Jim Harman, owner and operator of EX2 Adventures, is one of the top off-road sport production managers in the Mid-Atlantic region. Producing an average of 21 events a year with a draw of over 5,000 competitors a season, his company has established itself as the industry leader in the Washington DC area since its founding in 2000. Now with over 170 off-road trail running, mountain biking, and endurance events under his belt, Jim Harman is by far the subject matter expert in the professional off-road event production. Reckoneer recently had the chance to sit down with Jim Harman in order to find out what it takes to start and run a successful event management business.
[RECKONEER] What inspired you to start EX2 Adventures?
[JIM HARMAN] I wanted to make a difference in peoples lives. Make an impact and not just be a spectator. I started working for the US Government as a cartographer after college and realized that I didn’t want to stay there forever. So I took a year off, traveled, and came back to Virginia with a new outlook. From that experience I started getting involved in endurance events via my new job at the Hemlock Overlook Outdoors School. I discovered that I really liked producing those events and from those first events held in 2000, I decided to start my own company that would help create those differences. From that came Excellence and Experience Adventures – EX2 Adventures!
[RECKONEER] What was the first event you ever managed and how did it impact your decision to start a event management company?
[HARMAN] I was a Boy Scout. I ran adventure trips for my friends and students when I was in college – canoe trips, camping trips, just anything to do with being outside and active. When I started working at Hemlock, I had heard of this thing called the Eco-Challenge adventure race and I thought it would be interesting to run something like that on a smaller level. Plus, Hemlock was interested in bringing in more people to their Project Peak program, so I designed and produced an adventure race called VentureQuest in 2000. That first race had 38 teams of three-persons each, and could be called a financial loss. The next year we had 75 teams of three-persons each and maybe broke even. However, it took most of my time to set-up and produce these races, and Hemlock wanted more of my time. In 2002, they told me they could not longer support me in holding Venture Quest, but by then I was hooked. So I proposed to them that I would work for them part-time, do everything they had hired me to do, just as long as I could continue to hold VentureQuest but only do it as my own company. They liked having my complete focus on their projects for the part-time and I loved having the freedom and autonomy to continue setting up adventure races. That’s how EX2 Adventures was born.
[RECKONEER] What to you believe where your biggest misconceptions when becoming a event manager and/or a business owner in this profession?
[HARMAN] I think my first misconception was, “Oh, this doesn’t seem that hard!” However, this business is very time intensive. I did not appreciate the time commitment needed in the beginning. In other jobs that are 9-to-5, you have boundaries. You know when you have to be there and when you can leave. But with this, there are no boundaries. You work all day and you never get any sleep the day of, or days before, each race. Because if you don’t do the work, who will? And who will do it to your standards? The answer is easy – YOU will, or YOU won’t! Otherwise it will not get done and the race will not happen.
[RECKONEER] What is your management philosophy?
[HARMAN] I’m a big believer in personal challenges. I believe that all my events must also allow for someone to experience some sort of physical, emotional, and/or spiritual challenge in order to be an event that I would be proud to produce. Also, you will not succeed unless you are comfortable with ambiguity. You have to know that you don’t know all the answers and be willing to change, negotiate, and revise any plan you have. You have to be a problem solver and communication is key. If you can’t communicate your vision or goals to the team, you will not get anything done.
[RECKONEER] What skills do you consider to be essential for success as a event production business owner?
[HARMAN] Communication is still key, especially when it comes to writing. I had know idea how much writing – proposals mostly – that running a company or creating events would have. You also have to be a salesman since you need to be able to convince park managers that your event will be a good thing or that sponsoring an event will help someone else’s business too. You still need to be a problem solver and negotiator who can creatively solve problems since no two problems are alike in this business. You should also expect to start small and grow slowly. Many have the expectations that it will grow fast – and they usually go out of business in the first year.
[RECKONEER] What do you consider during the management of an event to be the factors that lead to a success or failure?
[HARMAN] Every races as some sort of what I would call small or little failures. We change something every time… and I mean every time. It’s an incremental process. When you think you’ve solved everything, you’re probably wrong or about to fail. One example is an idea to have hot chocolate at one of our winter races. After it was done we found out that everyone liked but some people thought that marshmallows would have been good too – so next time we had marshmallows! It’s the little things that make this job fun but also make a difference. I also like to find out if everyone had a great time. Did everything go smooth? It’s how I stay true to my beliefs that if I haven’t made a difference then I need to change something. As for profits or profitability, it is a barometer to success, but it’s not the only one. I’ve had plenty of races that were fun and successful that didn’t make a profit. I obviously have to make some money to stay in business, but if that was the only thing I was focused on, I wouldn’t be true to my beliefs. Sometimes making a difference does not make anyone any money.
[RECKONEER] What management difficulties do you find in producing large events versus smaller ones?
[HARMAN] I love the numbers we bring in right now – around 300 to 400 is a perfect number. It’s manageable. Not too big. Not too small. I believe that I’ve found my niche and it still has a good following. We have lots of great athletes and good deal of local competition. Plus I enjoy the interaction with a more amateur crowd of racers. Large events such as triathlons are must not our thing and I really don’t have any interest in getting into anything that big. We are just right were we are for now.
