Starting 3 Companies With A Long Time Friend – With Russell D’Souza of SeatGeek.com

by Tim Jahn on November 30, 2010

A furniture rental company in college, a blogging site called Scribnia, and a site called SeatGeek that forecasts ticket prices.

Those are the 3 companies Russell D’Souza has founded with a long time friend of his.  To me, founding that many companies with the same person says a lot about the power of the relationship between the 2 people.

I interviewed Russell to learn what it was about their relationship and why they continue to work together on SeatGeek.com.

Transcript

Russell D’Souza: My name is Russell D’Souza; I’m the co-founder of a company called Seat Geek. This is the third business that I founded all with the same co-founder. The previous business that we started was a company called Scribnia and Scribnia was yelp.com for bloggers and authors.

It allowed people to list their all their favorite bloggers and to rate them and we’d do some work behind the scenes in algorithms to help you figure out who you’d like to read based on who you liked in the past. And so we started that business and founded it and opened site and then ended up selling it in about July and then shortly before that had started Seat Geek. And Seat Geek’s goal is to forecast out ticket prices on the secondary ticket market. And the secondary ticket market sites like Stubhub, RazorGator, EBay. And really the goal here is to help people find the best in all ticketing.

So we’ll not only tell you when to buy it but will let you know the best time to buy it. But we’ll show you an interactive city map with every available ticket for that event from all these markets, we’ll plot these tickets on the seating map and will tell you here are the best deals if you want to go to that, here’s where you should spend your money and we monetize by making an affiliate cut off the secondary ticket markets.

Tim Jahn: You mentioned three businesses. What was the other one other than Scribnia and Seat Geek?

Russell D’Souza: When we were in college, my co-founder and I started a company called Evolving Vox which was a furniture rental company that allowed users to input whatever they wanted online and then we’d pay students to deliver the furniture to their dorm and it was sort of a humble beginning kind of first entrepreneur venture.

We started as college students and it’s still around, it’s been around for four years now. It’s the largest student business department, it did really, really well and it made a good amount of revenue considering the size of the student population which was only 4,000. And we actually franchised it out to a couple of other schools as well. So it’s a model that makes a lot of sense because college students don’t want to buy furniture when they have to throw it out at the end of every single year.

So it’s a perfect rental market but the problem with rental on college campuses is that there’s no easy way to do it. With the college rental company it’s so great to be able to click, here are the five items that I want and don’t ever have to worry about it because someone will come set it up and at the end of the year, we’ll just take it away.

Tim Jahn: What inspired you to make the furniture rental company?

Russell D’Souza: I just thought the impotence for all the companies we’ve done so far are that they are problems that we face pretty acutely. And so for Evolving Vox furniture rental company I would continually remember buying furniture for every single year realizing that I had to buy worst furniture because I’m going to discard it invariably at the end of the year and also feeling like I’m contributing to the waste at Dartmouth that at the end of every year there’s all this stuff gets thrown out and if you care at all about the environment you realize that you’re not doing the environment a service at all.

I participate in that so a rental opportunity it’s great because it conserves Dartmouth and the school loved it for that reason. That there wasn’t as much waste at the end of every year, and they didn’t have to have a huge janitorial staff to clean up all the stuff that students have thrown outside their room because now the furniture is being reused and all these heavy items are now, they’re not left in the hallways.

Tim Jahn: You said that all three of the startups you’ve been a part of. You’ve co-founded with the same partner, why is that?

Russell D’Souza: So the two of us have been friends for a long time and I think it’s a great idea to start a business with somebody you’re friends with, that you trust, that you get along with. And after doing multiple adventures you obviously become pretty accustomed to working together and you realize what each others strengths and weaknesses are and we both enjoyed working together.

Hopefully he feels the same way but I certainly enjoyed working with him and it’s, you know every single time we do a business it’s become bigger and bigger. I think it’s a great opportunity working with a close friend to start something exciting.

Tim Jahn: How did you initially start working together? I mean, I know you were friends but at what point did you decide to go into business?

Russell D’Souza: So the two of us — so one of the reasons why we became friends pretty quickly is we both knew we wanted to do entrepreneurship in the future. So even when we met as college freshmen college sophomores we talked about wanting one day to own a business and how it would be so exciting to start our own company. And this was right around the time, it’s probably 2005, 2006 where you saw a lot of web businesses start sprouting up.

And when we lived together, we lived together I guess, our junior summer, our junior of college that summer we lived together in Boston and we went into that apartment with both of us were working at consulting internships but we both kind of made a “pact” that we were going to start a business afterwards. So we were thinking about it over the summer and we’re going to do it senior year and that’s exactly what we did.

