When was Pinnacle Productions started?
Pinnacle Productions was founded in 2002. My ex wife and I were getting married and we decided just to DJ it on our own. Frank actually did it, my former brother in law. It’s funny, I kept him in the divorce 😊
The DJs that we had talked to, it just seemed like everyone was cookie cutter and regurgitated, and the only thing that was really changing was the name of the room and the venue and everything else was the exact same. The exact same introductions, the exact same dollar dance, exact same chicken dance and hokey pokey and all that cheesy crap that I personally wasn’t a fan of. So instead of paying somebody else to do it, we figured we’d take care of on our own.
Did you always want to be a DJ? Or was it just because of that situation was the reason why you started to DJ?
You know, I think for me, I grew up with music. My dad used to record on his Sony reel to reel in the 70s. He used to record the top 40 countdown and he was the first one I knew who would ever make mixed tapes, and while we never ever had a nice house or a nice car, we always had a really great radio, radio shack, realistic stereo system and that Sony reel to reel. He used to make mix tapes for the Opel GT and for friends. What I couldn’t understand, it’s like you’d see, Blondie, “Call Me”. Then there would be “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” (Stevie Nicks) or something like that on the mix tape, and then there’d be an UNK like U-N-K. I’m like, man UNK has a lot of songs! So I asked my dad what UNK meant, because when we grew up, you know, DJ UNK on was one of the artists that came out, but I think I was 14 when I finally asked my dad who’s UNK, I’ve never seen him, I’ve never seen a music video on night tracks or any of those things back and forth on TV. My dad goes, UNK means unknown. I don’t know who it is or who sings it. Here I was thinking, man, this guy has a discology! Better than Queen and better than the Rolling Stones. So that’s kind of how I developed a love of music. I have a photo that was shared with me by my mom, I was like a year and a half old and I was wearing a set of headphones and I was dancing to, I can only imagine it was either some combination, the Bee Gees or Michael Jackson or the Jackson Five or something.
I always loved music and when I was in high school, in my senior year, our DJ backed out, like two days before homecoming. So, we had gotten my dad’s home stereo system and a couple other friends receivers, and they’re both Sony’s, thankfully, so we hooked up their five disc CD changer into our receiver and the other receiver just piggyback RCA cables, so it went out one into two, then powered four speakers, and they gave us $300 to do the dance, and we spent way more than that on lights, cheesy pieces of junk from Spencer gifts. But watching the audience react to the songs we’re playing, because we were all the same age, I knew what those people wanted because there the same things I want. That was CNC music factory “Gonna make you sweat”, that was like really popular. “Rump shaker” by WRECKX-N-EFFECT. So that’s the type of stuff, like some stuff you still play at Wiley’s probably, right? (Editors note: Chris like to fabricate the music I personally play when I DJ) So. That was my first taste.
Then when I moved to Fargo, I worked for a KFGO and I worked for Ed Schultz back in the day before he went on to MSNBC and I used to host a radio talk program with him. Then I also played on Y 94 which was the equivalent of the top 40 station 104.7 here in Sioux Falls, the same company and they owned Music To Go, which was a franchise that I DJ’d a couple of weddings for when I lived in Fargo.
Then I also DJ’d a little bit down at Zorbaz in Detroit Lakes, and I really, really liked it, but I was working full time, 65 plus hours a week as a salesman, traveling most of mid to Northern Minnesota. I didn’t have a lot of time, and to be quite frank, DJs were getting paid $65 for a bar gig at the time, and a wedding was $95 and I could go make $3-400 bartending, so I did a lot of bartending and serving. I thought a lot about it when I moved back to Sioux Falls and started working at Homer’s. When I moved back, I transferred with my job at Farmer Brothers Coffee and took sales right down here. I didn’t know a lot of people and my girlfriend and I, we moved down here and it was like three months later we broke up. So instead of going out and spending money, like most of the kids my age, I wanted to make money. So I worked Fridays and Saturdays at Homer’s and develop really good relationships with a lot of people.
Victor Page is probably my best table I ever had. One night he tipped me $600! We ran out of Hennessy, they did two full bottles of Hennessy at the table. Hennessy at the time, was like $25 a shot and yeah, it was a big bar tab. It was like $1,400 was his bar tab, and he literally laid out $2,000 and said, keep it homie. As a server, it was one of the coolest things, but I kept thinking… this DJ right now is playing Bon Jovi on repeat every night, like 10 times, and he would talk a lot. He just talked a lot and he had no mixing skills or anything, and neither did I, but after we’ve got a couple other bars, you see Royski at the time was legit killing it. It was Acme or even DJ Wheelz before I knew wheels, the way they mixed music was just so much better than what Homer’s had at the time.
