MediaTech Ventures’ Community Spotlight Ep.08 – Elijah May

John ZozzaroCommunity Spotlight, FeaturedLeave a Comment

Meet the Experiential Human Behavior Guru, Robotics Industry Innovator, and all around incredible human being Elijah May.

From Hollywood to Austin, TX – Elijay May’s story is an incredible example of grit, passion, family, and a constant study of “finding out how & why,” things are the way they are, and people do the things they do.

Early on in his career, Elijah fell into the world of PR. Taking what he had learned from his time in Hollywood and combining that experience with his new role, he quickly realized that at the end of the day all brands should focus on is creating an incredible experience for their customers; enough for them to talk about HOW incredible that experience is with people they know.

That very focus on “word of mouth” marketing, and launching The Experience Firm, is what has made him one of the most sought after experiential consultants in central Texas, and the country. From working with fortune 1,000 brands, to helping startups generate hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of press for $5,000, he’s now set his sights on tackling the future of STEM and robotics, founding Robotters “BUILDING THE WORLD’S GREATEST DESTINATION FOR PEOPLE THAT LOVE ROBOTS”.

Check out our interview and learn how it wasn’t academia that inspired him to pursue his path, but people and impactful experiences he had himself, that shaped his passion and love for what he does and the organizations he helps along the way.

You have an extremely interesting story, starting all the way back from really focusing a little bit on human behavior and PR, that kind of brought you to Hollywood, LA. And so I’m kind of curious as to what got you interested in human behavior, enough to go study it in college? And then how did you apply that out of college to look for something interesting to do with it?

Elijah: Well, you got the order a little bit wrong. So I went to college, mechanical engineer, season machines. I was interested in robots coming out of high school, I was a math nerd. I used to go to the math competitions, win prizes, and stuff. And that’s what I thought I was going to do with my life, I was going to go to college and just get deep in engineer and try to figure I was really interested in things like advanced prosthetics and ways that we could use machines to improve human life. The short version of the story, which is true, but cuts through a lot of the details is, I realized that most problems are no mechanical problems. Most problems are people problems. And I started taking classes and things, I was, as a freshman and sophomore in college, I was taking electives like psychology, philosophy, theater film, try to understand the broader perspective on why people do what they do. And what was interesting to me is, I was the only one that I knew of who was taking such a broad spectrum of electives. And I found that on one particular day, in my psychology class, and in my communications class, and in my theater class, all on the same day, we talked about the exact same subject, we talked about the same books, we talked about the same dynamics. And I know that none of these professors talk to each other. And it was really fascinating to me. Since I witnessed it as a professional consultant that it’s like if you read all the greatest, or most highly recommended business books, they’re all saying the same stuff, right? It’s just there’s going to be the same core truths. And all those books are more of the point, you’re able to find the core truths by figuring out what they’re all saying. And that epiphany in college, made me want to go deeper. And that’s why I kind of shifted gears out of engineering. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I was a horrible engineering student, there’s more to it than just a love of human behavior. But I became deeply fascinated with why people do what we do and our perspective on why people do what they do. And one day, an advisor asked me what the hell I thought I was doing. And I like I don’t know, taking classes a little interesting. So we sat down and figured out how these things were connected with regular human behavior.

What made you go down the route of entertainment and what was it about entertainment that drew you in?

Elijah: I was taking theater classes at one point I was doing some acting and getting some attention. And being told I should go do the whole Hollywood thing. I got a couple of doors open for me, I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t walk through them. I mean, I had a couple big, big opportunities. But out of the blue, I literally got a call from a lifeguard at USC and my old boss called me and said, I think some of the PR department wants to talk to you. And I was like, okay, like why? And I said I think they can offer you a job. Okay. I had been working as a lifeguard on a movie set, and I have broken up a fight between like a director and some big shot on campus and out of the blue, I get this call, I get off with this job as liaison between USC and the film studios, which I did for eight years. And it was an unbelievable job. And it opened all kinds of doors and introduced me to all kinds of people. And you talked about learning about human behavior, oh, my god, you’ve got industry, it’s built almost entirely on ego. 

