First things first, take me through the early days of you starting SeatGeek and how you guys came up with the idea.
I started SeatGeek with Russ, whom I went to Dartmouth with. We'd done a small start-up there together that we sold when we left. So we enjoyed the experience and we knew that we wanted to do something together afterwards.
We spent about a month working on SeatGeek, or what it was initially. It changed a lot. It was supposed to be a way to tell users if prices were going up or down for sports and concert tickets. So the idea was that there was a start-up called Farecast which had done that in the travel industry with some success. Microsoft bought it for $130 million, I think.
They would tell people, "Airline prices are going to go up, they're going to go down." We thought that would be useful for sports and concert tickets. We spent about a week beginning to work on it and then got some bad legal advice, where our lawyer basically told us that, "You're going to be infringing upon Farecast's patents if you do this, so you shouldn't."
So we stopped. We did an entirely different start-up for about a year and a half. That was called Scribnia. It was basically a blog reputation engine.
Can you go back to the lawyer story? How did he influence you?
He told us, "Listen, you're very clearly infringing on this patent that Microsoft now owns. So don't do it."
It's sort of silly in retrospect that it stopped us, because SeatGeek doesn't even forecast prices anymore, but at the time we thought that was going to be our main hook. Farecast, this company that Microsoft had bought, had intellectual property around it.
The lawyer we talked to was from a big firm and seemed like he was legit. He told us, "Listen, you're very clearly infringing on this patent that Microsoft now owns. So don't do it." So we didn't do it.
Which is weird, because at the time I didn't even consider that he might be wrong. It's sort of just like, "Okay. If an expensive lawyer tells you to do something, you believe him." But he was wrong.
So you left working on SeatGeek to start working on this new thing. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Yeah. The idea was that blogging was just becoming mainstream... it still wasn't necessarily mainstream, but it was becoming mainstream. So we figured people who were used to just reading their Sunday paper today because it's the only thing in their hometown all of a sudden would need a way to inform what they should consume online.
So we would learn about what a user likes and what they're interested in, then based on that it would recommend more stuff, more blog content. We spent about a year and a half on that.
We were getting what seemed like really good traction. So we applied to Dreamit Ventures, which was an accelerator at the time, only based in Philly. I remember we got into Dreamit, had an interview with TechStars and we had, like, a final round interview at YC, which at the time were the only three accelerators in the U.S.
We had to decide about Dreamit before we could actually do the YC interview because there was an exploding offer associated with it. So we had to make a judgment call and just decided to do Dreamit rather than take the risk on YC.
So we went to Philly with this blog reputation thing. We were gaining more traction... from a daily active user standpoint, it was a beautiful graph. Up and to the right. A nice exponential shape.
But at the time — this was in 2009 — the economy had just collapsed. Advertising was considered to be an extremely unviable way to monetize an internet business, to the point where it was almost like a dirty word. You couldn't go into a meeting with a financier or investor and say that you were going to do something based on advertising. It was thought to be a terrible idea.
So we had a lot of trouble figuring out how to monetize the thing. In about a month after Dreamit started — Dreamit was a three month long program — a random guy got in touch about trying to buy it. Which didn't make sense to us, because I was really surprised that anyone would want to buy it.
But, he ended up making an offer. We were kind of getting tired of it anyway. We were getting frustrated with the fact that we couldn't figure out how to make money. So it was good timing in that sense, but it was also weird because we were right in the middle of this accelerator program that, ostensibly, you come into with an idea and you leave three months later with something that's launched. We sold the company about a month into Dreamit.
Then we were trying to figure out what to do next. On a lark, I asked a lawyer who I think was coming through Dreamit for free what he thought about this IP issue we had with the price forecasting thing before. He said, "No. That actually sounds wrong. You should look into that more."
So we did, and a day later got better legal advice that said it would be fine. So we went ahead and did that again.
Can you tell me a little bit more about this buyout offer and details around that?
