John: Welcome to the Event Tech Podcast, the podcast where we talk about all things related to Event Tech and the people that make it happen. I’m John Federico, your host and executive producer, which basically means I’m the guy who turns the knobs and posts the shows. Joining me today is Willie Litvack.
Willie is a cofounder of a new registration platform called SquadUP that I think you’re going to want to hear about, primarily because it talks about these mythical millennials and what we think how they’re going to relate to your professional conferences and events. So, Willie, joining me from New York City. I’m in my home office again today, couldn’t do this in person, but Willie was kind enough to jump on Google Hangouts and have this conversation. Welcome, Willie.
Willie: Hey, John. Thanks again for having me. Really appreciate it.
John: Sure. Is that a French Bulldog in the background?
Willie: It is. That’s actually our kind of unofficial mascot. This logo has gone through a couple iterations, but Tyson is actually my French Bulldog. He’s about ten years old, lives with my parents’ out in Los Angeles still, and is like our unofficial mascot. We think he’s quite playful, and we like having him around.
John: That’s good. Not literally, of course. Only sometimes.
Willie: Yeah. Only sometimes. In theory.
John: In theory, yes. Well, I’m a dog lover myself, so, of course, that was one of the first things that caught my attention. But it makes me think, SquadUP, French Bulldog, event registration, what’s the connection? Tell us about SquadUP and tell us where Tyson comes into this, other than the fact that he’s just damn cute.
Willie: Yeah. Sure. I’ll kind of start at the very beginning, because that seems to be a good place to start. I started SquadUP in 2012 with three of my former classmates from Duke in order to solve a problem that we had encountered in college countless times. That issue being that the second you start planning an event for your friends or your friends’ friends, you’re immediately inheriting a variety of logistical problems. We started to think about those problems a little bit more deeply and realized that we could really break them up into two categories, one being communication and the other being minor funding.
On the communication side, as a host, it’s your responsibility to send invitations, track RSVPs, collect all the information from your guests that you may need ahead of time, act as the central point of communication for all the event details, say, when people should arrive, what they should be wearing, etc., etc. That can be a pain, and it’s kind of your responsibility as the host to call, text, email, whatever.
The other set of issues you can deal with while planning an event is money or funding issues. If you want to collect money from your guests, it’s a headache all its own. Whether it’s money on a per-head basis or you actually want to sell tickets or you want to collect donations, it can always be a problem. There’s someone that always arrives with that magically unbreakable $100 bill. There are people who show up with no cash at all, and all these create unnecessary pain points for hosts who are already accepting the burden of planning the event.
We encountered this a bunch of times, and we decided we wanted to create a platform that solved all these problems, make it super simple, very social, easy to use, and brand it in a way that was attractive to our demographic, the millennials.
John: That’s interesting. It’s a great place to stop, because I have to ask. You used phrases like “guests” and “cash.” First of all, cash is cash. With the people that we usually speak with, they’re not guests, although they should be treated as such; they’re attendees. It just sounds like, even from the language you use, you guys have a very different perspective. Where’d that come from?
Willie: Yeah. It really came from personal experiences. We, in college and growing up, our group of founders was very social, and we organized a lot of events for our friends and our friends’ friends, so it became a pain point in peer-to-peer interactions to collect money and send invitations and track RVSPs.
So, we wanted to brand this in a way and kind of position the product in a way that made it very useable for personal events, whether there’re 15, 20, 30, 40 people and then, of course, build in all the features necessary to handle the registration of a much larger event, as well. The origin of this product and this platform and really the impetus for beginning the project was to solve a pain point amongst peer-to-peer events.
John: Got it. So it started out-I’m taking notes-it started out as something to solve the pain points of peer-to-peer event. What’s a peer-to-peer event? It sounds like it’s a gathering of friends, maybe it’s a party, a barbeque, whatever it might be, and the logistics and funding that go along with that.
Willie: Exactly. Barbeque, cocktail hour, anything like that.
