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Digicom Interview with Greg Ashton, Founder of GROW

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

DigiCom X Grow LA - October 17th

In our recent podcast episode, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Greg Ashton, the man behind the renowned Grow conferences. In this exclusive conversation, Greg shares his journey from a spontaneous move to New York to becoming a driving force in the world of marketing events.

Episode Highlights:

The Unexpected Journey: Greg's career took an unexpected turn when he found himself planning oil and gas conferences and running US government conferences for the Department of Defense in Washington, DC. Despite his lack of prior experience, he quickly became an expert in event planning.

Becoming an E-commerce Expert: Greg's path led him to immerse himself in the world of e-commerce, learning everything about how people shopped on their smartphones. His interactions with thousands of retail brands and tech providers gave him a holistic view of the e-commerce space.

The Birth of Grow: In 2018, Greg took a bold step by leaving his job and founding Grow. His vision was to create conferences that were not only informative but also fun and engaging. By bringing together digitally native brands and disrupting the traditional event format, Grow was born.

Unveiling the Secrets to Grow's Success: Greg reveals the key factors that make Grow events a must-attend for brands. Learn how Grow prioritizes authentic connections, provides valuable content, and maintains a three-to-one ratio of brands to non-brands to ensure meaningful interactions.

Sponsoring Grow: Are you a brand looking for opportunities to connect with industry leaders, expand your network, and showcase your solutions? Discover why sponsoring Grow is a smart move. Greg delves into the benefits of a focused, turnkey sponsorship approach that prioritizes sponsor ROI and creates lasting partnerships.

Preparing for Grow LA 2023: Join the excitement as Greg shares a sneak peek of what's in store for Grow LA Fall 2023. With a Halloween-inspired theme, "Grow Horror Story," this event promises a unique blend of education and entertainment. Greg highlights the importance of in-person connections and focusing on what you're truly passionate about in business.

Bonus: Greg's Random Hobbies: Get to know Greg beyond the world of events. Discover his love for gardening, inspired by the lush greenery of his hometown in England, and his passion for retro video game collecting.

Don't miss out on this opportunity to gain valuable knowledge and prepare for Grow LA 2023. Visit for event details or connect with them on LinkedIn for the latest updates.

Tune in now and embark on a journey of growth, connection, and innovation with Greg Ashton. Listen to the full podcast episode here.