The DJ at Homer’s couldn’t make it one night so they asked me to DJ and ever since then I was like, this is way more fun than hoping you get a tip from one of your tables and the music that I was playing the first couple of nights that I DJ’d people were like… you know… it’s fine. If you liked one person’s style and you didn’t like somebody else’s, it’s ok. Basically, what it breaks down to is… I always loved music. I’ve always had a passion for music. I just never really knew how to make money at it.
I remember when it was four months after my wedding, I was sitting in Huron South Dakota at the Pheasant Inn and I had just gotten done with my route and it was 7:00 PM-ish. I started talking with my wife on the phone and we were talking about the DJ business and we spent like $2,000 in like three mouse clicks right before our wedding to buy all the stuff, and I thought, that’s good stuff. I actually remember buying the NADE Speakers because you’d get a free set of speaker stands with them and it was one less thing I had to buy. I talked to my wife and I said, you know, if we could get a couple other people to DJ for us, and if we could be booked 50% of the nights, we could bring in a 100K in revenue in a year.
Then it became a real thing. It was like, if I can make an extra 40 K profit on that a year, then my wife could quit her job as she loathed at the time. She hated that job. She hated getting up and going into work. It was just nice to be able to provide, and I felt that if we could make an extra 40 grand a year, it would supplement my income and get rid of her income and then we could have her home for the kids and being part of sports and all of those things that you want when you’re having a family.
That’s how it started. I’ve always loved sales, and I always had a lot of connections with some of that stuff was a pretty easy transition, but it was never something I… to see where it is now, where it was never in my wildest dreams.
In the beginning, you were doing just bar gigs, weddings, high school dances, so on. When do you think was the actual turning point to where Pinnacle Productions is today?
When we picked the name Pinnacle. That in of itself is like part of this conversation. I knew we were going to grow. I knew we would be able to be really good at what we did because I’m a perfectionist and I like to be really great. I’m not saying I’m great. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I want to be the best in the field that I’m in. In my other jobs, every single one of them I’ve had were sales and I always did well in sales, and I did well in the serving or bartending part of it. So I look at Pinnacle kind of pun intended, has had its plateaus. I think every business does. I think the first plateau when we first started it was… we’re going to try to do a bunch of bar stuff and DJ stuff. You know, a DJ means different things to different people, and I found out really quickly that the DJ’s that were playing at Acme and at Jams and even at Buck’s to some extent, had a lot of different skill sets in some of the ones that were going out to weekend warriors playing in these small town bars. If I played in a small town bar, it was, what games are you going to play? It wasn’t about what music you play or the setup you had. It was about what games you’re going to play. Everything from, you know, really cheesy, like, the orange underneath your chin and chest and do that stuff to other stuff that was even more, not my style. Then you had the other, that was all MC all talk. That was not my thing either. It was like, who were we? We started getting all these calls for karaoke, and karaoke was massive. 2002 to 2006, I think we started legit, I would say started in 2004… really as a commercial entity and we started doing karaoke and we started getting more and more calls for it and started recruiting people. People loved what we did and it was fun, it was really awesome. I would say from 2004 to 2007 we have massive growth. Karaoke kind of got us to that first plateau where we started getting really high name recognition. We were playing in every single place in Sioux falls. We were doing the 30 events a week between DJ and karaoke, not mixing or anything, just push play, and it worked.
The second plateau came probably, I would say six or so years ago, maybe a little longer. I think the smoking ban has been on for about 10 years now, hasn’t it? When the smoking ban came through, I thought we’d lose a lot of business and people started doubling down. So instead of people doing nothing and hoping people show up, like they wanted to do more things to get people to the bar, even if they had to have a designated smoking area outside. They still wanted to try to get people into the bar.
That helped a lot. We had kind of a little bump there afterwards and then we kind of plateaued. So for three years we did between, 1200 and 1500 events, but our average price per event was small, maybe $350. We started seeking more education and trying to cultivate the challenge a little bit. So we started pushing our guys to become mixers and actually mix the music and blend and beat match and all those things. Never was really big on scratching because I’ve never known how to do it. So I don’t know how to train someone to do it. To me, the scratching is about the DJ not about the music or the vibe, and that’s always been something I’ve struggled with. A great DJ can make or break an event, I agree with that, but I think it’s about creating the right vibe and the right tone, and I think some of the other stuff is showmanship, and rightfully so. There are people that are phenomenally good at scratching and can create a really great vibe just by that skillset. But that’s not for everyone. For us, it was just about what things are we doing to either get better as a skilled player of music? What are we doing to get better at being a proper MC?