[RECKONEER] What challenges do you see in sanctioning versus independence?
[HARMAN] Sanctioning certainly gives you credibility and oversight for certain events. Just like with XTERRA. You have to have the sanctioning of the USAT (United States of America Triathlon) to even hold an XTERRA. But unlike other organizations that take over, XTERRA plugs into local event directors that are already following the basic rules that they require. However, one of my values is freedom and autonomy, so most sanctioning is not right for me or for my races. I make changes to my events when I see a need to change it, not because some over-reaching sanctioning body told me to. Some organizations just don’t understand local issues. If I have a racing class with 100 racers in it, I’ll break that into two groups for better competition – more winners. However, if I was sanctioned by say the USA Cycling organization, I would be restricted to use their class structure, which would make no sense for my business.
[RECKONEER] How has technology changed the way you manage events?
[HARMAN] I’ve never been an early adopter. I didn’t even have an iPhone until it was already out and about and everyone already had one. I also don’t see the need for some technologies. I see some event organizers using chip timing and such but they get complacent. They depend too much on technology and not on the manual fundamentals that work even when the power goes out. If their system fails, they just tell a racer “too bad” – I could never do that. That’s why I stick to the basics and only change when I see a need to change. Online is the same way. We have a website, but we don’t do web ads. We use Active.com to pre-register racers, which are why we don’t have our own e-commerce software, and must of our marketing it word of mouth. I’ve been able to sell out many of my races with ever advertising to the level other companies have. Plus, with word of mouth, the person telling the story is a better ad then I could ever hope for!
[RECKONEER] How much of an impact to do you think the latest technology (e.g. bikes, shoes, navigation, clothing) has had on your events?
[HARMAN] I’m under the assumption that most people will be honest. We don’t offer cash prizes for this very reason. And if I see a point in a race that could be a potential for cheating, I change it. It’s really on you as the racer – and most of my racers police themselves. You just don’t find too many cheaters at this level.
[RECKONEER] How do you find yourself combating those who are intent on getting around your efforts to stop cheaters?
[HARMAN] Again, our racers are small size and not big enough to attract anyone who would invest in this kind of cheating. So I really don’t have a need to enforce this even if I could — which I can’t. I’m not going to develop a system to check for this so I don’t see a reason to worry too much about it. Now sandbagging is something that does concern me. This is where a racer enters in a category lower than their experience level. Happens all the time and is usually policed by the local racing community through peer pressure. But if there is anyone who consistently sandbags, I’ll ask them to move up and usually they do. I don’t have any hard or fast rules on this and I don’t want to be the sandbagger police so I usually leave it to the community to solve this. Most times than not, it gets solved without me getting involved.
[RECKONEER] Do you see having competing sport production companies as a struggle to your company’s success?
[HARMAN] If there was the same business in the same market as me, I might be concerned. I wouldn’t happy about that. But mostly the market stays in their own areas. The only concerns I have is competing events on the same day. I try to work the calendar so that I don’t conflict to much with others. However, I still have to get the races in so its not a perfect system. But usually I decide what races that I would like to do, then add in my family vacation and other personal obligations. Then whatever is left becomes fair game for my planning. So far I don’t have any competitors that do exactly what I do and how I do it. But I still have to compete with local 5K races and other events near by. But for now, I’m doing ok.
[RECKONEER] Do you see EX2 Adventures as an industry leader?
[HARMAN] I still have stuff to learn and I’m always finding ways to improve. If I stay sharp and focused on our goals and vision, I think we might one day claim the title as leader in the Mid-Atlantic. I know we are good at what we do and do have a strong presence in the industry, but I’m not ready to claim the title. May be someday soon, after we improve some more!
[RECKONEER] What advice would you give someone who wanted to go into the event management business?
[HARMAN] Be prepared for the time commitment to this job. The time expectations are the hardest to get use to and the one most newbie’s overlook. You do get freedom, and do have breaks, but if you don’t put the time in, it will not get done and you will fail. Having a process and systems in place saves you time, but you need to build them first. And you need to be prepared for it not working out. There is a risk in this business – in any business – but in event management there is a risk that it may not work out if you don’t have the time to spend making it happen.
Jim Harman is at the top of his game and has probably forgotten more about the off-road sports management business then most people know! One of the key observations we discovered in talking to him was that there is really no secret formula to his success. Harman reviled that the old tenets of hard work, patience, and dedication are important even in event management. Often, as Harman revealed from his experiences with leading EX2 Adventures, the difficulties that many have in this business are the same as may other businesses. Time management, understanding of the time commitment, and sticking to a valued vision, seem to be his hallmark traits that lead to the same success Harman has had over the past 13 years. Some may have given up on the opportunity to make an event management business like this work, but Jim Harman has shone that dedication to a consistent vision of excellence and experience can be that adventure that pays off in the long run.