It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic workplace than a repurposed barn on a seven-acre farm. For entrepreneurs Athena Willems and John Bladholm, that’s life. They’re the masterminds behind Green Barn Events near Portland, Ore. And with a second office in Portland’s trendy Pearl District, they have the best of both worlds.
The duo met in 2009 when John hired Athena to work on a website, and they’ve been working together ever since. Today, Green Barn Events puts on more than 100 events per year, specializing in event planning, event collateral and operations. Athena and John help charities and foundations bring people together and raise money for important causes.
Making a great team
After starting his career putting on high-profile golf tournaments with Peter Jacobsen Productions, John has been in the event business for almost 30 years. Athena has a marketing background and spent nearly 20 years working in tech prior to joining forces with John. So they each bring really valuable business experience to the table.
“John and I are the principals of Green Barn Events, and we will augment our team based on how large the event is,” explains Athena. “We have our team that we pull together to help us with ops and logistics and catering. It just really depends on how big the event is.”
Building a mission-based business
Athena and John pride themselves on having a friendly brand — no corporate-speak here. In fact, when it comes to building business relationships, the Green Barn Events team thinks about it more like widening their circle of friends and family. They want to be known as authentic, honest and loyal.
To build new client relationships, Athena and John invite people to the barn for initial meetings to get to know each other and kick off the event-planning process. John says:
“No matter what the event — whether it’s a golf tournament, a salmon derby or a dinner — it really comes down to those friendships and partnerships you make.”
Athena and John are motivated by helping people raise money for meaningful causes. A straightforward holiday party is far less compelling to them than a fundraiser for a foundation, school or church. And when their clients are passionate about a cause, that passion is contagious.
“It’s very easy to have passion to help others, and every day we go to the office, we know that’s what we’re there for,” says John. “And it’s very rewarding when a tournament ends, and not only is there some financial gain, but also you’ve built a team or helped a team come together. And having that hug after every one of the last cars left the parking lot is extremely rewarding.”
“He’s a hugger,” Athena jokes with a laugh.
Creating a strong online presence
Athena and John recently went through a business name change. They landed on Green Barn Events after making sure they could secure GreenBarnEvents.com through GoDaddy. Then they dove into building a site with the new GoDaddy GoCentral Website Builder. Athena notes:
“We love GoCentral because it was so quick to buy our URL, get our emails set up, and be in business in less than a week. It was crazy. It was really easy to use.”
In the past, Athena and John have hired expensive agencies to build websites for them. The trouble was, when they wanted to revise something, it often took a couple weeks and a decent chunk of change. With their new GoCentral site, they’re in control. Athena says:
“We can make any changes. I can change the entire look and feel of the website in less than an hour. That’s absolutely amazing. And we do it all the time.”
“I think one of the toughest things to do is just to start,” says John. “I know I had an aversion to going in and figuring out how to build my own site. And it’s amazing how simple the GoDaddy product is. And once you get in there and start feeling your way through it, you end up doing more and more and more because you find out how simple it is. It doesn’t take one day, two days, three days. You literally can accomplish some big milestones in minutes.”
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They’ve gotten a ton of positive feedback on the new site. “When people go to our site, we want them to think, ‘I have to work with this team,’” explains Athena. John adds, “We want them to get warm fuzzies when they visit our site.”
“The GoCentral product makes making revisions, changing pictures, adding a slideshow, adding videos, adding copy incredibly easy,” says Athena. “And if John can do it, anyone can.”
Not only do they use GoCentral for their website, but they also recommend it to clients. “We also work with a lot of events that have an antiquated website that hasn’t been updated in a long, long time,” explains John. “So it’s nice to have the confidence in a software that we can recommend to events.”
Making it in the event industry
“The event business is tough,” admits John. “You know in most cases, it’s a one-time turnover. So it has to be right the first time.” This is where decades worth of experience is invaluable; John knows that a successful event requires a stellar team, the right time frame and a solid plan.
While Athena and John have a ton of experience with golf tournaments, they manage a wide variety of events. “Every single event has a different goal, has a different outcome that they would like to achieve,” explains Athena. “So we approach every single one of them in kind of a custom way, starting with a discussion.”
“No two budgets are alike,” says John. “No two sponsorships are alike. No two events are alike. So it makes every single day different and that’s what makes it fun for us.” Athena agrees, noting:
“John and I like to say that there is no recipe. There’s no cookie-cutter event, and if there was, we wouldn’t use it.”
For the Green Barn Events team, it’s not about the money. “We always need to make sure that we’re able to keep the lights on,” admits Athena, “but that can’t be the motivating factor.”
John notes that in today’s fast-paced world, their job as event professionals is to simplify the process for the tournament or event organizers. He wants their busiest clients to be able to plan a successful event and still keep more important commitments, like their kids’ baseball games.
In the end, their business is really about supporting people. “We are in the relationship business,” says Athena. “So if we have a discussion with someone, we can help them reach their goals.”
John adds that it’s also about teamwork. “It’s hard work, but it should be fun work. So if you get the right people behind you; next to you that are helping support the event, it makes that job so much more fun.”
Setting their sights on the future
Athena and John have plans for growth. Five years down the road, they hope to be involved in many more events.
“I hope we’re doing the same thing we’re doing today, but three times as big,” says John. “If we can motivate, help, support more than 300 events a year, we’ll be very proud of what we’re doing. But most importantly, if we build friendships with everyone we work with, it’s that much bigger of a win for us.”
With Athena’s marketing and tech background, she knows that having a strong online presence is going to help drive Green Barn Events’ future growth. The team uses their website to showcase event photos and videos so potential clients can quickly get a sense of the caliber of their work.
Green Barn Events — Creating a fun workplace atmosphere
No doubt about it — Athena and John are dog people. “Our best employee is Maggie, our English Golden Retriever,” says John. “We do a lot of events that benefit animals, whether it’s the shelters, or animals that have passed away, or the ASPCA. So Maggie’s our inspiration.”
John swears that having a dog onsite during events can actually help keep the organizers calm during the frenzied last-minute preparations.
Once upon a time, a prospective client visited their offices and failed to acknowledge the presence of an adorable puppy sitting on the conference room floor. The Green Barn Events team thought that didn’t bode well for the working relationship, so they chose not to pursue the opportunity. “Because if you can’t bend down and pet a puppy, you’re probably not going to want to work with John and [me],” says Athena with a smile.
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Also published on Medium.