Conventional wisdom holds that friends shouldn’t get into business together, so when Michelle Smith and Norma Bonvivere opted to go out on their own after honing their relationship at Bell Mobility, family and colleagues alike cautioned them against it. The two knew their talents were complementary, though, and they felt they were destined to work together, so along with a third associate, Cassandra Callahan, they formed Real Communications, an Ontario-based event-planning company where they now use their 20-year relationship and their eight years of working together as a base for creating one-of-a-kind parties, exhibition shows, dinners, and product launches for clients large and small.
“We have very different roles and skill sets,” Smith says, “and that’s been part of our success.” She and Bonvivere began Real Communications in 2002, doing the work for it on the side while continuing as full-time employees at Bell. In 2006, though, Bell packaged them out, and they used the seed money to grow their business in earnest. Bonvivere now oversees the creative and technical sides of the company, Smith takes the lead on business development and strategic planning, and Callahan acts as their right hand, handling behind-the-scenes logistics.
“For us, it’’s about being bold, staying fresh, challenging yourself, and pushing yourself. And sometimes it’’s pushing your client gently in the direction they need to go. So, stepping outside of your comfort zone, trying new things.”
Michelle Smith, CoFounder
Smith and Bonvivere’s first two years on their own were fantastic. Their phones were ringing, and there was no need to do any business development. But then the recession hit, and companies stopped spending. “We realized that we were totally ill-prepared for that,” Smith says. “All of a sudden, you don’t have business coming in, and your clients are unwilling to spend money.” They floundered a bit, going so far as to develop an app that didn’t really take off, but they knew their core competency was still in events and communications, so they stayed true to that, making enough to get by and making sure to stay in touch with all their clients.
Increase in revenue since 2009
Increase in profitably from a break even in 2009 to 2013
Total employees: Michelle Smith, Norma Bonvivere, and Cassandra Callahan
Years of friendship between Smith and Bonvivere
Real Communications prides itself on its creativity and its service acumen. “This business is about ideas, so you have to be fresh and creative so that you can knock it out of the park every single time,” Smith says, adding that her business has actually been accused of “overservicing” because of the stress-free environment and the sheer number of strong ideas it provides to clients. In order to stay fresh, Smith says, she and Bonvivere must constantly have their minds ready for the next idea, and it helps that the nature of their work keeps them on the road, where the art deco aesthetic of Miami, the architecture of Arizona, or the beautiful scenery of rural Canada can serve as an inspiration for their next event.“We stay true to our relationships,” Smith says. “Every one of our clients is someone we’ve worked with previously on the corporate side who has gone to a different organization or is someone who has been referred to us through that person.” Remaining close with suppliers has been critical for Real Communications as well, and overall its relationship-driven business model has kept it blissfully unconcerned with its competition, allowing it to concentrate on cultivating the ideas that drive its events.
According to Smith, to remain competitive as a mere team of three, it’s important to be bold. “Big ideas beat out bigger companies,” she says, adding that every event should have something for the attendees to remember. “An event is just a communication with walls.”Clients are constantly evaluating the company, and likewise the company is constantly evaluating itself. It keeps detailed records of its events, including every vendor used, every item bought, and every dollar spent, and Smith and Bonvivere are able to mine the data to understand how to push beyond their past achievements.