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How to Start a Speakers Bureau: Talking with David Lavin
The Lavin Interview | July 11, 2012

How to Start a Speakers Bureau: Talking with David Lavin

With two big developments at The Lavin Agency—our move to a bigger office, and the launch of our new website—we sat down with David Lavin to talk about the history and future of a speakers bureau that started two decades ago when, looking for something to do, David decided to invite Hunter S. Thompson to give a speech. That first event was followed by the much-loved Toronto Star lecture series, which morphed into The Lavin Agency, which has grown from a solo shop into one of the world’s most prestigious speaking agencies, with offices in New York and Toronto, and a staff of thirty.

In a frank conversation, David discussed his driving philosophies: where he finds good speakers, what aggravates him about bad speakers (“They’re unnecessary.”), why he’s not concerned with running the biggest speaking agency, why phones are superior to email, what keeps him going, and much more. Any entrepreneur who’s ever tried to expand a one-person operation while staying true to their core beliefs (not always a given) should be able to relate.

Here are a few excerpts. You can read the whole interview, here.

On starting a business:

The first year was tough. I made the mistake of doing what everyone else was doing. I said, “We have ten thousand speakers, tell me who you want and I'll get them for you.” After a while I realized that was just a stupid way to do business. It made no sense. All of my assumptions were terrible, and I realized that all of the other business models that the other agencies were using didn't work for me. I didn't want to do what everyone else was doing; it wasn't very intellectually stimulating. So I just started doing what I wanted to do, crossed my fingers, and hoped it would work. I started to look for speakers I believed in. I went out and found people that I thought were interesting—incredible people who, sometimes, had never given a speech before. Since nobody else thought to represent them, they were happy to be represented by us. So that's what I did: I found interesting people and called up organizations and said, “These people are interesting, here's why, and here's what they'll do for you. Here's the fit.” Over a few years, we went from zero events to over 450 a year. That first year was lean, but year two was okay, and year three was amazing. In fact, we’ve literally grown every year we’ve been in business.

On the future of the agency:

There are fundamental problems in North America that need to be solved. I think education is a huge issue. The idea that people bankrupt themselves for an education for a job that pays them $30,000 a year is unsustainable. The healthcare debate, the energy debate—these are all discussions I think we need to be a part of. I look for keynote speakers who can provide solutions to those things, because we have severe problems that need advanced thinking. We're not going to solve these problems with the same thinking that got us here. So that's what's exciting—looking for people who actually have solutions, and working with them to get their solutions in front of as many people as possible.
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