And it was, I mean, no joke, he gave me a tremendous opportunity to just understand, okay, I see how these people work. Once you know, how people work, what do you what the levers are quite frankly, you have so much control. There’s a whole ethical question there about like, if you know how to control people, should you but we’ll get to that one right now. But I was just rereading, predictably irrational by Dan Ariely. And he talks about that exactly and also flip the script by Oren Klaff, two books that are in totally separate sections of the bookstore. And you have to talk about the exact same thing, which is you understand the levers, you understand why people do what they do, then you understand how to get people to do what you want them to do. And what’s the question with knowledge comes responsibility or something like that?

Why ultimately walk away from the entertainment industry? What ultimately brought you to Central Texas, and what was that transition like?

Elijah: Yeah, that’s a fact. I used to say, really not joking. I had the second-best job on campus. Pete Carroll had the first best job that I had the second-best job, and I got to do whatever I wanted to do. I had so much freedom and so many different things that I got to do in the course of a week. After a while working in the business, and I could show up on a movie set pretty much anywhere in Hollywood. And I would know people and they would know me, and I had this really kind of exclusive access to the business that most people never achieve. And that’s all pretty crazy from a kid who was homeless in high school. And then this is only four years removed. And, like anything, it doesn’t matter how good something is, I got bored with it. And I just remember walking up the steps to my office one day and thinking, if I never walk up the stairs again, I won’t miss it and that was it. And I went home and talked to my wife, and we were having a baby. And she said I’d rather move somewhere else always so expensive. And we were able to come out to Austin, we were those people who came from LA and bought a house and drove the housing prices up because of us housing prices are radically, practically free. Like, we’re at a place at the beach, where it costs five times what our house cost. And we didn’t know we were renting for more than our mortgages now. So while it was a no-brainer, we just decided to pick somewhere where we also worked in the business and I realized like if we raise a kid here in LA, that’s their worldview, and I don’t know that you can undo that. She was just super cute, baby. I know, everyone thinks the baby’s cute, but she really was. And everybody knows, like, oh, you’re gonna have her do modeling and stuff. I mean, we’re like really offer? No, I know those kids. Like, I’ve worked with them. And I’ve worked with their parents. And it’s a mess. And we just realized that if we could, in the short time that we were in LA and had some success, both kind of look at the cars we were driving to a place where we’re living really good. Get out of here if we need to go somewhere where it’s more grounded, and we picked Austin actually, we started asking around and it was one of the things like five people a week all recommended Austin.

What year was that?

Elijah: Was 2006 we started looking at not long after our daughter was born at the beginning of 2006 and we moved here in November.

What were some of the big differences? How did you take this incredible experience and background in LA, and apply it to what was happening in Austin?

Elijah: Oh, it was brutal. I couldn’t figure it out for a long time. It was not long before, I’ve said I made a huge mistake. So part of the reason we picked Austin is that we heard we’re looking for cities elsewhere in the United States that have a burgeoning entertainment industry, where you could go and be part of it. And I thought if I’ve got credit in LA, that’ll probably translate anywhere else. And I get here and so I decided to go look at Austin studios. I mean, I used to live next to Sony Studios, so and like Universal Studios and Warner Brothers, and I’ve been all the lats and CBS and I get invited to meetings. And so I went to go to Austin studios. And it’s an old airplane hangar. That’s it. Like it’s not like a retrofitted converted old airplane hangar. It’s just an old airplane hangar. And I was like, oh, no. But Friday Night Lights was still running at the time. And so I knew somebody was working on the show. And they picked me up, and I work in front of the lights as the season wrapped up. And I mean, you know, somebody and you kind of do a thing and see what happens next. And we ended up organizing a golf tournament for the cast and crew, the show called The beyond the lights celebrity golf tournament. And one of the CEOs, like, hey, did you used to work in the PR department, did I hear that right? And like, yeah, technically, it’s like, I need a PR person. Alright. Let’s do that. And I really mean, my thought was, I had no applicable, like, the kind of stuff he was looking for. I didn’t really have any experience. But I thought, how hard can it be? I mean, I was surrounded by people who did it didn’t look hard. I was worth shopping for had hands down, not just because I wasn’t really qualified, but also because it’s a horrible company culture. We were spending all the money and it wasn’t working. I was in charge of all communications and PR marketing. And I had an enormous marketing budget at first startup, absolutely enormous. I was spending money in every station and every publication and on Austin, which was a good way to meet people. But other than that, it was pretty horrible. The last of like nine months.