It wasn't a particularly large amount of money so the whole thing happened very quickly.
My co-founder Russ was the one who sort of orchestrated it. So I don't know the very specific details, but the guy that bought it had just sold an ad network. So he was comfortable with this advertising thing that we weren't doing well with.
He was looking for companies that had really good monthly or daily active user patterns but weren't really monetizing well. It wasn't a particularly large amount of money so the whole thing happened very quickly.
So you sold that company and then you started working on SeatGeek again. What were you able to achieve in the last six weeks of Dreamit? What was the product like when you graduated?
Surprisingly, quite a bit. Right now SeatGeek is a search engine for sports and concert tickets. Meaning, you can go on there and see inventory from dozens of different sites. We also spend a lot of time helping people figure out what's a good deal and what's a bad deal.
At the time, the whole notion of buying tickets through SeatGeek was something that was very much bolted on in a day. So fundamentally it wasn't really selling anything. It was just doing its price forecasting thing.
It turns out that forecasting prices for sports and concert tickets is actually pretty easy because prices always go down. Which was probably a bad sign, right? Because if something is that easy then it's not a long-term viable business.
But, we started off in the first few weeks just by scraping a ton of historical ticket price data. I had considered getting a PhD in Econ, so I was very into metrics at the time. So I spent time parsing data and trying to build models around forecasting prices.
So the initial site was very simple. I think we launched just for Major League Baseball. So it was actually pretty easy to catalog all the games. It was only giving price forecasts for those games. It was something that two people who can program can definitely build in a month and a half.
You two came out of Dreamit. Did you guys start raising money immediately?
We launched at TechCrunch50 and that was the beginning of the whole financing thing.
We had applied and accepted into this thing called TechCrunch50 — I think it's been renamed and changed since then — but we were told that we couldn't publicly talk about SeatGeek until we launched there.
So we spent the next month and a half just continuing to build the site and improve it. We launched at TechCrunch50 and that was the beginning of the whole financing thing.
You guys had this forecasting website. Take me through the changes. How did you get from there to where you are today?
First we had just the forecasting stuff and there was maybe a link to go buy tickets. Then it was pretty obvious early on that we should at least have some ticket inventory on there if we ever wanted to make money. So we started listing tickets that were available on a few different sites, but in a very crude way.
So we would just list some stuff, sort by price. It was literally an HTML table. It was totally crude. We found, surprisingly, that people were actually using that just as much as the forecasting. Also generally, just sort of anecdotally, people found the forecasting thing cumbersome and difficult. Not because it was implemented in a cumbersome way, but my theory is that it's not a difficult enough or meaningful enough purchase for people that they really want to optimize it at that level. If you were buying a house and there was something that could tell you reliably that that house was going to go up or down in price in a month, then sure, you would use that. If you're buying a toothbrush you probably wouldn't. It's just not interesting enough. Going to a show is probably closer to the toothbrush side of things than the house side of things. We saw that play out in terms of how people were actually using the site, but what they were using was the comparison shopping part of it.
You started seeing that people were using comparison shopping more than forecasting data. What were the product changes you made from knowing that piece of data?
One reason I really like the ticket industry is because it's something that has been historically anti-technology.
The forecasting thing pretty quickly became an inconvenience that we had to maintain rather than something that we would actively develop. In the beginning we were very focused on our forecast success rate and we were trying to always get that up but we reached a point pretty quickly where we just didn't want it to go down. So we would just do whatever we had to do to keep it at a stable place. I was the person responsible for that. It was just a constant pain in my ass.
Then all the interesting stuff we were working on was thinking about how to actually make the experience of buying tickets nice, easy and elegant.
One reason I really like the ticket industry is because it's something that has been historically anti-technology. So for some people in the ticket industry, the internet is a major inconvenience that they're still dealing with. At the time when we started, it wasn't a place where the best consumer web experiences were being created.
We figured, "Okay. We'll try to take the opposite approach and create a great experience that's very transparent and makes the process easy for people."
