The Sad, Strange Story of NMX and TBEX
As a freelance writer and social media professional, I try to use my Internet powers for good. I may overshare but there are a few lines I don’t cross. For example, I ask my family for permission before I post anything about them, I don’t publicly call out brands, and I never complain about former clients. Today I’m breaking two of those rules.
As someone who specializes in online community development, I know how important it is to be transparent. I’m big on communication and don’t believe in leaving people hanging. I think you’ll agree with me that when the people you work with don’t respond or keep you informed, it makes for an awkward situation at the very least.
I’m telling you all of this to set up my story. It’s a story I’ve been wanting to tell for almost two years, but haven’t done so because I didn’t want to hurt former colleagues. You may know parts of the story, but you probably don’t know what all went down.
Today, I’m finally going to tell you what happened with NMX.
It’s a long story and I may ramble a bit, but I’m tired of pretending and making excuses.
Note: Since I wrote this, I’ve made several updates throughout the post. Sorry if it gets a bit long.
My dream job
I was at SXSW in March, 2010, when I was invited to work as conference director of what was then called BlogWorld & New Media Expo. At the time BlogWorld was THE conference for bloggers and social media professionals. Everyone in the blogging and social media world wanted to speak there. Everyone who was anyone wanted to attend. I made important connections through BlogWorld. It was the one conference I attended every year.
I began working for BlogWorld in April, 2010. I put all my passion into the job and it showed. In fact, everyone said our 2010 conference was the best ever. I found my true calling and it was my time to shine. I made wonderful connections, introduced some (now) very important people in social media and online content creation, and began receiving invitations to speak at other conferences.
For the first time ever, I absolutely loved my job.
Ignoring the red flags
It wasn’t that I wasn’t aware of the problems, or even that I ignored them. I solved those that affected me and made other people aware of the problems that affected them. However, there were a few issues that I let go and probably shouldn’t have.
I enjoyed working with the owner when he was on and considered him a friend. However, as time went on he began having meltdowns and had a habit of disappearing for weeks without notice. Because we needed his approval for so many things, his random check outs really screwed us over.
The first incident I remember is The Great Meltdown of 2011. We were putting together a conference in Los Angeles and the owner disappeared for a couple of months when when we were at our busiest planning stages. It was frustrating because People were waiting on me and I was waiting on him. I mean, how do you keep telling people — for months — that you’re waiting for a response from your boss who is ignoring everyone?
One day the owner called to tell me he checked out because he was getting a divorce and wasn’t taking it well. I felt bad, wished him well, and did my job the best I could without his help. However, speakers, track leaders, and other people who needed answers weren’t so sympathetic. These types of disappearances happened more often than not.
People not getting paid
Another red flag popped up soon after The Great Meltdown of 2011. People began writing to me for help in getting paid. My invoices were always paid on time, so I assumed that when anyone wasn’t paid it was a fluke. I passed on the information and usually that was the end of it.
Eventually these incidents became more commonplace.
Relationships didn’t last
One pattern I found worrisome was the inability to establish long term relationships with clients, vendors, speakers, sponsors, and others. For example, during the time I worked with BlogWorld (and then NMX), we worked with three or four different event planning companies. However, none of those relationships lasted longer than a year. Ditto marketing professionals. None of them lasted more than a year or so. Management always parted ways after complaining those businesses or professionals didn’t “get” what we were trying to do. We learned not to get too close to certain people because we knew they wouldn’t last.
I eventually came to realize the people and places we worked with were frustrated because of the lack of communication and random disappearances, not because they didn’t know how to blog.
Poor Choices and Not Acting on Ideas
One frustration we had with the owner was with keynotes or content and programming for the conference. We were a creative team and had great ideas for making BlogWorld both a fun and valuable event. However, we knew nothing would ever come of it.
Half the time the owner ignored our ideas. Other times we’d start working on ideas, but because the owner didn’t respond or handle what was needed on his end, the ideas fell through the cracks.
The owner felt keynotes had to be big time famous people. It was fun when Chris Hardwick, Penn Jillette, or Kevin Pollak participated in panels, and our attendees enjoyed our closing talkshow keynotes. It was frustrating, though, because we had to turn down leaders in our industry. The owner just didn’t feel as if they were keynote-worthy. Many important people stopped speaking at or coming to our events because they wanted to move beyond breakout sessions and “super sessions.” (And also at frustration over the aforementioned disappearances and communication issues.)
