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“At the age of 15 here I am dealing with these multi-millionaire sports athletes that have no idea I’m 15 years old. If they had found out they probably wouldn’t have dealt with me. But, once a couple of them did find out I was young they actually took me under their wing, and they introduced me to pretty much everyone in the professional hockey league.”
By: Ben Mullins, Contributor
We spoke to Aman Gupta, the founder of Fan Expo, the largest pop culture fan experience in Canada. He started running events at the age of 15, and has grown Fan Expo into a brand which now hosts 500,000+ fans a year at over 12 events within North America. We asked Aman about his inspirations, barriers to entry, how he builds a team, and what the future holds.
Leaders In: Hi Aman, could you give us a brief background on how your entrepreneurial career started?
Aman Gupta: It actually started in high school, it started I guess at the age of 15. So I was collecting sports cards, I had met some friends who were collecting sports cards and from there I ended up buying and trading the sports cards and attending these different events. I guess sports cards conventions they were called. Seeing these events, one of the buddies I was with said, ‘well why don’t we put one of these on ourselves?’. The sports card market in the early 1990’s was blazing hot, it was one of those situations where you could do anything at any time and you’d have hundreds of people show up. So we entered this market by running our first event in 1990, and we had hundreds and hundreds of people show up and at the age of 15 making five or six hundred dollars was actually quite a bit of money, so decided to do a few more. We kept having success in this and then the friend I had at the time was into comic books and he suggested we tried a comic book version of the show, and I said, ‘sure, why not?’.
I think what we really enjoyed was actually running the events, more so than the content of the events. Obviously, it’s helpful if you have knowledge of the content of the event, but it was the idea of putting something together, planning it, seeing it through and seeing the number of people that show up and the enjoyment they have. That’s really how it started, I did this right throughout high school and we scaled up. I was doing one of these events a week and I was doing pretty good whilst being at school, from there I went to university and I continued my business and running events in the city, I was at school in Ottawa for my first year of university, so I ran events out there and it was a pretty decent income, to pay for all the partying you would do out there as well as the university education.
From there I moved back to Toronto and I kept building my business up and I started FanExpo in 1995. By that point I didn’t have a partner anymore, he decided he wanted to go into a different line of work all together. So, 1995 I started this comic book convention and I wasn’t really a comic book fan, but I really enjoyed putting these events on. And, it had a very successful first year, the reason the idea of the comic book convention came about was, while I was in the sports cards and we ran sports card events, there was one national sports card collectors’ event that happened on an annual basis. When I looked at the comic book industry, there was no such thing there. So, I thought, let me make a national event for the comic book end of things, which is what I did. It was on every year I was in university and it grew every single year, we added new features to it on a yearly basis and this really paid for my schooling, to be honest with you and by the time school was done, I was doing quite well with this event. I think I graduated in 2000 and I looked at it and thought, ‘Huh, I could go and get a job or I could continue with this business and I don’t think there’s any job coming out of university that would have paid me the money that I was already making running the FanExpo events. So, that’s really how it started and once I had graduated university, I really put all my effort into it and it grew, grew and grew. To the point that by 2013, I sold it to Informa. So, that’s how it all came about.
Leaders In: One of the factors that makes your entrepreneurial and leadership journey so unique is that age at which you started. What were the biggest barriers you started when you started out?
Aman Gupta: My parents. Growing up in an Indian household, your parents have expectations of you. The expectations are you’re either a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant or and engineer and if you’re none of those four, for the most part, and obviously I’m stereotyping here, you’re not successful. But up until 2 years prior to selling FanExpo to Informa, my father was saying, ‘stop this foolishness and go and get a real job’, not realizing what was actually happening. So, I’d say my parents were my real barrier. As any teenager out there, as a teenager we know best, the parents know nothing. Fortunately, in my situation it really did work to my benefit, but yes there were a lot of fights and arguments with my parents. They really wanted me to conform to one of those four pillars, but everything is good now, it all worked out really well. I think my parents look back and say, ‘huh?’. But that being said, with my children, I’m the same way my parent were with me. What I look for with my kids is stability and something that’s going to give them a good life, and I had a bit of luck in there. Obviously, I had a lot of experience in there starting so early that by the time I was 25, I had a lot of experience doing a lot of different things. Which has really helped me to where I’m at.
On another note, at the age of 15 I started dealing with professional sports athletes. Another part of the business I started to venture into was the autograph market. When you run these sport collectable conventions and you bring out these athletes to sign autographs and meet with fans. And so, at the age of 15 here I am dealing with these multi-millionaire sports athletes that have no idea I’m 15 years old. If they had found out they probably wouldn’t have dealt with me. But, once a couple of them did find out I was young they actually took me under their wing, and they introduced me to pretty much everyone in the professional hockey league. That’s how I got my first take of working with and handling famous people, which has obviously translated quite well into the FanExpo business, which gives us what we have today. Which is the best reputation out there amongst talent at our events. So it really comes back to the day when I was 15 years old and working with these hockey players to do these events.
Leaders In: With access to the internet growing and the cost of use falling, now more than ever people have the resources to venture into various forms of entrepreneurship, whether that be e-commerce, web design, and so on. Given your experience what advice would you give to any aspiring entrepreneurs?
Aman Gupta: So, this advice will really go for anything. Find something that you like and be the foremost expert at that one thing. I run consumer events, I love running consumer events. I’ve worked at them now for almost 25 years, actually 30 years now technically. I love what I do, but I have a lot of experience. I’ve really specialized in this one particular facet of event production and I’ve done quite well with it. So I really truly believe if anyone out there can specialize and be the absolute best at that one thing, you will succeed.
Leaders In: Part of building a successful business is, of course, the people you surround yourself with, are there any qualities you are always looking for in a team member or business partner?
Aman Gupta: I look for people smarter than me. I want my team to be the smartest people out there. I put people together, so I build a team, I look at the smartest people in each of the different categories I need. And all I do is help them communicate. If I have the smartest people around me, I can now put these puzzle pieces together and make it work.
Leaders In: Having grown FanExpo for nearly 25 years now, you must have overseen a huge amount of change, technological or other. What areas do you see becoming increasingly influential or important to your industry over the next 25 years?
Aman Gupta: Evolution is key, being adaptable to change, nothing lasts forever. You have tastes changing, you have fads coming in and out. You need to be prepared to make a move when needed and for that you need to have a very strong foundation. Because the foundational elements of running events are the same, but the content within them changes. So, over the years certain things get hot, you go with it, they cool off, then the next thing comes about. If you’re not flexible and open minded, then you’re going to be lost.
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