Evan Williams: In Conversation

2017 marks our 30 years in business. Riverview has enjoyed a slow and steady climb from our first client – a local laundromat chain – to our current perch as the go-to live event producer for some of the best-known brands, including Facebook, Google, Cisco, Intuit, Symantec and much more.

We caught up with our CEO and Co-founder Evan Williams, who talked about the company’s start and decisions made that now seem particularly prescient, especially the early 90s show in Philadelphia that looking back in hindsight set the company on its current run of success.

Q: Let us go back to the beginning. When did the company officially open?

Evan: Officially, we “opened” in a pool house garage on N. 5th street in San Jose in July 1987. We moved to a “real” building, an 1800 square foot incubator space at 1266 Alma Court, San Jose, in October of the same year.

Q: Do you remember your first client?

Evan: Our first client was a chain of laundromats called Oasis.  We installed large screens and projectors so people could watch TV while they did their laundry. There were 4 or 5 of them in the South Bay.

Q: What do you remember most from your first year in business?

Evan: We just wanted to do good work, and we had no money to grow. We didn’t want to take on any debt, so we paid ourselves almost nothing. Our second customer was Santa Clara University and 30 years later we still do an enormous amount of work for them. Both live events and all of their new building integration and upgrades.

Q: How has the company grown in the last 30 years, and more importantly how did you manage growth into other areas?

Evan: We grew very organically. We had some core customers and got into trade show support by way of a referral in 1991. It was difficult to compete in the larger event staging market as we grew our personnel and equipment inventory, but we fooled everyone for quite awhile. We certainly made some mistakes along the way, like getting into the retail pro audio market for 5 minutes, but we cut our losses and concentrated on what we were doing best.

Q: What was your “turning point” project? A particular project or client that challenged the company in the way it hadn’t before in which you exceeded the client’s vision (and perhaps your own)?

Evan: Besides the early 1990s trade show business that we put a lot of our efforts into, we had a client called Microfocus, long since defunct, that put their faith in us to produce two major conferences, in 1994 and 1995. The first was in San Francisco at the Masonic Auditorium; the other was in Philadelphia. It set us on a course and awareness that we could do this sort of high profile work, as well if not better than others in the marketplace.

Q: What’s the best business advice you ever got?

Evan: Probably two tidbits: Never sell your receivables – it’s called factoring, where you sell your receivables to the bank for a percentage. It never ends well if you don’t have good cash flow.  The second was to never rest on your laurels, meaning don’t ever be complacent. There’s a saying: “You’re only as good as your last show.”  In reality, it’s more like “you’re only as good as the show you are executing right now!”

Q: Looking back, anything you would have done differently? Anything you wish you knew then that you know now?

Evan: We never thought that we would grow this company to the international force that we are now, but there was never a question that we would succeed.  As I said, there were mistakes along the way, but we have built a business that has grown many lives and supports a vast customer base.  I guess I would say that it was never harder than we thought it would be.

Q: Has your measurement of success changed over the last 30 years? Is it all about the numbers, or are there other metrics you use to define success now?

Evan: Of course it had to be about numbers at a certain point. That said, I had an accounting degree and Chris, my partner, and I did everything, including freelance work outside the company as designers and production managers, so we could put it all back into the business. There are numerous projects where we charged a little less, or even donated services, just so we could be involved in an innovative project. There has never been a time or a client where that wasn’t the right move, either for business or employee’s personal growth. It will always be that way here.

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