You guys successfully made this shift. You're doing mostly ticket sales at this point. How did you get the word out there? I know you guys did a lot of SEO and content marketing stuff. What was your strategy?
We got totally lucky with SEO. We were only a teeny little company at the time. I think we had, like, six people. But we still hired four or five interns. It was the summer of 2010. Since there wasn't much for them to do, we had them start writing on our blog, which at the time was probably read by the interns, their parents and maybe myself.
Randomly we noticed that traffic was starting to go up for the blog, higher than the website itself. We saw in Google Analytics that was because Google was indexing the posts and we were doing well. At its height, I think about six months after that, SEO was over two thirds of our traffic and we were spending a ton of time optimizing for it. Our SEO success at the beginning was very much blog and content marketing driven, so rather than hoping that our New York Yankees core page would rank for a term that was relative to that, we would instead write a blog post that was topical about the New York Yankees. That would rank instead.
How intelligent did you get with SEO? What's your SEO strategy today?
The SEO strategy has changed a lot because now we do much less of the content stuff. We shifted it towards... we have a subdomain on SeatGeek called TBA. It's a separate sports, music, live events new site. Now the focus for TBA is on making the content actually interesting to read, unlike the stuff we were using for the SEO traffic.
All the SEO traffic now comes through our core pages. That was a big SEO strategy shift that happened over a few years where instead of having to write content about the Yankees to get traffic, eventually we got to a point where there were enough inbound links to SeatGeek that we just have the main Yankees page rank.
How many people do you have working on SEO right now and how much of a priority is that?
We have no one working on SEO full-time.
Okay. That question bombed. What about content marketing? Are you still working on that? What's your strategy there?
Yeah. We're trying to figure it out. Because writing content was really important when that was the thing that drove the traffic, but when all of a sudden we figured we could get that traffic and more without writing content it made us rethink if it was even worth writing the content. So right now we have that subsite I mentioned TBA. The idea is to write more long-form content around live events. Sort of like the experience of going to a live event and to create an actual mini-brand surrounded around that.
There are a few other sites online that touch on it. Like Pitchfork, for example, will cover festivals, but they're not exclusively focused on festivals and the experience of going to a show. They're more generically just a music site.
What other marketing stuff do you guys do?
Most of our marketing timeline now is spent on Facebook and Twitter. Basically paying people to install our native apps.
How well does that work?
Up to that point, we had intentionally done no paid acquisition as a company.
Really well. We launched our first native app about a year and a half ago. Up to that point, we had intentionally done no paid acquisition as a company. It was pretty stupid in retrospect, but up until that point we figured we were going to be the ticket company that just focused on technology and building a great experience and fuck all the marketing stuff.
So we did that for almost four years. Then we tried the Facebook mobile install SDK and it was working extremely well being that we had just launched a native app. So we started spending more on it and it ballooned from there.
If you guys were trying to start SeatGeek today, how would you try to get the word out there? What would your SEO, content strategy, marketing strategy be? Or do you think it's just so saturated at this point?
It's really context dependent. I think SEO can still work really well for companies in certain verticals, but it's going to depend a lot on the vertical.
One thing that we became pretty smart with SEO-wise was, as we became bigger as a company and got more domain authority as a company, the sorts of terms we were targeting changed. I remember in 2010, it was pretty naïve in retrospect, but we just targeted a single term with our first SEO content. Which was the term "Sold out tickets." We probably spent, like, three days just doing analysis to reach that point.
We figured that's something that we could rank for, because it's a pretty weak landscape of people who were targeting that term. We thought at the time that it would drive meaningful value in terms of, it's very transactional, it's relevant to what we do.
That was naïve because I think it's pretty silly to target a single term, but what is useful is targeting patterns of terms. So we've had a lot of success, for example, with lineup related stuff. So people searching for the lineup for a given show. We would just write blog posts about that.