John: Interesting. I just thought of, too, as a general concept, it could be very interesting for a crowdfunded type event. That essentially is what a peer-to-peer event is, just with a different name, right?
Willie: Yeah. I would say so. Definitely. I think kind of the idea of crowd funding makes it seem impersonal. A lot of the care that we took in this product was about sending personal invitations. If you’ve ever registered for a SquadUP event, you receive an email from one of the co-founders thanking you for registering and whatnot.
We really wanted to keep that very personal feel about this. I think a lot of the existing platforms, while amazing and not knocking them in any way, can give you this kind of informal, who am I really dealing with feeling, and we wanted to maintain this very personable feeling with the platform. That’s really what we’ve sought to do.
John: Yeah. I like it. I like the approach. Question number one is, does that scale? That’s the first thing that pops into my mind. I guess to sort of answer my question already, you guys have figured out how to make it scale, at least you are, right? The peer-to-peer activity still occurs, the peer-to-peer management, but it sounds like you’ve moved on to bigger events, at least that’s how you mentioned it earlier. How does that work? If I’m an event planner and I have a public event, not everyone coming to this event is necessarily a friend, though I might like them to be at some point, how does that work?
Willie: Yeah. Like I said, we really started this to solve a peer-to- peer pain point, but as we continued to develop the feature set and whatnot, we realized that we could expand our horizons and provide a registration tool that works for a plethora of events. We’ve been able to reach kind of a broader demographic, as well as people who throw events of differing sizes, whether they be for 50 people, 200 people, or even upwards of 1,000 people. That’s the beauty of the technology is that it really can be used in a variety of applications.
For these larger events, we have all the tools that you need to host and fund a larger event. It hasn’t been any issue moving up in terms of the size of the events or the personability of the event. That’s basically our approach there. We’ve really thought about approaching millennials in two ways, thinking about the market as being separated between college campuses and then young professionals or young adults or rising young adults.
We’ve reached college campuses in a number of ways. That’s kind of the secret sauce. We’ve built a brand ambassador program that’s got more than 450 students enrolled in it now, and we’re on 60 plus campuses. Then, in the young professional market, we’ve made some really strong strategic partnerships with groups that throw recurring events for millennials, whether they are professional networking groups or just kind of social groups that derive a portion of their revenue from ticket sales.
John: Interesting. So, the college events, I guess they’re student driven, right? Are we talking about formal things or are they all simple peer-to-peer things? When you talk about those relationships, what do they look like?
Willie: Yeah. On the college campuses, it’s very interesting. There’s a whole variety of things that go on, and any organization that’s experimented with a brand ambassador program knows that college students definitely vary in their willingness to commit to a project. We’ve seen everything from students at the University of Delaware who throw seven events a month and use this for everything they do, whether it be just getting people together for pizza and a movie or they’re collecting money for t-shirts or sorority-branded material or larger events that are 100-plus people, and then we see . . . (audio cuts out) . . . so we’ve seen it all across the number of attendees spectrum that you could imagine. It’s really awesome to watch the creative uses of the platform and how those have popped up all over the place.
John: I can see that. I could definitely see that with, think about it, Greek systems where you constantly have parties and people are kicking in cash and worrying about logistics and so on. When you say it caters to millennials, how do you define that? That’s pretty obvious, too.
When you go to your website, there’s a bunch of guys and girls on a rooftop, having a few beers is what it looks like, although I’m sure it’s not, right? It’s clear that that’s who your target market is just in all your language and your visuals. What’s different about the experience that you believe that they find more attractive than one of the incumbents?
