One sunny day in 2003, all eyes were on twenty-something Julia Steen as she nervously read a poem to a packed congregation at a coworker’s wedding. She finished and practically sprinted back to her seat, only to feel a tap on her shoulder.
"The man sitting next to me whispered, ‘Good job. I’m so proud of you,'" Julia remembers. “I looked at him, stunned, and said, ‘I’m sorry, who are you?’”
Julia’s admirer was Kevin Hartz, a thirty-something tech entrepreneur and angel investor. The two immediately hit it off and began a long-distance relationship—Julia was working for MTV in Los Angeles, while Kevin was working on and advising startups in the Bay Area.
When Kevin popped the question a few years later, Julia relocated to San Francisco. Before she started another TV job, however, Kevin came up with another idea.
“I remember him saying, ‘You could work on another person’s startup, or you could make no money at all and we could build something together,’” she says.
Julia made up her mind in a moment—she would forgo a steady paycheck to dive into something new with Kevin. The idea: an easy-to-use ticket sales portal for events of all types. The couple founded Eventbrite in 2006, the same year they got married.
Today, with around 300 employees, Eventbrite has offices in San Francisco; London; Mendosa, Argentina; and Sao Paulo, Brazil, with more than 130 million ticket sales to date and a fun corporate culture. The home office in San Francisco is dubbed “Briteland,” and employees are referred to as “Britelings.”
“If you want to start a company, I highly recommend finding a partner with complementary skills,” Julia says. “Know how big your market is, and understand your competitive advantage. [Figure out] how you will you differentiate yourself from your competitors in the market.”
Taking their idea from inception to success took a few years, however. Julia recently discussed the startup and growth stages of their tech startup.
Outside of Kevin’s persuasive suggestion, what convinced you to give up a career in TV to help launch a tech company?
I was in a fast-moving career with a corner office, but the more I learned about the tech industry, the more I realized there were deficiencies in the TV industry. Take velocity, for example. I like to move quickly and watched Kevin build a company overnight [XOOM, a money transfer startup]. There was a huge difference between what my team could accomplish in a week and what his could accomplish in a week.
I also realized there was a sense of meritocracy in the tech industry that I appreciated. In Hollywood, there was a huge amount of focus on who you knew, and it was ambiguous to me as to why that mattered. I didn’t see the value in building a never-ending Rolodex.
Weren’t you terrified to dive into a startup with no guarantees?
Of course [laughing]! But we’ve always been decisive as a couple, and we really had just one conversation about it and that was it. One day I was in a corner office, and the next day, I was pushing sawhorses into a windowless conference room with no air conditioning. I remember Kevin jumping up and down with glee and me looking at him and thinking, "Oh boy, I am really trusting you right now."
What challenges did you face starting out?
It was a huge leap of faith: We’d never been together for more than two days at a time, so we had to learn how to communicate in person and figure out which of our skills were complementary.
As far as the business went, we had a technical co-founder, Renaud Visage, who was on his way back to live in France for a while, which was a challenge. We turned that into an opportunity, though, and developed a 24-hour desk cycle, which was great.
We also had a hard time figuring out what to focus on. We wanted to use technology to democratize the industry, but we were faced with the question of how to acquire great inventory to go on Eventbrite.
What was a typical day like early on?
Workdays stretched on for 18 hours in the beginning. I ran customer support and the marketing department for the first several years, along with finance, which was simple because we weren’t making a lot of money [laughing].
I would talk to early adopters and host meetups. I would get their feedback and distill it for Kevin, who would sketch out a product or feature and then build it. We worked like that for the first three years or so.
When did things start picking up?
For us, 2008 was a growth year. We raised a small amount of angel funding, which allowed us to hire key positions we’d been ignoring. We’d been bootstrapping until then.
How did you make it through the recession?
We actually thrived through the recession—2009 was a breakout year for us. Since we had an open platform product, people started using Eventbrite to create a new career for themselves or to supplement their income. People with DIY passions or skills they could [develop and] sell as classes or services used our platform to build businesses. It was amazing to see.
What's it like to work at Eventbrite?
Briteland is full of vibrant energy. It is fun and exciting, and you can feel the passion. It's a typical startup. We have an open concept, a ping-pong table, a nap room, catered lunches four times per week, dinners twice a week, two breakfasts per week and regular happy hours. Beyond that, our Britelings create our culture—they cultivate it and protect it.
What’s next for you and Kevin? Are you planning to launch a new venture sometime soon?
We are in it to win it. We made that determination about three years ago. Kevin is at the point in his life where this is the company that he has always wanted to create. We would like to be here as long as they'll have us.
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Photos: Getty Images, Courtesy of Julia Hartz