Derek Mehraban

Derek Mehraban
President, Ingenex Group
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 30 April 2007
Temperature: 65 F
Ceiling: full-on sun
Ground: fresh green
Wind: WNW at 5mph

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TT with HD: Derek Mehraban

[Ed. note: Derek's marketing company, located in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor, is called Ingenex Group (say /in-GEN-ex/ ). The chronology of the effort to bring Seth Godin to Ann Arbor to speak on 22 May 2007 at the Michigan Theater is laid out in detail on the Connect Ann Arbor blog. On that blog, you can also purchase your $50 ticket, which allows members of sponsoring organizations to bring a friend for free and non-members to bring a friend for only $10 more, and includes five copies of The Dip.

The full-on sun and warm temperatures required breaking out water bottles to guard against dehydration.]

HD: Okay, let's climb aboard. And, let's see now, you're probably going to outweigh me, just because, what are you, like six-five?

DM: Six-four. Two twenty-five.

HD: Okay, is this going to work?

DM: Yeah!

HD: Let's pause, though, for a second.

DM: You going to take a picture?

HD: I'll take a picture. This is going to be interesting with the shadows.

DM: Can I take a picture of you?

HD: Yeah, but I'm going to move my water bottle from this position, and maybe you too, yeah, just because it's a bad place to put a vertical object ...

DM: [laugh] ... yeah, I was very excited to be at Teeter Talk!

HD: Okay, let me just ... [Ed. note: Photography ensues.]

DM: Now, can I take one of you?

HD: Absolutely. In the spirit of balance and reciprocity.

DM: Perfect.

HD: Now you have an actual pouch for [the camera], like a holster. Is that something you carry around in general, or did you just put it on ...

DM: ... I just put that on my belt for this. I don't always carry it.

HD: So you're not like totally dedicated to Flickr, and taking pictures whenever you possibly can and uploading them?

DM: You know, I like Flickr a lot and I'm learning to use it. It's a time issue. I take a lot of pictures, but I don't upload them all and tag them. But I'd like to do that more.

HD: So just before we hopped on, you said you'd been away from Ann Arbor for four years? So basically arrived back in town?

DM: Actually, Dave, I've been in Ann Arbor for four years.

HD: Oh, okay, I misunderstood!

DM: We were living in Gainesville for a few years. My wife's a professor and we moved back in April of 2003 to Ann Arbor. I grew up in the Michigan area, Farmington, a Detroit suburb.

HD: I guess maybe another reason I thought you had just moved back to town is that the enterprise you're involved with, the Ingenex Group, that has just recently started.

DM: Yes. Ingenex is my company and it's been in business for one year now.

HD: And this space that you have right on Main Street, is that new space?

DM: It's pretty new. It's been there for about a year. And I moved in about a couple of months ago. It's right above Conor O'Neills and Chop House. It's a nice loft.

HD: From the pictures online, it seems like it has a very open, exposed ductwork, sort of a post-modern industrial feel to it.

DM: Tracy Wick, the Kirkwood Group, she's the person. There's really like four creative businesses there. So it's a nice creative space and a lot of collaboration, and sharing, it's pretty fun.

HD: What are the other businesses?

DM: Zero Gravity Designs is there. And 3.7 Designs, which is web development. ENP & Associates is GIS mapping, urban planning. And then Tracy Wick does marketing for developments and high-rise condos.

HD: So are you all in the same open space, or do you each have your own sort of section?

DM: We each have our own section, but we share a kitchen area and we share a conference room. So it's nice, because it allows us to have a really nice space and to share some of the amenities and the costs.

HD: So Conor O'Neills and the Chop House, are those popular choices for lunch and dinner?

DM: [laugh] Well, you know, I've never been to the Chop House.

HD: Really!

DM: I've heard it's maybe the best restaurant in Ann Arbor, but I've never been there.

HD: I dunno, I'm sure you could provoke an intense debate about that. I think you gotta respect any restaurant that has an anatomically-correct bull as a part of its logo.

DM: Rrright. That's a good point.