One of the times the owner finally had a blogger on the closing keynote panel, the owner introduced her by showing one of her videos. In the video she made a cake with a vibrating dildo. People walked out. It was the first time I didn’t defend one of his poor choices. I made it clear I would never get behind that kind of programming. We fielded complaints for months and I always felt that incident was the beginning of the end. It was as if the owner lost touch with his community.
Changing direction every year
The whole team grew frustrated at the inability to stick with a direction, especially when we were doing so well. When I first began working for BlogWorld, we had our greatest success. We mostly focused on blogging, but management wanted to encompass all of new media. They brought in podcasters, began a social business element, and added web TV to the mix. Blogging, the reason the conference was started in the first place, began to take a back seat to the other platforms. I made my objections known. When the name of the conference was changed from BlogWorld to New Media Expo (NMX), I knew we’d lost the blogging community.
NMX was inconsistent. It changed venues and couldn’t stick to a specific time of the year. It even broke up into “East” and “West” until we parted ways with the event planners in New York. We co-located with bigger conferences and brought in award shows and red carpet events. We had no budget to bring in truly awesome programming and people had to pay for their own food and drinks at parties. The only refreshments were sponsored. At one party the only freebie was vodka. It was confusing.
Our attendees were moving on to more focused and better produced events. The owner couldn’t understand why they were abandoning us for other conferences. Sales couldn’t understand why we were losing exhibitors. Management either didn’t want to hear the truth or didn’t believe it.
Around the same time management was mulling a name change, they bought TBEX, a conference for travel bloggers. The team had mixed emotions when it came to TBEX. Of course, we were happy to see our company expand, but some of us were worried that NMX — floundering after the name and direction changes — wouldn’t receive the attention it deserved.
TBEX was fun for the staff who worked on it. It was easier to sell than NMX, which was confusing to potential sponsors. Also, TBEX was profitable and NMX wasn’t. It was a shiny jewel that took its staff to exotic locales while the rest of us watched from our home offices. Sales and marketing spent more time working on TBEX than NMX and it showed. We weren’t jealous as much as we were frustrated. With management’s very limited attention divided, it was getting more and more difficult to properly plan and execute NMX. TBEX was everything we wanted NMX to be.
The first time I quit
As the company grew, so did staff. Most of us got along very well, but every now and then the guys would hire someone who didn’t pull his or her weight. We were used to some wonky hires, so we tried to work with these people as best we could.
The communication problems became bigger than all of us. I remember when a prominent industry professional asked if the owner ignored my emails too. I was mortified but made the usual excuses.
When the money issues started morale just tanked. NMX didn’t exactly pay a high salary and when the money doesn’t come in at all it’s a difficult thing to justify. Our team lost its passion. Everyone complained about everyone else. No one was happy. Eventually I became so tired of all the pettiness, not getting paid on time, and especially the lack of communication and gave notice.
In which I do something really stupid
When the opportunity to come back to NMX presented itself a year later, I was torn. On the one hand, I really loved that job. But they also had issues. Big issues. Most of the people I worked with before weren’t there anymore. Would I return to more of the same?
I had some really good clients after I left NMX, but the work didn’t leave me as fulfilled as when I worked with the NMX community. Despite my gut (and my husband) telling me not to go back, I went back.
Because I am an idiot.
Shame on me.
I noticed the problems right away. Partners and investors bailed. The owner was back to ignoring my Skypes and emails and never showing up for team meetings. There was no budget for anything. Sales was so busy with all things TBEX, NMX was severely neglected. Not a single person on the team was happy. Every conversation included complaints about the owner. I made a big mistake in coming back.
The event company we were working with wasn’t happy with management, and management wasn’t happy with them. I recognized the pattern. I knew we’d eventually part company. Instead of being surprised when the owner didn’t show up for meetings, we were surprised when he did. Not a day went by where at least one team member wasn’t Skyping to vent frustration.
The conference was a mess. It was co-located with the NABShow, a move that pretty much nailed the coffin shut. They spread us out, diluting the community spirit of our events. Their audience wasn’t our audience and it showed. Rooms were empty and speakers vowed to never work with us again. I worried about my relationships with many of our speakers. Would the dismal showing reflect poorly on me? (Hint: It did, and I’ve been working to rebuild many of those relationships.)