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Hemant Varshney (00:00.528) Greg, thanks for jumping on the show with us today. I know, you know, I'm sure you've been just running through walls, getting ready to set up for Grow LA this fall 2023. We're excited to be participating again with you. How are you doing today? Greg Ashton (00:18.058) I'm doing great, Haman. Thanks so much for having me on, and we cannot wait for Digicom to be part of GrowLA on October 17th. Hemant Varshney (00:27.012) Amazing. So, you know, wanted to chat through a little bit about you and a little bit about your career and, you know, how you've been able to build such an incredible event, you know, with the Grow conferences. So, you know, what got you into marketing events? Greg Ashton (00:48.074) Yeah, thank you. So I made a completely spur of the moment move to New York back in 2012 from the UK, as you can probably tell. I was born in the UK. My friend had a pretty random job for me, actually, at a conference company. I'd never been to a conference before. I didn't know anything about conferences whatsoever. Before I knew it, I was this 20-something-year-old kid planning oil and gas conferences in Houston. I was running US government conferences for the Department of Defense in Washington, DC. I still have no idea how or why they trusted me to do those shows. But essentially over a number of years, I just learned the ins and outs of how to plan really huge conferences. Then back in 2014, I ran an event called mobile shopping or mobile shopping. At that time about 2014, people were really starting to buy more stuff on their phones. And over the next two years, I just learned absolutely everything there was to know about how people shopped on their smartphones. I just became an e-com expert by talking to literally thousands of retail brands, hundreds of tech providers in those years. They gave me an incredibly holistic view of the entire e-comm space. And I basically used that expertise to go on to lead the e-tail west and the e-tail UK conferences. You might be familiar with e-tail west. It's the big conference every spring in Palm Springs. Hemant Varshney (02:44.184) Yeah, that's incredible. And I know you're constantly communicating and speaking with hundreds, if not thousands of people. And as you've been building your career, can you just kind of call out a couple career highlights, maybe some examples of like good times, some times that were challenging where you were just learning things as you were going. Greg Ashton (03:06.587) Yeah. Greg Ashton (03:09.974) Definitely. Yeah, I think there's been a lot of good times, definitely. Some really difficult times, dark times, too. I think really growing Etel West into this mammoth, four day, multimillion dollar conference was a huge highlight. Over three years that I was working with Etel, I did genuinely build just an amazing... network of retail founders and marketers and tech providers. And most of those contacts went on to become really good friends. I've been to their weddings. I've seen them advance from managers to VPs to startup founders. And we all just kind of rode that wave of e-commerce in the, in the early days. And I'm really grateful for that. Um, I also really enjoyed. Leading. Greg Ashton (04:07.734) If you've been to that one, I heard of that one, but it's essentially the UK version of retail West. Um, I was this again, 20 something kid. I was living in New York, um, running. It tell UK helped me go home a lot more actually. Um, and in those years, I, I really kind of saw the juxtaposition, the differences between European and the U S retail world. and learned so much about how business operates on both sides of the world. And it was, yeah, pretty amazing experience. Hemant Varshney (04:45.188) Yeah, that's interesting thing to say because like, of course we do business internationally with clients, Europe, Oceania, the US, different parts of North America as well. And it's just like how businesses operate because of culture, politics, and how just finances are looked at. It's pretty interesting when you think about it. How all... together yeah. Greg Ashton (05:16.083) Yeah, it's so interesting. I mean, just off the top of my head in Europe, the sales are just in a way more subtle. I think the US is kind of a little bit more aggressive in the way that sales are made. Not especially even online. That was just one kind of small difference I noticed in the UK people. It's almost impolite to ask. for money or ask for a sale, whereas in the US, it's just like, come on, let's get this. Let's get this sale made. Hemant Varshney (05:49.933) Yeah, I think an example I would love to just also throw in here is a couple business deals in France. We didn't talk about business. We drank some wine and it was like, oh, okay. Here's the signed contract the next day. Wow. Versus in the US, exactly like you're saying. It's, hey, here are our next steps. Here's what we're going to do. Greg Ashton (06:05.414) Yeah. Hemant Varshney (06:14.064) there's a lot more of this personal element of, hey, do I want to work with this partner for who the partner is versus let's just, you know, figure out how to just make money or whatever that kind of looks like. Amazing. So, Greg, let's chat a little bit about Grow, you know, your background and... Greg Ashton (06:27.679) Yeah, 100%. Hemant Varshney (06:41.432) and what you've done to build Grow into what it is. Of course, you've learned a lot from eTail and kind of like jumping ship and taking big swings, but tell us a little bit more about Grow and how you