So you kind of got thrown into more of a comms role. You’ve got on your LinkedIn, a lot going on, up until you finally made the decision to find the experienced firm. So can you talk a little bit about what that journey was like? And what kind of forced you to kind of take the bull by the horn and say, I just need to forge my own path now with the experienced firm?

Elijah: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s in everything we just talked about is actually directly applicable. So that terrible job changed my life and a really critical way because we were spending all the money I wasn’t working is what them you don’t have the money you don’t have the resources or whatever we were doing every single thing that every single person in Austin who sells media tells you should do which is mostly spend money And it wasn’t working and we were losing to a head competitor who was spending less. So it wasn’t like we didn’t have some comparative. And I tried to understand, like, I really just didn’t want my intellectual curiosity was, I needed to know why this wasn’t working.

It just didn’t make sense. And I realized that it didn’t really matter how much money we spent. And people, once they engaged with the company, they didn’t want to do business with the company. I started trying to understand my job is to build this reputation of this company. And by the way, we hired a PR firm, like a big, fancy, awesome PR firm, we vetted three of them, and we hired one and they charged us $12,000 a month, and we got nothing. Like, we got mentioned in like one article. And the second article is like, we’re not sure what this company is, we think it might be a scam, like, then we’re paying our PR company at this point, like over $50,000. Like, just trying to understand it. Sent me down this road and did me a customer experience. So if your reputation is out of whack, Why? Well, because customers show up and go hate these people. Okay, so if I want to be really good at PR, I guess I got to get good at customer experience, I guess it’s like, and then like if your customer experience is out of whack, like what’s that about? Like? Well, that’s generally your culture is out of whack you don’t treat people well, because everybody here is miserable, and they don’t know what to do. And then ultimately, and there’s been a leadership issue, which is how I stumbled, as I say, asked backward into management consulting. But definitely, that particular experience sent me down this road that made me believe that customer experience is the thing that makes the company most profitable. Like I became convinced that we had secret shops competition, and it was really painfully obvious what the difference was between them and between us. And I finally just got sick of trying other things and said, this is what I cared most about, this is what I want to focus on. I want to focus on designing experiences that are awesome. Whether that’s experiential design, meaning if sorry, spiritual marketing, meaning like sort of a one-off experience, or, like this is your day in day out experience as a customer, which is more of an operations thing.

So it’s interesting you say experiential, because I think that if you were to ask five people what experiential means to them, you’re going to get 50 different answers. So what does experiential mean to you?

Elijah: Yeah, so I remember, it was back in 2009, that I started asking myself this question like, what is it about marketing that I do believe in? What is it a market, I don’t believe in Scott Stratton, just come out with on marketing, Chris Brogan just wrote frost agents. And there’s sort of like this early wave of social media celebrities. And I remember trying to dig in and figure out like, which is the piece that like, if I was going to have a piece of this puzzle-like these names have kind of become household names, at least from my perspective, in the early social media grab. And I knew that I loved events. So much of what we did in the production world in Hollywood is they’re just events with cameras, really, I mean, there were events, but they’re more complicated because you can do production and film production. And any other kind of event is pretty much a cakewalk. No offense to people. And I’ve honestly found that to be true. Like, it’s, when you throw a camera in the mix, so many things have to be controlled. So control is so precise, you have so much less flexibility than you have in so many other situations. So I was looking into marketing, and I was there were these, if you looked up experiential marketing or engagement, marketing, can’t remember which one it was, but each one basically referred to the other. And so for me, it’s that word engagement is the word. So Scott Brown’s book on marketing was stopped marketing and start engaging. And so I know I was like, ooh, interesting, right? So I was googling, and I found engagement, marketing, or experiential marketing. And that like, just the definition of that resonated with me, this idea that if you’re going to go market to people, the best way to get their attention is to do something meaningful for them. 