Normally, we had a staff room at conferences, and breakfast and lunch were brought in for the team. At NMX ‘15' our lack of budget was clear. There was no staff room, and really no place for us to go to decompress. We were on our own for meals. There were no team dinners and no team photos. Heck, we didn’t even have the budget for a photographer.
As usual, management complained that NABShow didn’t get what we were trying to do. The truth is, NMX’s demise was management’s fault and no one else’s. The owner completely checked out on NMX. He didn’t pay people. He didn’t respond to people. He didn’t do any thing to help.
The Virtual Ticket Death Knell
Everyone who bought a VIP pass for NMX also received access to a “Virtual Ticket,” a private membership site featuring recordings from the conference. Normally the Virtual Ticket was made available to VIPs, speakers, and paid subscribers about a month after the conference. However, with the owner no where to be found, that wasn’t happening.
NMX ’15 was in March, so the VT should have been available by the end of April. I cut a little slack because we put on TBEX in Spain two weeks after NMX, but here we were moving in to May. Not only did we not have a Virtual Ticket, but I was receiving no response to inquiries and status checks. This was putting me in an awkward position with the NMX community, as they were starting to ask questions. How do you tell your online community that management is ignoring you and, thus, you can’t help them?
Imagine that you have a very good relationship with your customers. Now imagine they’re not getting a product they paid for in good faith. Now imagine you aren’t getting any answers from management. There’s no ETA. No status report. No response to questions. But still, you can’t ignore your online community. So you respond and hope for the best. You tell them that the Virtual Ticket is coming. You tell them “they’re” working on it. You tell them you hear their complaints and you’re sorry for the inconvenience. And you continue to beg, yes, beg, for a response from management. Your customers and community don’t want to hear your vague answers anymore. They begin to lose faith in you.
Now imagine how hard it is to breathe when you’re thrown under the bus.
The final last straw
At one point NMX stopped paying me. The owner’s lack of response to my inquiries was upsetting. Not only did he owe me for work I did with NMX and TBEX, but he also owed me expenses for costs incurred when traveling and working for both those conferences. Moreover, it was difficult for anyone who worked on NMX or TBEX to make decisions and get things done with management going dark on us all the time.
You might be wondering why I continued to stick around. Besides my being an idiot, I mean.
I was worried that if I left, there would be no one to advocate on behalf of the NMX community. They were upset over their Virtual Ticket and I was worried that no would help them in my absence. Also, the owner had finally contacted me after about month of ignoring me and promised payment very soon. He told me he was dealing with a new baby and a sick mother and it was all so very overwhelming.
When payment didn’t come as promised, I left NMX for good. I was frustrated with poor treatment the NMX community was receiving and even more frustrated that no one else in the company seemed to care.
My second stint with NMX lasted all of eight months.
Around the time I left, I learned there was a long line of people waiting to be paid by BlogWorld/NMX/TBEX. I heard of tax liens, garnished bank accounts, bounced checks, and lawsuits. NMX bought an awards show a few years earlier and the former owner repossessed due to lack of payment. Apparently I was going to have to wait in line if I wanted to be paid.
Since the owner didn’t respond to emails, Skypes, texts or calls, I sent an email around to the entire team letting them know I quit. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later — when he made a rare appearance on a team call — that the owner learned I was gone. Apparently he was surprised to find that (despite lack of payment and ignoring every communication I sent) I wasn’t still working. Not only did he not respond to my emails, he apparently didn’t read them either. He has yet to acknowledge my resignation.
The last time the owner and I spoke was July 17, 2015. I know this because it was my birthday. He didn’t call to offer well wishes, though. He called to give me more excuses about his sick mother and new baby, and vague reply about virtual tickets. He again promised payment but I wasn’t holding my breath.
It gets worse…
As I expected, no one worked on NMX in my absence. No one helped the NMX community, either. No one answered questions or replied to those who requested refunds. The social media accounts stand frozen in time, with no posts since July 2015. The NMX community, frustrated by the lack of response regarding the Virtual Ticket began complaining on Twitter. It upset me that not a single member of the NMX team gave them the courtesy of a reply. No one’s even touched the Twitter or Facebook accounts since I left. The blog is dead.