got started. Greg Ashton (06:56.278) Yeah, I would love to talk about Grow. I think making that move to leave eTale and start Grow in 2018 massively took me out of my comfort zone. At the time I was living in New York, I had a great social life, I had an amazing social network. I was enjoying my job at eTale, but I didn't love my job. I was running kind of traditional conferences. in big hotels, you know what those conferences feel like. They're kind of stuffy, they're very formal. I just thought at the time, surely there has to be a way to make conferences more fun while still kind of maintaining all those content fundamentals. At that time as well, I was really lucky because in 2018, there was this kind of groundswell of really disruptive, really digitally native brands that were doing really interesting things and just completely breaking all the molds. And it just seemed that big conferences, kind of traditional events, were just not particularly relevant for that audience. So I left Detail. I created a Slack group of 15 founders and CMO friends from super high growth, real trend setting, digitally native companies. There was companies in there like Birchbox, Dagny Dover, Keeps and Parachute and Ruffies in the very early days. And I basically just started to organize little happy hours down in Lower East Side, which is where I lived in New York. And word just spread pretty quickly about what Hemant Varshney (08:38.392) Yeah. Yup. Greg Ashton (08:51.574) what we were doing. The Slack group was started with 15. It went to 2000 people really, really quickly. And we realized that we had to just bring this whole group together in person because there was just no other conference out there that was bringing this group together. So back in 2019, we hired this really cool space in Queens. It was a converted factory called the Knockdown Center. We had about 700 and 15 people show up for that first event. And the rest is history. We're using kind of reinvented commercial spaces to create three shows a year now, a thousand people at each one. And we've essentially grown our newsletter and Slack channels and events to be in the tens of thousands of people. Hemant Varshney (09:43.908) Yeah, and I think, you know, just again, being at Grow and like, you know, sponsoring, it's how different it feels versus other conferences. So, you know, of course I've like, I've been to a bunch of different conferences and it's very startup, it's fun. There's energy, you know, you're, you're speaking to a lot of different brands. You're speaking to founders, like investors. We're speaking to even different potential technology partners that make sense for us as Digicom. And the way everything is set up, like I think the grow in LA, it had like this high school theme to it, the one that was in spring and it was fun. You had like folks wearing like the leather jackets and it was them running around and like kind of yelling at people saying, Greg Ashton (10:40.025) Yeah. Hemant Varshney (10:40.78) cigarettes but they were candy or you know it was a very fun. Greg Ashton (10:43.39) Yeah, those are the best ideas. Hemant Varshney (10:47.768) Yeah, I love that. It didn't feel like a typical conference. And I think in terms of the branding, you're crushing it. Ha ha ha. Greg Ashton (10:53.762) Thank you. Greg Ashton (10:58.13) It's all on purpose, definitely. And our team is so good at the branding, for sure. Hemant Varshney (11:05.424) So let's switch gears a little bit. I mean, you've introduced Grow. We've spoken a little bit about it. How has it helped brands? And there's a million in one different ways, but what are the top two, three things that you would say to a brand to attend Grow? And then after that, would love to talk a little bit about for sponsors as well. Greg Ashton (11:30.698) Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I think one of the best things in retrospect that we've done at Grow is be very strict on event entry. We really do want to ensure that the vast majority of attendees at Grow are retail brands so that those brands can actually meet like-minded people and share ideas and share approaches that are working and not working and also just not feel like every single conversation is a sales conversation either. That was really important for me personally. and a lot of conferences that I've been to over the years, that kind of ratio was just off. Grow, we definitely aim for three to one ratio of brands to non-brands. And funnily enough, what that means in practice is actually rejecting hundreds of applications, which sounds like a weird thing to do, but it's working for us. Those rejections actually have improved. just the overall quality and seniority of the audience. And Nick Sharma, you're probably familiar with him. At our last show, he said getting into Grow is like getting into Harvard. And we're definitely very proud of that. And certainly in terms of content and in terms of learnings, we're definitely Harvard level as well. I mean, at the next show on October 17th, we're gonna cover absolutely everything that the brands need. to know, paid ads, organic and offline channels, influencer marketing, funding, AI, the list just goes on. And we do a really good job of just compacting all those topics into one day. We just added this cool little feature on the website, actually, that lets you filter the topics that you're most interested in learning about. So if you want to learn about funding, you can just search for funding on the Grow website, and you'll know exactly who is speaking about it at each show. I think on a personal