Willie: It’s a true mobile-first approach. I think more and more millennials are really focused on using things that are available for them in their mobile browsers or that are app- based companies. If you play around with the website, you’ll see it’s 100% responsive. We took an incredible amount of time to make sure that it was perfect for mobile browsers. The actual event registration process from your phone is incredibly easy and simple. Allowing people to check out as guests, there’s a lot of friction involved with signing up with your email address and whatnot. People don’t want to be spammed and whatnot. That was a huge pain point on a lot of other websites that we were able to skip over. Social log-ins. We made some very clever use of Facebook’s APIs. For example, in our Upcoming Events field, you’ll see any events that your friends are hosting, invited to, or attending on Facebook, and as we continue to add more social networks to that, that kind of virality can continue to grow. We also made some clever use of the Facebook Chat API that allows you to send personal messages from yourself to some of your friends on Facebook if you want to invite them to an event. That was a pain point for a lot of millennials, being that not all millennials have each other’s email addresses, but everyone’s friends on Facebook, so let’s leverage that infrastructure and allow people to invite their friends through Facebook without actually having to have a Facebook event.
John: Yeah. That is definitely something that I still don’t understand but I find quite common is texting is fine, Facebook messaging is fine, but email addresses . . . I’m obviously a bit older than you, and we have babysitters, college aged, and I’m like, “What’s your email address?” And they look at me like deer in the headlights, like, “I don’t know. I can’t remember the last time I gave that out.”
John: That is interesting. How does that translate to bigger events? I’ll give you one example that I just happened to actually stumble upon. By the way, I apologize for now. I probably look like a ghost. The sun is shifting, and I forgot to close the shades. I stumbled upon an event here in New York coming up. Startup New York, I think it is?
Willie: Yeah. We’re definitely helping out with that.
John: That’s more of a traditional expo conference trade show kind of thing. How does it work for the folks at Start New York? Let’s use them as an example, if that’s okay.
Willie: Yeah, absolutely. For the guys at Start New York, we know them personally, and we kind of chatted back and forth about how we could help them with handling registration at their event. On a feature-by-feature basis, you’re not really losing anything when you move from EventBrite to SquadUP. Obviously, there’s the brand recognition that comes with EventBrite, but as long as everyone knows that they’re coming for something professional, there’s no issues there at all. Really, what we offer in these situations on top of every feature you would need to host an event like this, whether it’s full ticketing, registration, etc., etc., is we offer the ability to be a nimble startup.
These guys can call us and ask us about certain things and what they need, and we’re able to make quick moves and help them out with whatever they need in terms whether it’s adding a specific little feature or tweaking something here or creating a custom redirect for the confirmation page. We’ve been able to help them on a more personal level.
That being said, on a feature-by-feature comparison, you’re not really losing anything. You’re not losing anything by coming to SquadUP. We have full ticketing and everything you would really need from a major registration platform. That’s the benefit to being late to a little bit of a crowded space, if you can see the silver lining there, is that you get to look at all the platforms that exist and pick and choose which features and which attributes really make those platforms great and then combine them into something that is robust, highly scalable, and works for a variety of events.
John: I have to agree with that. We have a similar approach in the sense that we took a look at all the things that our customers didn’t like about what we do, which is primarily lead retrieval and badging, and we just happened to fall into that, and that’s a whole other story that you and I can discuss over a beer. We looked at all the things that people hated, including myself. I’ve been an organizer, and I’ve been a marketer that exhibits at these shows.
We basically said, “Let’s just deliver 180 degrees from what everyone else is doing.” Accomplish the same goal in a way that more people appreciate. It’s worked for us. It’s because we were ‘late’ that it allowed us to make those changes. I can totally see that. I do have to push back on you. We work with organizers every single day, and a lot of . . . (audio cuts out) . . . Eventbrite.
As a matter of fact, Eventbrite was our first integration partner, primarily because of their open API. One of the reasons we exist is because of the shortcomings of many of these registration platforms. We know what people who use EventBrite like and what they don’t. Tell me, how do you feel you guys are in terms of feature parity? Here’s a great example: Organizers love their cross-event analytics. Oh my god, they go crazy for their cross-event analytics. Is that something you guys have tackled yet? Is it on the radar?
Willie: It’s definitely on the radar. It’s in the queue of things that we’re going to get to and things that we’re really excited about. Definitely, that’s something that EventBrite does very well. They have great event analytics. They allow repeat organizers to really dig deep into what’s going on in their events. That’s something that we’ve taken note of and we think is very important, and long term we feel that we can create some of those features just as well and really compete in that regard as well.
