Tamara Mendelsohn, director of marketing at Eventbrite, joined the online ticketing start-up as the web revolution was disrupting yet another sector, democratising ticketing through technology and social influence.
A last-minute search on LinkedIn before signing up with a big corporate resulted in the fateful meeting of Tamara Mendolsohn with the founders of San Francisco start-up Eventbrite. Founded in 2006 by husband and wife team Kevin and Julie Hartz and Renaud Visage, at the time the online event ticketing platform’s headcount could be measured on two hands. Before Eventbrite, there didn’t exist a way to easily sell tickets online for all but the biggest players. The main competition was Excel spreadsheets and cash at the door. The company has now grown to over 200 employees and sits as a prime example of yet another industry being disrupted by the internet.
The service has since evolved to incorporate a suite of tools to help event organisers market their events online, including taking advantage of the site’s search engine optimisation. For the first few years, Google was the biggest driver of traffic to Eventbrite, but then, interestingly, Facebook starting climbing the rankings as a top driver of traffic to the site. Event organisers were taking advantage of Facebook’s distribution, and attendees were sharing the fact they had registered for an event. It was just around the time Tamara Mendolsohn came on board, and it marked a significant point in Eventbrite’s evolution.
“We realised that the event space was being transformed by the advent of social media, that social media was levelling the playing field,” she tells me. “All of a sudden you didn’t need a million dollar budget to get the word out about your event. Your attendees could be promoters for you, and in fact, they were probably the best promoters you could ever ask for because their word has so much credibility with their friends.”
Marketing: Tell us about how you got started in your career.
Tamara Mendelsohn: Out of college, I went to work for Forrester Research. I started as a research associate and worked my way up to an analyst role on the ecommerce side. So I was doing research and consulting around ecommerce and consumer behaviours and shopping patterns as consumers were increasingly incorporating the internet into their purchasing decisions. What I was really fascinated with was the multitouch process where a consumer would research something online and then go to the store and feel and touch it but then maybe go back online to do a little bit more research and then ultimately order online or the other way around – they might run into something in a store but not want to buy it, so they went home and would do more research.
You see these really interesting patterns, yet at the time most retailers thought about their ecommerce channel as very separate from their store channel, and retailers would fight about whether a customer was a ‘retail’ customer or an ‘online’ customer. So a lot of the research I was doing was to help these companies understand ‘this is your customer, this is your store’s customer and they’re going to use online channels, they’re going to use store channels, they’re going to use your phone channels, to get the information that they need when they need it because this is all being facilitated by the way consumer adoption of the internet is growing and changing’. I was totally fascinated by this and by both retailers’ strategy and structure and then the technology with which they solved these problems.
Then I worked with technology vendors as well to help them tailor their offerings to the real needs of retailers and I became really interested in how technology was transforming one of the oldest segments of business of all time, retail. I was really fascinated by that. I think my respect and excitement for technology and the impact that it could have on both our lives as consumers and how it can disrupt seemingly-secure business models was something that I became very excited about.
How did you come to end up at Eventbrite?
I was at Forrester for a number of years, and then decided to go back and get my MBA, and in a moment of thinking how I could broaden my horizons a little bit, I chose to go to MIT because they are very technology focused and they have a really strong entrepreneurship program as well, and got to really stretch my wings and explore a lot of different things, but at the end of the day realised that the thing that I was truly passionate about was consumer technology.
I graduated from MIT in 2009, which was very shortly after we had a pretty big economic collapse. There just weren’t a lot of start-ups that were hiring, and I had an offer to go join a large company that was not in the Bay Area, and I think it was one week before having to sign that contract I did a last minute search on LinkedIn for Bay Area start-up companies with less than 50 people that were hiring in any marketing position, and there were two open positions on all of LinkedIn at this time. Eventbrite was one of them, and I applied to both, and I got a call from Eventbrite the next day.