Weddings became more more prominent after 2011. I saw Mark Farrell speak for the first time. It was one of my mentors, and I’ve encouraged every one of my DJs to go to one of his workshops, if at all possible, and we’ve probably dropped 30 K in the training with Mark. He’s just that good! His thing is about the love, like the love of a person, love of a brand, the love of a cause, and it really kind of made me have a paradigm shift. Then we started doing less events at more money, so obviously there’s more profit. We can pay our people a little bit more on most ends.
Then in 2014 I had gone through a pretty bad breakup from a seven year relationship that just dissolved and she used to help me a lot with the business and helped us a lot, a great deal. Very grateful for what she did for our business and how she helped run it. I just, I was at a point where I’m like, either I’m going to go small and do it myself and not deal with any employees or any other things anymore because I could have had substantially more profit, more money, and I wouldn’t have had any headaches. It would have just been me, but I love teams. I’ve always been a part of basketball teams and football teams and volleyball teams. I love that aspect. So it was, how can I do this? I wasn’t married and I wasn’t seeking a relationship by any stretch of the imagination at that time. Jeff and I, DJ Kor, we became friends in like 2010 and I reached out to him and we’ve developed a really good friendship. He was going through some struggles of his own, like almost an identity crisis, similar to what I was going through.
I said with his talent and his ability and the things that he does, he’s so meticulous about his approach to events and the attention to detail and his technological side. It’s just fantastic. Then my ability to network and talk with people and sell and you know, develop real relationships. It just seemed like a good match. Our second plateau was right before Jeff and I merged, and we were, like I said, both went through some, I think, soul seeking what we wanted to do and we decided to partner up. We developed a strategy. We developed a pretty aggressive growth plan. We wanted to do 20% growth per year for five years. We wanted to push the seven-figure mark as far as sales go. Margins are diminished when you’re scaling because everything costs a lot, but we exceeded those. In five years, we just about tripled our business. Jeff and I were both really good at different things. Where he was strong at marketing, I was not. I’m good at communicating with people and making sure that things that they want are easily translated. So not a lot of jargon. It’s not a lot of talk that’s over their head. It’s familiar and relatable and that was just a good fit for our teams.
I had worked as a subcontractor for an AV company for quite awhile, and we got our first call. We talked about getting into AV and we were just waiting for the right client. Then in 2016, Mike Evans called us from Aflac in Watertown. I had a good relationship with Mike. I had done events with my previous employer, with Mike, and you know, truth be told, Mike had asked when I was working for the other employers, like, Hey, why don’t you just buy the stuff and we’ll just work with you directly. This probably doesn’t matter to most people, but I, I literally told Michael, I’m not going to screw over the guy who brought me into the business. You know, if you leave him and you’re looking for something and you’re opening up for bids, I’d love an opportunity to give you an RFP (requests for proposal). It’s a pretty standard term for AV stuff. If you’re looking and you want to get rid of him, that’s on you. But I’m not going to screw over the guy who brought me in. It was three and a half, four years after we had that conversation that he called me out of the blue. He said we’re going to go with someone, so either you or somebody else. They gave us an opportunity to bid it and they trusted us and we learned a lot. We never had any big failures, but there’s always like one or two little glitches, you know, someone would unplug a cable or the venue staff would run over a cat five cable and you’d have a cut out of the projector screen for a couple seconds and come back on. They stuck by us and we learned a lot.
Then we started pushing it more and it’s really been one of the catalysts to the last five years being able to triple our business.
When you started Pinnacle, you probably had, what, four or five employees?
When we started, Pinnacle was just my wife, Kathy and I, and then Frank came on probably A year later. It took us about three years to hire outside of family. My brother Wayne helped us with a couple of small weddings and a couple of karaoke gigs and stuff, but that was a long time ago.
I would say Tony Fleecs was the first person. I would say in 2004 is when we hired Tony, who’s now an animator out in Hollywood, California. He actually is one of the guys who draws my little pony. He used to work here in Sioux Falls and he was my first non-family employee hire.
You go from that number to… what do you think you’re sitting at now for employees?
So for just straight W2, we’re at 36. We have about, I don’t know, a couple dozen people that are on our 1099. They’re not W2 employees. Subcontractors… probably have a couple dozen, maybe more.
Like I was saying earlier, you were doing strictly more bar gigs, weddings, stuff like that to now doing corporate events. What would you say is probably the biggest event that you’ve done so far?
