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Exclusive: “The hard work starts now” – Owen Ellis on his ambitious growth plans for the AV User Group

In an at times brutally honest interview, Ellis discussed the past, present and future of the AVUG under his leadership– and reveals how the pressures almost forced him to quit

In an at times brutally honest interview, Ellis discusses the past, present and future of the AVUG under his leadership – and reveals how the pressures almost forced him to quit 

“The hard work really starts now.”

This was the defiant message from a buoyant Owen Ellis as we sat down for our meeting at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre (QEII) in Westminster just before Christmas.

For the day of our meeting – November 29 – was a significant one. Not only for Owen himself, but in the history and future of the AV User Group (AVUG) – the not for profit organisation he’s headed up as chairman since 2010. (See ‘AVUG At A Glance’ bottom of the page if unfamiliar)

My ambition is to carry on growing the AVUG as far as we possibly can

A new era begins

A lot had changed in the past 24 hours leading to our meeting. The day before, the AVUG was – as it had remained since its formation in the late 1990s – an entirely voluntary lead company.

But times have changed. Under Owen’s leadership – now in his eighth year – the AVUG has evolved from being little more than a (with respect) social club for the AV community, to a now professionally managed, structured and highly respected international organisation.

Growth has been exponential during his tenure. Membership numbers have risen significantly, up from 70 in 2010 to more than 700 today. Notably, 300 of those members are based overseas, having expanded the AVUG into New York (2012) and Hong Kong (2016) – two projects spearheaded almost entirely by Owen (which we discuss shortly).

“The opportunities and potential for the AVUG are enormous,” exclaimed Owen proudly.

When two become one

However, fulfilling its potential was no longer a part-time after work occupation – albeit an extremely consuming one. Something had to give – and it did. After eight years of graft and 14-months of planning, Owen woke up on the day of our meeting, no longer an employee of Morgan Stanley – a firm he’d worked at for 17 years – but a full-time, paid employee of the AV User Group – the first in its history. His excitement was evident.

“I really loved my job at Morgan Stanley and all the people I worked with,” he explained, reflecting on his past, present and future. “I’d been a member [of the AVUG] since 2002 and very passionate about AV. The AVUG was the only thing I was going to leave Morgan Stanley for, but I had to wait for the platform to be there for it to happen. I’m confident we now have it.

He reflected: “I’d only planned on doing the role for two or three years and then pass it on to someone else,” he said smiling. “I actually tried to leave, but I didn’t feel those that volunteered to replace me were quite right. I remember going home that night and telling my wife that I felt there were some big opportunities to be had and I wanted to do something more with it. Really grow it and open it up internationally and maybe in five or ten years make a career out of it. I didn’t know how long it would take and whether it would work, but I had to try.

He added:“It was a surprise to the other committee members. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few bumps along the way with the structure and what we needed to do. Even though most of this is my work, it’s not my company. It belongs to our members and I run it on their behalf, so we looked at all options and ideas.”

I couldn’t carry on doing both jobs. It had become a huge pressure between my wife and I

Make or break

Owen also revealed, prior to him becoming chairman on a full time basis, the impact of essentially juggling two positions was taking its toll.

Long hours after work, weekends taken up with organising meetings, finalising agendas and the seemingly endless paperwork were common place and he admits, had the opportunity to go full-time not been achieved, it’s likely he’d have resigned.

“I couldn’t carry on doing both jobs,” said Owen. “It had become a huge pressure between my wife and I. Something had to give fairly soon. I was getting promoted and being made more senior at Morgan Stanley during this period and I was taking on more and more with the AVUG. I would never let it impact my performance at work.

“I inherited London and that’s where the old management committee members made their main contribution, but launching in New York and Hong Kong was all my work and that was because I wanted to build a platform to explore if there was the potential at some point in the future to convert to a full-time role. It’s been tough.”

There’s no question that I have taken a bit of a risk in jumping when I jumped\

A risk worth taking 

Going full-time with the AVUG is however not without its risks, with his position as a paid employee dependent on continued financial success. For Owen, there’s no time to sit back and admire his previous work, with the pressures to succeed now comparable to being self-employed.

Owen explained the green-light to go (and continue) to be full-time, hinges on the success of this year’s planned launch in San Jose, California, with the first of two meetings scheduled for April. Failure, he explains, is not an option.

“There’s no question that I have taken a bit of a risk in jumping when I jumped,” he said, his tone now more serious.“It’s dependent on getting San Jose off the ground and it being successful. I’m confident it will be and that we’ll generate the additional income that makes my transition safe.”