The rest is history. Julia [Hartz, co-founder and president of Eventbrite] called me up, our co-founder, and she said, “I’m really intrigued by your resume. You’re way over qualified for the position.” I think it was a community manager role, and she’s like “But I was really intrigued and just wanted to learn more about your thinking,” and so I spent some time with the product and was just really excited by the opportunity, as I also realised that the online ticketing events category was an area of ecommerce that was still undisrupted and there was a lot of exciting opportunity there, and convinced her that I could do so much more than the role that they had carved out. And I think two or three hours later, Kevin Hartz gave me a call and we had a great discussion and a day or two later I flew out to San Francisco and met I think the entire team, and was just really blown away by the passion, the excitement, the intelligence of the team, the opportunity for the business and the very simple yet strong business model.
Coming from that research background, how do you think that influences you now as a marketer?
It really does. I think one of the first things I was most proud of in the earlier days of Eventbrite was a report that I wrote called the ‘Social Commerce Report’, and that is a playbook right out of my analyst days. We were doing some really cool stuff with social media, right, as I explained to you before. I was watching Facebook go from 10 to nine to eight, all the way to the number one driver of traffic, and I knew that we had built the systems to be able to track exactly how that was happening. And there was a lot of debate at the time around what is really the impact of social media? Does it really affect the bottom line? And I knew we had the data to show that it did. So we published – it was just a blog post at the time, the first social commerce report, which was the value in revenue to our event organisers every time somebody shares an event. So when one person clicks, ‘Share this event on Facebook’, how much revenue does that drive back to the event organisers?
We update it. It just keeps on giving. Because it’s interesting data… it’s data that everyone can learn from and it’s thought provoking and exciting, and at the time, nothing like it existed. And I directly attribute the idea to my background at Forrester because that’s what I did: I looked for trends, I looked for patterns, I looked for interesting proof points, things that people were talking about, and put that out there. I remember when Mark Zuckerberg on a podcast talked about that report. We were a tiny company, no one had heard of us and all of a sudden we were in the conversation of social media. That was a very exciting moment for all of us.
It raises an interesting point, with ecommerce as well as social media and the paths to purchase being very muddled, it’s very difficult to attribute, but measuring ROI is an imperative for marketers. How do you go about that and what do you see as the next step? Is online attribution any good yet?
It’s only as good as the tool you have to measure it, and we have a strong toolset – I would say we have a solid toolset, but it can always be better. There is the full nirvana of multitouch attribution that we’re getting to and I think the level of visibility will only increase and get greater. But I think as marketers, you have to be comfortable with a certain level of ambiguity. That said, I measure the hell out of everything I can, and try to attribute. Because at the end of the day, as a marketer, you’re smartest about the marketing programs that you’re running and you can make educated guesses in terms of the impact that they’re having based on available data. And as long as you have a solid set of available data, you can have confidence that your estimates can be accurate.
And so I would say that I’m in a lucky position of being at a company that’s very data oriented. So we have a lot of the toolsets and mechanisms in place to track. That said, as we all know, when you do a great press release or hold a great event, it’s hard to sometimes map that or attribute that back dollar for dollar, but if you can…
Do you try?
Yeah, but at the end of the day, I think if you can trust your ability to estimate the unknown and use the data you have for the known, you can get to a place where you can feel pretty confident and your understanding of the effectiveness of the things that you’re doing.
We’ve heard it said you single-handedly took Eventbrite from Silicon Valley to global success…
That might be an overestimate of my capability, but that’s very flattering.
Tell us about that journey, there must have been challenges and unexpected hurdles on the way?
It’s not over yet, and that’s the thing. We’re right in the middle of this crazy journey, and literally it feels like every six months or so we have a whole new set of challenges based on the new markets that we’re entering and the state of growth that we’re at. So it’s never boring. But I think what’s really interesting, as a Forrester analyst, we spent a lot of time talking about the power of storytelling. We looked at a lot of data, but at the end of the day, if you couldn’t tell a compelling story with that data, it would be very difficult to get people to change the way they see the world.