HD: So, you know, they get points for that automatically. The one time I ate there--because I had a gift certificate, which was fifty dollars and it was enough to cover what the tip would have been--but they had to tell a very long story about where the meat came from that you're going to eat. I wasn't really interested in hearing the story. I know that for a marketing guy, I mean, you'd probably think it's important for them to tell the story, because that's part of what they're selling--they're selling some kind of story. But I didn't want to hear the story, I wanted to eat the meat. So I found myself thinking, Hmmm, when is the meat going to actually arrive on my plate?

DM: Now, did they tell you the name of the cow where the meat came from or anything?

HD: It wasn't quite that detailed. It was more like the country of origin--I think one of the pieces came from Australia. I don't remember, honestly. I just remember being annoyed having to wait through the story. Once we got to the meat ...

DM: ... the 'meat' of the story? [laugh]

HD: ... [laugh] yeah, once we got to the literal meat of the story, I was quite happy. No complaints whatsoever. It was spectacular. So you work in downtown Ann Arbor. Was it important for you to be in downtown Ann Arbor specifically?

DM: Let me say one thing real quick and that is, I'm vegan and that's one of the reasons I haven't eaten at the Chop House: I don't eat meat. So I could so there and get a side of broccoli, but I haven't done that, yet.

HD: Oh, so not just vegetarian, but vegan.

DM: About 90% vegan. But as far as the office space downtown, I like to be in the center of things, and I think that's where a lot of the connections happen in Ann Arbor. So when I saw this space on CraigsList, I called up immediately and checked it out. It was kind of a risk for me to get space, just because we're a new company and we want to keep the overhead down, but I took the leap and it's been fun so far, it's been a good experience.

HD: So what section on CraigsList would that be, just straight-up rental, or do they have a specific section for office space?

DM: I think it was under Ann Arbor and then office rentals.

HD: Mmmmm, so they have a separate division for that. I've never looked on CraigsList for rental space of any kind, so I'm not really familiar with how they organize that part of it. So. Where do you park?

DM: I park actually not too far from here [laugh]. I park in the neighborhood on the Old West Side and walk. And it's about a five-minute walk, tops, to my office.

HD: So is there a general area you'd be willing to talk about that's reliable as far finding street parking, or would you prefer to keep that to yourself?

DM: [laugh] Well, really it's a matter of getting here early. The earlier you get here, the more street parking. So anywhere on 2nd and further back from Main Street. And being on Main, it's a really nice short walk over the tracks to get there.

HD: Typically I try to ask people about something I think might be on their mind right now, and I think I know what's on your mind right now: Seth [Godin]--is it /Go-DEEN/ or /GO-dn/?

DM: It's /GO-dn/.

HD: So Seth Godin is on your mind, I take it.

DM: Seth Godin has been on my mind constantly for two weeks now. Are you familiar with Seth?

HD: I was not. I had this vague recollection that I'd seen his name before on Scott Schnaars' Knuckle Sandwich blog, and so that's the first place I looked to see if Scott had written anything about him, and in fact he had, and from there I followed some links and discovered that Seth is kind of like a rock star--maybe the rock star--of marketing?

DM: In a lot of ways, he really is. He's independent and he's written some books that have really changed the way that people think--about marketing, and work, and how to treat your employees, and how to treat your customers. It's pretty rare to get him to come talk.

HD: So how did you pull that off?

DM: Well, he put out a call on his blog. He said he's got a new book coming out called The Dip, and he's doing a book tour. He said, If you're connected, if you can bring 500 people to an event, I'll come to your city.

HD: So 500 is his number? I mean, I notice the number 500 floating around, so that's the number he puts out there as the number he needs in order to come?

DM: Right, that's what he wanted. And I thought about it and I said, You know, I could do that. And I wanted to do it, because I believe that Ann Arbor can benefit from having visionary people like this coming in. And I'm connected with Detroit area groups, being from Detroit, and Ann Arbor groups, so we've been trying to pull together a large group of people--ideally to sell out the Michigan Theater. Which would be just fun.

HD: Okay, but 1700 people, that's pretty ambitious, wouldn't you say? My understanding is that that place has sold out on very rare occasions ever in it's entire history.

DM: It is ambitious, Dave! [laugh] But you gotta think big. If we end up with a thousand, I'll be very happy. Nobody's making any money on it. The idea is: how many people can we get in there ...

HD: ... now wait up. Somebody is making money on this--Seth is making money, right?

