Lisa Jennings and Jane Schuliger Track Trends in Fun
Ask Wildly Different founders Lisa Jennings and Jane Schuliger about their three-year business plan, and you might not get the response you expected.
“We just laugh,” Jennings admitted. “We’re very much more the type to watch the trends and jump on what’s hot.” That might not work in some industries, but in the world of team-building event and activity planning, that “wildly different” strategy has proved to be key to their success and their partnership.
“Some people are so fearful of bending to a different way of thinking, or of making changes,” Schuliger said of their approach. “But if there is something that keeps popping up in your path, taking you in a new direction, don’t be so scared to go where life is taking you and where the success is coming from.”
That’s exactly how both Jennings and Schuliger came to be entrepreneurs. Jennings was attending Florida State University with “no idea what I wanted to do,” she said with a laugh, when she met a friend majoring in “leisure studies.” “It turns out to be a fancy word for recreation,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wait, you can get paid to play for a living?’”
Schuliger agrees that the idea of working in “play” seemed farfetched. “When I went to school, this wasn’t a career that was brought up, ever.” Her path began early on with an internship at Walt Disney World. “That’s where I figured out that recreation, getting people to play, those were all things I was super passionate about.”
From then on, Schuliger dreamed of finding a way to weave together her work within the corporate setting and her independent streak. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and began working in the hospitality industry — this time in hotels, where she honed her skills and experience in team building.
After Jennings joined that leisure studies program that changed her course forever, she went on to an internship as well, coordinating events at South Seas Island Resort, a Captiva Island hotel then known as South Seas Plantation, before transitioning into other roles doing team building for corporate groups.
It was inevitable the two would cross paths. At one point they found themselves working for the same company, where the two of them often collaborated to create clues for treasure hunts that were part of client events. They thought how fun it would be to do that for a living someday.
They recognized how well they worked as a team, but the two friends were busy with lives headed in different directions. It wasn’t until the two started their own respective companies — Jennings with a business in event planning and Schuliger with one in meeting planning — that Wildly Different began to take shape.
“We started collaborating on projects together, and we did that so often that we realized it made more sense to just work together,” Schuliger said. “We were nervous because we were such good friends and we’ve seen other friendships get destroyed by going into business together, but finally we made it happen.”
Making It Different
Jennings pulled the name of the company from a book she was reading in all of her startup research. “It said, ‘It’s not enough to do a good job and provide a service. You must be wildly different.’”
It’s not only the events they plan that live up to the name, although their “Team Building for People Who Hate Team Building” offerings include elaborate and inventive escape rooms, murder mystery games, and scavenger and treasure hunts that would be enough to set them apart. Beyond that, the two say their success comes from their complementary creativity.
“In our industry, creativity counts,” Schuliger said. “Lisa is so brilliant within that realm. While she’s our out-in-front, go-getter salesperson, I handle operations, which allows me to be behind the scenes. I think our differences have been really important to our business. You have to find someone who’s not exactly like you.”
In their custom events, where a networking, team building or training event can be designed specifically with a company in mind, creativity means coming up with ways to blow their clients away.
“If, say, a pharmaceutical client is trying to develop a training program about its latest drug, we can take that info and weave it into the clues we create. We can create a custom escape room scenario where the group has to get into the doctor’s office, or past the receptionist, and escape with the prescription,” Jennings said. “We take your training materials, or what makes your company special, and weave it into these creations.”
On the customer service side, that same creativity helps them solve problems on the fly. “In the live event business, we’re conditioned to think, ‘What will go wrong?’ and ‘What’s another way to make this happen if it does?’” Jennings explained. “We’re always planning for worst-case scenarios, because with live events there is always something we have to be aware of.”
Together, and with their team behind them, they have become a well-oiled machine. “In the event industry, people are running a mile a minute,” Schuliger said. “If we can be the one cog in the wheel that gets them what they need in a timely and efficient manner, they’ll remember that.”
The partners have gotten used to constant change since founding the company in 2003. “People are always looking for what’s fresh and new,” Jennings said. “Every year we have to stop and re-evaluate.
“People are always wanting to build on the latest crazes,” Jennings added. “When we first started, it was a lot of treasure hunts, then a few years after that a lot of escape rooms. And then you add whatever’s trending in pop culture at the time. For instance, when a new game show comes out, we look at how we can create something similar.”
When COVID-19 emerged and live events were wiped from calendars, the partners adjusted quickly. Instead of waiting it out, they pushed their existing virtual programs to the forefront.
“We have a full team of talented people. They are family — we couldn’t do what we do without them — and it was essential that we kept busy, so nobody was let go,” Schuliger said. Quickly, they went from three to 19 virtual events, expanding their catalog by translating some of their live events into the virtual realm.
“From the client perspective, it was rewarding,” Jennings said. “They would do it and say, ‘It was so refreshing to be able to connect again.’ I think it was a relief to them to be able to offer more than just a regular meeting, but to vamp it up with something that gets people to interact.”
Now, as live events are returning, Wildly Different is still pivoting to the trends of today, with offerings that include virtual, in-person and hybrid. No matter what the latest trends turn out to be, Jennings and Schuliger have proved time and time again that their ability to provide consistency and reliability while embracing constant change is a formula that works, just like their partnership.
“My advice to anyone looking to start is to just do it,” Jennings said. “I knew I wanted to, but I waited and waited. Save your pennies, do your research, but when you do it, dive in full force.”
“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” Schuliger added. And when you do, she continued, it doesn’t hurt to have a good friend by your side. “When we’ve made those mistakes, we haven’t blamed each other. It’s more like, ‘Well, we made that mistake together,’ even if one person was driving it. That way, even in the things we’ve failed on, we’ve gotten stronger.”