We're joined by two very special guests, Eventbrite CEO Julia Hartz and her cofounder, spouse and Eventbrite Chairman Kevin Hartz, to tell their story of building Eventbrite together (along with their lives and family) from the PayPal diaspora to bootstrapped business, unicorn status, IPO and now starting all over again in the wake of COVID with both a tragedy and a huge new opportunity in front of them as public company.
If you want more Acquired and the tools + resources to become the best founder, operator or investor you can be, join our LP Program for access to our LP Show (including the episode with Kevin on SPACs), the LP community on Slack and Zoom, and our new Book Club live sessions with authors like Hamilton Helmer of 7 Powers and Will Thorndike of The Outsiders.
Join here at: http://www.acquired.fm/lp
New! We're codifying our own Playbook notes and takeaways from each episode, and posting them below in the show notes.
Playbook Themes from this Episode:
1. Seeing the next technology wave before others do is rare. It provides a roadmap for what to build and invest in if you're willing to bet on that knowledge.
2. PayPal and its subsequent "mafia" was successful in large part because of rapid experimentation. Their willingness to ship many features quickly, observe what got used by customers and then double down is *still* under appreciated today.
3. The TAM for bringing an offline behavior offline is often WAY bigger than anything you can calculate beforehand. The range and size of what were previously niche or impossible use cases will often expand dramatically with easy-to-use online tools. This is especially true in long-tail use cases that can only be aggregated by self-serve internet-based software.
4. Starting with just one niche can be incredibly powerful; often your customers will then lead you to more.
5. Too much capital (and too little accountability) can hurt a company much more than help it. Capital covers up problems, distracts focus from customers, and leads to poor resource allocation.
6. Being a public company not only instills more capital allocation discipline, but can ALSO afford a degree of financial flexibility that just isn't possible as a private company.
We finally did it. After five years and over 100 episodes, we decided to formalize the answer to Acquired’s most frequently asked question: “what are the best acquisitions of all time?” Here it is: The Acquired Top Ten. You can listen to the full episode (above, which includes honorable mentions), or read our quick blog post below.
Note: we ranked the list by our estimate of absolute dollar return to the acquirer. We could have used ROI multiple or annualized return, but we decided the ultimate yardstick of success should be the absolute dollar amount added to the parent company’s enterprise value. Afterall, you can’t eat IRR! For more on our methodology, please see the notes at the end of this post. And for all our trademark Acquired editorial and discussion tune in to the full episode above!
Purchase Price: $4.2 billion, 2009
Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $20.5 billion
Absolute Dollar Return: $16.3 billion
Back in 2009, Marvel Studios was recently formed, most of its movie rights were leased out, and the prevailing wisdom was that Marvel was just some old comic book IP company that only nerds cared about. Since then, Marvel Cinematic Universe films have grossed $22.5b in total box office receipts (including the single biggest movie of all-time), for an average of $2.2b annually. Disney earns about two dollars in parks and merchandise revenue for every one dollar earned from films (discussed on our Disney, Plus episode). Therefore we estimate Marvel generates about $6.75b in annual revenue for Disney, or nearly 10% of all the company’s revenue. Not bad for a set of nerdy comic book franchises…
Total Purchase Price: $70 million (estimated), 2004
Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $16.9 billion
Absolute Dollar Return: $16.8 billion
Morgan Stanley estimated that Google Maps generated $2.95b in revenue in 2019. Although that’s small compared to Google’s overall revenue of $160b+, it still accounts for over $16b in market cap by our calculations. Ironically the majority of Maps’ usage (and presumably revenue) comes from mobile, which grew out of by far the smallest of the 3 acquisitions, ZipDash. Tiny yet mighty!
Total Purchase Price: $188 million (by ABC), 1984
Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $31.2 billion
Absolute Dollar Return: $31.0 billion
ABC’s 1984 acquisition of ESPN is heavyweight champion and still undisputed G.O.A.T. of media acquisitions.With an estimated $10.3B in 2018 revenue, ESPN’s value has compounded annually within ABC/Disney at >15% for an astounding THIRTY-FIVE YEARS. Single-handedly responsible for one of the greatest business model innovations in history with the advent of cable carriage fees, ESPN proves Albert Einstein’s famous statement that “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.”
Total Purchase Price: $1.5 billion, 2002
Value Realized at Spinoff: $47.1 billion
Absolute Dollar Return: $45.6 billion
Who would have thought facilitating payments for Beanie Baby trades could be so lucrative? The only acquisition on our list whose value we can precisely measure, eBay spun off PayPal into a stand-alone public company in July 2015. Its value at the time? A cool 31x what eBay paid in 2002.
Total Purchase Price: $135 million, 2005
Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $49.9 billion
Absolute Dollar Return: $49.8 billion
Remember the Priceline Negotiator? Boy did he get himself a screaming deal on this one. This purchase might have ranked even higher if Booking Holdings’ stock (Priceline even renamed the whole company after this acquisition!) weren’t down ~20% due to COVID-19 fears when we did the analysis. We also took a conservative approach, using only the (massive) $10.8b in annual revenue from the company’s “Agency Revenues” segment as Booking.com’s contribution — there is likely more revenue in other segments that’s also attributable to Booking.com, though we can’t be sure how much.
Total Purchase Price: $429 million, 1997
Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $63.0 billion
Absolute Dollar Return: $62.6 billion
How do you put a value on Steve Jobs? Turns out we didn’t have to! NeXTSTEP, NeXT’s operating system, underpins all of Apple’s modern operating systems today: MacOS, iOS, WatchOS, and beyond. Literally every dollar of Apple’s $260b in annual revenue comes from NeXT roots, and from Steve wiping the product slate clean upon his return. With the acquisition being necessary but not sufficient to create Apple’s $1.4 trillion market cap today, we conservatively attributed 5% of Apple to this purchase.
Total Purchase Price: $50 million, 2005
Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $72 billion
Absolute Dollar Return: $72 billion
Speaking of operating system acquisitions, NeXT was great, but on a pure value basis Android beats it. We took Google Play Store revenues (where Google’s 30% cut is worth about $7.7b) and added the dollar amount we estimate Google saves in Traffic Acquisition Costs by owning default search on Android ($4.8b), to reach an estimated annual revenue contribution to Google of $12.5b from the diminutive robot OS. Android also takes the award for largest ROI multiple: >1400x. Yep, you can’t eat IRR, but that’s a figure VCs only dream of.
Total Purchase Price: $1.65 billion, 2006
Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $86.2 billion
Absolute Dollar Return: $84.5 billion
We admit it, we screwed up on our first episode covering YouTube: there’s no way this deal was a “C”. With Google recently reporting YouTube revenues for the first time ($15b — almost 10% of Google’s revenue!), it’s clear this acquisition was a juggernaut. It’s past-time for an Acquired revisit.
That said, while YouTube as the world’s second-highest-traffic search engine (second-only to their parent company!) grosses $15b, much of that revenue (over 50%?) gets paid out to creators, and YouTube’s hosting and bandwidth costs are significant. But we’ll leave the debate over the division’s profitability to the podcast.
Total Purchase Price: $3.1 billion, 2007
Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $126.4 billion
Absolute Dollar Return: $123.3 billion
A dark horse rides into second place! The only acquisition on this list not-yet covered on Acquired (to be remedied very soon), this deal was far, far more important than most people realize. Effectively extending Google’s advertising reach from just its own properties to the entire internet, DoubleClick and its associated products generated over $20b in revenue within Google last year. Given what we now know about the nature of competition in internet advertising services, it’s unlikely governments and antitrust authorities would allow another deal like this again, much like #1 on our list...
Purchase Price: $1 billion, 2012
Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $153 billion
Absolute Dollar Return: $152 billion
When it comes to G.O.A.T. status, if ESPN is M&A’s Lebron, Insta is its MJ. No offense to ESPN/Lebron, but we’ll probably never see another acquisition that’s so unquestionably dominant across every dimension of the M&A game as Facebook’s 2012 purchase of Instagram. Reported by Bloomberg to be doing $20B of revenue annually now within Facebook (up from ~$0 just eight years ago), Instagram takes the Acquired crown by a mile. And unlike YouTube, Facebook keeps nearly all of that $20b for itself! At risk of stretching the MJ analogy too far, given the circumstances at the time of the deal — Facebook’s “missing” of mobile and existential questions surrounding its ill-fated IPO — buying Instagram was Facebook’s equivalent of Jordan’s Game 6. Whether this deal was ultimately good or bad for the world at-large is another question, but there’s no doubt Instagram goes down in history as the greatest acquisition of all-time.
Methodology and Notes:
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Transcript: (disclaimer: may contain unintentionally confusing, inaccurate and/or amusing transcription errors)
Ben: Welcome to season seven, episode two of Acquired, the podcast about great technology companies, the stories, and playbooks behind them. I'm Ben Gilbert.
