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Lessons from Eventbrite’s former VP of product: How to scale a startup
Early 2017, Dutch Ticketscript co-founder and CTO, Ruben Meiland, could finally share with his team that the deal was done. San Francisco-based Eventbrite would acquire its European counterpart.
Prior to the acquisition, growth was skyrocketing, pushing the online ticketing company to the leading position in the European market. Together with co-founder Frans Jonker, Meiland turned an idea on a napkin into a full-fledged international team of 150, in which he managed a development team of 45. After the acquisition, Meiland joined Eventbrite as their VP of product for ticketing, based in San Francisco. Until his return to the Netherlands in 2020.
Now the CPTO for Leadingcourses.com, and investor and coach for startups, supporting them to scale internationally, Meiland has the time and attention to reflect on how he had front-row seats in one hell of a ride. In this interview, he shares how they pulled it off, explaining the three steps startups can lean on in the ascent to internationalization.
It starts with a vision
Opportunities to scale internationally can be seen coming in the distance. But the uptick in demand can also come as a surprise, depleting a team’s resilience and morale. “In any situation, providing your team with a clear vision is crucial,” according to Meiland.
“Everyone should be able to clearly communicate what direction the company is heading for. The position you put your team in then is that you basically tell them to go out there and figure it out by themselves. Providing stability and simultaneously, space for innovation and creativity. You have to set boundaries. Of course. But your team is usually smarter and more importantly, closer to the customer than you are. And therefore better positioned to make decisions.”
“This process will only speed up when you’ve grown beyond borders. The bigger you become, the more communication is needed.” After Meiland joined Eventbrite in San Francisco and the number of teams he managed grew from five to thirteen, all across the globe, his position changed. “From starting out as a developer myself, to being in meetings constantly, I realized I had to put my teams in the position to make decisions by themselves. Sometimes, this required different structures and even different people.”
Executed by the right people
A great team starts at the top. At Ticketscript, Meiland experienced firsthand what it means to work with someone who had shared interests and supplementary skills. “When we started in 2006, I already knew Frans for a while and where I had the technical skills, he had the much needed business experience and a strong network in that area.”
For Meiland, this was important because with a novel service, comes competition and an extensive road ahead with a lot of educating prospects. “We really had to explain how online ticketing worked.” And the more potential setbacks, the stronger you have to be aligned on the goal.
Expand, expand, expand
Hiring people he knew didn’t stop at his co-founder, for Meiland. “When we had the resources to expand, we initially looked at people we knew, asking ourselves who we would like to work with. Later on, we hired developers who attended meetups and events I started speaking at. What helped is that we had a really cool product for developers to work on.”
Eventually, finding the right people became more difficult. And not just in numbers. “Ticketing is more complex than most people think, so we needed senior developers who understood financials, inventory, taxes, and demanding systems. Another reason why we needed seniors is that they could act as examples for the junior developers. So that they had others to look up to.”
One solution for Meiland was hiring remote developers from Romania, co-managed by a Dutch partner. “We couldn’t find enough talented developers in Amsterdam or anywhere in The Netherlands anymore. Hiring from Romania made a lot of sense and luckily for us, we learned early on that we had to select potential team members who were extremely motivated to work with us. Who had an affinity for online ticketing.”
To manage efficiency and to make remote developers feel part of the organization, Meiland and his team covered workspaces in Romania in branding material, they setup a semi-continuous video feed, and flew people into Amsterdam or the other way around.
Whether you run a rigorous hiring process or an on the fly approach, Meiland notes that it’s important to think long term, when it comes to scaling. You can only add so many new people.
Here are some of Meiland’s thoughts on retention:
> The work and the product need to be interesting. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: for most roles a great fit starts and ends with affinity for the product and the work.”
> Hiring the right people is the single most important thing for any company to focus on. “What ‘right’ is, is often difficult to grasp, but it usually entails any form of intrinsic motivation. You can offer all the perks you want, but if someone chooses to work with you because of the perks, they’ll be gone before you know it. Plus, in places like San Francisco, you can never compete with the Googles and the Facebooks of this world when it comes to perks.”
> Great people attract great people. The best example of thinking long-term is that “hiring great people results in them bringing in more great people.” In addition, the opportunity cost of leaving a great place with amazing colleagues, is very high, if not too high, for many.
