In the February edition of our London founder interview series, we spoke to Jonny White on growing Ticket Tailor to 5m yearly ticket sales.
Hey Jonny! Great to chat to you. To get started, how would you describe Ticket Tailor?
Ticket Tailor makes it effortless and affordable for event creators to sell tickets online for events of all shapes and sizes.
We are an independent company, with an amazing team of twelve, mostly based in a Hackney office (in normal times), that believes in doing business for good. According to G2Crowd, we are officially the easiest to use event ticketing platform in the world right now.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into building products?
I’ve been a maker at heart from a young age. As a kid, I wanted to be “an inventor” and I guess building software products is a modern flavour of that.
Let me take you back to 2005, a world with usable internet speeds, but not much content (Facebook hadn’t even launched in the UK yet). I had arrived at Birmingham University to study software engineering, ready for a fun three years in the UK’s second-biggest city. However, I was quickly underwhelmed by the offerings of student culture. I wanted some good music yet the highlight on any of the line-ups that I was exposed to was half-price vodka red bulls. I wanted to know what events were happening around town outside of the student bubble, and so I would go to record shops in town, and pick up flyers. It turns out I wasn’t the only person that wanted to know what else was happening and so I started to write the flyers up on a listings website that I called “What’s on in Brum?” to answer that very question.
The site became fairly popular and made me a few hundred pounds a month. More valuable than that though, it connected me with the people who were making the music scene happen. This led to DJ gigs, and, more lucratively, web development gigs. In fact, by the time I left university I had enough clients that I could wander around the careers fair in my final year feeling smug that I already had things lined up.
So, straight from university, I formalised Zimma Ltd, a web development agency. It was great fun building a variety of tech with some amazing clients, but after a few years, like so many others in this scenario, I got tired of selling my time and started exploring the dream of launching a product business.
Over the years I often had a side project or two ticking along. One was a Twitter bot that decided who should make the next round of tea in our office. Another was a link shortener called zim.ma that allowed you to add context and ads to the links that you share (I think there is a product that does this now). I never really took these projects too seriously but they were fun to build.
Where did the idea for Ticket Tailor come from, and how did you validate it?
With my web development agency, I had built up a client base in the music industry (club nights, festivals, ticket agencies) and I kept getting the same request from prospective clients: “Can you build me a ticketing website because I don’t want to use a ticket agency?”.
It became apparent that ticketing is simply a software problem for a lot of event creators. They didn’t want a lot of what comes with using an agency and the marketplace they provide. Imagine selling on eBay, when you really want Shopify but it doesn’t yet exist.
I knew how to solve software problems so I decided to create a ticketing platform that could be “tailored” for different use-cases.
I was fairly confident that the idea was valid based on the number of requests that I had received of a similar nature. And the fact that SaaS business models were popping up all over the place gave me more confidence that I was on to something. This confidence carried me through many late nights building Ticket Tailor V1 alongside delivering on client work.
After a few months, my motivation started to waiver. I was getting very nervous about how I was going to find clients, and whether people would actually pay for the service. The prospect of leaving my comfort zone of writing code and going out and asking people to pay for what I had made was very daunting.
However, I plucked up the courage to make a few cold calls to venues around Shoreditch and remarkably, on the third call, I had found a venue on Brick Lane who were very interested. I went for a meeting and they agreed to a £40/month plan before it was even finished. This was a real motivation boost and pushed me through the final gruelling tasks of getting Ticket Tailor launched.
Can you tell us about your business model?
We charge a small fee per ticket sold. Our customers can either opt to pay as you go for 50p / ticket or pre-pay for credits for as low as 20p / ticket sold. Charities and BCorps get 20% off and free events are free.
We used to charge a monthly fee and that was a key differentiator from our competitors – our tagline used to be No ticket fees, No fuss. A monthly model has some upsides (like predictable MRR), but many of our clients don’t need our services all the time and this created a lot of stop-starting. We wanted to make this easier for our clients so we recently moved to a per-ticket fee model.
Price is still a huge differentiator for us, and we usually work out less than half the price of the market leader.
What’s the vision for Ticket Tailor?
As a product, we want to become the world’s best-loved ticketing platform. Event creators generally want to get their job done as easily and cheaply as possible, and that’s what we deliver. We want ticketing to be so easy that it’s a totally forgettable experience!