David: I'm David Rosenthal.
Ben: And we are your hosts. Today, we come to you with a long-overdue story of Eventbrite. This is, of course, a fascinating one right now. An events company during a global pandemic, with minimal human contact, and nearly all in-person gatherings having been canceled.
While it's interesting to dive into how Eventbrite is problem-solving in this era, the history of the company is unique and something that we haven't really covered on Acquired: a husband-wife founding team. We're in the unique position to be joined by CEO, Julia Hartz, and her co-founder and husband, Kevin, who was also the long-time CEO and is now chairman.
Rather than the full blow-by-blow in the company, we're going to zoom in on a few key moments together with them: the 2006 founding and how deeply intertwined the company is with Kevin and Julia as a couple and as a family, 2018 was when Julia led the company through IPO, and how they are managing and streamlining the business today through the Coronavirus.
We'll also be continuing our discussion on the LP show with Kevin on his new secret until last week's project. A $200 million Special Purpose Acquisition Company or SPAC that he has launched.
David: Yeah. We're going to go deep on this potentially revolutionary way to go public that is now hot off the presses, officially endorsed by the anti-IPO crusader himself, Bill Gurley. We'll also talk with Kevin about why everyone seems to be rushing to raise these things right now, how they fit into the last decade of staying private longer, and how he believes it's truly in the spirit of Silicon Valley to leverage old mechanisms like this to unlock new innovation.
Ben: I'm pumped. As always, if you want to listen to that or any of the LP episodes, you can click the link in the show notes or go to acquired.fm/lp.
Now, just one announcement from us this time before diving in. We read every single survey response—thank you for all of your thoughtful feedback—and we learned that the number one way that all of you found out about the show was word-of-mouth, from a friend or from a colleague.
Now, this is a gift because, of course, who doesn't love organic growth, but is also partially a curse since it actually makes it hard for us to repeat. We have a favor to ask today to pick your favorite episode and share it with a friend or on social media to help our little experiment of seeing if we can move the needle just by asking.
We've also heard that a bunch of you have started discussion groups within your company Slack with your colleagues, which was just a fun pattern to see among all the survey responses. Anyway, that's our one ask today, no Slack podcast reviews, feedback, any of that, just pick an episode, share it, say why you love it, and thank you.
Now, onto our presenting sponsor for all of Season Seven, Tiny.
Andrew, we talked about the last episode, sort of introducing Tiny, your history, and what you do buying wonderful Internet businesses. You buy profitable companies. What kind? How should someone think about if they're in your sweet spot or not?
Andrew: We look for people like us. Usually, it's a founder who has accidentally started a business, sometimes they're a designer, a developer. They started a side project and it turned into a multimillion-dollar business kind of by accident and often they're in years 5–10. They've been doing it for a long time and they're thinking about what's next for them—either retirement or moving on to another project—and they want to sell their business to somebody who actually cares and will leave their team alone and do a quick simple deal.
In terms of what we look for, we're really looking for businesses that are at scale. Something that's doing at least $500,000 a year of profit after tax. But we'll also sometimes look at venture-backed businesses that are good businesses but just can't raise the next round of venture or that that model hasn't worked for them, and will sometimes look at restructuring them and getting them back to profitability.
Ben: Thank you to Tiny. If you own a wonderful Internet business that you want to sell or know someone who does, you should get in touch. You can learn more at tinycapital.com or by clicking the link in the show notes.
Well, David, I think it's time to dive in with Kevin and Julia on Eventbrite.
David: Indeed, and I don't think certainly not on this show, have we ever had a company that is so tied in with the personal history of the founders, which we will get into in just a second. Before we talk about you guys, Kevin and Julia together, let's talk about your backgrounds beforehand because they were pretty different, right? Maybe, Kevin, we can start with you, since you're the more traditional Silicon Valley background, original PayPal mafia member. How did you end up getting into entrepreneurship in your first company with the Kinect group?
Kevin: To start out with, I do need to give a shout out to Ben and David because, authentically, the Pinterest breakdown was an excellent podcast. If you haven't listened to it, you need to. Having seen and been kind of on the periphery as a spectator, I had the good fortune of being a seed investor in Pinterest. It's an excellent breakdown, the best I've heard to date, so thank you for that.
David: Thank you.
Ben: It's a rare opportunity where we get to have listeners on the show, so it's super fun to have you on.
David: Well, I don't know if I would join the show had I not heard that and I remember working out, listening to it last summer going wow, yes, that's correct. They got it right. They got it right, the insight, so very well done. I'll talk a bit about my background. How far back do you want me to go?
Julia: We'll be done in four hours.
David: I think maybe most interesting is you were part of this time at Stanford and all these people who came out of it that shaped so much of Silicon Valley. What was that moment like for you and how you and this group of people became part of Silicon Valley in the early days?
Kevin: I had the good fortune meeting Peter Thiel, also Keith Rabois. I was an undergraduate. Peter was a graduate student at the law school and we were involved in student politics together. Believe it or not, there was a mutual degree of respect for one another, even though we were on different sides of the political aisle. It was a time when there was healthy discourse back and forth and we wish that would be more of the case today.
I got to know Peter, and he is just a phenomenally brilliant, non-conventional thinker. He is one of a kind. We're lucky to have him in the Valley. After that period at Stanford, we reconnected in the late 90s. He went to law school, was an attorney, had then traded derivatives, and quickly figured out that was not for him. He came out and we reconnected.
He joined up with Max Levchin, which brought in the UIUC Mafia, the University of Illinois, another great diaspora of great engineers, which Marc Andreessen was part of as well. There's this deep interconnectedness.
David: And you ended up at Silicon Graphics, right?
Kevin: Well, I did start out in Silicon Graphics. It was a kind of Google at its time. Most people are too young to remember. It's embarrassing, but they made these very powerful graphics workstations that, for me, it was a chance to look into the future. You had a super-fast processor. You had the bandwidth on campus on the Silicon Graphics campus, which is now the Googleplex, funny enough.
You got to see the video. You got to see graphics. You've got to look into what the future would be like in 5–10 years. That was a very important view of how to look and think ahead that has influenced me quite a bit.
That second component, as we talk about the fabled PayPal diaspora or PayPal mafia, was just how strong that talent was. It was Peter on the Stanford side. It was Max Levchin on the University of Illinois side, and each of them was a magnet to the talent that came on. Roelof Botha, now running the North American Venture Fund, is a phenomenal investor.
David: Of Sequoia of course.
Kevin: Keith Rabois, now over at Founders Fund. Again, with this type of relationship in that sinew that exists there. Is sinew the right word?
Ben: If so, it's the first time that word’s been used on the show.
Kevin: Like sinewy, like cartilage. It is Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, and an extraordinary thinker in person is Elon Musk. This was a chance to say here's a bet on people. I had the good fortune to get involved as an investor in PayPal before they launched.
David: This was pre-merger with Elon's company?
Kevin: Yes. At the time that PayPal merged with X.com, it was off and running in its current mode, which is online payments and this first integration (and it was an informal integration) with eBay, which was their first vertical. Peter was on the team. We're working on mobile security back at the time when it was the Palm Pilot.
Ben: Yeah, infrared money transfer.
Kevin: That's correct. What they found is that infrared money transfer had to be done physically and they found they were very observant. I think that's a thing to think about as a founder, is that you want to try a lot of different experiments, and you want to watch and see what happens when your products reach the market, and where it gets used.
What happened is that the accounts were based on email. They were then figuring out ways for merchants to transfer money online, and it quickly spread to eBay, where it was the leading—at the time—ecommerce marketplace site, where the merchants found this great way to get paid immediately, which was not obvious at the time and kind of crazy.
Ben: Kevin, when you say you were an investor prelaunch, how did that come to be? Did Peter bring you into it or how did that opportunity present itself?
Kevin: We met down at a restaurant called Hoby’s right off campus for brunch. I had the good fortune of a quick flip. It was almost this YC-like business where we were actually providing Internet access to hotels. We then incorporated in April and we were acquired in October. It wasn't anything like a life-changing amount of money, but it was a pretty good amount that allowed me to invest directly.
Ben: And this is Kinect Group?
Kevin: That was Kinect Group. That's correct and it was acquired by a company called LodgeNet, which, way back when, was the way to get movies on demand.
David: They had that N64 controller that had the games baked in, right?
Kevin: That's right. In fact, in the basement of a hotel, they used to have these first VHS and then DVD banks to actually serve up the film.
So that's how predata and internet that it actually was. They looked towards Internet connectivity as the way to offer a second product alongside.
Julia: Weren't your parents upset that you had taken the earnings from that acquisition and put it all into an investment? I'm sure they imagine at that point you would use it to settle down and pay it on a house.