DM: Well, okay! [laugh] That's why Seth is such a great marketer. He is making money on this, you're right.

HD: I mean, to me, his audience is marketers, as far as I understand it, so he is marketing how-to-think-about-marketing to marketers. And he's managing to pull that off. So you can draw one of two conclusions. You can either say, Seth is an absolute genius. Or, well, I guess the other conclusion is obvious.

DM: [laugh] Right.

HD: But I take it you would weigh in on the side of, Seth is something special, that he thinks in a different way, that he brings something that no one else can bring.

DM: I do feel that way. And if you're that good where you can have people in Utah and Phoenix and San Francisco working for free to bring you there, then I think you are someone special.

HD: Speaking of working for free--obviously Seth is not paying you to do this-- the benefit you get is going to be measured in the currency of personal connections, favors, etcetera. But if you had to put a monetary value on the number of hours you've put in, or maybe if you had to pay somebody to do everything you've done so far, would it be measured in hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of dollars? Just ballpark.

DM: It'd be tens of thousands of dollars. It would. It's been long, long, hours. And a lot of people are helping. Just by being on the teeter totter, this is helping. Because we're using New Marketing, we're using the network of inter-connectivity to make it happen. Otherwise it wouldn't happen. There's only been a 30-day lead time. It's tough to pull off an event in 30 days.

HD: Sure. So $50--you acknowledge this on your Connect Ann Arbor blog--is a lot to expect anybody to pay for any live event in the context of our current economy. So one of your ideas was to have non-profits and businesses buy blocks of books.

DM: Yes.

HD: And you said in one of the blog entries, 'I'm going to pitch this idea to Seth this morning'.

DM: Right.

HD: And then I scoured through the rest of the blog to find out how that pitch went, and I couldn't find the end of that story. So I was wondering, did I miss it? Or did it just not go well enough to want to report back on it, or?

DM: That's a good point, Dave! And it's my fault for not continuing that story ...

HD: ... it's not too late!

DM: No, it's not too late! This has been an interesting dialogue back and forth with Seth ...

HD: ... so you're actually talking to Seth, the guy, not Seth's representative or something?

DM: Yeah, I've talked directly to Seth a number of times, and it's basically on points of negotiation. We wanted to have this event be five bucks a person to come and you get one book and various things. And Seth really wanted us to hold true to the idea of five books per person for fifty bucks, which is a good value--I mean they retail for $65 [for five books]. But he likes the idea of pass-along and giving it to clients and friends. And he wants to move books ...

HD: ... so you're getting--what is that, a ten percent discount on the cost of the books?

DM: Yeah, it's cheaper than if you were to buy it through Amazon. Amazon sells them for ten dollars and thirty-six cents each.

HD: Sorry, I interrupted you, continue!

DM: So originally we were thinking, Well, shoot, no one is going to pay this! Let's get people to donate books. The trouble is, it's a huge time effort to go get people to donate books. You have to ask and beg and borrow and steal to do that. Basically what we did, is we did a bring-a-friend free thing to cut the cost. So for fifty bucks you can come, and if you're the member of Ann Arbor Ad Club, the Ann Arbor IT Zone, the Inforum, you can bring a friend for free, which basically cuts your cost in half.

HD: So if I were to follow the link for purchasing a ticket, that ticket would cover a guest of my choice. But it would still just be five books, it wouldn't be five books per person.

DM: Right.

HD: Got it. So what do you get from the Michigan Theater when you rent that space? I assume you have to rent the space, right? It's not like they say, Hey that sounds like a fun event, we'll just open the doors and let you guys have at it! Do you get access to the concession stand? Do you get the organist?

DM: I think everything is a la cart. You definitely get the theater, which is gorgeous.

HD: Do you get staff to man the doors, or?

DM: I think possibly, yes. We need to hammer out some of those details, but we're thinking about having the concession area available for people, because we like the idea of fresh popcorn.

HD: Yeah, with real butter on it! Wait, only, I guess you would not be able to indulge. Or, how does that fit into the vegan ...

DM: ... no, you're right. I wouldn't use the real butter. [laugh] Although, I have to say, I'm 90% vegan, because I think to be 100% is very difficult.

HD: So Stucchi's ice-cream, which is also typically available at the concession stand, wouldn't tempt you to break ...