So we thought about a lot of different opportunities and I’m sure they weren’t very good because we were really young back then. But Evolving Vox the furniture rental company that I described that’s one and that’s what we ended up having.

Tim Jahn: Do you think all your ventures with your friend would be as successful if you had done it with someone else?

Russell D’Souza: I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I think he’s a really talented individual and I think it’s also about finding somebody who you work really well with. One of the hardest things about starting a business is figuring out who to start it with. There’s some people who are exceptionally talented and they can start a business by themselves.

But I think if you look at YCombinator and some of these other incubators what they screen for, it’s often that they’re looking for two founders, and the reason for that is because you need somebody who you can bounce ideas off, who you can split the work up with, etcetera.

Tim Jahn: Based on your experience, what’s the number one characteristic you’d say you should look for in a co-founder?

Russell D’Souza: That’s a good question. I think if you’re doing a test startup, you want somebody on your founding team who has good technical skills. I think it’s sort of a recipe for disaster when you have two business guys come together without any ability how to create a code. And so going back to our background, neither of us are tech people.

So I was a history major at Dartmouth and he was an E-con and Math major. But at the same time, the most important quality is actually perseverance and being able to really push yourself to learn something if you have to. So we both taught ourselves how to program and we built the initial version of all three businesses, so for Scribnia we built a version that we ended up selling. We also for Seat Geek we built the initial version that launched a Tech Crunch 50 that we raised money with.

And now we have a fantastic engineering team who does a lot better stuff than we could ever do. But at the same time you want people who — you need to be able to create a product with the initial two founders. I think too many businesses fall apart because they have two people who are really interested in the high level strategic opportunity without really being able to get a prototype out the door.

Tim Jahn: I find it interesting because in a way, it’s like when you work with your significant other, you know you spend all day together, all night together at work at home, I imagine it’s kind of the same way with you and your buddy because you guys have been together probably 24/ 7 for the past seven, eight years.

Russell D’Souza: Not quite so much. I mean we spend a lot more together now than we used to because we’re working on Seat Geek every waking moment. But I don’t think it’s tough at all. I think we made a good decision, you know one thing that some founders might do is live together and I think that might be recipe for disaster because you spend so much time with one another.

But to have some separation, I think makes the whole thing workable; but I don’t think it’s a negative thing. You want somebody who you’re going to be able to focus with 100% on your business and I’d rather have that be a friend than somebody who you don’t know it all.

Tim Jahn: You know, I totally agree. Is it tough though at times where you have to separate friend from business or have you guys never run into that situation?

Russell D’Souza: Never run into it yet.

Tim Jahn: Yet. Well let’s hope you never run into that.

Russell D’Souza: We both have the same objectives and priorities where we just really want this to succeed and we’re willing to do everything we can to make that happen. So I don’t think we ever have the moment where we feel as if we’re grappling with work life balance, there is no balance.

Tim Jahn: How does it work in terms of — I’m just curious because for you to start three companies with the same person, I mean that says so much about your partnership and how much you guys believe in each other.

I just wonder how it works; I mean are you generally in agreement on everything? Do you generally think the same way and want to go down the same path or is it like a good solid healthy disagreements at points where you kind of keep each other in check?

Russell D’Souza: No I think we often see eye to eye on a lot of things. I can’t think of any significant disagreement we’ve ever had. I guess that goes back to the fact that we see — we’re pretty much on the same page all the time. We still have a lot of work to do but it’s been fun so far.

Tim Jahn: So you had your college business, you guys decided to rent furniture which is genius by the way, why wasn’t that your company? Why wasn’t that the life goal there?

Russell D’Souza: It’s a great business in a lot of ways. We did –when we ended up — there were a couple of problems with it though. One is that what made it work so well at Dartmouth is that we had access to student body email lists so we would blast out an email to all the students saying, “Wanna get your furniture, well you can just sign up with a few clicks and you can buy all the furniture you want.”

And that worked fantastically. But you can’t scale that as you’re going to other schools so you need people on the ground at every single one of those schools setting it up, handling the outreach, hand deliver the furniture. And if you ever want to postopedic like Cort furniture or one of those big players then you have to worry about paying drivers and paying health insurance and all that stuff.

What made it work so well is that it was at the grass root level in that it was just student run and the operating costs were so low. I don’t think that scales very well but it’s a great business on a college campus and it’s — one of the other problems we had is when we tried to sell it just based on the inventory that we had and based on the demand at Dartmouth we could’ve we should’ve made — we did do quite well but we could’ve done extremely well based on any sane multiple on revenues but it was hard finding a potential buyer because the advantage we had was the ability to access the student body cheaply.