Kevin: It's a great point that Julia raises. It's important to do exactly the opposite of what your parents say. My parents all along the way just thought I was insane. Why this is important for founders is that when you're doing something contrarian that is against the grain, your parents want you to do something safe. They want you to be a banker, lawyer, or doctor. Doing back then this Internet-ey stuff was considered really, really weird, and a way to throw away your career. My parents, all along the way, even after Julie and I started Eventbrite, still thought we were crazy.
Ben: I think that's a fairly common theme among great founders, even when it's reached escape velocity. It's like a five year lag on skepticism.
Kevin: That's a great way to phrase it. Maybe it's a KPI, is that you have your growth KPIs, your year over year growth, your key performance indicators of other methods of growth to the business. But that notion that your parents are still disgusted, dismayed, and embarrassed is something to track on a monthly basis.
Julia: Like a parental NPS, but you want it to be lower because I want them to be detractors.
Julia: That's a good idea.
Ben: Wow. Kevin, we could do a whole Valley history thing here. Bring us through selling a company to PayPal and then take us all the way up to starting Eventbrite. Then, I want to get Julia's side of the starting Eventbrite story.
Kevin: Early on, like in Silicon Graphics, I think Julia was still in elementary school. She was a ballerina, so I'd rather not do this side-by-side comparison. I think that's very important not to do.
Julia: We have ten years between us. It's like a whole generation.
Ben: And it gets smaller and smaller with every year that goes by.
Julia: Yeah. Eventually, someone's going to ask who is ten years older and then the agreement is that I can kill him.
Ben: All right. Well, now that's recorded.
Kevin: It is on the record.
David: As we understand the history, at least, PayPal in those early days, pre-acquisition by eBay, there was a lot of stuff going on, like lots of great ideas. Obviously tons of companies that got spun out. But there were a few ideas that got left on the cutting room floor that PayPal would do.
One of those ideas was international money transfer, that you would obviously pick up the mantle with Xoom. If we have our history right, there was also an events idea that maybe got left on the cutting room floor, but we'll save that for a little bit later in the episode. How did Xoom then come out of your experience there?
Kevin: Well, I see that you both have done your homework extremely well. What had happened is that a fellow named Dave McClure had joined David Sack's group. David is an extraordinary product person and now runs a venture fund out here in the valley called Craft Ventures. He's a great investor and a great product person, but Dave was running the product at the time at PayPal.
We had discussed, well, your payments platform, you're not just a payments company, and just like the great companies of the time and into the future, when you have a platform, you build an API. This is kind of a prestrike sort of thing and Dave McClure joined. We turned out to be the first developers on it. We kicked around a lot of different ideas, including ticketing, but will be honed in on and that was in discussions with Roelof, with Peter was this money remittance thing.
They said that if we were doing merchant processing at the scale that we were achieving right now, we've got to focus ourselves. We would be going after this big lumbering incumbent that charges these egregious rates called Western Union and this was a missionary zeal for us because it was a way to help immigrants send money back to their families in a faster, better, and cheaper than the incumbents, the MoneyGrams and Western Unions out there.
Ben: You started that on the PayPal API. Was it a separate company from the start? Or did it get started within PayPal and then you sort of spun it out? How did that work?
Kevin: I would say I was never part of the PayPal Mafia. I wasn't a team member there. I foolishly turned down advances to join the company, but I had PayPal FOMO. When they opened the API and saw that we could be the first builders on top of that, we incorporated and built this entity. Roelof and Peter had agreed to fund us off to be the first investors and invest $500,000 off the PayPal balance sheet.
But we were foiled because after PayPal went public, it was quickly acquired. Meg Whitman and the team came in and acquired the business and the deal was off. So we had launched. We were sending money to the Dominican Republic and we started to go out and fundraise. The venture capitalists at the time just thought we were crazy and saying things like immigrants can't send money.
David: Leave it to VCs to just say stupid non sequitur things like that.
Kevin: Insane. That's the whole point of venture into these types of misconceptions. But Peter Thiel exited as the deal closed, he wrote our first check for $500,00, and the business was off and running. We had really bootstrapped it and we were able to show good unit economics. Along the way, Roelof joined Sequoia soon after and was watching us as well. I think we were his first investment, maybe.
David: It's either you or YouTube, but okay. This is the perfect point. All this, you’re speeding up Xoom, starting to go out, raise money, you go down to Santa Barbara for a wedding.
David: What happens at this wedding?
Julia: Dum dum dum.
Ben: This is where I want to bring Julia into the story. Julia, I think we should talk about your background before this, too, but just for continuity’s sake, take it forward from this wedding.
Julia: It was May…
Kevin: May 24th. Come on.
Julia: May 24th, 2003. I could never forget that date.
Kevin: Until just now.
Julia: My first boss at MTV, Jennifer Saltzgiver, was marrying Kevin's classmate from Stanford, Dan Levi. I had heard about Kevin, but we hadn't met. I ran into the church pretty late before the ceremony and I was a reader at the wedding so I had to sit on the edge.
David: Which, by the way, is the best way to do a wedding, because then you don't have to be in the wedding party, but you still get the place of honor.
Julia: I was winning, yes. So I needed to sit on the edge. I kind of ditched my MTV friends to go sit where I could access that podium and I asked a guy and a bunch of maybe his friends to move over.
Kevin: You shoved me over.
Julia: Yeah. I've been shoving you ever since. He started talking to me and I was pretty nervous because I didn't know if the poem was up on the podium. I was 23. Maybe I was a pretty mature 23, but I didn't bring the poem with me, so I was ruminating on that and this guy was just chatting me up. Then I thought, well, everybody at this wedding is really old, so he's probably married or something. I went and did the reading. The poem was at the podium and came back and he said, "You did awesomely. I'm so proud of you." I'm like…
David: Who is this guy?
Julia: Who are you?
Kevin: And she really did. She has a natural presence that has been important in building the culture at Eventbrite in our second decade now.
Julia: It was it, that was it. One line and I was caught. I remember looking at him across the stairs when we were all clapping, the bride and the groom were running out, and I thought, what a great guy. I'll probably never see him again because the wedding was massive. I mean, these are two wonderful people who have huge families and huge sets of friends who are just like those people, like they connect everyone.
We went to the reception and I was standing with my colleagues from MTV. We were talking about the ceremony and all of a sudden, my current boss gave me a weird look. I turned around and there's Kevin standing there really sweet. It wasn't cheesy. It was like a sweet puppy with a whole tray of drinks. He's like, hey, do you guys want drinks? Okay, I am going to see this guy again.
Kevin: I'm a full-service investor. That's the type of investor I am. I'll bring the founder's drinks.
Julia: He knows a good deal when he sees it.
Kevin: That sounds weird.
David: Julia, you mentioned MTV there. Let's talk about your background before this day and what would become of Eventbrite. You weren't part of the PayPal Mafia. It was pretty different, but you did grow up also in the Bay Area. You end up working at MTV. You're one of the teams that put Jackass on the air, which, thank you, by the way, was like my afternoons growing up in Pennsylvania by the TV. How did you end up with a pretty huge amount of responsibility really quickly in your career at this big network at the time?
Julia: Well, I wouldn't overstate it, David. I would say that I was coming up in my career from a very junior place. I got my foot in the door really early on by interning during college. I had two paying jobs, a full-time internship for most of my time at Pepperdine, and I was taking my classes at night. My friends joke still that they used to call me grandma because I wasn't around a lot and I went to bed early.
I was able to really identify what I wanted to do in Hollywood pretty early on, so I went straight from graduation into an assistant role in this series development department at MTV. What I loved about it was that it was a blend of creative, content, and business. It's effectively being a VC for the network. You listen to pitches, you make some bets, then eventually you get to seed the investment, and you get to IPO.
I was so fortunate because I was an intern when the Jackass team sent their demo tape in. This was the pre-streaming era. This was the early 2000s in Hollywood.
David: There was nothing like this at that time.
Julia: Yeah, you could tell the disruption was coming, but it was really coming from content, not from technology. Seeing something like that was pretty incredible. This was maybe the second dawn of reality television. I was working with the team that brought Real World and Road Rules to audiences. That was really one of the first big franchises. And then this came along. It was just really different. The other series development team was working on the Jessica Simpson show.
We were like, this couldn't be more different. There's a little bit of inner competition between the teams, so we went for it. Huge praise to MTV for doing that. I think we saw it from seed to IPO. I was on the team when it debuted and then eventually we produced a movie. The best parts of working on that show, by and large, were the Weekly Standards and Practices Legal and OSHA calls that we did.
