Gathered in the parking lot of San Jose's venerable Hayes Conference Center on an early April evening were the big dogs of Prism Solutions Inc.'s sales force--all the domestic reps and the cream of the international team. They were fresh from the opening day of their two-and-a-half day, twice-yearly meeting with the senior executives of this growing data warehousing firm, the 12th fastest growing company in Silicon Valley.
So far, the conference had largely been devoted to serving up rousing portions of the standard sales meeting fare: A keynote address by Warren Weiss, Prism's president and CEO. A video trumpeting last year's technological breakthroughs. The upscale, brainy crowd of about 150 were ready to relax after hearing the latest dispatches from the kingdom of Metadata (industry jargon for information about information).
"All of a sudden, Big Foot came around the corner, and they were more than a bit surprised," says Susan Ashbrook, Prism's events manager. "They were amazed. No one dreamed we'd do this." Smashing autos in its wake and weighing in at an impressive 10,700 pounds, Big Foot 8 arrived on the scene. Not the eighth child of the legendary, Yeti, man-beast of the Pacific Northwest, no, but a monster truck, the eighth in a fleet of 15 souped-up Ford 4x4s that travel the country racing other oversized four-wheel drive vehicles as well as participating in the occasional car-crushing demonstration.
A Method in Their Monster Why a monster truck? To some extent, the monster truck was present to help drive home the meeting's theme: Right Now! "To us, the theme meant that now is the time," explains Kristie Jones, Prism's director of marketing. "It meant that everything you've ever needed to overcome the competition, all the things you've been waiting for, they're yours right now. It meant that there is no better time than right now." If the main idea was to get the sales force to seize the moment,
the truck was there to drive home why the moment had to be seized. "Our message: Crush the competition, right now!" says Jones.
When the attendees had arrived at the conference center, they found a registration desk decorated with balloons and banners featuring the two-word, exclamation-pointed slogan. Along with their information packets, everyone received denim shirts embroidered with a Right Now! logo. A tape of pop songs that featured the theme in their titles, such as Van Halen's "Right Now," wailed in the background.
To make sure no one missed this subtle concept, sledgehammers were distributed as the attendees strolled out to the parking lot so that, even prior to the monster truck's surprise arrival, this group of Silicon Valley elite and their far-flung sales force, could start pounding away on the junked cars that Big Foot would soon roll over.
But aren't monster trucks--pardon the expression--kind of macho? "Most of the marketing staff who put this together were women," says Susan Ashbrook. "We all thought it was pretty humorous. Anyway, everybody loved it--and they were certainly surprised by it."
The Meeting Is the Message Meetings have played an important role in Prism's rapid growth and continue to occupy a significant place in its marketing and communications strategy. The Sunnyvale, Calif. firm pioneered the field of data warehousing, developing complex, expensive systems architecture to help organizations, usually either very large corporations, utilities, or government agencies, make use of the vast amount of computerized information they gather in the course of doing business. Prism has 350 employees worldwide, more than half of whom are programmers, engineers, or customer support personnel. Last year, revenues reached $43.4 million.
"In the beginning, back in 1991, we did a lot of seminar selling," recalls Jim Ashbrook, Prism co-founder and current chairman of the board. (He and Susan Ashbrook are related--father and daughter.) "They were our primary means of generating sales leads."
Prism has moved beyond those early demos to a 350-person user conference. That event, as well as the company's two yearly sales meetings, are the job of Susan Ashbrook, who is essentially Prism's one-person meeting planning department. "I head up the planning," she explains, "but there are people in marketing who take pieces of different meetings. I also use a company to help me find venues, but we keep most everything else internal." She uses an outfit called Meeting Solutions in Santa Cruz, Calif., to scout out venues for sales meetings, user-group meetings, and an annual 100-person incentive trip for salespeople and systems engineers. "They bring me options, and I sign the," she says. "It saves time." As it happened, she was introduced to the company by a sales manager at the Monterey Plaza, a hotel she'd used for a meeting.
Like many one-person event planning departments at high-tech companies, Ashbrook also supervises the company's presence at trade shows, which this year, at least, was a rapidly growing responsibility. "We only did 12 trade shows in 1997, but we will do about 20 to 25 trade shows this year," she says. "That's because this year we had a major product launch. Next year, we will probably do somewhat fewer." Her budget in 1998 was $2 million for external meetings and $200,000 for internal events. She expects her budget will remain roughly the same for 1999, with the money that won't be used for trade shows going to pay for an increased number of special events.