Soon after I left, a former teammate took issue to my suggestion that if the owner checked out, someone else had to step up and respond to the community. I was angrily told that NMX was the owner’s problem. “What can I even tell them?” she asked. Telling your customers you hear them and understand their frustration may not solve the problem, but at least they’re not feeling ignored or swindled out of their money.
I felt as if I was the only one who cared about NMX. I don’t know if that’s true, but when I left it ceased to exist. It didn’t have to end that way.
The NMX community was loyal to us for many years. If the owner wasn’t responsive, someone else should have stepped up — but no one did. Our community didn’t deserve the treatment it received from the owner or his staff.
I began disassociating myself from NMX as I didn’t want people to think I was still involved with a company that doesn’t respond to its customers. Finally, about six months after NMX, the owner sent an email to Virtual Ticket Holders to apologize for his lack of response. The VT was finally ready. There were more of the same excuses, but I was glad someone was finally reaching out to the NMX community. Except when I learned that the VT didn’t work and the owner, again, wasn’t responding to anyone.
People began demanding refunds both online and via emails, only to receive more silence. Eventually someone put up a note on the NMX website. As a result of all the owner’s personal issues, he was stepping aside as CEO and someone else on the team was to take over. I felt this was a positive step in the right direction.
Why I’m writing this now
It’s 18 months later and NMX still owes me money. Earlier this year, I consulted an attorney, and we threatened legal action. I finally began receiving small monthly payments — but nothing since the beginning of November.( I suspect some of those payments came from a former colleague’s personal account.) While I have been paid the bulk of what I was owed, I am still out a couple of thousand dollars. To some people that’s not a lot of money. For me it is. But that’s not why I’m writing this.
I recently learned that the owner didn’t really leave the company. Instead, he ran TBEX’s European and Asian conferences. In fact, he used the European conference as springboard for a family vacation. I didn’t think it was fair of him to travel Europe while so many of us were waiting to be paid. Moreover, didn’t he just tell everyone he was stepping down? It was becoming more difficult to not speak out.
The owner and his enablers weren’t truthful to me, the NMX and TBEX community, and the people they owe money to and do business with. More staff left NMX and TBEX out of frustration with poor communication, the owner’s poor choices, and not getting paid.
Though I’ve shared bits and pieces of this story with some of my friends in the social media world, this is the first time I’m taking it public. I didn’t want to hurt my former colleagues at NMX, and I didn’t want to come off as vindictive. I don’t believe in public call-outs, nor do I believe in bashing clients and employers on social media.
However, there are people who might want to work for or do business with TBEX (there really isn’t an NMX anymore) and should know what they’re getting into. They should know about the poor communication, lack of payment, and lies. They should know that TBEX doesn’t have any money, even though they’re profitable because of all the debt incurred by NMX
And this isn’t to minimize my role either. I knew how the owner was and I went back to work for him. I saw the signs and the red flags. Worse, I made excuses for him to other people. I always assumed he would make good on his promises, and at the time I wasn’t aware of the extent of the devastation left in his wake.
I apologize to everyone who was affected by this. I apologize for also enabling the owner by making excuses to our community for his behavior.
I’m writing about this because people deserve to know what happened and what could happen again.
I hope you won’t judge me too harshly.
This post was difficult for me. I didn’t sleep the night before publishing or the night after. I worried about hurting the wrong people or saying something that crossed a line. The point of writing this wasn’t to make a personal attack or ruin a business. Instead, I wanted to warn people what might happen if they worked for/with this company.
When I woke up this morning I felt better. Actually, I was overwhelmed. My Facebook messages were off the hook. I am hearing from people who have stories to tell about working with TBEX, BlogWorld, and NMX. There were stories of unkept promises, lies, and non payment. Some of the stories were worse than mine. I hope people will continue to share. I hope people won’t be afraid to publicly tell their stories. No one deserves to be out money.
One thing I wondered — if so many people had bad experiences, why did no one speak up before now? And why do so many people continue to support this company knowing this is how they treat people? To read the stories, it wasn’t only those of us who knew how things were internally. Many others were aware of the issues with my former company.
I was worried that if I shared this story people would judge me harshly, or businesses wouldn’t want to work with me anymore. (My existing clients were fine with it.) Many people in the TBEX community expressed the same concern. There probably will be some of that, I’m not naive.