It was one big call where the guys would be on speakerphone and they would have faxed through—again, I'm dating—these one single-spaced-line pages of just ideas that they wanted to do. Then everyone had to go around and talk about how we could possibly do that on cable television. It was really special.
David: I haven't come back and rewatched Jackass. I probably should have prepped for this episode, but it probably is so tame, right? All this would be on YouTube. it would be David Dobrik, all the Tiktok houses and kids doing all this stuff, and now it's just part of the mainstream. But this was the beginning.
Julia: This was preYouTube because I remember Kevin showing me the first YouTube video.
Ben: I feel like it was like a cat at a zoo or something. It was short, it was like 15 seconds.
Kevin: It was Jawed Karim who I went on with Keith to invest with for a few years. The three of us seed invested in Airbnb and a few others to name. There were three co-founders of YouTube and Jawed left fairly early on. The very first video was Jawed in front of an elephant making some commentary.
Julia: At the Zoo, yeah.
Ben: All right, we are on the mother of all…
David: Okay, so on the back of this, though, you guys start dating after the wedding. You're thinking about coming back up to the Bay Area. You're thinking about getting engaged. You get hooked up with the Current TV folks and a lot of listeners probably don't remember this, but Current TV was like a big startup.
Ben: The Screen Savers. There was an amazing program.
David: Al Gore was one of the co-founders and in a lot of ways it probably was the wrong vision of YouTube, but you get connected with them. You end up getting a job offer to join as part of the founding team of Current TV and come back to the Bay Area. Are you thinking you're going to take this?
Julia: Absolutely. Up until meeting Kevin, I had set my sights on something, achieved it, set my sights on something, achieved it. It just was very linear. I thought at the time I was at FX Networks, I'd moved on to a new opportunity and I was working with the kings of content. There was really no reason why I should have left. However, spending two years going back and forth between San Francisco and LA really showed me the stark differences between what was happening in Silicon Valley during that Renaissance period and what was happening in Hollywood. And they were two diametrically opposed stories.
Now, they've merged into one, but there was no Netflix, Amazon, or Apple. Obviously there was, but they weren't into content creation. Yet I would absorb a lot from Kevin and figured out that even though I grew up near Silicon Valley and a small beach town called Santa Cruz, I had no idea what was going on.
I sort of missed the boom and the bust and I was learning from Kevin that there's a place where you can go and create ideas and move really quickly, and velocity has always been an attribute that I have prioritized that I really value. I felt like I was in the wrong industry, but because I was in a way a rule follower, I thought…
David: You like the organization, kid, right?
Julia: Yeah, exactly. I'll move to San Francisco. I'm very close to my family, so that'd be great. We got engaged, so that was the impetus of we're going to move forward with life here. I will find a job where my skill set matches, but it also has influence from tech.
I got this offer and it was super low. I wasn't going to be a senior member of the team because, again, I'm still only five years into my work career. I was going to be a mid-level executive on the startup team, and I was going to take it. I paused long enough to double-check with Kevin if I should go for it and Kevin just seized on that moment. I don't even know if you knew what you were doing, but he basically interrupted the entire thing.
David: Kevin, to tell us the story here.
Kevin: Well, I'll take it from the wedding. I think there's something important to that is that I sat next to Julia at the ceremony and we spoke. She had this beauty and poise, and very articulate; you could see the intelligence there. After the ceremony, we were talking and I found out she told me she's working on the show Jackass. She had me at Jackass. It was the perfect person for me and at that point, I knew that it would be a lifelong relationship.
David: You were ready to write the term sheet.
Kevin: I was ready to hand over that term sheet right there.
Julia: Signed, sealed, and delivered.
Ben: How long before you got engaged? How long were you actually dating? You tell this amazing story of this love at first sight. How long did you sort of test it out before you're like, we should definitely get engaged?
Kevin: We met May 24th, 2003, we got engaged on April 29, 2005, and we're married on June 3rd, 2006. Now, I've given away every old password, but thank God we all use one password now.
Julia: I was thinking about that.
Kevin: Yeah. Never give your special dates away. That used to be the way, but now, these password management applications like 1Password, I just absolutely adore.
David: That's amazing.
Kevin: I'm not an investor in 1Password, by the way. It’s another company I have a company crush on. They're an incredible company. They just raised their first-round after 12 or 15 years. It's definitely one to be on this show.
Ben: All right. We're talking about you two getting engaged. Can we stop talking about startup financing for a moment?
Julia: Kevin read me Pablo Neruda on a beach and then proposed to me.
David: I love it. I was referring to an offer to start a company, a counter-offer to Current TV.
Kevin: It's the job of a startup founder to find great, great, talent no matter where it is. I happen to be living with and engaged to this potential co-founder with massive potential.
David: You just got a little lower offer.
Kevin: Yeah. We just got a little lower offer. I could seize and have one of these magical experiences where we wouldn't just be married but we would also be able to work together. It was a wonderful thing where we got to spend 24/7 together. It seemed very magical and I captured this talent along with our third co-founder, Renaud Visage, who always gets left out because everyone wants to talk about the couple and poor Renaud who was the technical mastermind behind Eventbrite is just always behind the scenes. Shoutout to Renaud for his amazing contribution.
Julia: He's still working at Eventbrite.
Kevin: Absolutely. Just like you.
Julia: Just like all of us.
Kevin: You took my job. I would've been still at Eventbrite had she not taken my CEO job. She kicked me up to this chairman position where you really have no idea what I'm supposed to do as a chairman except for sounding important.
Ben: It certainly does.
David: The company proposal, did you have the idea? Ticketing was something you talked about the PayPal team on the PayPal API. Was Eventbrite in your mind as you're thinking about this? Or was it like no, we're going to jump in together and we're going to figure something out. Just us and then we'll come to an idea.
Kevin: The thesis always was there was this conventional thought in the Valley that PayPal was this parasite on eBay. It turned out to be the other way around. I wouldn't call eBay a parasite. It turned out to be simply PayPal, this payment platform's first vertical.
Our thesis was that PayPal would open up this API what they call as a directive at PayPal before it was acquired to find non-eBay growth in merchants. Bringing PayPal into money remittance was one mechanism to distribute but also we saw this broken, messed up—still messed up—industry in ticketing that really needs a lot of help. We want to build these verticals on top of PayPal.
I was once told, why are you building these pimples on the ass of PayPal? That's really how all industries start. There's an API, there's a platform, and there's PaymentsOS that will power so many great businesses. Who would think that today, PayPal doing three-quarters of a trillion dollars in payments volume or where Stripe is, it’s absolutely extraordinary? We were fortunate to see that thesis come true.
Ben: Julia, in this moment where Kevin comes to you and says, wait. Not only is that offer only too low, but you should be betting on yourself instead of accepting little money from a job. Take little money but all the upside for yourself. Let's do something together." Was this idea there? Or did that come out in the coming weeks or months?
Julia: It was there, we had talked about it. I remember when you were still actually at Xoom for a little bit before you transitioned out. I would log into the customer support queue for what was then called Molly-Guard. That was essentially the prototype you guys have built. I don't know if you call it that. It was an early product and people were using it.
They were using it largely for either free events or small ticket events. There was a customer support queue that had kept going and nobody was answering it. I just went in and started investigating who these people were, what they were doing.
Meanwhile, I didn't know any idea what this was going to be like. I was not the kid with the lemonade stand. I didn't know if I would be a great entrepreneur, but I did know that I love to learn by doing. Really hated sitting in the classroom, but I love my internships. Then, I could bring some Yin to Kevin's Yang.
We found Renaud a couple of months in. It was just truly mom and pop. We moved in together and we found a space in Portola Hill, which was in an old warehouse building. The landlord was a good family friend and he gave us a phone closet to start in. We put [...] and plywood desks. That was two days after you came to drive with me up from LA. It was a whirlwind.
One thing I could say, there are a lot of complementary attributes and skills that we have. Then, there are these big overlaps. One of them is we like to move quickly. We were just like, boom, boom, boom. I remember pushing a sawhorse behind Kevin thinking, I hope he's not totally nuts. We haven't got married yet. There's a little bit of me that's going to reserve some skepticism.
The thing that I remembered about that time—there's a lot that I don't—is just this overwhelming sense of optimism. I think serial entrepreneurs are a little nuts. I think that they missed that chip in their brain that says this might not happen or this might not work out. Kevin's just insatiable appetite for taking risks, seeing the opportunities, and then, how hard he works. He gets more done in a day than most high-performing people get down in a week. It was just like we're off to the races. I think it just happened really quickly and we never looked back. We never considered another idea.
A funny story. I don't know if you guys know, is that we were allowed to be in the building for free for a short period of time if we told other entrepreneurs about the building.
David: You found some pretty good ones, right?