And I don’t mean hitting on shots and I don’t mean setting up a basketball hoop. Look, again, the only question that really matters is what works and why. And this is what if you’re talking about people talking about ROI Here’s what everybody knows. And I mean, everybody I’ve asked literally thousands of people from countless stages, what is the most effective form of marketing? And what do they say? Word of mouth everybody knows that. Like, it’s a given. It’s such a given that we don’t even talk about it. That’s what’s weird about it.

In an era where everybody nitpicks, and it’s really easy to just go online and complain about things. How do you get around that? How do organizations take control of that and mitigate that as much as possible?

Elijah: To say that I’ve been asking myself that question this week is an understatement. I’ve been ruminating on that one. So I know that you know, the story of Matt, but all for those who don’t, I’ll do a quick recap. I decided we bought this house, and it has like, these pristine white carpets, and we’re like, it’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. It’s great. We love this idea. I have two kids and a dog. So like, this is a really, really, really bad decision, first-time homebuyers, okay, you’re bad. And so we start looking around and every once a while you get some value pack some garbage in your mailbox, that’s, there’s like a coupon in there for $99 carpet cleaning, we’re all familiar with this. And you get in there all called like the steam team, or the dream steam thing or something like they’re all the same name. And so literally the reason I went looking for a carpet cleaning company this third time, I think, third or fourth time, was because I couldn’t remember the names of the first three they all have the same name. And I said, just Google carpet cleaning gonna find this carpet cleaning company, not that far from me, that has over 505-star reviews like looking at Yelp, and they have five stars. Like that’s not possible. Because as you say, people go to Yelp to complain. So how do you have? How is that and they have some bad reviews, but they’re just drowned out by the good reviews? And I called him up and like, I guess I need to schedule a carpet cleaning with you guys. And they gave me a quote, and it was like more than twice the value pack thing. I’m like, well, that’s stupid. I’m not gonna pay twice. You know what everybody else that’s dumb. Right? And so I’m like, alright, thanks and hung up. And like, they didn’t argue with me. They’re like, okay. So I called back like, why is it worth twice as much, we do things the right way or whatever? And I’m like, I was just like, I don’t know. Okay, fine. Like, let’s just like, I don’t understand, but okay let’s see. And so they come out and this guy is just like, I won’t get into the details, which I know you’ve heard before, but they just, I mean, who could think the carpet cleaning could blow your mind? The guy comes, he’s clean cut. He’s well dressed. He’s happy. He’s happy. Like, he’s like talking, asking questions. It’s like he’s just trying to do his job. And he’s like, got like a crazy heavy stupid dining room table that we inherited. It’s like ridiculously heavy and I’m like can let me know if you usually they’re like real we don’t clean around it we’re not moving your stuff. And I was like, hey, let me know I really want to clean under the table so like let me know when you need some help. He’s like I got it. I’m like you can’t move it up by yourself. He’s like I can’t. He pulled up this little furniture, moving Dolly pad things that like everybody seen for 1999 on TV, and I’m like, Oh, yeah, like, literally anybody could have done that. But nobody ever did. And in every other instance, I’d ever had someone come to clean the carpet. It had been two people. And this is one dude who did a better job. And just the whole thing blew my mind so much. 