DM: Probably not, no.

HD: Because to me--I've said it before right here on the teeter totter, and I'll say it again--going to the Michigan Theater, having access to real butter on the popcorn, and the Stucchi's ice cream, watching the organ lift to its playing height, listening to the organ, watching it go back down--all of that is worth the price of admission for a movie. So, to me, that's 10 dollars right there, if all that is on offer. So that's the reason I wonder if that's going to be something included in this event.

DM: I think if we do open the concession stand, people would probably have to buy their own things.

HD: Oh yeah, I would assume that! It's just access to it.

DM: So, yeah, I think we'll have it open. I think that's a good idea. And the organist, I'd like to have the organist there, because I think it'd be nice to have during the intro--we'll have about an hour of networking beforehand. It'd be nice to have the organist playing.

HD: I think it'd also be just a nice treat for Seth, because I don't think a lot of people have seen that sort of thing before. I have no idea what his range of cultural experience is in the world--maybe that'd be just boring to him and he's seen it a thousand times before--but I tend to think that's a little bit special in this day and age, the organ.

DM: You're totally right, Dave! And that's one of the reasons he wanted to come--we told him that Bob Dylan has played the Michigan Theater, the Police have played there, it's a really nice venue.

HD: And more recently, Keb' Mo'.

DM: Keb' Mo', there you go.

HD: So when you're pitching sponsorships to Borders, or whoever, I assume that question number one is, So what's in it for me, Derek? Like for Borders, What's in it for us? I mean you're giving away the books, so we're not going to be selling books, so why on earth would somebody from Borders even be interested in talking to you?

DM: We thought Borders would want to do it, because it's right across from their first store, their flagship store Borders No. 1. And it's a book event. And what would have been in it for them would have been ...

HD: ... oh, wait, but they are ...

DM: Borders is not a sponsor.

HD: Ohhhh. I thought they had hopped on board!

DM: No. Nicola's Books--and I actually owe them a blog post--Nicola's Books really stepped up to the plate. Nicola [Rooney] is giving us a very good price on the books, which lowers our cost outlay, and she's going to have people there. She's going to handle the book distribution for us, and have a big display at her store. So she's just been wonderful. That's an example of a local bookstore that did want to help. Whereas Borders, I think maybe this event is too small for what they're looking for. They're more on a national scale.

HD: So the people you were talking to at Borders, these are people who work out there on Ellsworth Road, or?

DM: Yes.

HD: Now were they at all receptive? Did you feel like you had a chance to make your pitch, or were they not really interested from the get-go?

DM: There was always the risk. We had to guarantee five hundred people, and really, who was going to put their butt on the line to do that? And I thought, well, if Borders signs on that'll be our insurance policy. That's a big company and they can help us. And they were somewhat interested. But what they would do for us is basically give us a slight discount. And there were other places that would give us a better discount on the book purchase. So I just didn't see the value in buying from them. That's all that they would offer, so the value wasn't there. There were interested, but couldn't really help us on it.

HD: But somebody has got to put some cash on the table, right? Take Michigan Theater. That's money that has to change hands, there's only so far that bartering in-kind resources, discounts, stuff like that, will get you. Even if you're able to negotiate a better deal from Michigan Theater, some money has to go into their pocket. Did you get a better deal from Michigan Theater?

DM: Well, Michigan Theater is not really in a position to give a better deal, because all the art funding has been cut. So they're in a tough space and I don't want to take their money. If we have any money, I'd rather give it to them! So they gave us the same rental price. But they've been very accommodating.

HD: So is it Russ Collins you talk to directly to do that, or?

DM: Amanda Strong. Amanda Strong is the person, and Lee Berry is their marketing guy. And I did talk to Russ as well. But really Amanda has been working with us closely.

HD: So how much does it cost just to get the space?

DM: For a half-day rental is a thousand bucks.

HD: Okay. Obviously it's not cheap--it's not like I, or an ordinary person could afford a thousand bucks to just go get the Michigan Theater--but still I would have guessed something more on the order of five to 10 (thousand).

DM: I tell you, our actual cost outlay--outside of the books--is going to be closer to 2000, because there are tech fees at the Michigan Theater, which are union fees, they handle all the tech ...

