(This post is by Matt Thomas, chief revenue officer of Devo)
Having spent my career working on and now leading sales teams, the start of a new fiscal year always means it’s time for the annual sales kickoff (SKO). But as with most things these days, the 2021 Devo SKO was very different.
As we planned our first virtual SKO, we had two top-levels goals. First, get our global sales team and the teams who support our work — pre-sales, customer success, marketing and others — together to learn, laugh and prepare for what we expect will be another record-setting year. The second goal was to ensure we held an event that was collaborative and engaging, yet safe and healthy for everyone. I’m proud to say we achieved both goals.
What Does a Virtual SKO Look Like?
Although I held out as long as possible for an in-person event, when it became obvious that SKO 2021 would have to be fully virtual, we wondered what it would entail and if we could pull it off. Spoiler alert: We pulled it off! And while people missed the traditions of a large company gathering, we were able to hold a very successful start to our sales year. With the right attitude, planning and effort, it’s possible to hold virtual kickoff as successful as any I’ve ever attended.
One unexpected advantage of having team members participate in SKO from their homes was the ability to use the time between sessions to focus on our jobs. When everyone flies to a resort and almost every minute of the day is booked with sessions, keynotes and social events, most “real work” has to wait until SKO is over. But this year, in between the scheduled events, people were closing deals, supporting customers, and doing all the other things required to run a successful company. And for anyone reading this who works in finance, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to host a virtual event!
Mixing Pleasure with Business
SKOs often include some big-ticket social events: fancy dinners, cocktail receptions, casino visits, concerts. In a pandemic year, they were off the table. But our organizing committee created a different kind of fun. We asked participants to send in pictures — of themselves as kids, their pets, families, home offices — and we played guessing games as people were settling into each session. It was a blast, and it drew people closer. Some people also made really clever videos that brought themes of the meeting to life with music and laughs.
We created breakout sessions centered on themes — pets, music, travel, sports, etc. — so people could chat with colleagues they may never have met and bond over their shared interests. Although we had a very large group of attendees, we took advantage of conferencing technology for these quieter segments, which were very popular.
When it came to the big group dinner, we gave everyone debit cards so they could order whatever they wanted. Then, we all logged in to chat as we ate. We even had themed breaks, such as “Tea with the Queen” in honor of our growing team in the U.K., or “Churros, Chocolate and Chat” in the spirt of our colleagues in Spain to educate us on whatever they wanted.
Conducting a virtual SKO also made it easy to bring in guest speakers and many customers who could spare an hour to give a talk but may not have had the time to fly to an on-site meeting. People were more than happy to take a little time to hop on Zoom and share their insights with the Devo team. We also had key members of our R&D team join us for a session, which would have been impractical if we had to take them from their work for a few days.
Remote Didn’t Mean Distant
We conducted a survey to see what people thought did and didn’t work at SKO. People still look forward to in-person meetings in the future, but many are open to a hybrid approach to meetings. For instance, we might do a brief “refresher SKO” in the second half of the year. For a one- or two-day event, a virtual meeting makes sense. And when we can travel again, we could have some people attend at a venue, while others join virtually. That would enable us to have more people who support the sales effort participate. We’ll have a lot of options.
At a single venue, the schedule tends to be rigid because people need to be in a specific room for a specific session or it all falls apart. There’s little chance of adjusting on the fly. But we learned this year that we could pivot easily. If a breakout session needed to run longer than planned to accommodate questions, that’s OK.
Circumstances may have caused our 2021 SKO to start out with a bunch of broken eggs. But by being creative and flexible and putting the emphasis on teamwork — particularly between sales and marketing — we made a hell of an omelet.