And I’m again talking to him full time, let not let him do his job. And he’s being super cool about it. And I know they could pay per job. And as he’s leaving, I’m like, Hey, man. Can I talk to your boss? That’s not usually something you say when you’re happy, right? He’s like, absolutely, I haven’t given you a call. And so this guy calls me later. And you could tell from the call. He’s like, uh, my technician was out there. And I guess he said, you wanted to talk to me. I’m like, yeah, I want to know how you do it. Like, I don’t understand. Like, I just paid you guys more than twice what I’ve ever paid anybody else and I’m over the moon. Like I paid you more than twice, and I’m so freakin happy. Like, what kind of mental like Ninja, if you’ve done here, like, what? And so I’ve since now that I kind of understand it. And like Matt and I met the owner of the company, and we become friends. And like, I’ve gotten to know him over the years. And I know that he used to work for one of those terrible companies where they just treat people badly. And just like it just shouldn’t be like if he literally took all of his life savings and bought one little van with a busted down carpet cleaner and start going around cleaning people’s carpets for free and giving them a bottle of champagne. Like he invested his entire self in just trying to figure out how to make this experience better, all that he could. And so as I’m starting a robotics company. And we’re a recreational robotics company. And I’m trying to feel like, we don’t have all the resources, when you’re a big company, you can afford to throw some money at your customers. But right now we’re coming out of the gate. How do we do what he did? How do we just commit ourselves to commit everything we have to make any customer experience extraordinary. And what I love most about it I don’t know him personally, is that I know, what an imperfect person he is, and how much I know how hard it is for him. And I know, you know struggles with turnover, like all small businesses kind of have to deal with. But he has had people like the guy who came and clean my carpet. I don’t know, six, seven years ago. He’s still there. He’s a general manager. Like, and I’ve gone and had beers with those guys, and really gotten to know them. The point is if you can do it, and you can impress people with carpet cleaning. Like people are like, Oh, yeah, we can’t Yeah, this is just what people love to say, this is just how this is done.

Fast forward to where you began your journey and interest in college now has resurfaced in robotics. And so I’m curious why now, why robots?

Elijah: You and I both know, like, people love to look at somebody like Oh, look at this person they were an overnight success, they just started this thing and it blew up and people looked at robotics and you know, we’ve gotten we’ve established a pretty impressive online presence. We’ve got tons of press, we’ve got our events syndicated everywhere. We brought people in from all over the world for our festival, even though it’s smaller than what we wanted to create. It was still a pretty impressive thing for a company again, coming out of the gate. But I was a volunteer on a tourism board in 2010. I went to a tourism board meeting, and I sat there. And we talked about all the things that we were doing and not doing. Now what I think I see the problem. There’s nothing for people to do. Like, we have a tourism board, because it’s just part of the system, there’s a mechanism like money comes in from over here, and it gets put over here. And then there are people whose job it is to do something with it. So we’re going to need aboard. And everybody, all the council members, go pick somebody and tell them you want to be on that board, you have four boards, don’t point people to the boards, and then notice its meetings, and in each meeting to talk about what they talked about the next meeting. 

And then they’ll close that part of the meeting and talk about what they’re gonna talk about the next meeting, and then the meeting will adjourn. And I was like, and I literally, and I wasn’t trying to be rude, but I suppose it was like, I had a question. I did not follow Robert’s rules of order. And I still don’t when do we do things? And like, what do you mean? I’m like, well, like literally, like, why do we make decisions? What is the purpose of us being here becomes evident, and I realized that it doesn’t matter? If you have the resources, and you can other people, but if you don’t have something you’re actually working towards that serves the goal, right? Like, I mean, you can think of this as a mission, there’s nothing for people to come visit, you’re just gonna throw your money at sort of haphazard solutions. And so I started back in 2010, trying to figure out what that solution looked like we decided that Austin is the only major metro without an advanced Science and Technology Museum, we have a theory for kids, but that’s not we’re talking about, we’re talking about something more along the lines of the Perot museum that they have in Dallas or so many things they have in Houston. And so we said we were going to build something and somebody else, of course, at the same time is like, no, no, we’re building one doesn’t build one now. And we decided to kind of throw it behind them. And they took a stab at it. And I came on as an advisor. And they would not listen, when it came to the customer, in order to make their business model work, which was made by people who weren’t business people. They had to charge like 20 something dollars to walk into an old warehouse and look at exhibits that other museums had thrown away. And it was called the Science and Technology Museum, and I recommend a couple of board members. And they immediately go, you seem to know what you’re doing. And they put them in charge. But it was too late. Like, yet already. They were already hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hole. And it was just, Oh, it was a bummer. But they had hosted a robotics competition before they had gotten all of their old outdated exhibits. and was like, Hey, this is amazing. Like, there’s all these robotics teams like, and they all this is amazing. Like they said, yeah, we have some of the top robotics teams in the world. some awesome, where do you usually complete? Like, where does this usually happen? And they’re like, nowhere. What do you mean nowhere, they said, there’s no, no one wants us to bring robots in? The gyms don’t want us on their floors all the conference rooms.

