Creating an Environment for Connection
Entrepreneur Spotlight: Messenger Aspen
by Skippy Mesirow
Stephanie Janigo is an Aspen Entrepreneur through and through. As a Founder of Messenger Aspen, she has strived since day one to serve her community, give back, learn from others, work collaboratively, and show up for those around her in myriad ways.
Her journey has not been linear, straightforward, or easy. She has learned a lot, and we can learn a lot from her and from Messenger Aspen. Messenger Aspen is an online event guide. They specialize in nightlife and music, as well as party planning and event coordination, and so much more. In truth, what Messenger does is strive at each turn to create an environment for connection.
Strap in for this Aspen Entrepreneur feature, and take time to process what was, what is, what could be, and how you can do it too.
Its 3:30pm on a coolish Fall day, I sit outside Peach’s Cafe and gaze out at a red-tinged sky hanging over Aspen Mountain. The haze causing the red-shift creates a reflective veneer in the afternoon glow. Peering across the table I see an equally reflective look in Steph’s eyes. She looks like a woman who has been somewhere, is going somewhere, while still trying to place just where all of that might be. She’s steely yet light, determined and pensive.
Across from her sits Miller Ford, Messenger Aspen’s newest team member and content writer. Miller’s frame is still, but you can feel the energy and passion pour from him, even without accompanying movement. It’s uncanny.
They have clearly stumbled on one hell of a team. Stephanie is the mast and the rutter: cool, calm, driven, poised in her vision and determination, the strong force keeping the ship afloat, on track and driving forward. Miller is the oars and the flag, smashing about in the water and displaying the sign for all to see. He gives life and color to the mission and reminds all who are watching just why this ship is so special. In many cases, you catch him offering words to match Steph’s internal dialog before she lands them. She smiles, nods in agreement, and on they go.
It’s a beautiful thing to observe. They did not get here with ease or even expectation. Messenger’s motto it #FollowTheFun, and they have, and we are all better for it. Here is a vantage into their journey.
Messenger began in 2014, inspired by Steph’s time living in Chamonix, and interacting with its bi-monthly “Chamonix Messenger” nightlife magazine. Upon returning to Aspen and working in the service industry, Steph would receive frequent questions about the what’s what and who’s who around town, Steph sensed that Aspen needed a single repository of nightlife information. Her childhood friend and co-founder Phoebe Lloyd agreed, and brought complementary skills to the table… Messenger Aspen was born.
Or so they thought. Initially envisioned as a nightlife calendar driven by ad and placement revenue, they were surprised to find no takers for their ad placement. The pushback was this: “How do we know that you have pull?” and “How do we know there is ROI for us if we give you money?”
But as these doors closed on them, another crept open. Ian Perry, Owner of Escobar and Grey Lady said “Prove it! Throw a party and if people come, then I will know you have pull.” So they did, throwing their first Messenger Aspen party at Escobar. The theme was “FUNK” - they chose it because they wanted something unique, not just another night out. They intended to take some of the old Aspen “spirit” that people regularly bemoaned losing, and bring it back. This night would not be about bottle service, though that is fine too, it would be about being weird, getting real, doing the worm on a dirty floor… and so they did, and it was a HIT.
People were sick of the same old stuff, and Messenger grew from a tight-knit, outgoing community of people who wanted to do things differently.
They began to throw many events and introduce various event series. This was not part of the original plan, but they soon realized that these parties were the excuse they needed to make the right connections: to meet concierges, to talk to community tastemakers, to demonstrate their worth to club owners, to work with DJs and party planners, and to connect directly with their audience. They drove their credibility with action, hard work, and proof.
“We ran down tunnels, then turned around and started over a lot. A full year was figuring out who we were.” Steph says.
From the outside, it was all good. The company was growing, events were hopping, people were paying them - for events, for advertising - people knew who they were. On the inside, however, things were not always so good.
The founders began to diverge in their visions, the day-to-day became stressful, even contentious. This went on for months. Though Steph never got to the point of actually wanting to quit, she often got close. She felt lucky that at each inflection point when she was close to throwing in the towel, a person, a friend, a customer, or a resource popped up and reminded her why she got in this in the first place. Phoebe too found support in the community.
Messenger Aspen was part of Aspen Entrepreneur’s second cohort group and each partner looks back at that experience as helpful in shaping their futures, preserving the company, and maintaining their friendship.
In the end, the partners mutually parted ways, Phoebe staying on as a silent partner while finding inspiration to start Bare Change a climate change activism platform. Aspen is certainly better for having both of these organizations thrive.
It’s easy to feel witless, untethered, and unconnected. In others, we stay connected. Over time, Steph met others who were supportive. Miller Ford is a primary example. They met at a dinner party, Miller was writing for another online social, and Steph wanted a content creator. The bond was immediate. Miller was so taken, he would have worked for free (Steph did not know that at the time) and offered him cash. They both get a big chuckle out of that now.
“The fundamental goal of Messenger is to ‘Follow the Fun,’ bringing the history of Aspen to a new age with new tools, and this needs to live on!” says Miller. His passion is clear and his perspective and support for Steph is immutable. “The puppy has grown into a dog. Steph knows that it grew-up but could not see it because she is there every day. I came in late, and I can see it. I don't have the reservations she does because I did not have to go through the struggles, so I just show up wanting to boost it. To give her the support she needs internally one on one, and externally through putting the words to the vision. I help remove the clouds.”
Steph was lucky enough to have Miller step up at the right moment, to have the Aspen Entrepreneurs co-working space open up at the right moment, to find a support group in Aspen Entrepreneurs - “being around like-minded, curious people really helped me push through” - but of course, she put in the time and work; those were her choices and actions. All this simply helped her to keep moving forward, it could not do it for her.
Now over two years into Messenger’s journey, stuff is still is not easy, but it’s stable, it’s fun, and it’s working. This offseason, Messenger is debuting new features and content. The one-year plan is to “Reach everyone, consistently. Become a viable information source that is sought out. Tourists check it out when they get here, and locals use it as a resource for their own success.”
They will still be throwing legendary parties, and will be releasing timeless classics like Bartender of the Week, but they will also be introducing new features like Who’s Who: People About Town and new splashy event partnerships. They are interviewing and hiring new people, looking to expand and grow further; they have learned a lot.
Miller says this about getting on board with startups: “Have faith, you need to feel it, trust it, and know that’s where you need to be. Be willing to do the sweat equity or don’t get involved. The startup itself is a team member and you should want it to succeed as its own entity. It can’t be about you or your agenda.”
Steph recounts the journey to date. “Patience is key. If you stick with something long enough you will get there. There are lots of ups and downs, don’t quit too early and it will work out if you maintain vision, faith, and persistence. Surround yourself with people who support you, good or bad, it is really critical. Not everyone will see the vision right away, don't get disheartened, and don't argue, just show them, and then they will get it and come around. Migrate towards the people that do see your vision rather than convincing others who do not of your worth or your business’s worth - for nothing else if not energy conservation.”
Sounds like sound advice to us. To learn more about Messenger Aspen, check in on events on their calendar, or work with them, visit http://www.messengeraspen.com/.
Party on Wayne? Party on Garth!