So that just checks out every single possible large furniture rental company. So we ended up selling it to college students which turned out to be a good decision.

And what ended up happening is that four or five college students pulled together their money and they purchased the business and now every single year it seems like the amount of students who are pulling together money is increasing because the value of the business is growing over time. So I think at this point, a fraternity essentially owns the company and that’s what made it work. So I think that’s the problem with it; it didn’t have the opportunity to really scale broadly.

Tim Jahn: Now okay that’s makes perfect sense in my mind. What about Scribnia? What made you move on from your second business Scribnia?

Russell D’Souza: We moved on from — so Scribnia was an awesome experience. It’s a great concept and a great company and I think as a blogger you can attest that it provides value and as a reader I used to use it a lot to find authors. I think it’s one of those businesses that is going to take awhile before it really grows.

So unless you’re getting an absolute huge amount of buyer activity it’s going to take awhile before you get the SEO to kick in and to really start seeing the user base grow to a point where you can start effectively monetizing it. And after running it for about a year we realized that time line didn’t really meet with ours. So we handed it off to an individual who approached it more realistically where he was thinking, “Okay I have the ability to grow this business over the next two or three years I’m not thinking about how I can make it as viral as quickly as possible to get to the point where I can monetize it, understanding that time line is going to be a little longer.

But I’m willing because I think it’s a very interesting concept and I’m willing to stick with it.” I think it was divergence between what the company realistic time line was to modernization and our preference to get there. So what we love about Seat Geek is that the moment that we launched the service we started earning revenue and that revenue just continued to grow month over month but that’s what attracted us to Seat Geek.

Tim Jahn: So is Seat Geek something you’re looking to spend the next few years on or are you going to kind of get the itch to move on?

Russell D’Souza: Seat Geek is, it’s an awesome market, I love event ticketing. I love going to sports games, love going to concerts. It’s an extremely inefficient market where you have buyers and sellers lacking a lot of market intelligence and there’s a huge opportunity for a company like Seat Geek to get in the middle there and offer things like analytics but more importantly being a one stop shop for people to buy tickets.

If you look at the airline industry where there’s companies like Kayak and Fare Cash which Bing bought and there’s a couple of other big players there that have managed to become huge businesses around meta search, around helping users, you know a one stop shop where they can find and book, their plane travel, and their hotel travel. That same sort of dynamic should apply to the event ticketing space where you don’t have to search through all these different markets and broker sites, you should be able to go to one site and see everything that’s out there.

And we think that’s such a huge opportunity that it’s something that you have to focus on for a number of years essentially and we’re excited about doing so to become the big player in the space.

Tim Jahn: I was reading your interview with Under 30 CEO’s and you mentioned that you think people who are starting companies should stay away from the Facebook and Twitter model. You want to explain what you meant by that?

Russell D’Souza: You may have picked up on it when I talked about earlier where I really put a big — and this is just my own personal preference, but I probably put an undue amount of emphasis on figuring out a business model. And those companies are, I mean I will never be as successful as Facebook or Twitter, I can tell you that with a 100% certainty.

But at the same time, sure, we’ll never have the users or maybe the revenue of those companies have. But I do think that entrepreneurs may want to be a little more realistic and figure out how they can create something that every step along the way is generating revenue as opposed to something that’s more all or nothing.

And that’s a really kind of hasty overview over what those companies do and what environment they add, but I think maybe too many entrepreneurs are sucked into the idea that they want to create something that gets big and goes viral.

And I think that’s what you saw when we started Scribnia that may be is what we fell into that trap we thought, if you just get enough users the revenue is just going to come in and it’s — people consistently underestimate how difficult it is to attract people to come to your site on the internet.

Tim Jahn: I’m in total agreement. And to me it seems like your point of view on that, that’s how you’ve always been. I mean you started a business in college with the idea that you’re going to make money from moment one. What do you think separates you and I who have that view from the people who want to become the next Facebook? Where’s the determining factor in how you think that way?

Russell D’Souza: I don’t know. I think people are going to — a lot of people are going to go into whatever business attracts them personally and some people just are fascinated by social media or really understand the way people interact and there could be — and it’s not like Facebook and Twitter are the last two of those type of businesses that are out there.

There’s tons of lays, tons of companies that are pushing the threshold on how people are interacting and socializing and bringing that online and those are going to be very big businesses, and some people are attracted to starting those type of businesses and that’s great. But I think other entrepreneurs may want to be more realistic and realize that there’s only so many of those businesses that succeed and you read about them all the time and they’re very hot and exciting to be a part of but there’s a lot more businesses that make revenue and that can support themselves along the way.

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