level, I'm really proud that we've created so many genuine friendships and authentic partnerships. We, we get a lot of emails. Um, our head of community actually gets emails all the time just to say, thanks for this connection, it led to this, it led to that, led to a new deal. It led to a new friendship. Um, I think overall we've, um, based the whole business really on making sure Greg Ashton (13:57.57) that our friends become your friends, if you know what I mean. We've never advertised, or if we have advertised, it's been very small levels of advertising. A lot of the, well, pretty much the whole community has just been built on referrals and word of mouth. So we know that we're doing something right. Hemant Varshney (14:19.224) Yeah, and I think what I particularly loved is a lot of it is focused on education. You know, the entire conference, it's not, hey, let me walk around a couple of booths and see who's doing what. It's like you mentioned, like minded individuals, you know, brands that are looking to scale, brands that have crossed the five million revenue mark, they're trying to get to 20 million, 50 million, 100 million. And it's like... Here are what all of these other brands are doing. Here are the partners they're working with. Here are strategies you can leverage to unlock getting to that next inflection point, right? Because that's something that grow brings to the table that just go to other conferences, it's not quite the same. And it is definitely much more intimate than other conferences. I can personally attest to that, so. Greg Ashton (15:16.63) Thank you. Yeah, we try. Hemant Varshney (15:20.049) What about the sponsors? You know, like, why should, and I'm also gonna jump in here because of course we've sponsored Grow once, we're going back in October, but like, you know, why do sponsors want to be... Greg Ashton (15:36.494) I think the ratio of brands to tech providers is really important to talk about here too. And it's funny to talk about ratios when you founded a company that people know for being a fun event, but sponsor ROI is the thing that we take the most seriously. I think really simply the pitch for our sponsors is that we'll get your clients and your prospective clients in a room. We're going to provide a really authentic... organic way for you to connect with them and just help them learn about what you offer. Essentially getting people in a room is what we do. Getting the right people in the room is what we're good at. And our audience sweet spot is SMBs in the range of around 10 to 50 million dollars in annual revenue. We're always asking our sponsors, you know, what metric do you actually use to measure event ROI? And how do we hit that for you, especially in this kind of uncertain economic environment, we would take that very seriously and we're not at all complacent about the ROI that we deliver at these events. Um, I think another interesting thing that we do is, is just not sell sponsor tickets. Um, I know that other conferences do sell a lot. of tickets. I think when you only have kind of 30 to 40 sponsored teams at an event rather than hundreds and hundreds of sponsors, it means that you can really focus all your energy on the partner experience and delivering that ROI for that limited number that you do have. And then finally, I guess, just making it easy for sponsors to show up at the show. We do all the heavy lifting. We send all the invites, we pre-build everything. We just wanna make it easy for you to look at your calendar and think, oh, Grow is tomorrow, I'm gonna go there, I'm gonna meet a lot of prospective clients and there's not much more for me to do. And all of these things lead to a lot of re-books for us. About 50% of the sponsors that do book with Grow come back and that's something, again, that we're really proud of as well. Hemant Varshney (17:54.68) Yeah, and I think you make everything very turnkey, right? It's just like for us when we participated in February, we showed up, all of the signage was up, we were able to direct a multitude of different partners who we were able to talk through case studies and strategies of how we were able to help certain partners grow and. What's interesting is when we were having these discussions, we had several partners come on board with us who we've already scaled. It hasn't been that much time, but their businesses have grown quite a bit. And yeah, I think you did speak about a key element, which is what is the ROI? And that is something important to... to understand and track. And we've of course seen a positive ROI, but more than that, it's building good partnerships with you, with some of your team members, and then also meeting just great people that we've stayed connected with. Maybe we're not doing business, but that's okay. You get to be friends, you get to learn from one another and get pointed in new directions to... either one, help your own business, or two, just learn, again, multitude of different things that happen because of Grow, right? And it's that type of environment. Greg Ashton (19:28.962) Definitely. Yeah. It really is that type of environment where conversations do lead to amazing things. And we've seen that happen for the last five years now. Hemant Varshney (19:44.593) Yeah, so with the October 17th show coming up, what is something you're looking forward to and how is this event different than other events? Greg Ashton (19:54.558) Yeah, I mean, at this point in my career, I've probably run close to a hundred large conferences, but I'm genuinely excited about Grow LA Full. I think grow events, they're