And that I also really have taken into my role at Eventbrite, and back even when we were tiny and we hadn’t raised any VC [venture capital] funding, when it came time to go out and pitch to VCs, the question is: what is our story? What is our narrative? Why would someone believe in our vision?
As Eventbrite moves into international markets, have to change strategies or tactics for different markets?
Yeah, there are a couple of examples I think. One of the ways we enter markets is actually letting our product be organically adopted first, to understand exactly who is using it and where to put resources. For example, in Australia, before we did any marketing there, we saw a lot of adoption in the business community. People were using Eventbrite to do business seminars, such as how to use Google Plus for your small business, or how to do small business financing, things like that. That was very particular to the Australian market, and really interesting, because all of a sudden we looked at that data and we realised the story for Australia was that Australians are quite entrepreneurial and the proof of it is in the usage of the platform. Whereas in Berlin, it’s all about the burgeoning tech scene, and how Berlin traditionally has been this artist hub but now it’s becoming this tech hub, and all the innovation of Europe is coming out of Berlin, so the events that are on Eventbrite in Berlin are tech meet ups and mobile hackathons and things like that. That has really influenced and informed the way we go into a market.
Having access to that kind of data would tell you a lot about the different locations. Does it confirm anecdotes like San Francisco being the start-up capital of the world?
The density of tech events happening here is probably – I don’t want to say the greatest in the world – but the density is great. We released some stats last year on New Year’s Eve about the cities with the most tech events, and San Francisco was in the top five. That’s interesting, [as is] the fact that last year there were over 1000 bacon events that happened in the US. I think we learn a lot about our society.
I’m sure it’s not just the US that loves bacon… In your professional journey, not specifically at Eventbrite, have you had any mentors or influential figures that stand out?
Yeah, all along. I’m a big collector of mentors. I believe that the only way to really push yourself and grow is surround yourself with great people that can teach you. I would say that mentors have quite a really important role in my career. And you need different people at different times. You need the different things you need to learn at different times. So for me, it hasn’t been one person the whole way but different folks at different stages.
And are there any one or two things that you call on a lot, you know who gave you that advice and you’re glad you got at some point in your career?
Yes, all the time. Early on in my career one of my mentors taught me the importance of collaboration and of being able to get people excited about something and the power of having a team push an idea forward, and that’s something that I’ve definitely carried through and think about a lot. I remember in probably my first year of work, I went to this meeting and there was my boss at the time, and I knew we needed to get this other team on board with this idea, and my boss with such craft made them so excited about working with us on this, and I thought ‘wow, that’s so powerful’. So had they walked out of the meeting saying ‘I don’t want to work with them on that,’ then our idea would have gone nowhere.
Obviously it’s still going, but we’re interested in what you would see as your career highlight up to now.
That’s really hard – I feel like there have been a couple. Probably my career highlight was being hired at Eventbrite to be the community manager here, and we then went out and raised our first round of VC funding – we raised six and a half million dollars – and that was really the difference from being a 10-person start-up to being a 100-person organisation. And I remember when we raised that money, Kevin and Julia said, “Okay, we want to go out and hire a director of marketing to really take this company to the next level,” and I told them, “I think I understand this business so well, I understand what we need to do and I understand how to get there. Give me a shot at being the director of marketing.” And Kevin said, “Okay, well, we’re going to keep going with our search, but in the meantime, view this as your three-month interview and then if we don’t find somebody that we like or if you prove yourself, we’ll give you the job.”
It was three incredibly stressful months where I was interviewing for my potential boss and also trying to do the job myself and putting a strategy in place where no strategy had ever existed before. And I remember we interviewed a lot of great people and I was pretty sure we were going to hire this one woman and Kevin and Julia invited me into their office, and I told myself this is going to be good for my career, I’m going to learn from somebody, this is a good opportunity and they said, “No, we want to give the job to you.” And that was just such an exciting moment I think because I had earned the trust of Kevin and Julia and because I had this exciting opportunity as I had proven I had the chop to do it.