Because of our initial go-to-market focus, those deep analytics haven’t been as important to this point, but as we continue to grow in scale and try to take more and more market share in this space, I think they will become increasingly important.
John: Sure. I didn’t mean to poke you. When someone says, “You’re not losing anything by coming from EventBrite,” that’s a tough sell. What can I say? I want to give you that opportunity to sell. The whole idea of this conversation is you are new. You have a different focus. I want our listeners to understand what that’s all about. Other things that people seem to like about EventBrite . . . things like differing ticket types, the ability to use discount codes, hidden tickets, that sort of thing. Where do you sit in that regard?
Willie: Yeah, we’ve got all those features. We allow you to add tickets and subtract tickets whenever you want. You can have as many ticket tranches as you’d like. You can limit the amount per order or overall, the amount of quantity of those tickets available. We think we do a really good job with the promo codes. They can be a little complicated at EventBrite. I think if anyone’s organizing an event or set up there, it looks like for a second you’re in the hole of a spaceship, and we try to make it as simple as humanly possible. I think we did a really good job specifically with promo codes and allowing people to add multiple ticket tiers and whatnot.
John: Great. You’re right about that. It’s funny: The problem with being EventBrite . . . in some respects, it’s good to be EventBrite. You’re the leader in the . . . (audio cuts out) . . . the perceived leader, but at this point I would say, the mind share that EventBrite has is huge. The downside is even though they know that the UI could probably use a facelift, they have these hundreds of thousands, probably millions of customers, and they don’t want to make a change and end up with a customer service nightmare. In some respects, it’s hard to be them. For you guys, it’s not. You’re young, you’re growing, and you have an opportunity to rethink things from the bottom.
Willie: Also, EventBrite’s been around for seven years. Anyone that’s using EventBrite knows that they have an amazing amount of features, but the question . . . (Audio cuts out) . . . at what point do all these features become too much? It can be complicated, and it can be a little bit overwhelming. It’s a little bit boring and a little bit bland as well at times. We tried to pull the best parts of that and make it as simple on the user side as humanly possible.
I think we’ve done a pretty good job at that, and every day is an improvement, especially in start-up world where you’re always clawing. We’ve been really fortunate to do a good job thus far, but we’ve got a long road to go.
John: Yeah. Believe me, we definitely know that. We’re a little short staffed right now in terms of developers, so the new features don’t come as quickly as we’d like, but that’s also because we’re also pretty particular about making sure things work before we roll it out. I’m sure you guys are too. It’s just you have more people to make it happen. I’m going to put my spin on it.
If someone is not necessarily concerned with cross-event analytics but is really concerned about personal service, because you guys are small, which is great, access to the product team, so if they have a feature that’s really important to them, they maybe can approach you about it, and then all the basics. If, really, you just care about the logistics, the ticketing, the core things that make up a registration system, it sounds like you guys have that, coupled with your focus on millennials, and if that happens to be someone’s audience, it sounds like you guys would be a good fit.
Willie: That’s exactly right. Very well said. I appreciate that synopsis.
John: That’s why I’m here. It’s so funny; you can’t even see me anymore because of the sun. That’s all right. Most people listen to the audio version, anyway. I like to have the video because, hey, because of the millennials, they like their video. For features, let’s say there are features that you haven’t built yet or you don’t want to build. Can you work with outside companies? Do you guys have an API that can be used?
Willie: Yeah, definitely. My thinking on how the world is going is that we’re moving to an API-driven universe, where in the trend and the democratization of technology, where more and more people are learning to build their own products, whether it be through actually learning how to program or through tools like WordPress and Strikingly and other platforms out there that make it really easy for you to build your own website, that more and more people are looking to do what we’re calling “native ticketing.”
That’s a step above the standard EventBrite embed feature that allows you to embed a ticketing widget on your website and extends more to actually having your own private event network, where you can have upcoming events, event show pages, sell tickets from your own website, maintain your entire brand identity, essentially, without having to route people to a ticketing platform.
