This year marks Riverview Systems Group’s 30th year in business. The company has enjoyed a slow and steady climb from its first client—a local laundromat chain—to their current perch as the go-to live event producer for some of the best-known brands, including Facebook, Google, Cisco, Intuit, Symantec, and many more.
In the below Q&A, CEO and co-founder Evan Williams talks 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.
Live Design: So let’s go back to the beginning. When did the company officially open?
Evan Williams: Officially, we “opened” in a pool house garage on N. 5th street in San Jose in July 1987. We moved to a “real” building, a 1,800 square foot incubator space at 1266 Alma Court, San Jose, in October. Initially, the goal was to stay in business and do what we were passionate about and loved to do. We grew slowly and carefully and kept our debt almost non-existent. We paid ourselves $100 a week for almost five years, and put our purchases on credit cards until we could get credit with suppliers.
LD: Do you remember your first client?
EW: 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 four or five of them in the South Bay.
LD: What do you remember most from your first year in business?
EW: 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.
LD: How has the company grown in the last 30 years, and more importantly how did you manage growth into other areas?
EW: San Jose was the right place at the right time, early on in the development of Silicon Valley. Our competition was party suppliers, and I came from a theatre and technology background. We supplied better designs and perfectly maintained inventory. 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 a while. We certainly made some mistakes along the way, like getting into the retail pro audio market for five minutes, but we cut our losses and concentrated on what we were doing best.
LD: What was your "turning point" project? A particular project or client that challenged the company in way it hadn't before in which you exceeded the client’s vision (and perhaps your own)?
EW: 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.
LD: What's the best business advice you ever got?
EW: 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!”
LD: Looking back, anything you would have done differently? Anything you wish you knew then that you know now?
EW: 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.
LD: What risks did you take?
EW: We were very careful with our early hiring and did a lot of work ourselves and with over-hire staff. It kept the costs down for a long time. We refused to go into debt. We did start to lease some equipment, but most was purchased with cash. We did no marketing other than an ad in the Yellow Pages for years.
LD: 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?
EW: 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.
LD: What advice would you give a talented man or woman who wants to succeed in your industry?
EW: No matter what you are driven to do, take some business classes and understand financial statements. Mostly, immerse yourself in what you are passionate about. It is very hard to succeed, given the long hours required, unless you really love what you do.