We talked to Joe Baumgartel about how Symposium connect people with the right individuals to educate, entertain and inspire them.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Joe Baumgartel: I tried awfully hard not to get sick, but I still did. My family and I were vigilant on safety all year long – we followed the guidelines, used hand sanitizer, and practiced social distancing. I went to visit someone who I knew had been tested regularly. (I am a musician, and we were singing without masks on). She was between tests, and I contracted COVID through that interaction. One wrong move led to three weeks in bed with difficulty breathing and other COVID symptoms. You don’t know how sick you will get with COVID until you have it. Now I feel better, but after two or three hours of being awake, I need to rest.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Symposium.
Joe Baumgartel: The journey to founding Symposium began a long time ago. I was born into an entrepreneurial family and had almost always worked for myself. I started off as a professional musician performing in major Las Vegas casinos. I taught guitar lessons for many years but grew frustrated with the teaching platforms available for use at the time because there were always aggregators controlling the relationship between the subject-matter expert and the customer. When I needed a change, I followed in my father’s footsteps (he was a software engineer who filled our house with various computers from their earliest days) and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for Computer Science.
In 2011, I developed a video phone-based app through which people could go live and post links. I received a call from a friend who was working on something he described as “a Rolodex for live interactions with people.” I loved the idea of reaching someone to live interaction and paying them for their time. We wanted to create a robust marketplace of services on a platform that would enable subject-matter experts to connect, engage and grow their businesses without third-party interference while providing a limitless opportunity for people to acquire and grow new skills. And that became Symposium.
How does Symposium innovate?
Joe Baumgartel: Innovation at Symposium is customer-driven. We listen to their needs and work to build the solutions they want. Based on their user behavior, we can often anticipate and meet their evolving needs before they even realize they have a need. We will continue to innovate by forever optimizing the user experience for both the experts and their audiences. It is all about the customer.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Joe Baumgartel: We have always been a remote video solution, so we were not immediately shaken or shifted by the pandemic. But our industry has expanded over the past nine months, and the pandemic brought us more customers and competitors. I have worked with online video for a long time, and I never imagined a situation like this in which the world would have to adopt video instantaneously. Fortunately, technology has evolved, and the quality is high without pixelation or jerky motion. I am happy to see people getting so much enjoyment out of something I’ve been working on for so long.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are those lessons learned?
Joe Baumgartel: Luckily, we have not had to make many difficult decisions. It was easy to see the pandemic’s effects on the population, economy, and health across the world. We have always made decisions based on the best solution for our people’s lives and safety, ensuring they are healthy, fed, and moving forward. Symposium enables users to continue to conduct business and connect while maintaining safe distances. It also provides a new potential revenue stream for those who may not be able to continue the work they had been doing prior to the pandemic.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Symposium in the future?
Joe Baumgartel: I have had to change how I deal with stress and anxiety now that we live in a COVID world. I love to do most of the things that have been halted, such as performing in front of live audiences and practicing Muay Thai. I have been putting more effort and energy into my work, remembering what I do have and the people around me. I constantly remind myself that everyone is going through this together, and the pandemic will eventually pass. We have survived things like this in the past and have gone beyond them. They will happen again in the future. It is important to learn grit and resilience now to get through all unforeseen obstacles.
Symposium will continue to grow. What we offer is needed and will continue to provide value to users. Our focus on the customer will continue to foster growth for the company. We want to build a provider base and scale it out to where the hosts don’t need another workspace to earn a living. We will always continue to give more and add something better to people’s lives.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Joe Baumgartel: Symposium offers a unique service, so we don’t really have any direct competitors at this point. Yes, other companies have entered our market, but they are only doing pieces of what we are doing. That said, we welcome competitors. They motivate us to innovate, differentiate, and work harder. As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
We plan to stay in the game for the long run by keeping our focus on our customers. Tony Hsieh, the late founder of Zappos, showed us all that innovation should look like. He focused on superior customer-first service, and that is an example we all follow at Symposium.
Your final thoughts?
In retrospect, the pandemic was predictable based on past and present information. The lesson for each of us here is to focus on the data, its contextual implications, and the guidance from the experts. It is frustrating that the experts who understand this pandemic have been demonized and called stupid. At Symposium, we respect and truly care about the subject-matter experts who use our platform. We are in the expert business, and we listen to what our experts need to help them succeed.