With Sledgehammers, No Interpreters Needed Along with its offices in six U.S. cities (including Atlanta, Chicago, and New York), Prism has 11 foreign offices. Marketing director Jones notes that, while attendance at these events is mandatory for all U.S.-based salespeople, the foreign offices generally send their most English-fluent staff members. "We do not do any sort of translation at these events," she says. "The foreign-speaking staff who attend are all bilingual." Even if they weren't, promotional touches like sledgehammers need no interpretation, to say nothing of the monster truck.
The Schwarzenegger of four-wheelers was also there, of course, to add the sort of adrenaline surge that comes from watching a large and powerful truck reduce a bunch of cars to rubbish. Chairman Ashbrook believes that as organizations get larger, even their educational meetings require an increasing amount of entertainment. "When you get a bigger group, you need to do more on the pizzazz side," he says. "You can't educate people until you have their attention and enthusiasm."
Whether Prism will crush its competition remains to be seen, but the younger Ashbrook has no doubt that the monster truck got her attendees' attention. "It was incredible," she says. "It was the best sales meeting we ever put on. It pumped everybody up." Jones agrees. "We don't do any formal post-meeting surveys for internal meetings because our salespeople tend to be pretty outspoken," she says. "They'll share their feelings with you unasked. And I received a number of accolades from new salespeople. They said they had come from organizations five times our size, and had never been to a sales meeting as effective as ours."
Chairman Ashbrook observes: "Meetings tend to be part education, part training, and part pep rally. They are and will remain a significant part of our marketing strategy."
While the Silicon Valley crowd may not be the sort one expects to find in the company of monster trucks, the Hayes Conference Center is an even less likely place to encounter modern vehicular mayhem.
In Sunnyvale, Calif., about six miles south of downtown San Jose, the conference center has only been in operation since 1996, but the 60-room, 41,000-square-foot, Mediterranean-style building has been one of the San Jose area's most distinctive structures since it was completed in 1905. It was commissioned by Mary Hayes, a Wisconsin spiritualist who made a fortune in the mining business and then in a fit of Manifest Destiny moved to California along with her two sons. By the time the family sold the property in 1953, they had become well enough connected to enjoy the privilege of entertaining three presidents--William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover.
Today, the 135-guest-room conference center combines turn-of-the-last-century architectural features with turn-of-this-coming-century technical amenities, including 14 soundproof meeting rooms equipped with automated audiovisual systems and T1 lines.
What Will the Neighbors Say? Although the Hayes was eager to get the business of a local up-and-comer like Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Prism Solutions Inc., it was not at all particularly pleased with the prospect of hosting a five-ton four-wheeler in its parking lot.
"You always want to take a close look at something new," explains Dan Marks, the center's director of sales and marketing. "How will this affect our relationship with our neighbors? Are we risking the safety of our employees?" Once assured that the event would neither disturb the neighbors nor put his staff in jeopardy, Marks had an additional concern: the safety of his parking lot. Prism agreed to protect the paved surface with a layer of plywood, and Big Foot 8 got permission to strut its stuff outside Mrs. Hayes' magnificent obsession.
Data About Data Ever since people began writing--whether they used Egyptian papyrus, Sumerian stone tablets, or that wonderful Chinese invention, paper--they have been collecting information. The sheer amount of information, along with the task of managing and using it, became significantly more complex, however, when humankind took its most recent technological leap forward and began writing on computer screens.
And so, in 1991, computer industry guru Bill Inmon invented the concept of data warehousing, a task that despite its name doesn't involve storing millions of diskettes but, instead, developing complex computer programs so that, for example, your credit card company can know more about your shopping habits than you do. To create the software and systems to do this, Inmon co-founded a company, Prism Solutions Inc., in the San Jose suburb of Sunnyvale, Calif. In the usual manner of Silicon Valley visionaries, Inmon has since moved on to found another company, Denver, Colo.-based Pine Cone Systems Inc. Meanwhile, Prism has prospered.
Prism currently employs a world-wide staff of 350 to serve its customers, who are typically large corporations, utility companies, and government agencies. It has six U.S. regional offices and 11 foreign offices .
While data warehousing may be a relatively easy concept to grasp, it is an incredibly difficult one to put into practice. But those who can put it into practice stand to make big bucks. Prism has gone from total revenues of $1.7 million in 1993 to $30 million in 1996, the year the company went public as PRZM on the NASDAQ exchange, to $46 million dollars last year.
Revenues for the first half of 1998 were "disappointing," admits Jim Ashbrook, the company's chairman of the board. The shortfall was due to a variety of reasons, he observes, including the Asian economic crisis. Still, Ashbrook expects business to pick up during the second half of the year, thanks in large part to some new products coming on line along with some recently formed partnerships. He points out that outside analysts predict 1998 revenues of between $60 million and $65 million.