If you build it, they will come 

Owen also revealed the decision for the AVUG to expand to international shores in the first place was one born out of demand rather than ambition.

Having taken over as chairman, Owen acted quickly to create a more professional organisation, by registering it with Companies House.

He also gave the AVUG some structure, creating a consistent model, from which there would be four quarterly meetings per year, as opposed to the previous ad-hoc structure deployed before him.

Each meeting would (and does) include sponsorship opportunities for AV manufacturers – with each paying for a 40-minute slot to stand up and speak/present to members. Typically, meetings include three sessions, with two or three presentations in each.

I wanted to be able to say to the AV world that we are straight down the line

The structure and the transparency of the company resonated well with members and manufacturers alike, with sponsors suddenly “coming out of the woodwork” and showing an eagerness to become aligned and involved.

“I wanted to be able to say to the AV world that we are straight down the line,” said Owen tapping the table. “Trustworthy and completely open about how we fund ourselves, how we generate funding and what we spend it on. Anyone can go and have a look at our accounts at the end of the year.”

As a result, the positive reputation of the AVUG went global. Members exiled through relocations work were literally demanding Owen bring it to them and manufacturers who’d seen the value it provided in London, wanted to support it.

When I stepped off the podium at the end, I immediately had a line of about 20 people wanting to talk to me

I’d been asked by a number of people about doing one [an AVUG meeting] in New York

Start spreading the news 

In 2012, using funds from its London events, Owen hired out The Ballroom at the Affinia Hotel in New York – just a few blocks from the Empire State Building – as part of a pilot launch.

Three manufacturers presented to a room of invited end users – a mix of existing members and those Owen had encountered through his work. By the end of the event, it was clear that New York was enthusiastically on-board.

“I’d been asked by a number of people about doing one [an AVUG meeting] in New York,” he said. “My job took me there a couple of times a year so I had some good knowledge of the industry. I wanted to give end users a feel of the value they can get from the AVUG. It was a really good quality agenda and when I stepped off the podium at the end and immediately had a line of about 20 people wanting to talk to me. It was hard work, but they got it.”

Eastern promise 

The model was soon extended to Hong Kong in 2016, with a gradual rollout of meetings, starting with two in 2016, three in 2017 and four planned for this year.

A similar approach will be managed with San Jose – with tentative host venues from eBay and Google and a large number of existing manufacturer sponsors keen to support.

But Owen isn’t about to stop there. At the time of writing, preliminary discussions had already begun around expanding to further countries – again fuelled by demand from the industry and areas where the group believes it can provide value.

But growing locations isn’t the only focus. Providing more value to members is key. Internationally, Owen is keen to provide the same benefits it offers in the UK – benefits such as hosted trips to events like ISE in Amsterdam.

“It’s high on my list of priorities to try and get the revenue to a point where we can offer those benefits in the other locations we operate,” he said.

I personally want to use the group to help educate and benefit our industry

Best practice

Owen is also keen on providing valuable published insight, research and information on best practice across different areas of AV to its members and the end user community as a whole.

Early discussions have already begun with several unnamed industry personnel around producing content, which would be vetted, approved and given the stamp of approval by AVUG members.

The financial model and finer details are yet to be realised – but Owen is confident of getting something off the ground this year.

“I personally want to use the group to help educate and benefit our industry,” he explained. “I believe if we issued something around best practice, it would be something that’s taken very seriously and respected.”

I want…

Wrapping up, Owen concluded:“My ambition is to carry on growing the AVUG as far as we possibly can. I want the membership to be 500 in London in three years time, not 350. I want it to represent more end users in the marketplace, I want to represent more vertical markets, I want to be able to charge our sponsors twice what we charge them today by putting them in front of 80 people rather than 35 and I want to provide more value at our AVUG meetings.

“As I said, the hard work starts now.”

At a glance: AV User Group 

For those unfamiliar, the AVUG is a forum for those responsible for their organisation’s AV communications, including AV in meeting rooms, video, audio, data conferencing, video streaming, broadcasts, signage, presentations and the use of collaborative technologies.

The AVUG promotes the effective use of AV communication technology within user organisations, and to help managers maintain the skills and knowledge they need to implement AV projects and manage service provision.

It also provides a hub for AV/technology managers and their support teams through the provision of multiple interfacing platforms between the end user community and their suppliers.