Eventbrite chief executive Julia Hartz explains what you do once you’ve built a billion-dollar company

Julia Hartz, CEO Eventbrite. Source: Supplied.

Eventbrite chief executive Julia Hartz is scrolling through the guest list for an event she’s created for her 20-year high school reunion using her company’s app, giving a commentary on who has bought tickets.

“So for example, that’s my ex-boyfriend’s wife who he started dating right after me, and they’re going to come…” she says, pointing at the list of attendees the app provides users.

Hartz says she can check people off as they arrive at the venue, and there’s no quicker way of explaining what you’ve been working on since high school than pointing right to the product you’ve created; especially if it’s a product you genuinely like.

“You know, it’s just having this in my fingertips, having this kind of functionality and having the power of it,” she says in review.

The co-founder of the billion-dollar ticketing platform took over as chief executive from her husband, Kevin Hartz, in 2016. She’s taken the helm of the business, which hit a valuation of more than US$1 billion dollar in 2014 and expects to process $US3 billion ($4 billion) in ticket sales in 2017, at a time where growth is “re-accelerating”, she says.

While the company is tight lipped on global revenue, Eventbrite charges a 2.5% service fee, plus 99c for each ticket sold.

The couple co-founded the platform, which lets users set up and process payments for ticketed events, with current chief technology officer Renaud Visage in San Francisco in 2006.

It has since expanded into the UK, Canada, Europe and Australia, where former GE executive Phil Silverstone heads up the Asia Pacific office as general manager.

The company isn’t looking over its shoulder at any global competitors, Hartz says when SmartCompany met with her in Melbourne this week. But while the idea of running a business without the spectre of competition would be a dream to many an entrepreneur, Hartz says there are still two big challenges for the business: maintaining that position, and developing new ideas customers actually want.

“I think we have to continue to pace ourselves in a very aggressive way … we’re in a position of strength now, but we constantly have to push ourselves. Failure tends to happen very slowly, until the very end, so I always keep that in mind,” she says.

Creating products for an anxious customer

Hartz says her experience using the Eventbrite platform to plan events herself shows up how emotional the company’s product offering can be.

“Hosting an event, you can imagine how anxiety-ridden it is to sell tickets to an event,” she says.

With this in mind, Hartz says Eventbrite’s strategic approach to new opportunities comes most often from intense research into its own customers’ needs.

“We can go and build something that’s beautiful and functional, but doesn’t quite hit the mark for the local customer,” she says, adding that listening in on focus groups and customer feedback sessions is her “favourite thing to do”.

The approach to new projects involves a deep dive into particular market segments, then being on the lookout for talent that can fit that new idea.

“We zoned in on small music venue owners and got to know them intimately. Meaning, we really put the time in to get to understand why they exist and what motivates them,” Hartz says.

“It was there that we found our team in Sacramento that had created a product to meet those needs, called Queue. We integrated those platforms together to launch Eventbrite Venue.”

Eventbrite bought Queue, which had created an app for the workflow of venue managers, in early 2016 for an undisclosed sum, and announced plans to launch the Venue product earlier this year, allowing promoters to book artists and sell tickets from the one platform.

The business is also playing the long game with its acquisitions, having bought European ticketing company TicketScript at the start of the year.

“Contintental Europe is a high growth area for us,” Hartz says.

“TicketScript, that’s in the mid-market ticketing space, predominantly in Germany and the Netherlands. Combined, we are the dominant mid-market player in Europe, and having that momentum is really important, as we develop more music segments.”

The global goal

Hartz is cynical about billion-dollar company valuations, observing that when there’s a lot of capital floating around for new ventures and no “due sense of discipline”, it can lead to trouble.

“Why does that make me angry? Well I just think cutting corners just doesn’t do anyone any good in terms of building a vibrant ecosystem,” she says.

“But it also creates a lot of difficulty and headwind in terms of recruiting — so the amount of times we’ve had competition in recruiting or had employees poached away only to have those companies completely crumble because there was no business model and there was no revenue attached to a great idea, but they had a tonne of capital come in from the outside … it just gets frustrating.”

However, when it comes to Eventbrite’s own “unicorn” label, she says the company has the goods: “I am quite confident we are quite magical,” she says.

“What I would like to point out is that very few companies are in a revenue zone that could command that type of valuation, that is profitable, scaling and global. So I don’t have any problem with Eventbrite being a unicorn because of those factors,” she explains.

But maintaining the company’s dominant position is about chasing growth — and those decisions are about crunching numbers.

The company’s move into Australia is a part of that plan, with the region crossing Eventbrite’s radar after the team saw research on the frequency with which Aussie millennials attend events. Hartz says 5% of gross ticket sales now come from the region, which has so far processed $450 million worth of tickets on Eventbrite since its 2014 launch.

“We operate under the assumption that Silicon Valley is not the centre of the universe … I think Australia is a very important part [of global growth],” she says.

The goal is to move to a 50-50 split for sales, with half coming from within the US and the other half from Eventbrite’s international offices. Hartz says reaching that goal within the next few years should be achievable, and the team have thought about expanding pretty much everywhere.

“Australia is a big market for us, it’s the second non-US market in terms of growth in gross ticket sales, the UK is our first and our largest and we’ve been in the UK longest,” she says.

“Continental Europe is a high growth area for us. Latin America is an emerging market for us… and I think Asia is a very interesting opportunity for us — everything from India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Japan.”

The team considers these opportunities based on what they already know about the markets, and what stage of growth they’re likely to be in.

“We have the benefit of data, where we’ve sold tickets in 180 countries almost consistently every year,” Hartz says.

“So in India, where we have no localised platform or payments integration, we sold a quarter of a million tickets last year. Then I think there’s varying degrees, there’s a growth market like Australia … it’s like, how well can Phil steer that ship? Then there’s the UK where we’re looking at how much more growth can we have.”

This kind of growth is a multi-stage process, and Hartz says she thinks about what could go wrong as much as she celebrates.

“Thankfully we haven’t had any massive crises moments, but also, I wonder, you know, has it been too good? How do we rattle our own cage?” she asks.

“The innovator’s dilemma is a very real concept. If you have a good business and there’s no reason to disrupt yourselves, you can get caught unaware.”

Eyes are firmly on the long-term, though, and Hartz reflects that over the years, some have asked whether she was going to pull away from the business as her husband continues with it — the answer to which is a firm no.

“There have been a few times in the history of Eventbrite where someone has asked me if I’m still working … And I’m like, ‘what do you mean? How is that even a question?’ I get it and I don’t think it means any harm, but it’s funny because there has consistently been an assumption that I will stop working and that is the last thing I want to do. And because of course, nobody has ever asked Kevin if he’s still working.”

By this point, those questions have evaporated.

“I don’t get that question anymore … I am still working, like, as far as I can tell, I am still working,” she says.

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