You're going to have to do things that are a little speculative. So let's say there's no lineup for Bonnaroo, the music festival. We would write a blog post speculating on who the lineup in Bonnaroo would be. Then when people would search for it, we would still be there. Number one result.
You've done some marketing with celebrities. How does that work?
During the Super Bowl for example last year, when [Brian Billick] was being interviewed he would mention SeatGeek in a pretty natural way.
There's a company we use called Thuzio. We've actually had considerable success. The best one, the one that we've been very satisfied with is hiring Brian Billick, the football coach and commentator through Thuzio. It's not like doing radio commercials but rather, during the Super Bowl for example last year, when he was being interviewed he would mention SeatGeek in a pretty natural way. It would get a ton of engagement around that on Twitter.
We had an incredibly good Super Bowl. It's hard to attribute that directly to Brian Billick but we certainly give him some of the credit. I think that's been the best one.
You just closed a $35 million round, what's the next phase? What are you going to put that money toward?
We're spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to make buying tickets on a phone incredibly easy and elegant. Right now, it's still kind of stupid process, that process where, if you buy a ticket on your phone, some person on the other side of the country will still drop a piece of paper into a FedEx envelope and ship it to you, which is pretty anti-technology.
It should be more like, almost an Uber-esque experience that's very elegant. If you buy a ticket on your phone, it shows up on your phone and you use that to get into the venue.
So technology wise that's probably our biggest focus. Then we're also, for the first time doing actual brand advertising. Right now we're in the middle of doing a pretty holistic re-branding. The idea is to use that to actually create radio commercials, TV commercials, print commercials and all that.
I meant to ask this question before the last one. You just raised that round. What was the thinking there?
We thought about it quite a bit. We at the time hadn't been actively looking to raise money.
Yeah. We thought about it quite a bit. We at the time hadn't been actively looking to raise money. We got approached by a few folks. But when we thought about it, it actually made a ton of sense because we'd spent the last three, four years exclusively focused on building something and not really marketing at all.
We had finally gotten to the point where it was working from a product-market fit standpoint. From being able to spend a certain amount of money to acquire a user and then have that user pay back more. It felt like the right time to try to actually create a real, actual brand around that.
More broadly, what kind of advice would you give new entrepreneurs that are starting today in such a crowded landscape that is the internet in 2014?
I think the most important thing is to be the person actually building whatever you're going to be selling. So to be technical. Being technical doesn't have to be a binary thing. You don't have to have been building websites for eight years to be able to write code for whatever it is you're building.
My co-founder, Russ, we both did management consulting for nine months out of college. We quit literally the same day to do the first version of SeatGeek which we ended up moving off of, but he just bought a PHP book that day and just learned to code in probably two months and shipped code for two or three years after that in a very useful way.
I think there's this sort of misnomer now that either you're a technical person or you're not and that you're not going to be able to contribute long term if you're not, whereas I think if someone just tries to learn they actually can pretty meaningfully build stuff.
Entrepreneurs should be builders in the company. What do you think about the crowded landscape and how you can find edge in what you're trying to make?
From what perspective? Just broadly?
Yeah, just more broadly. You're an entrepreneur. You have this idea, but there are other people building similar businesses... What are the best steps to get out from the noise?
If you chose something that was massive and broken like healthcare, you can assume that there is going to be a lot of interesting stuff to work on and know that you'll eventually find it.
If I were doing a new startup, I would focus on a major broken industry that had a lot of problems and go into it assuming that I was going to change what I was doing. This is obviously very colored by the SeatGeek experience, but I think if you pick a big, interesting industry that's pretty fucked up then, even if you have to pivot two or three times to something else, you're going to be able to work on interesting stuff. Whereas if you create another mobile calendar app, it's going to be a lot harder to pivot to something interesting because there are already so many people doing that, whereas if you chose something that was massive and broken like healthcare, you can assume that there is going to be a lot of interesting stuff to work on and know that you'll eventually find it. Even if you don't know what it is day one.
Cool. Well, man. That's good.