What prompted the launch of AKJOHNSTON Group?
I was 21 and had just left a great-paying job, but I was tired of long construction projects for theme parks. I realized then that I enjoyed live production projects that were really three-to-six-month design and ‘construction projects.’ So, I set out to use the equipment I had kept from my first lighting business and made some serious sacrifices to try and get clients. Some had followed me, and I was working with them, but most were uninterested in 2008, as budgets for this industry had all but disappeared. I think I grossed $40,000 that year (about half of what I needed to break even) out of Public Storage units and I moved back in with my parents—humbling, to say the least. So, with no money and no clients, I did what business owners don’t do enough: I looked for the weaknesses in myself, my brand and my company to see what improvements or enhancements I could make to ensure that the business would one day thrive and have clients lined up for our premium expertise and experience. The logic behind naming the company after myself was that I wanted to put my personal signature on the quality of work and service we deliver. Thus, AKJOHNSTON Group was born and barely crawling for the first four years of its life.
What is the group’s primary focus and how does it function?
Today, we produce world-class experiences that are designed, directed and executed by our firm. Experiences we create are as conventional as corporate events and trade show booths and as nonconventional as international music tours, PR stunts and marketing functions that showcase brands and passions. My approach was, and still is, nonconventional. While others are planning and brokering to vendors, we actually own audio; lighting; video; staging; flooring; print, metal, wood and specialty fabrication; trucks; and in-house design and production teams. These resources and assets are here in our building and exclusively dedicated to serving and supporting our clients and shows. This process and approach supports high-quality, low lead times and tight budgets when we are able to orchestrate the departments for each project. For a clearer and historically tested model, we run like a movie studio, with various departments handling a particular vertical with their own assets and teams, with crossover in the logistics and planning processes, to deliver impeccably.
What did you do before? Is there any crossover from your previous work that you apply to this business?
I could tell you I have done this before, but my most valuable experience was actually gained in high school while working as a barista at Starbucks. About a year ago, even, I worked with Orin Smith (former CEO of Starbucks, current Chairman of Disney) and told him that I am successful today because of the workplace he created. It was there that I got my first production by following Starbucks’ ‘Connect, Discover and Respond’ customer service protocol. I also learned that my employees are partners or my team, which is how I always refer to them…and I really figured out how to connect with people and how a quality, consistent and fast product can be enhanced by a smile and a great experience. In my world now, we call this ‘experiential marketing,’ which is all about brands listening and responding to customers in memorable ways…really, the simplest idea, but difficult to master.
How did you go about building your business to where it is today?
Well, I did not have a business partner, investor, loans or even credit cards for the first seven years, and we still have not marketed the company while growing about 200 percent per year, and with no debt. The success of this company is due to the success of our clients and their acknowledgment that we helped build their success. I have always said, ‘good work speaks for itself,’ and I have to think the panic attacks and lack of sleep thinking about ways to deliver better have helped this be a reality. The best and worst quality I have that ties to this point is that I really care, and my team really cares. That will really mess you up in the head though. It’s not something that you can turn off, and when something does not go perfectly, it can really be rough.
What is your specialty and how do you leverage this expertise at AKJOHNSTON Group?
Our expertise is telling stories. Brand stories, cause stories—every event and activation offers you the theatrical moment to take guests on a journey to connect in new ways that are memorable. These stories can be short or long, and are told with spaces, elements, lighting and sounds that we get to create over 500 times per year. It’s shockingly complex and hard to get tired of.
Talk about the service package that AKJOHNSTON Group offers clients. In what way is it unique to their needs?
We compete in a crowded space of companies with similar capabilities—but we execute it all in house. When clients see 35,000 square feet of equipment, fabrication and our creative departments here, it’s like being on the Universal Studios tour!
How extensive is the group’s portfolio? Which projects are among the most interesting and challenging of those it has completed thus far?
I wish we did not have non-disclosure agreements, but I can tell you about some stuff you can see today. We just launched the Toyota Mirai; create The Chainsmokers’ arena tour scenic; handle everything for Irvine Company and Hoag Hospital; we finished a cat-shaped, shag carpeted ‘Kitty Pool’ for a client; and we built a mini-golf course of dead technology for Amazon in Las Vegas. So, yeah, those are some of the crazier ones that you can see right now in public. Truly, every project is challenging, and if it is not, we usually decide to make it challenging by adding some special piece that has not been done before to every event or element, large or small.
When not working, what are some of your outside interests that help inspire what you do professionally?
Trick question, since most of my downtime is spent thinking about work projects. But, a weirdo hobby I have that I very much suggest is to go to hip hotels and order a drink at the lobby bar, then just watch people. Have the bartender make you whatever they feel is best, with no direction, and just get a feel for the time, space, music, vibe, and people.