Like maybe if we had a fortune, we could constantly be booking offered centers. But even then they don’t want kids running around everywhere with robots. Like that doesn’t make any sense. Then somebody put it early on. And the thing that was said to me, which is attributable to first robotics that everybody understands is that robotics is the only sport in which 100% of kids can go pro. And yet, it’s the only sport that we don’t support. Makes no sense. And so, the idea once the Texas Museum of Science Technology went the way of the dodo, I got invited to get another committee to sit down and talk about what we need to do for the region. And I said the same thing we used to do in 2010. Like literally nothing has changed. Except I have a slightly better idea than before. Instead of just doing the Science Technology Museum, let’s just build the robotics arena let’s build the robotics arena. Let’s build a robotics arena that people can do from all over the planet. Because you just want to take a picture with it. You want to be excited and you can imagine what your life would be like if you don’t get to do that. It’s got to be a pilgrimage for people who love robots. And that idea caught on pretty quickly. And so I went from Okay, so I’m going to run a consult customer experience slash experiential consultancy to I’m going to try to take all these things that I can tell people to do and poured into this one company and see if I can build this the right way.

Two questions here. Question number one is what are some of the biggest impacts on you from an inspirational standpoint that helped you along your journey to get to where you are? Whether that’s books, podcasts, people? What does that look like on the experience side? And then the same question on the robotics side.

Elijah: Look, I’m inspired by people like Matt. Matt had a barely above minimum wage paying job, a grueling job. He is a wicked stutter. He struggles to communicate. That dude, he took his fate by the horns and created something a company that now employees. I don’t even know how many people a dozen he’s got a fleet of trucks. He’s bought multiple properties. I’ve been to multiple grand openings. And I’m inspired by Matt, because as I said, like, it’s easy some people are just geniuses. And I’m not saying that he’s not. But I mean that’s not the kind of guy anybody would have looked at when he was cleaning carpets not so long ago and thought that’s the guy. So I’m inspired by people like that, who just found a way to dig in, and he stuck with it. And he turned it into something pretty extraordinary. And really nobody helped him out. Like, he figured it out on his own.

If you had a superpower, what would it be? It could be anything you want.

Elijah: Move things with my mind.

How do people get a hold of you?

Elijah :It sounds a little egotistical but I’m super Google-able. But if someone wanted to know, something more about directing Google, you can email me at elijah@experiencefirm.com. Or email roboters.com.

One last thing on the way out, what’s a quote that really stood out to you that you super appreciate?

Elijah: I’m one of those people who just loves Einstein quotes, like, a lot of favorites are mindset. You know, I think that my favorite is striving to be a man of value, not a man of success. Having had success early, and made a lot of money and not necessarily done smart things with it. Man, I’m super popular in Hollywood, I used to make the bar rounds and buy drinks for everybody. And but yeah, there’s no value in that. What I want to do is, the reason I want about robotics is that I want to leave lasting value for the city I live in for the region that I live in for my kids. But for anybody who’s coming up who like me, as a kid wanted to get into robotics, and had no idea how to do it. And I think you know, robotics are going to become more and more ubiquitous. We all know that. The question is, if they’re not accessible to everybody, it’s just gonna further widen our existing gap.

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