlife and monasteries. It is easy to tell from the pictures that the tour itself was amazing. The vibrant greens signaling the newness of the season created the perfect backdrops for the old, stone monasteries being restored. As we went around, our guide, Ksenija, was exceptional at pointing out the intricacies of the lake, its history, and wildlife. After a quick dip in the lake by our friend, we returned from our tour with a new appreciation for Montenegro’s wild beauty which happens to be only a short drive from us.

While the tour was memorable and the service provided is highly recommended, it is the story of the Boat Milica which really draws me in, and causes an even greater appreciation for their business. The family Dabanovic is from Virpazar knowing the lake intimately. During the economic downturn around 2011, the Jelena guided her family to do something different to survive. They started Boat Milica.

As a family, they divided responsibilities and took to creating their business building it slowly. The daughters learned new languages to specifically help with foreign tourists, they built their wooden boat in the shop of an old master in Podgorica, and Andrija began guiding tours. Andrija grew up on the lake and is familiar with al the ins and outs. The stories, legends, history, and diversity all get proper treatment during the tour. And Jelena became the only woman in Virpazar to own and operate a boat tour showing off Skadar Lake

The family worked together and have been successful together. Even in the face of some struggles, they have proven resilient and creative to help one another and their town by attracting tourists to this natural resource hidden in the interior of Montenegro.

The Dabanovic story is one of resilience in the face of difficulty. It is exemplary of what it takes to be resourceful and succeed. The family found support among themselves continually encouraging each other to do better and achieve their goals.

Branding with Matt Desmier

By the time this is written, I sat with brand strategy expert, Matt Desmier discussing possibilities for developing digital strategies for a city. However, the conversation did not start there…

Walking in and going through the usual greetings, the first thing that Matt said to me was to bring up my excluding him from the list of brand building lessons from the Spark.me conference. While this was not intentional, this post somewhat is because I’ll be seeing him again… soon. And I want to draw attention to Matt’s style (see video below for personal and professional style).

The reality is that when you look at Matt’s list of approach, style, and achievements, he really does stand alone. He can seem loud and outspoken, yet proves to be thoughtful and methodical in conversation always breaking down trends and possibilities. These are a few reasons, I enjoy listening and speaking to him. 

With that being said, Here are some guidelines that I have applied in my own processes as well as when working with others. 

Brands are built by what others are saying about you.

Brands, good or bad, are the summation of what others are saying about your business or products. Despite what many think, a business cannot dictate what others think simply by creating good content and strategies. Potential customers read what you say, but they believe what others say more. 

A good brand understands this, and makes their interactions with customers central knowing a good brand is being built by these actions. The same is true for the brand’s actions toward employees. Good brands develop good culture internally, and mobilize their greatest asset in the process. 

Brands are living things. 

Brands grow and mature. They shift. They evolve. 

As business leaders we need to expect this and guide our brands along how we desire them to go. They need to become something bigger and stretch. There may be times when the business becomes a bit uncomfortable in order to accomplish something new. This all part of the growth cycle. 

Much like in life, if a business is not growing and finding new ways forward, they quickly stagnate and die. 

Brand is the center of everything you do.

Every business, organization, even individuals need a center point to anchor it. This is the brand itself. A stated and active list of brand values and practices shape and define this center point. Values and practices form the foundation for the brand to be built on in the day to day. 

Keeping the brand at the center provides a guiding line when difficult decisions need to be made. Today, brands are forced to ask themselves if they will take a stand on political and social issues. Some choose to do so, and others do not. At the end of the day, when we know what our brand is about and what it values, we have a reason for making the decision. 

Brands that are successful have integrity.

Brands that people love have principles and act on those principles. They are honest. They have integrity. When brands lose a sense of their purpose or principles, they lose sight of who they are and create a PR crisis for themselves. 

This goes back to the need to understand the values of a brand. Founders and the early employees create the values, and act on them to solidify the culture of a brand. By their actions, they bring integrity to the brand. Brands that lose their integrity take a long road to recovery and few ever do recover. Integrity must be an operating part of a brand. 

These are a few guideposts on branding from Matt Desmier. I first heard him at the 2017 Spark.me Conference in Budva, Montenegro. His talk in 2018 (video below) was more pointed the topic of branding. It deserves a thorough listen. And it is certain to provide a framework to begin assessing your own business, organization, or personal brand.