HD: ... so this'd be the projectionists' union?

DM: ... projection, and audio. And also there's a ticket fee which goes to their Foundation which helps with the restoration. So that's another five hundred, if we sell five hundred tickets. And luckily Penguin Publishing is going to pick up some of these hard costs--they just came on board just the other day. Penguin is going to help cover both Seth's travel and Theater costs. So that's a weight off my shoulders!

HD: Wow. So there's still this guarantee, though. So what if only 25 people show up--this, of course, is the nightmare scenario, and it's obviously just hypothetical--but let's just say that only 25 people show up and pay their fifty bucks. So there'd be the difference between 500 times 50--whatever that is, what is that, 25K?

DM: Twenty-five thousand dollars. Yeah.

HD: So who's on the hook for the $25,000?

DM: Oh, jeez. You're freakin' me out! [laugh]

HD: Well, I'm just wondering, you know? Is that something that marketers make it a point to not even think about, because if you have a contingency scenario, that sort of suggests that you're planning for failure. Maybe you say, We don't plan for failure, so we don't have a contingency plan for something that clearly could never possibly happen?

DM: A couple of things. One is that Seth is giving us a little bit of leeway, which means he's said, I know you're going to do your best, we'll work with it. So we've already ordered a thousand books through Nicola's. The rest we'll order as it fills. So we've covered our base a little bit in the language of our agreement.

HD: So basically, Seth is saying, Look, I'm a reasonable guy, for heaven sakes.

DM: Yes. But the Ann Arbor Ad Club and the Ann Arbor IT Zone are the two organizations with financial stake in this. They're both putting up money, both for the Theater rental and for the initial book purchase.

HD: So is there going to be a post-talk reception for key players in the organizational effort? You know, like the equivalent of--I called him a rock-star of marketing--of access to the dressing room, or no, what do they call that ...

DM: ... backstage passes?

HD: Yes!

DM: A backstage pass to see Seth Godin!

HD: Yeah, is there anything that will roughly equate to that?

DM: Yes, there is. But you know, Seth's on a really tight schedule--he's got a family, he's got kids.

HD: So he's not even spending the night here?

DM: He's not even spending the night.

HD: Oh, man.

DM: Which there's a lot of people who want to take him out to dinner and have that access. But we are doing a book signing over at the IT Zone immediately following the event. And Seth is going to stick around for a marketing round table that night on New Marketing, and blogging, Web 2.0, that actually Ingenex Group is chairing. And people like Ed Vielmetti are going to be on that panel. So Seth is going to stick around for that. That'll be a nice event where people can go to the IT Zone and meet him, get their book signed, and it's just a couple of doors down from the Michigan Theater.

HD: Now I know that the semantic content of Seth's book, The Dip, is not meant in an ice cream way, but the title of the book made me think of ice cream--in particular Stucchi's because of the Michigan Theater connection, and also there's a Ben & Jerry's store right around the corner. Have you approached Stucchi's or Ben & Jerry's here locally to see if they might want to do something with this?

DM: Oh, my gosh, what a good idea!

HD: Maybe there could be a coupon of some kind, tucked inside each of your five copies of the book--there's coupon for a 'dip' from the Ben & Jerry's right around the corner.

DM: Ideally, time permitting, we'd like to approach a lot of the local restaurants and bars, and the Ben & Jerry's, Stucchi's thing would be great, because they could give you the 'dip', a scoop of ice cream. We'd like to have some coupons so that when people pour out of this event--and we have people coming from as far away as Cleveland ...

HD: ... yeah, I was going to say, an easy criticism--if you wanted to take a pot shot at this whole thing--is that a bunch of people in Michigan are getting together to give some money to Seth Godin, who doesn't live in our state, so how does that help Michigan's economy? But when I was reading about the fact that there will be some people travelling great distances regionally, then I thought, okay, that's an easy defense to that pot shot.

DM: Yeah, if everyone goes out and goes to, I dunno, Seva or a different restaurant right around the Michigan Theater, Red Hawk, or ...

HD: ... ah, Seva, a plug for the vegetarians! Do you actually eat there a lot?

DM: Oh, I love Seva. It's a treat, because I can pretty much get anything on the menu. Do you like it?