> Be flexible. “These days, it’s very common for people to work whenever or wherever they want. It wasn’t always like this. And as an organization, you can have an opinion about things like being in the office or not, but you also have to consider the time and age.”
How to structure your organization as you scale
Meiland always knew everyone in the organization by name. Had a secret hobby or once told an awkward story? He remembered. Until one day, when he walked in the office and spotted two employees, unknown to him.
“We were in a continuous sprint until around 100 people. By that time I didn’t know everyone anymore and we really accelerated setting up processes for everything. For development, this meant I had to decide what structure would best support our customers and preferably keep it this way for a while. Developers’ efficiency increases when they collaborate with the same people for a while.”
When Meiland joined Eventbrite and moved to San Francisco, this completely changed. “The non-stop restructuring surprised me at first. Management was constantly looking for what worked. They operated in business unit structure when they just acquired us and moved to a more functional approach only several months later. Which worked then, but could simply be replaced by another approach six months later. Eventually I learned, the constant change, now popularized through agile, scrum and OKRs, was the actual process.”
Whatever the structure, Meiland always leaves founders with one piece of advice: “Always make sure your employees are in direct contact with your customers.” Meiland remembers a discussion with an engineer at Ticketscript. “Back then, it was mandatory for everyone who started to scan tickets at an event. At the same time, I told an engineer that I wanted direct feedback in our tool in under a second, and he didn’t agree. So I sent him to an event where he had to scan tickets for 5.000 people. On Monday, he fully agreed as to why getting feedback in under one second was essential.”
“If you can’t let everyone get in touch with your customer directly, at least set up cross functional teams. This will provide them with customer feedback and crucial insights they wouldn’t get otherwise.”
When it’s time to let go
In the early days, many founders do everything themselves, either out of experience and know-how, or because of fear of outsourcing and losing control of the outcome. But in the potential outcome of an acquisition, years down the road, letting go is a necessity. If you haven’t learned to do so already.
When it happens, founders who experience acquisition offers need to learn the difference between realistic and terrible propositions. “As you grow, you’ll find yourself in the spotlights more often than you might wish for and potential acquirers will knock on your door,” Meiland says. “In Eventbrite, we realised, we actually found a suitable partner.”
For founders, evaluating acquisition offers is a difficult process. “You need to perform due diligence on the acquirer and even though a decision could heavily influence many of your close friends’ lives, you can’t tell many of them about what’s going on. Key is, when time is right, to involve a very small, select group of key individuals that can help move the due diligence process forward.”
Getting used to the new situation
An acquisition requires a transition period. Especially for those moving to a new home, in Meiland’s situation San Francisco. “As a previous founder, you quickly need to learn the ways of the new organization that you’re a part of. When I just moved to the Bay area, I found out early why the shit sandwich is so popular over there. Important issues are carefully sugar coated and everyone’s constantly looking for consensus. Everyone has an opinion.”
“Which isn’t always a bad thing,” according to Meiland. “Europeans always say diversity is an issue, but in the Bay area, they act accordingly. It helps that Eventbrite has a female CEO and Silicon Valley attracts a mixture of cultures from all over the world. But everyone also acknowledges the importance of not only having middle-aged white guys decide how a product that is used by millions all over the globe, looks and acts. From the top down,” according to Meiland the way to go, “everyone has diversity on their agenda.”
Wrapping it up
Having gone through the rollercoaster ride of starting a company, scaling it internationally, and eventually getting acquired by the worldwide leader in his industry, Meiland has experienced it all.
For those who just started out, Meiland leaves you with the following:
> It starts with a vision. “I am always looking for the reason why founders are doing this. What will be different not only in a year, but in a few years? And most importantly, why are they the ones who will turn this into a successful business? I was in a call with a founder from the US when I realized it was around midnight over there. When I asked about it, he turned out to be extremely excited about the solution and making it happen that taking a call at midnight wasn’t a problem. That shows commitment.”
> Make sure you have a technical co-founder in your team. “Not only can this person build something that can scale across the globe, but for me as an investor, the team is the most important aspect of a potential investment.“
> Focus on traction and retention. “There are lot of founders who pitch a deck without a product, especially in the US. However, I really need to see some traction first, and most of all, I need to know for sure that founders focus on revenue and retention.”
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