Living the Dream: John Cosgrove

May 16, 2011 in Culture

Irishman John Cosgrove runs Cosgrove Trivia Challenge, a business which is based around the concept of trivia/interaction and entertainment for corporate events, in the USA.   Last year he returned to his Pub Quiz roots, creating a company that has only female hosts, Sassy Lassy Trivia.  I had a chat with him about making a living from quizzes.

John Cosgrove, a native of County Fermanagh, moved to Minneapolis just over 12 years ago.  Within a year he was hosting a monthly quiz in the Irish Pub he worked at.  Since then he has built a business based around hosting quizzes.

So, were you always into quizzing John?

“I wasn’t much into quizzing growing up.  The few experiences I had were fund-raisers for repairs to the local chapel or for the GAA club.  These were rare and the atmosphere was typically stale.  The host was usually one of the local school teachers and that style of classroom atmosphere was not attractive to young fella like myself.  I had a brother who attended a lot of local quizzes and was part of many winning teams as he was the expert on all things sport, which combined with the more intellectual types was a winning team combo.”

So how did you get involved in quizzes when you went to America?

“I got a job at a pub called Kieran’s, in downtown Minneapolis, when I arrived and shortly became a manager there.  We had a meeting to see how we could ‘milk’ the upcoming St Patrick’s Day celebration.  I suggested a pub quiz with Kieran himself as host.  I wrote the questions, cut out and photocopied the picture round etc.”

It went well, I presume?

“It was a great success and made us decide to host it more regularly, like once a month.  Kieran wasn’t available (he had bigger things on his mind) so I volunteered. ”

It wasn’t a case of being promoted from the crowd so.  You just went straight into hosting.

“I liked the role of being center of attention and having control of the crowd.  The success continued to build and I was the standard host every month.”

Successful enough that you decided it was worth going into hosting as a business?

“As the months progressed and the turnout increased, so did the demand for private events for birthday parties, company parties and even wedding receptions!  I was happy enough managing the bar but looked forward to constructing and hosting the quiz every month.  The private event calls did plant a seed for sure and, after moving away from Kieran’s to another pub (where the work was becoming a drag), I decided to launch a trivia business for private events.  I figured I would have little if any overhead and the returns were excellent.”

What was it like when you first started the business?

“I got off to the best possible start when a company called Boston Scientific (they have a plant in Ireland too) called me to put together a trivia event.  My wife and I just had our first baby and she was also self employed a psycho-therapist.  We knew it was a gamble but I figured if I could get at least two big corporate gigs a month then we could be in great shape.”

Did it work out like that?

“I didn’t get another one for six months!  But, by then, the bug was already there.  I joined professional events organisation MPI (Meeting Professionals International) and a few networking groups.  I was marketing my services to meeting planners and the like.  It was tough going as the economy was starting to slip and my services were sometimes viewed as just entertainment.”

Did your friends think you were a bit mad?

“My friends didn’t think I was a bit mad – they thought I was insane!”

What quizzing services do you offer now?

“I build trivia programs for corporate events and private parties.  I partner with a technology software company that supplies keypads where teams enter their answers via text and the answers are scored right away.  We then produce score boards and make it all very ‘game show-like’.  I have found in the United States that there is a big demand for instant gratification and glitzy presentation.”

That sounds excellent.  Have you tried any things that didn’t work?

John's least-favourite crowd

“A couple of times I assumed the demographic of a group and got it horribly wrong.  A law firm hired me for their Christmas party and I put together content that reflected what I thought was going to be entertaining to the group with Frank Sinatra music, intellectual and historical questions etc.  In fact, the group was a bunch of  80’s hair band wanna-bees who had little or no social class.  I learned that night to always get a clear idea of the attendees before building any event.”

Oh dear.  I’m guessing that’s a rare occurrence though.  What’s the best event you’ve done?

“The largest event was for a fast food company here called Buffalo Wild Wings at their annual sales conference.  There were 1,200 attendees in Orlando, Florida, and the production for the event was incredible with cameras, lights and special effects.  We had a lot of fun but it was a little intimidating.  Boston Scientific have hired me a few times for their marketing events and they are always fun as they have a strong connection to Ireland.”

Any novel plans for the future?

“Growth!  Trivia is rich resource that if nurtured and managed in the right way can harvested for great use.  I have a few ideas simmering on the stove and if they come to fruition then more growth will be forthcoming.  Come back to me in a year and we’ll see how it develops.”

That sounds terrific.  My final question is this: do you think this business idea would work back here in Ireland?

“I  have thought about that a few times.  The major cultural difference is that in the States, if you provide a service and you are found to deliver what you promise, then success is more possible. My instinct from working in Ireland for 15 years is that there might be more push back with the attitude that basically anyone could provide similar services that I offer.  In theory, yes.  The same way that any gobshite can tell a joke.  But can they get up on stage in front of a large crowd and deliver the same joke with timing and inflection?  With trivia, it is about crafting the right content, providing the right timing and engagement with the delivery and then adding that little personal flavor is that makes it unique.”

Thanks John for taking the time to talk to me. All the best for the future.

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