Over the next couple of years, we have a busy roadmap of improvements and features, and we will also be focussing heavily on playing nicely with other platforms. We launched our API last year and will continue to make this fully featured so that Ticket Tailor slots into any event creator’s workflow.
As an organisation, we also want to be a shining example of business as a force for good. The extreme flavour of capitalism that we are currently living in is not sustainable. I feel that we at Ticket Tailor have an opportunity to show how things can be done better. We don’t want to crush competitors or make lots of money for the sake of it. Our motivation for growth is to demonstrate that taking a long-term, sustainable approach is better for everyone. I call it “Scaling with soul”.
What’s your tech stack?
- Mezzio and Laminas on PHP 7.3
- AWS Hosted
- React Native, Redux, RealmDB
We are a tech team of four people and we are hiring for senior PHP developers right now.
What growth tactics did and didn’t work for you?
Today, word of mouth is our top growth channel, and that’s great because it aligns with investing in making our product better.
I found the early days (getting those first 100 customers) the most daunting, so here’s what worked for me. Bear in mind this was back in 2010.
Cold calling – I hated cold calling but I gave it a shot. I made three calls, and one of those became our first customer. Because of how uncomfortable cold calling made me I didn’t continue with it as a long term strategy.
Cold emailing – Back in 2010 there wasn’t the playbook of cold emailing that we have today. I would spend half an hour crafting a personal email for customers that I thought would be perfect. Here’s an example that I sent to Shoreditch nightclub XOYO:
Although this example didn’t convert, did get a nice response:
This approach wasn’t about scale, it was about making sure I was speaking directly to the potential client and their needs.
Public speaking – When I launched Ticket Tailor, I had, for the first time, something relatively interesting to go to events and speak about. You really can’t lose with public speaking: you can find customers, build your network, and develop a very useful skill that pretty much all of us find daunting. (An idea called fear vs love changed my perspective and increased my confidence in public speaking.)
PR – I took the opportunity to write press releases about key early milestones and sent them to various publications. We got picked up by The Next Web, TechCrunch and, the most fruitful, was a blog called Springwise.
SEO – I think it’s worth investing in SEO from day one and trying to secure a top spot in Google for a key search term or two. I believe we claimed some top spots through a combination of PR, links on relevant directory sites, and relevant content. These search terms have continued to serve us over the years.
What has worked (by order of success) and what hasn’t worked?
Our top channel by a long shot is word of mouth. Whilst we can’t scale this easily, there are things we do to make sure that we have the most success possible. Firstly, we like to wow our clients with great customer support, and this in-turn creates referrals (today we have a 24-hour customer support team and an average response time of under two minutes). Secondly, we remind our clients that we are an independent business that wants to spend money on developing the product, not on advertising, which we believe encourages referrals.
Next for us is SEO, and whilst this takes a long time to build up, it also delivers results for a long time after.
We have used email outreach from time to time but we have found it hard to measure exactly how successful it has been.
Until a year ago, we didn’t spend anything on acquisition, and from 2020 we started putting a budget in place. However, with COVID impacting our business so heavily, we have had to cut budgets and it has been really hard to see clear results. We are trying Google ads and Bing ads at the moment but the jury is still out as to whether we can get a good CPA at scale.
We also tried using a PR agency this last year, but it was very expensive and didn’t deliver much value for us. I think if we do more PR down the line, we will try to do it in-house.
We have also tried creating referral incentives, Uber-style, but haven’t had much success with it so far.
What was your lowest point in building Ticket Tailor so far, and how did you get out?
I think we are still living through it right now. It will be no surprise to hear that live in-person events haven’t been happening for the last 12 months and that’s had a huge impact on our clients and our revenue.
On Saturday 14th March, after a week of ticket sales dropping, and an unprecedented amount of customer support around event cancellations, the potential impact of this pandemic on our business became apparent. Unable to sleep, or enjoy the weekend, I worked through the numbers to see where we can start to cut costs. And, more importantly, how long we could survive as a business.
The 2020 roadmap had big plans of hiring, moving to a bigger office, and lots of growth initiatives with a target of 1.5X growth by the end of the year. Overnight, the targets went out of the window and our focus shifted to ensuring we could cover all essential costs, including all salaries, for as long as possible, even if ticket sales dropped to zero.
Knowing that our business can last up to a year was a certainty, and it was reassuring to know.