However, since writing this post several people have reached out to see if we could work together and I set up some calls for after the holidays. I’m grateful for those who aren’t holding it against me.
Anyway, thank you to everyone who reached out with support and stories. Thank you for letting me know I’m not alone and that you have my back. I have a feeling I’ll be sleeping much better tonight.
I wanted to be fair and include Rick Calvert’s responses to this post. I will avoid speculation as to whether or not I would have heard from Rick at all if I didn’t write my piece.
First the email:
Rick Calvert also commented on this post:
I want everyone who attends a TBEX event to know that during (at least) the past few TBEX events there has always been at least one member of the team working there without pay. Or there were staff members who haven’t received promised commissions — commissions that have been adding up for years. They chose to champion on despite not being paid. They didn’t want to let down attendees, clients, and sponsors. Those who became tired of broken promises moved on.
It’s insulting to write off all the poor behavior and failure to pay as “mistakes.” These are not isolated incidents. The long absences, poor communications, and unpaid debts weren’t mere mistakes, they were the norm. I find it ironic that someone who claims to want to “help content creators” has no qualms about treating them poorly.
To quote someone who reached out to me with his own story (but doesn’t wish to go public with it):
Rick disrespecting business relationships is putting it in the wrong light. They are all personal relationships. When he didn’t pay vendors on time or dragged payment out over time, there was a person behind it on the other end who didn’t get what was owed, or a commission, or got in trouble with his or her boss, or stressed out a husband or wife, or didn’t have money to take care of family…it’s never just business, it’s always people.
I hope you’ll think of those people the next time you attend or sponsor a TBEX event.
Another update 12/14/16:
I learned today that there are people who bought early bird passes for NMX 2016 (a conference that never came to fruition) and never received refunds. They haven’t heard from anyone at NMX since purchasing the passes, not even to tell them the event was canceled.
To explain: NMX 2016 was to have been co-located with NABShow last Spring, but NABShow pulled out of the partnership long before that. In June 2015, just before I left NMX for good, we began selling early bird passes for this event. I assumed once NMX 2016 was cancelled, Rick Calvert or someone else on the team contacted those pass holders with refunds and an explanation. I heard from two people today that this wasn’t the case at all.
Both people I spoke with said they let it drop because it’s not worth it to pursue $200. I disagree. Here’s hoping they and others will become more vocal about this, because it’s wrong on so many levels.
Several people questioned why I chose to share this via Medium. It’s not as strategic as has been suggested. I no longer have my social media blog, which is where I’d normally share this type of thing, and the content didn’t suit my other blogs. Moreover, I didn’t want to be accused of using this to drive traffic to my interests.
I’ve also been receiving invitations for interviews on blogs and podcasts and I turned them all down. I’m not interested in going on a “Let’s Bash BlogWorld” tour. I had a story to tell, I told it, and I’m done. Probably this will all blow over in a week or so. As with many Internet scandals, this too will be forgotten, and we’ll all move to where we were before I posted here
I was listening to a podcast that was discussing my story and the word “disgruntled” came up. I think that’s fair. The owner of this company didn’t pay me for many months. He ignored my questions and ignored the NMX community. The reason I’m not quite over all of this is because I still don’t have closure. Other former staff had an easier time of moving past their NMX ordeals because they were eventually paid and didn’t have to take legal action. They had closure.
Though it’s obvious I am disgruntled, I hope it’s clear I presented my case out of frustration rather than being angry, petty, or vindictive.
Update 1/3/17 — My long nightmare is over.
I am now paid in full for all my work with NMX and TBEX over 19 months ago.
I received a cashier’s check for the entire balance owed and can FINALLY put this nightmare to rest.
There are still many people who are owed money by the owner of NMX and TBEX, a few have given up ever getting paid. I encouraged them to fight until they get every penny that’s due to them. If they owe you money, I hope you’ll fight for it too. If you bought a ticket to NMX 2016, I hope you’ll continue pressing for a refund.
Management is telling TBEX sponsors and attendees that they’re all caught up with their debts. This isn’t true. I know people who are still waiting to get paid.
The moral of the story? Sometimes you have to take extreme measures to get what you’re owed — even if they’re measures you wouldn’t normally take.
Chapter closed. Book closed. Deb out.