Julia: We found some great ones. You guys do know the story. You're so well-researched. We ended up in a span of a year collecting basically 12 other startup teams. We were all in one space. Trippet, Flixster, Trulia was in the building. Zynga started technically in the same space. Boxbe.
Kevin: Just those companies alone, Trippet became a part of [...]. The lesson is, when the team just receives checks, they are getting paid with checks to the mail for installs.
Julia: Andrew Trader was just opening techs all day.
Kevin: Yeah. His job, he had a desk full of checks and was opening them up. Whenever you see that, I've learned as an investor, invest in that company. There is a rumor that Don Valentine went to Cisco when it was just the husband and wife and maybe a few others. He was trying to understand what this router thing is.
But then, he walked into the back and there was a fax machine where orders were just coming in all the time. He asked the operator of the fax machine or the person who receives the orders. He’s like, "Is this always the case?" The response was, "Yes. I can't keep up with it. Look at this big stack of paper." That becomes a very clear and simple investment thesis.
Now, there are not too many checks these days, but I think the equivalent is maybe your Stripe account or something of the like.
David: This is a perfect chance because you started all these. You would think you guys are both hyper net worth at this point. Roelof is a partner in Sequoia. You think, oh, obviously, you raised money from your network, Peter and all that, but, you didn't. You took a totally different path. I think this is really interesting. Julia, you're saying people are already using this. You already have transactions happening for two years, basically. It was just you guys and Renaud. You were building this with your own capital, bootstrapping, not taking salaries, and just building the business. Why did you decide to do that?
Kevin: Xoom (XOM), the remittance business had been an exercising delusion. We had to take a lot of capital. We had an excessive amount of fraud. We had our first fight off and developed systems and algorithms to stomped that. Remittance licenses were very expensive. It was a fairly capital-intensive business. While we were very happy where the business has grown and the outcome there, it was an exercise in over delusion.
In the second go-around—I guess the third if you consider the Kinect group—we really wanted to polish the product. It didn't require a lot of infrastructure. It was just the three of us. So, for a long time—I think close to two years—we just wanted to get product/market fit, build this business.
Julia would respond to customers and learn about them. We would talk. I would work on the product to sign and hand them over to Renaud who would code. He spent most of his year in Paris, actually. We were ⅓ remote team at that time. He would work. Because of the eight hours difference, he would crank away while we slept. We would come in the morning and there'd be all these new features and attributes pushed. We would just wash, rinse, and repeat.
We really feel—and I feel strongly—that's the right way to build a company. Capital can be a good thing, but a lot of times, financing really hinders companies. That it gets one focus on the wrong things that don’t really focus you on what's most important and that's your customer. We spent a few years doing this.
The other side was that nobody wanted to invest in us. They were thinking what is this strange business of this not large concert events but everything under the sun that our creators, our event holders, our merchants, were publishing?
David: We use Eventbrite for all of our Acquired events. It's awesome but this is not what people are thinking about at that time. There's Ticketmaster and there are you guys. We talked about this. People were collecting checks at the door for everything below the arena-sized venue. How quickly did you identify that gap? Forget the arenas. There's this whole sea of micro event entrepreneurs, essentially, that don't have tools. Was that division in the beginning?
Julia: It was. Our hypothesis was that there were far more people trying to sell tickets to events than anybody had ever seen because it was offline. The fatty middle between the top of the pyramid being large arenas and the bottom being backyard barbecues and birthday parties that there would be this really rich, interesting, middle layer that was global. If we could build something with a self-service ethos that could meet the basic needs of as many different types of event creators as possible, that would continue to grow volume, scale, and give us optionality in the future.
We just focused on building a great product, but I think from a customer standpoint, for the first year or so, our earliest adopters were tech bloggers and people in that community who were hosting in-person events with their readers. We were the ticketing platform for the first tech crunch disrupt. Literally, we printed out a guest list, showed up, and checked people in at the door (we have the pictures to prove it). Then, I remember about a year in, we started to see speed dating on the east coast popup. In particular, there was a customer who ran an event called Red Carpet Speed Dating. That started to flourish. We started to see the maps light up.
David: You weren't marketing in New York at this point in time. This was just organic adoption?
Julia: Yes. It was just word-of-mouth. It was people buying tickets to other events. It was SEOs. It was very early on, we figured out that every event listing would be user-generated content, so we could help all of those pages get highly indexed. It was all these organic means. When that started happening, it felt maybe there's a there there because tech bloggers and speed dating are two really different categories—no jokes—they're different categories.
We thought, wow, maybe there's something there. Because we're integrated with PayPal, we started seeing overseas transactions and events being published. It all grew together. It took us a while to convince people that the market was big. That was probably one of our biggest challenges when we only eventually did go out to raise money.
David: What scale did you guys build the business over those two years before you raised money?
Kevin: It was tens of millions of what we call GTS (Gross Ticket Sales). In the age of today, if you have a few hundred thousand in GMV, you're way off to the races. We were saying, look at this. Look at this usage. It's incredible. Again, this organic nature.
When you have three people—by the way I'll go back to your earlier question—these two years of just solid development, you try to make everything so efficiently and effectively build a perpetual motion machine. Meaning, you have this dietist theory of company building where you can create something. This religious theory says that God created the universe and put all these laws of physics and motion. Now, it just operates.
We want to build a platform that does that. We wanted to put something in motion and we would have creators, our merchants find a business, publish on Eventbrite, sell tickets, hold their events, and the attendees would learn about Eventbrite. Some of them would convert to creators or merchants and you'd wash, rinse, and repeat again.
You saw this snowball effect happening. We just experimented with it. We found all these experiments, these new things called Facebook and Twitter, and how they could actually amplify our platform. We would just ride each wave. That was the real magic of what we're doing. It was Sequoia Capital and Roelof again identifying this. We were really seeing that lift and we received our Series A term sheet at the end of 2009.
Ben: That, to me, sounds like a whole year between when you said our two years of bootstrapping are behind us. We want to raise money. And then you actually did raise money. Am I off there or did that really take a long time?
Julia: We weren't fundraising the entire year but we did go out towards the end of 2008. It was the fall of 2008. I don't know if you too young tabs are old enough, but it was a tough time for the economy. The sky was falling. We met with 27 venture firms and we received 27 nos.
Kevin: We did raise a C fund. If you remember, we began in earnest in 2006. A big portion of the C fund was our own money, so we rolled some of those PayPal proceeds. We raised a couple of $100,000 in a seed in a friends and family round. Jeff Clavier was an early supporter. The Birches, Michael and Xochi Birch were a husband-and-wife team that we admired so much, that had a phenomenal outcome selling the business to AOL.
We went on a merry way to building and then you saw the 2008–2009 economic collapse, the housing bubble burst, and we were thinking we're really going to be in trouble here. But what you see in these massive dislocations is that there's this movement online, that the world figures out that it's far more efficient to use a service like Eventbrite than the traditional manner of doing that, and we see that today. It's a very important lesson. We see this dislocation that's happened due to COVID and you see the future come faster, whether it's Xoom conferencing, whether it's food and grocery delivery with Instacart and DoorDash. This is an extraordinary phenomenon.
It's also an opportunity for new players to outhustle even more so the incumbents. We saw a lot of flipping happen of leadership where old media still had a strong foothold or real estate practices, the past had a strong foothold. But then, a lot of these marketplaces became much more prominent, gained market leadership. Trulia, which we had the opportunity to write the first check into, became market leaders in the space and surpassed their offline equivalence.
Ben: We have the section of the show called the playbook and rather than waiting for it later, I'd rather pull forward a bullet point here. I think it really gets to why the perception of Eventbrite was that you didn't have a large market by VCs at first because Julia, as you said, it's because of the shadow market. It was largely offline transactions. There was no good way to see that there was a large opportunity here.
The internet creates the opportunity for niches to individually be large. This whole long tail of creators that otherwise didn't have the tooling and were (thus) collecting checks at the door, or not having events because it's too high of a friction thing, this basically unlocked new value for that massive longtail of I think you have something close to million creators in 2019 using Eventbrite.
I think if you would have told me in 2008 that a decade from now that there will be one million [...] events using just this one company's toolset, it frankly seems ludicrous. Now it seems obvious, but then you can totally see how you would have to be Julia and Kevin Hartz, the crazy people who think this is actually going to happen for that to believe it.
Kevin: This is why we want to be on the Acquired podcast because you understand. You actually do your homework and you have a sophisticated understanding of the intricacies of this. You're like the Statetris of podcasting. We're also going to try to recruit you two during this show given that.
Ben: Thank you.
Kevin: Just briefly on TAM. With Xoom and remittance business, it's very simple to calculate TAM. Every central bank in every country recorded remittances come in. We could go into Sequoia and just say it's a massive market and we'll take a couple of percentages of that, and look, we have a multibillion-dollar business opportunity as our total addressable market, but that was so hard.