HD: I've been there once. And I didn't have a bad experience, I just never think to go there. I've been to the comedy club underneath it a couple of times.

DM: Can I mention the Connect Ann Arbor aspect to this? Because I think the whole Connect Ann Arbor idea is an important one. And that's the idea of building a virtual community that can allow for events like this to happen. And really, people like Brian Kerr, people like Ed Vielmetti, these are people who are interested in building community. And they've done it. With a2b3 and some other communities around Ann Arbor.

HD: That's the Ann Arbor Bi Bim Bop ...

DM: ... right, the Bi Bim Bop. So what we're trying to do is, we're trying to pull in Detroit, pull in some mainstream businesses and connect the whole technology, mainstream business, academic worlds to have some big events. And that's exciting to me and that's one of the reasons I'm doing this, too. To build that network so that it's a repeatable process. So in the future, if there's someone you want to come so you can hear them speak, you become a part of the community and we put the community to work. Like, I don't know, who would you like to come speak?

HD: Gosh. I dunno. Most recently, I was very interested in having Bill Clinton come ride the teeter totter.

DM: Oh, yeah.

HD: Stay tuned for how that turned out.

DM: Okay.

HD: But how would you have approached something like that?

DM: Getting Bill to ride the teeter totter?

HD: Yeah, not necessarily to ride the teeter totter--that's probably a little ambitious--but say how would you even think about solving that problem? What type of question would you even ask yourself to get started? My strategy was pretty naive and stupid simple: I sent his Foundation a box with a toy teeter totter inside it with a printed invitation.

DM: That's good idea!

HD: Well, you know, I figured it was better than just sitting out here and hoping that he might stumble into my backyard. But say you've got somebody who's rock-star caliber in whatever field, what's your first question?

DM: That's a really good question, and I love doing things like that. My first question is: who do I know who knows that person? Because connections and referrals are the strongest thing. But Bill Clinton, who's a $500,000 speaker, to Seth Godin, who's a $50,000 speaker, there's a big difference in getting through to them.

HD: But basically that's where you start, Who do I know who might know them? Or, Who do I know who might know somebody who knows them?

DM: It's the classic six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. I'm actually one degree separated from Kevin Bacon. Which is pretty rare.

HD: Really?!! So let me just translate that, let's see what does that mean? You know somebody who was in a film with Kevin Bacon??

DM: I know Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick's nanny. She babysat for our kids when we were in New York City.

HD: [laugh]

DM: Yeah, Kevin Bacon is the neighbor of my twin brother, who lives on the Upper West Side. So they always see each other walking their dogs. And so his nanny babysat for my kids.

HD: Wow. That's pretty weird.

DM: Yeah, isn't that weird? Because he's such a great actor--I love Kevin Bacon.

HD: What has he been in recently? I'm trying to think ...

DM: ... Mystic River was the last thing I saw.

HD: Oh, right, with--who else was in that? Was it Clint Eastwood?

DM: Sean Penn.

HD: Sean Penn, Clint Eastwood, they're easy to confuse.

DM: They are! They're similar! [laugh]

HD: Well, listen, do you have anything else on your mind today?

DM: You know, Dave, I just really want people to come out to the Connect Ann Arbor Seth Godin event. I'm making a plea, and I'm making it in a lot of places. Just you having me on the teeter totter is incredible--it's such a beautiful day and we're out here in this backyard, and so I'm just grateful. Everything's kind of worked out. And 1700 may be optimistic and ambitious, but I think it's possible. Michigan needs big things to happen, and we each need to do our own effort to make sure they happen, so that's what I'm trying to do.

HD: Now what time of day is this happening?

DM: The event is at 3 o'clock in the afternoon on May 22nd.

HD: And what day of the week is that?

DM: It's a Tuesday.

HD: So 3 o'clock on a Tuesday. It's a good excuse to cut out early from work.

DM: There you go. And how about this, I'll put you on the guest list for the event, so if you come out there'll be a ticket waiting for you!

HD: [laugh] Well, if I decide I can come, I'm happy to pay my own way!

DM: Okay, that's fair.

HD: And of course, if I pay my own way, that means I get to bring a guest, right?

DM: Right.

HD: Well, listen thanks for coming to ride!

DM: Well, hey, thanks, Dave, it's been great!