This could go either two ways. When I look at like AV it’s, it’s not only like the audio visual stuff that we’re doing now, but then there’s also the other side of this, such as the tours and the production. Jeff is a tour manager for a Dutch EDM artists San Holo. He’s in the world top 100, he’ll probably top 100 in the U S here this next year. He is a B + / A – level artist and Jeff has been all over the world with him. By doing these tours and by going out on tour with these guys, the amount of knowledge that we’ve been able to soak up… the technology that we’ve been able to soak up puts us heads and tails, in my opinion, above a lot of talent and a lot of companies. The AV and production side of things has transitioned our business, 100%. We’ve always had an eye for detail. We’ve always known that music has a very powerful effect on most people. So now we’re just able to use some of the other tools from the production world, lighting, video, networking. Crazy how much networking goes on at these massive shows. Back to answer the question, the largest event. So that’s tough. So Jeff’s played or been to almost every single EDC in the world, every festival. So those, we’re not really producing, we’re managing the stage and stuff for the set and forecasting and there’s a lot to it. I’m not minimizing that whatsoever, but as far as like the biggest event that we’ve ever done, that’s tough. The USD legacy event when Dr. Abbott retired was one of the coolest events I’ve ever been a part of ever in my life. Like legit…I know people say, when you see something it like literally brings you to tears almost because you can’t believe that you’re… that was that event for us. We’ve worked massive events with Sanford profile, Pentagon, and now the stages and the shows that we’re doing. It’s no longer, you know, house level AV, it’s massive scale production stuff. The last few years, with Aflac, Vance Thompson Vision and everything from USD, and First Bank and Trust… working with them… Addie at the Event Company. She’s my hero. We’ve been able to develop a super strong relationship that’s helped open doors for both companies and I feel like really has provided an elevated standard for what people have come to expect. So that’s tough to say. There’s so many fantastic events and I feel like if I single one out it makes me feel disingenuous to the others, and we are so blessed.
What would you say is the coolest thing that you’ve been a part of to you personally? It’s not necessarily singling out a business, it could be something as a small karaoke show you did in 2008 or something… just any event that you just look back and be like, that might’ve been the coolest event or the most fun I’ve had as a DJ.
There’s a lot of those events and again, it’s like asking a DJ what his favorite song is and he’s going to say, well, that depends. 90s hip hop, 2000s rock. So it’s very difficult for me to discern one or two things, but I can say that I have had in the last year, I’ve had three weddings that I’ve played that I am mid set, thinking this is incredible. I get to do this for a living and I’m watching the crowd just go bananas.
New Year Eve shows are always trippy. They’re a trip, right? So, between Wiley’s and others, a lot of them are insanely packed. It’s super fun. Then the district (the headline image in this story), probably three years ago when I DJ’d that it was like 1500 people and everybody was vibing to what we were playing and it was music videos and the place… the energy was just bananas. It was the most people I’ve ever played in front of. I still have that photo up on my wall. It’s like all of these opportunities that we’ve been given, it was just about making the most of it and trying to, I think, in my opinion, be in the moment with it. But from a boss perspective, the USD event, YPN…
Any plans you can talk about that are announced that people can look forward to for Pinnacle Productions in 2020?
We have signed our first six figure deal with a client to produce all of their events in the upper Mid-West. We’re really excited about that. We have a ton of things in play that I can’t believe we have an opportunity to do. The Bernie Sanders rally a couple of years ago was pretty cool to be a part of too. I had a bunch of people ask after I posted… working tonight with a political candidate… Oh, who is it? What party? One who pays the bills! 😊 I don’t care. You know, to me, it’s more about giving an opportunity to perform in that stage is pretty cool, but I think 2020 is for us anyway, it’s a year of education, training and refinement. We really want to take what we’re doing to the next level. We want to start pushing our people and adding more staff to be able to handle the demand because right now we have a lot of people but we’re constantly pushing, and I think for me and Jeff both, I think it’s about pushing and it’s all about growing, but it’s also about training and refinement and policies, procedures, boring words for a production company. I think we’re just constantly on the edge of what’s possible and it’s stressful sometimes, but it’s something that definitely, when you get to take a step back and look at it from afar and see, just on a monthly basis, how many people we’re reaching, how many people we’re talking to, how many people were entertaining as a company and seeing our Christmas party this last year, like that photo from our Christmas party is on the front page of our Pinnacle employees, private Facebook group. Of all of the things we’ve ever done, seeing that photo makes me most proud because we’ve just hired great people and they happen to not all look like me. So I think when you look at staffing and you see all of the people that we’ve hired and the talent we’ve curated and the talent that has chosen to stay and work for us, it’s absolutely incredible.
I’m literally awestruck every time I look at that photo, I’m like, that’s such a great team. There’s so many things about our team that I’m very proud of. I’m proud of who we are, proud of where we’re going, I’m proud of our history and proud of our future and I’m proud that our team is as diverse… Diversity has been a buzzword for a long time, and I don’t think we ever hired anyone with the intent of filling out a profile box, right? It was always… hire good people, train them well, and then trust them to do their job and it’s worked out well. Very grateful.