That was very hard for Airbnb in the early days of how large is the creation of this market that Ben described here. I always struggled to try to go through TAM. At some point, when we did have some money, we tried to find consultants to help us and it just was impossible to try to peg down every one of these categories and this creationist notion.
Julia: It's somewhat of a fruitless exercise. I don't know if that's going to be too controversial.
Julia: I think for something that is like Eventbrite, we have a platform that enables an activity that is the human experience. I still to this day think it's just not helpful. I mean there is some data that we can use in which GO are certain categories a big opportunity, but there's nothing that comes close to the data that we have from what's going on any given moment on the platform. That's not going to be picked up in a study; that's ours. It gives us such a clear indication of where we should focus our efforts, whether it's building products or going to the market.
I think Kevin's thesis was that you really focus on making it friction-free, you give the tools that the people need to be successful (the product that they love), then you give the service that makes them feel loved, and then you keep building that.
Today, we're sitting on a lot of interesting data that's actionable not just for us as a business but actually for our customers. We can turn that data around to give them content and actionable insights on how they can grow their businesses.
I think one of the misnomers about Eventbrite is that it's for an informal gathering. These are small businesses and professionals. We're not used for RCP events like backyard barbecues; it is actually a bad product for that. It's really for professional ticketed events. But I think that it's interesting because when we were out fundraising that first time, there was this persistent question, just like you maybe never would have thought that bringing craft fairs online would be a big business.
Our story is somewhat similar to Etsy as well where you see this extraordinary long tail emerge and come into the platform, and all of sudden you start creating a market because you're bringing people from the offline to the online and that you're also helping people become more successful and build their businesses on the platform.
Kevin: I think an inherent driver of our business has been that need for humans to gather and that has been more powerful than ever. A second component has traditional media like magazines. There are all these hobbyist magazines in different areas that, as declined, the live experience grew. Magazines that we're from train collectors to home and garden, their revenue, their income started to grow in offline events and they really leaned into that.
That was the crossing of moving from the print and media world to the offline and gathering a world that became so visceral and powerful. Then, you had social media which became about your experience, not the things that you own. Just as your feed is more representative of you, you want to do interesting things, be in interesting places, and you can influence others. That's what Eventbrite is all about and those beautiful exciting experiences and the thing you were doing became this broadcast mechanism to display what you were about and who you are, whether it's a triathlon or whether it's attending a craft beer festival.
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Listeners, as you know, normally in the Acquired format, we would take you blow-by-blow all the way up through how the company became what it became today but since we have Julia and Kevin here. There are a few key moments that we want to fast forward to and talk through with them. We've talked through the 2008, 2009 timeframe where they had mostly bootstrapped it.
Once they started raising money, frankly, they raised a lot of money, Sequoia came in and did that Series C. Then, they raised $20 million, then $50 million, then $60 million, and then $130 million. This company became very well-capitalized. It was growing very quickly. It was a part of this stay private longer ethos that was really dominating the 2014–2019 stretch of technology companies and I want to talk about two things with you, Julia and Kevin.
One, why stay private longer, and had you thought about IPO sooner? The second thing is a question for you Julia where you formally became the CEO I think in early 2018, kicked Kevin to the curb, and said, look, I've been operating the company with you and now it's time to be the CEO. Kevin, you win and spend some time at Founders Fund and obviously now starting a SPAC that we'll talk about here shortly. Julia, I want to hear about the roadshow process. I want to dive into what it was like to take a company public.
Julia: The only thing that I would just attempt to crack—I'm a bit fearful to do because again, I think you've done such great work—is we weren't opposed to going public. Yes, we stayed private pretty long, but I think that we always had an idea of Eventbrite being a public company. I think being in the public markets sheds light on your business. Light is a great antiseptic and a great way to be lean, thoughtful, and a high-performing company.
It was all part of the plan, frankly. One thing led to another. We acquired a big company. I think the timing was really about what we had set for ourselves. This is the threshold of revenue, this is the threshold of profitability, this is what we want to see in the business, and then we'll consider going public. And we did.
We decided in January of 2018 that we will be going into the high gear on the IPO process and it took roughly nine months, which I like to joke. I can make a human in nine months and it was a long process.
Most of the work you do to get ready for an IPO, you do it well before you're actually in the IPO process. But the IPO process itself is this cookie cutter, you have a plan, you have a Gantt chart, you go through the steps, and there's a lot of cooks in the kitchen.
I enjoyed it because I figured that if we were going to dedicate nine months and countless hours—hours are money—that time would cost something, that we would get the most out of it because the opportunity lost in focusing on this, I wanted the focus to actually yield something that was greater than that opportunity that we lost.
We focus on two things. One was making sure that our public debut was rooted in the creators, our customers, and their stories. That we put front and center, that we actually use them to get investors really on board and understanding our business. And that works really well.
It was a risk because I would go into these meetings and I would start telling stories. I'm like, oh my god. Somebody is going to tell me to stop and walk out. It worked. It was like a light switch would go on. You could see it in a person, too, saying oh, you're not [...]. You're not like the next this or the next that. So, that worked really well.
The second thing was that I wanted it to be a process that would just inherently make us better at operating. We really leaned on that process to help clean up some of the stuff that has been accumulating. There are barnacles after 10 years and I wanted it to be something that we felt like was additive to the company and to who we were as a business.
We landed in September. One thing that I think maybe you guys don’t know about me is that when I make a plan, that’s the plan. I decided that since Kevin’s birthday is on September 18 and Roelof’s birthday is on September 19, that obviously we are going public that week.
You know when you do a remodel and you tell the team I have a really big event coming up, so you got to get it done for that? This was like that emotional push that everybody needed because it was not obvious. In order to land our date, we had to get on the roadshow right after Labor Day and pass over and through two high holidays. It was a rare year where the high holidays are falling right in the center of our roadshow, and we have a ton of competition.
In September of 2018, a lot of companies were going public, so actually—
David: You guys started the forefront. I mean, Uber wasn’t public yet, Lyft was in public yet. The floodgates were just opening for all these companies. You guys that have been in the private market so long we’re just about to flip over.
Julia: That’s right. Actually, our opening bell day got stolen from us. That’s part of the story that not many people know. I won’t mention the company, but if you do your homework, you’ll know.
Ben: What was the date? September 17th or 18th?
Julia: We ended up going public on the…
Kevin: I thought it was the 19th which was Roelof’s birthday.
Julia: No. We ended up going public on the 20th and it was the market high day. We ended up going on a great day. At any rate, we stopped the landing, but the roadshow itself was insane. George Lee from Goldman Sachs was one of the lead bankers. He said that in 25 years, he had never seen this many travel mishaps happen in one company during the roadshow.
When we took off for our first day, we flew across the country, there was a hurricane on the East Coast. The pilot that tells us he needs to land the plane and I innocently asked, well are we close to New York? I realize we’re in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, which is the home of the Little League Hall of Fame, actually the birthplace of our CFO, which was so insane. It was nonchalantly mentioned when we’re landing, and I’m thinking we’re going to have to call your mom because we have to spend the night here. But then, we realized we had to start at 6:00 AM to train the sales force, get going, and it was a Friday.
Ben: So, this is training the banker sales force, to go and advocate on your behalf?
Julia: That’s right, really important meetings. So, going to each bank we worked with Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and we’re supported by Allen & Company, but we went to Goldman and JP to get their sales force trained up, and then we had our first day of full meetings in New York. We couldn’t sacrifice that day because it was a Friday. If we miss that day we blow our entire schedule.
We end up landing and it’s dark clouds, rain, crazy, and—you know I’m from California—I’m still thinking, well it just must be a hop, skip, and a jump. We must be over the hill from new york or something. Anyway, a long story short they bring around a minivan and George Lee drives us through Poconos—4½ hours—to New York City. Along the way, we stop at Friendly’s which is a place I’ve never been to because I’m from California.
David: I grew up on Friendly’s.
Julia: I had my first and only furball and we made a music video which is in the vault and—
Kevin: I keep hearing all these trials and difficult challenges the roadshow’s having, and then I’m getting these lip-dubbed videos back with bankers on the hood of the car dancing. I’m saying what is going on? Is this really a roadshow?
Julia: I like to make lemonade on lemons. I like a good adventure, so we ended up making it. We pulled in at like midnight, drove into New York blasting Billy Joel and just New York State of Mind. I mean, just in it. It was epic, but then so many things like that happened that when I think about doing the roadshow now on Zoom, we really missed the timing on that. Watching Kevin do his IPO the other day was like, oh my gosh so much money saved, so much brain damage saved, but you didn’t get to make a music video on the Poconos.