known for being fun. They've always been fun. There's always drinks, there's always happy hours. I think one thing that we've done recently to just go above and beyond that and elevate the experience even more is to introduce the theme for each event. You touched on it earlier. For LA Spring, it was back to school. So we had Ferris Bueller's Ferrari. We had those bad boys hanging out and offering people cigarettes and a headmaster giving detentions for like random things like being in the hallway when they should have been actually listening in class on the main stage. For LA Fall, next month, it's Grow Horror Story. So we were basically building the whole event around Halloween. because it's like 10 days from Halloween. So we've got a Dracula at the show. He's being hunted by Van Helsing. We're offering prizes for attendees who have the best Halloween costume. It's gonna be a ton of fun. Costumes are definitely optional, just to mention that. Not everyone is gonna be in a costume, but if you wanna come in a costume, amazing. But I think, yeah, I mean, life can be really serious. I think it's important to just let out your inner child a little bit, and you can definitely do that at Grow. Hemant Varshney (21:25.436) Amazing. What advice you can give brands to help them grow? You've thrown, again, a ton of these conferences, right? Like maybe a couple common themes that our listeners can just take home and maybe put into their day-to-day. Greg Ashton (21:43.37) Yeah, I think my advice is pretty simple. Just talk to retail leaders who have already been in your position and they've already figured out the answer to that question that you have right now. I think when you're really deep in the day to day, it's easy to forget that there are literally thousands of people out there who are working to solve the same problems that you have. And it's important to just talk to them. The Slack group I mentioned earlier, it's a great place to do that. It's a retail only Slack channel. There's no vendors at all. People are just asking questions and they're every single day related to their campaigns and their tech stacks and their careers. And it's just a nice environment to chat essentially. I think obviously don't underestimate the power of and value of in-person connection, especially in the remote world that we're in. Grow's entire business is founded on that principle of in-person connection. I think that Talking in person definitely leads to the most authentic relationships and it definitely leads to the best business decisions as well and best business outcomes too. And then thirdly, I would just say kind of brand specific, just focus on what you're good at. I saw a LinkedIn post recently that remarks on how everyone is an AI expert now just because it's a popular trend. I think the antithesis of that is to just focus on one thing only. One thing that you're really good at, one brand message that you really want to make clear and just perfect that thing over time, over a number of years. I think most people don't realize that any kind of quote, overnight success story probably took years just to get to that point. And my personal mantra has always been just to work in silence and let your results speak for themselves. Hemant Varshney (23:42.588) It's amazing. Yeah, I think you nailed it. I guess my father used to tell me, just put your head down and work and the good will come and I highly agree with you there. What's one question you wish I asked you and how would you answer it? Greg Ashton (24:06.518) question. I was hoping you'd ask me about random hobbies. I guess I have two of those. Gardening and retro video game collecting. Very nerdy, I know. One is very old and one is very nerdy. I guess for gardening, I grew up in a very green place in England. Where I'm from is actually Hemant Varshney (24:15.28) Cool. Greg Ashton (24:37.066) the inspiration that JRR Tolkien had for the Shire in Lord of the Rings, so it's like incredibly green. So as I've got older, I've just appreciated that a lot more. And you can find me really boringly at Home Depot on the weekend buying plants. I'm basically 80 years old at this point. And then video games, I've just always loved video games. I was a really academic kid. Games just kind of helped me switch off from studies. And today I've kind of translated that into collecting, I would say pretty rare and sealed games. I've got some pretty cool originals in my collection, like the original Golden Eye on N64, sealed and original Mario's and original Game Boy. So I like to just have them displayed around the house. And my fiance is totally fine with it. So that's, that's great for me. Hemant Varshney (25:39.196) That's a big win, that's huge, especially when the fiancé is okay. Greg Ashton (25:43.707) Yeah, yeah. She's not into games but she goes and buy. Hemant Varshney (25:48.952) Yeah, I definitely, you know, some of like the art pieces I have up, I am politely asked to maybe switch up my style. So I hear you on that. Amazing. Well, Greg, thank you for jumping on our show today. You know, it's an incredible conversation. Really looking forward to being back at Grow on October 17th. Thank you. Greg Ashton (26:19.21) Amazing. Yeah. Looking forward to that show. You can find all those details at You can follow us on Instagram. It's at join.grow. And I would love for you to follow me on LinkedIn as well. It's just me, Greg Ashton. I share retail stories every day. Hemant Varshney (26:38.608) Beautiful. Thank you. Greg Ashton (26:40.407) Thanks so much.

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