(By the way, the freedom of being able to choose to retain one year’s runway in the bank for my peace of mind is a huge benefit of running an indie business, and an example of why I believe indie businesses can be more sustainable. Our funded counterparts are expected to be spending the money that their investors have put in on delivering growth. No investor is going to give a business money to keep it in the bank for a rainy day.)
With financial anxiety parked to one side, here’s where we turned our attention:
- Launched a website called forgomyrefund.org which made it easy for ticket buyers to donate their refund for a cancelled event back to the event organiser.
- Set up a fund where our clients could apply to have the fees they had paid us refunded. (We had planned to prioritise refunding charity events but we ended up refunding every application that came in. Many clients contacted us gratefully declining a refund.)
- Waived all of our fees for online events to help event creators find new opportunities. We extended this offer through to the end of 2020 as the impact of the pandemic dragged on, effectively donating over £250,000 in free use of our platform.
- Built a load of features to make it easy to sell tickets for zoom events.
- Built a seating chart feature to make managing socially distanced events easier.
- Launched ChurchTicketing.com, a service that made it easy for places of worship to run COVID-secure services.
I’m so proud of what we achieved last year and the team did an amazing job at delivering so much in stressful circumstances. Although it was touch and go, we did manage to break-even in 2020 which was a huge relief. This meant we were able to make our usual annual charity donation of £10,000 to important causes, and it felt more important than ever.
We are clearly not out of the woods yet, but we are optimistic that with vaccines rolling out, there will be a comeback for in-person events this year. You can read more about how 2020 played out for us here.
How do you stay focused and avoid distractions?
This is a great question as I believe that motivation is the most scarce resource for indie hackers. It’s our equivalent of cash for funded companies.
I am generally very driven, but find I’m most motivated when I’m working on something that (a) I really enjoy, and (b) delivers tangible progress towards our mission.
How would you have done things differently if you started again?
I would have started seeing a coach sooner.
Being a solo founder is a weighty responsibility, especially as the team and client base has grown. My instinctive style has served me well a lot of the time but has also led me to make quick decisions on important things that I have later regretted.
I’ve been seeing a coach regularly for a few years now and he has helped me time and time again with important things that would have been hard to work out on my own, catching my blind spots, changing my perspective when I’m feeling negative about something, and ensuring that I pay special attention to areas where I have weaknesses.
What are the most common mistakes you see Indie Hackers make early on?
I agree with Matt in last month's interview that not validating and giving up too quickly are common themes that I hear about.
A lot of ideas I’ve worked on in the past have been more for the fun of the process, rather than whether they are a viable business idea and I probably knew it deep down. I think it’s absolutely fine to not be 100% sure of whether there’s a market and still press on if you are getting something out of it.
In my mind, the prospect of business idea validation sounds quite boring, whereas building a product is a lot of fun with a lot to be gained just from the learning. So, although a business not launching sounds like a failure, often it’s a valuable stepping stone for a better idea around the corner.
For many of us, finding customers is a step outside of our comfort zone – hold back some motivation for this.
A big mistake I have made over and over was being too influenced by all the noise everyone is making. There are so many people handing out theories on how to grow a successful business that it is easy to feel like you are doing the wrong thing, or not doing enough.
If you are feeling overwhelmed with how much there is to do just remember that there are only two things you should be worrying about to get things off the ground:
Creating some value, and finding the people who will pay for it.
What else have you built before Ticket Tailor, and what were the biggest lessons from those experiences?
Alongside those early projects mentioned above, CheckYo was an uptime monitoring service that I tried to launch alongside Ticket Tailor a few years ago. The product was ready to go but ultimately I realised the effort I needed to put into marketing would be far better spent on growing Ticket Tailor. My lesson here was that growing one SaaS is way more efficient than trying to grow a few.
I started a company with a friend called Tixboo quite a few years back. It brought dynamic pricing to event tickets to ensure a sell-out event. Imagine airline-style pricing but for a music concert or a conference. When validating this idea, it was clear that event creators didn’t want to game their customers.
Favourite indie products?
Favourite apps on your homescreen?
Where can people stay updated on you and your projects?
I write every so often on medium: https://jonnywhite.medium.com/
And here’s our company blog: https://www.tickettailor.com/blog/
Email: jonny [at] tickettailor.com