Kevin: And we did get a donut wall on the New York Stock Exchange floor which was provided and became the most memorable thing that our two daughters only remembers, that there is a doughnut wall. They didn’t care about this thing going public. They just wanted a donut wall.
Julia: Well they made you a donut wall.
Kevin: They did make me a donut wall for the SPAC IPO.
Ben: Just to make sure I understand, Kevin, you weren’t there for the roadshow presentations for Eventbrite. Julia, that was just you leading it as—
Julia: Just Kevin. He ended up meeting up with us the day before pricing which was his birthday. We all arrive in New York, we meet up with Kevin, we’re all exhausted, we celebrate his birthday—it was really fun—and then we’re tired, so it was just dinner.
Kevin: The roadshow is really the CEO and the CFO. I’m again just the chairman. I don’t know what I do. I’m just along for the ride and I get to watch this incredible team do these incredible things. I was there along for the leg in DC but toured around, met with some people I knew in DC while you did all the hard work in Baltimore.
Julia: Oh, right. I remember that. So, we rang the bell and it was, I think about it differently now but back then I had an idea that this was not an ending. It was a beginning, it’s the starting line. To be working on something for 12 years and have this be the starting line was pretty overwhelming, but that day was so special because we had all of our family there. There were 18 family members from our nuclear family. It felt like a wedding. We were all downtown together and we had our executive team, our first 10 employees, and a handful of customers who are participating in the roadshow, in the video, and the marketing materials.
I remember two things vividly. One was that the president of the New York Stock Exchange, Stacey Cunningham, said that they had to look through the archives and had not yet found a picture of that many women executives on the podium. That was just our executive team. We were filling the rafters with women.
The second thing was that peak from Citadel, our market maker, our opener, he said he’d never seen that many children on the floor. It wasn’t even like we told everybody to bring their kids. It was just people who brought their families. It was such a special day and there are kids running everywhere. Of course, I felt a bittersweet moment because I was (I think) the second female founder to have gone public in a really long time…
Kevin: And the second youngest.
Julia: Second youngest, something that made me feel honored but also a little sad.
Ben: This is something I wanted to ask you about. The roadshow is a process where bankers are evaluating someone’s decade of hard work in a split-second decision. Lots of heuristics are being used, people are looking at the same set of financials that they’re used to looking at. They’re getting often caught up in the hype and they’re usually used to seeing male CEOs of these high-growth (especially founder) CEOs, these high-growth companies. What was that like being one of the few women who lead that process?
Julia: They largely kept their cool, but we actually didn’t see one woman on the roadshow. Actually, sorry. We saw one and I am dear friends with her. That’s Anne-Marie from Capital. I think she was friendly and she doesn’t typically cover companies of our size, so there were zero women.
That wasn’t a surprise to me. I give because we’ve done the testing the waters, we knew a lot of investors, we had long-term relationships thanks to Allan & Company. It wasn’t a surprise, but I do think that when I reflect on it I am very fortunate to have allies around me. I think working with Kevin has helped me understand that there is even just the smallest of active support from men in power to women can just be the fuel that they need to run through any wall. I just felt that.
I felt like I had people like George Lee, Noah Wintroub, Ian Smith, and Harry Wagner around. These are like my tribe. Roelof. It’s not foreign for me to be the only woman, but yes, we did not see any of my gender on that trip.
Kevin: Ben, just to make a clarification, when you’re on a roadshow it’s actually not bankers you’re meeting with. You’re meeting with portfolio managers of long-only funds. Each portfolio manager manages a big pool of capital. It’s like a venture fund inside a venture fund. There’s a lead portfolio manager that makes that yes or no decision to put an order. So, just to clarify there.
Two things just to add is that at the time, really it was clear to me that the student had become the master, and that it was time for Julia to take my place. Thank God there’s now a great CEO in the seat. The second thing I’ll also point out is that during the periods that we had raised the most money privately were the hardest and most difficult periods for me because we were really fighting this gravity of overspending and creating inefficiency. It took us away from our roots as a capital-efficient highly effective perpetual motion machine.
That’s really what drove our desire and ethos to be out in the public market sooner, and really learn great practices of capital allocation. That begins at the earliest stage as a founder. You might have a big balance sheet, but you’ve got to discipline yourself to put that money to work in the right way of finding great people, not over hiring, not giving everyone the chance to be a manager. These are the real reasons why the ills of private capital have been so difficult but the [...] and others.
David: You sound like you’re preaching The Outsider’s Gospel, the great book about capital allocation, CEOs, and management. As we’re preparing for this, obviously, a lot has happened in the world and to you guys since your IPO hit a recording here in August 2020 in COVID times. Founders were afraid to go public before because that mantra was public markets are so short-term focused. It’s the private markets that are long-term; they're going to stick with you.
But you guys have found some amazingly supportive shareholders and new investors as a public company, through the crisis and tragedy that is COVID, that has obviously hugely impacted [...]. You raised $225 million as a public company. How have you found this whole experience?
Ben: And I just wanted to throw a series of numbers out there so listeners get a shape of the impact here because I think it’s worth having a third party to throw that out. Eventbrite was doing something like $80 million a quarter and (I think) net revenue for several quarters leading up until (obviously) Q2, which (of course) then drops precipitously. It’s primarily an in-person event business, around half of which the revenue comes from the self-organized mid-sized self-serve events.
You see that $80 million number dropped to $8 million in that quarter. So, imagine your business taking this 90% haircut, and then, Julia, I think turning it back to you this question of what do you do and how do you figure out how to build a war chest and play offense from there?
Kevin: What happened in really early March—I would even point it to March 5th—was one of the most extraordinary impacts on a business I’d ever seen in my whole career. There was just nothing like the onset of COVID and it came fast and quickly to a live entertainment and ticketing business, that also served small businesses. It was this double witching, this incredible tidal wave of damage to the business, to this triad of our company, in our hard-working team members, our attendees, our creators, as well as investors in the business.
We’ve almost been in a position that the sun was shining when you look back at everything else compared to what happened in March. We had a phenomenal January and February. It was a record, the business was humming along, and then March came. Over $4.5 billion in gross ticket sales that we achieved in 2019 went actually in March to $0 and actually negative. We had more refunds than you did ticket sales. That’s unprecedented. You just don’t see a business come to a grinding halt and even step back.
What Julia and her team did during that period was nothing short of just extraordinary. It’s still the greatest comeback story I’ve seen in the making. I joked that Ben Horowitz’s experience in The Hard Thing About Hard Things doesn’t hold the candle to Julia and her team story. I shouldn’t say that because I won’t get invited to a summer barbecue anymore.
I’m sorry, Ben, but I will just let maybe Julia talk about what it was like in the trenches during that 90 days, how she shored up the balance sheet, how to go through some very extremely painful decisions, and really capitalize the balance sheet so this business could endure for the long-term.
Julia: I’ll save you on the venting. I actually went back and read some of the parts that I had highlighted from that book, The Hard Things About Hard Things, and I think two things resonate with me now more than ever. One is to embrace the struggle, not try to avoid the really difficult things, and get right to the hardest thing. Two is to see the silver lining in the worst-case scenario.
You go through different scenario planning exercises as a public company, like do these tabletop exercises. I remember thinking in the second week of March tabletop my ass. There is no tabletop exercise that can actually prepare for this. It was the biggest crisis and the worst-case scenario that you could ever imagine because the basis of our business that we add for, for all intents and purposes, felt was just inherent to human experience, was going away.
We were the tip of the spear and we were the first affected. We obviously weren’t the only affected, but being in that front pack there were benefits to being in that front pack because we were moving quickly and immediately, not only taking care of our people.
First, I had to focus on the people because we needed to get everybody prepared to work from home. Part of that was a conversation I had with Eric at Zoom who said that despite what they build, they were a work-from-office culture and he was moving everybody to work from home so that they could get conditioned as they were going to be taking on these massive challenges.
Ben: Julia, I’m curious. How do you think about the things that were unique to Eventbrite about this and the path going forward?
Julia: I think when you have such a massive business disruption, there are a few key things that you have to get right in order to make it through that eye of the storm. We were immediately in the fog of what felt like war because our revenue went from 100% to 0% in a matter of two weeks. We were huddled together, immediately created a strategy that would lead us through to where we needed to be as a company. Not a strategy of how are we going to get through this crisis as much as what would we do if we could do it all over again.
Asking ourselves that question allowed us to narrow our focus because we knew we had to. We couldn’t be doing everything we were doing pre-COVID in the middle of this crisis and still make it through. So, we immediately made a cut that was deep, and it was painful. It was a cut that we may not just for cost-cutting sake but actually to prepare the company to narrow its focus.
For us, the strategy was very clear. We have an incredibly vibrant sell sign-on channel that grows faster and has a stronger gross margin than our sales channel. We have a self-service platform that really doesn’t need someone to be providing high-touch human service. We think a bit about how our go-to-market works, but that wasn’t our biggest problem. Our biggest problem was how we were going to get through to the other side.
Ben: Sales channel, just to clarify, make sure I understand, that’s like when you go and you sign a big customer, like a multi thousand-person music festival, you enter a more complex financial arrangement, you change the cash flow dynamics, they’re assigned a headcount, and you work out a special deal for refunds. Each one of those is like a unique special child, more so than just, Ben and David are hosting an Acquired meet-up.
Julia: That’s right. We saw the first day of the impact of COVID in early March, and in early April we downsized the company by 45%. We effectively removed over $100 million from our operating expenses. On May 11th we announced our earnings along with our financing, and on June 12 we raised the second part of our financing through a public market convert which was part of the original plan.
Just moving out that fast pace allowed us to be stronger and at this moment. I can’t help but look at all the opportunities that have emerged from this time because now, our smaller team is focused on doing less. We’re able to pivot our attention to helping small businesses survive this moment. Then, we really focused on what our product could do to help our creator survive this time.
Online events are something that we’ve served since the beginning of time. You don’t have to have an in-person event to use Eventbrite. We’re really the front door on the platform, the operating system for any type of event. So, immediately we started to see creators, especially the ones that internally we call super creators or frequent creators. They’re small businesses or entrepreneurs. They started to pivot their events online. We saw Zoom become a highly-searched term on the site, so that’s when I reached out directly to them, and a few weeks ago we announced our integration with Zoom in a native app.
There are these moments and opportunities that continue to play out as we help our customers, not only now survive but then thrive into this new world because things aren’t going to be the same in the future. It’s our job to really prepare them for any scenario and to help rebuild the live experience economy.
David: Being a public company to all that, have you been in any way held back by that, accelerated? Would have it been different if you were still private?
Julia: I think it would have been harder if we were private. I think that being a public company, having consistency in reporting, and having some really dedicated long-term shareholders, as well as new interested investors, gave us the opportunity to really play offense, as you say. We ended up raising $375 million in total.
We now are on the other side of this with a clear direction, a smaller, vibrant, mighty team, a smaller, focused team, and we’re doing everything in our power to help our customers during this time. it’s really core to who we are. It’s building a stronger platform, it’s creating a superior product experience, it’s helping them reach broader audiences through their online events.
Think about how we are going to be a better company, going forward. It’s sort of like a near-death experience and a new lease on life. We needed the financial security to be able to get through at this point, but I think that, as a public company, we were able to access the public markets for part of our financing. That was possible because we’re a public company.
Ben: All right. Now, before we go into our final section—grading—we’d like to thank Perkins Coie, the official legal sponsor of season seven of Acquired. We have with us today, Andrew Moore, a partner in the corporate securities practice at the firm.
Andrew, if Eventbrite went public today one could imagine they’d consider doing a SPAC. What are some of the benefits and trade-offs that founders should think about as they consider this newer path versus the more traditional IPO process?
Andrew: SPACs have been around actually for a long time, but they certainly have become more common and (I would say) accepted in the mainstream over the last decade. There have been some notable SPAC transactions including DraftKings, Virgin Galactic, and you may have seen locally that [...] is in the process of negotiating to be acquired by a SPAC. I think we’re going to learn a lot more about the pros and cons, and get a lot more insight over time.
I think one of the big ones that are appealing to the tech companies that are out there is the ability to access the public markets earlier in their life cycle than they might otherwise be able to do. There’s a longer period in general from formation to IPO, and they think the theory is that for some companies they may really benefit from getting to the public market sooner than being able to access those for all the good reasons that companies want to access the public markets. I think that’s a significant potential benefit.
On the other hand, people should not think that this is an easier way to go public. I think it’s a challenging way to go public. You’re negotiating acquisition for one, and for those who have been through that, no acquisitions are not easy. Then, you’re having to do essentially public company level-disclosure in order to consummate the transaction. You still need lots of disclosure about the company akin to what you have in an IPO, including audited financial statements.
It’s still a difficult and challenging process. The questions around how much dilution you’ve taken in a SPAC transaction versus a traditional IPO (I think) is an important question because the SPAC sponsors in their public investors expect to make a return as well. That’s something to consider. Companies need to think carefully about who their SPAC partner is. They partner that you’re comfortable with on a going-forward basis.
Ben: Awesome. Thank you, Andrew, and obviously we will get much deeper into SPACs on this LP show primer with Kevin after this. If you are interested in learning more, you can visit perkinscoie.com. Thank you so much to Andrew for taking the time today. Now, on the grading.
As you both know, the way that we finish these episodes is with a grade. Dave and I have gone back and forth on how on earth we do that for this episode. What I want to do with both of you is what’s the scenario where five years from now we look back and say A+ between product and strategy decisions. What could be the A+ outcome from this?
Kevin: The A+ outcome is the silver lining of being able to dramatically focus the business on the core of the business. Oftentimes, in expansive growth companies, you’re placing a lot of investment that’s in a lot of different areas and sometimes getting ahead of yourself. The A+ scenario would be really focusing back to the core that really grew Eventbrite, made it great in moving the world even faster towards the self-service ethos, and building a better product about that.
Right now, music venues have been by far the hardest hit. If you look at some of the ticketing competitors in those spaces, they’re accustomed to very manual and horrible platforms that require a lot of people, human software of sorts, and now to be able to make it so simple for a venue, a venue that doesn’t have the balance sheet and resources to be able to do this in an automated way into it, except as just as companies accepted Salesforce, HubSpot, or these other platforms, this really paves the way to the future.
It also retires the incumbents in the same way that you saw, just the inefficient businesses disappear during the 2000 crisis, the dot-com bust, during the housing crisis, where it’s actually an opportunity to gain market share and come out a real leader with a much sharper focus. That’s the A+ scenario.
Ben: Julia, what do you think?
Julia: I think that the A+ scenario is looking back at this time and having it be this incredible moment of rocket ship journey, where Eventbrite is even more ubiquitous in live experiences than we are today, and extraordinarily valuable on our product thesis and on our company ethos.
I’d be remiss to not say that the people who helped Eventbrite through this period of time on our team are heroes. Yes, Kevin and I are founders. We were in the trenches working together, and that was really special. The people who have worked tirelessly beside us make Eventbrite a great company.
When I think of A+ I think of great business growth, clear market leadership, the sky’s the limit on valuation, a team and that is the best in the business, and a company that I really feel proud of helping to be a part of, helping to shape.
David: On the LP Show, so we had Nick Jonas from Tack On. The story and opportunity is so similar between your two companies, this awful thing happened, took your businesses to zero. But there’s this opportunity to serve your customers even better, set up for the future, and take a huge share from the incumbents.
Julia: I’ve never felt more fired up, to be honest. It’s like day one and it’s so exciting. I leap out of bed in the morning because it’s not now about, are we going to make it through this. It’s about how you take advantage of every single day and what are we going to do with this opportunity. That (to me) feels like I’m back in 2012 again. It’s really interesting.
Ben: That’s a great, great place to leave it. Julia and Kevin, where can listeners get in touch, and what is the best way for anyone of Acquired listeners to help Eventbrite right now?
Julia: I can be reached at email@example.com.
Kevin: And firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m a terrible salesperson, so I’m not going to pitch Eventbrite. I think it’s hosting online events, being back out there when we venture back in together, being a patron of the arts, and the local community in getting back out and gathering again.
We see this much like the analogy that we see over in the history of the 1918 pandemic when following that horrible time period, where millions of people lost their lives, people were back out in force and you have the roaring 20s in this almost humanistic period, but you had also all this jazz in the arts, all emerge in this period that people wanted to be back together and gather as a need to being a human.
Ben: Can’t say any better. Listeners, that is it for this episode. If you aren’t subscribed and you like what you hear, you should. Remember from the top of the show our one call to action this episode. Share your favorite episode with a friend, co-worker, or on social media.
As we wind down this Eventbrite episode, we will be keeping the party going with Kevin, to dive into his latest venture, a SPAC that he (I believe) has IPOed by the time we release this. I will be personally sponsoring to take some unicorn or unicorn-like company public here in the very near future.
If you aren’t already a limited partner, you can click the link in the show notes or go to acquired.fm/lp. All new listeners get a seven-day free trial. Subscribing gets you access to the LP Show where we dive deeper into the fundamentals of company building and investing, in addition to our monthly LP calls where we talk with folks directly on Zoom, answer Q&A, and of course our book club.
With that, thanks again to Tiny, Bamboo Growth Marketing, and our legal sponsor, Perkins Coie. LPs, we’ll see you talk SPACs with Kevin on the other side.
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