Of course, obviously, what comes along with that is complete data autonomy and being able to control your own data, having your own users, and really being able to keep everybody within your own ecosystem, as opposed to diverting traffic to one of these registration platforms out there.
What we’ve done thus far and what we hope to continue doing is form strategic alliances with groups that throw recurring events for the millennial demographic or for whoever their user base is and help them to either interface with our APIs or deploy a white-labeled version of SquadUP within their existing application so that they can take advantage of all these features that we’ve taken so much time and effort to build while also maintaining full brand identity and the essence of who they are as a company.
John: Got it. White label is not necessarily how I originally thought of it. When I hear “white label,” I think you’re creating another brand, another ticketing service that’s like SquadUP. You’re saying no, it’s not like that; it’s a fully branded registration platform for a customer.
Willie: Listen, we’re very early stage in what we think this product could be. We’ve done it in a one-off basis for a couple organizations so far and really think that there might be some space over there for us to run into. For the time being, we’re just helping big power users or customers provide a ticketing . . . (audio cuts out) . . . for their clients or their users that is really ideal and suits their needs perfectly. That’s kind of in our mantra. We build for our power users.
If someone who sells a bunch of tickets comes to us and says, “We would like to see this, this, and this,” because we’re a nimble young start-up trying to be as helpful to everybody as humanly possible, we say, “Okay. Let’s take a look and let us see if we can actually help you with this.” We’ve done that in a couple instances with one that’s like an API-driven platform and one that’s actually a full white label, and the reception has been pretty good, so we think we’re probably going to continue walking down that road until we see a reason not to.
John: Sure. I think that’s great. We’re in the same boat in that regard. Especially in very early days, people would say to us, “Can you guys do this?” And my response would be, “Yes!” And then I would turn around and ask my co-founder how we could do it.
It was great. That’s how we got a lot of our business early on and how we learned what our customers wanted. That was just natural. Tell me about the social integration. We’re talking all about millennials. We mentioned Facebook and the use of email. Do you go beyond Facebook? If you do, actually, there’s a point to that. I might have a lead for you, but that’s a different story. What other social nets do you integrate with at this point?
Willie: For the time being, we have your standard Facebook and Twitter share buttons, which we pop up all over the place and helps people share information to their larger networks. As I mentioned briefly earlier, we made some pretty clever use of the Facebook APIs in order to help our users increase virality around their events, one of which being the Upcoming Events feed, which displays events from friends in your network from Facebook at SquadUP.com, and one that allows you to actually send direct messages using the Facebook chat API and send invitations.
The way we’re architected the system will allow us to integrate with Google Plus, LinkedIn as well, and those are next in queue for networks that we’re going to bring in. We think that will be really helpful for us in terms of increasing this highly-social repertoire, which we think is really important. For the time being, it’s Facebook and Twitter and then, as we continue to bring in other social log-ins, it will improve even further.
John: I think the LinkedIn one is a big deal, because, let’s face it, a lot of the events that require registration are typically business oriented, and I think the LinkedIn integration would go a long way, not only just in things like registration or connecting or sharing with our networks, but things like using LinkedIn data to automatically help register someone. If I’m there representing a company, you would think that that company would be the most recent listing in my LinkedIn profile, in which case, just suck it in, immediately populate my profile, and then all I have to do is worry about payment.
Willie: Exactly. There are a million super cool things that we have in queue that we’d love to do. Part of when we were building API infrastructure for SquadUP.com, we had multiple social network integration in mind from the very beginning, so we’re in a position to slot those in as soon as possible, and they’re in queue. We’re really excited to bring about those new features along with a whole host of other features, which we’re really excited about.
John: Awesome. That’s definitely what I want to do. What do you guys do for . . . This is a self-serving question. What do you guys do for badging?
Willie: We haven’t done a ton of big conference style events that really require badging. If someone has asked us about it in the past, we’ve just gone to Google and helped people out with finding the right service provider. That’s basically been it.
John: It’s one of the things that we do for our customers, and we’ve found out a lot of, just like we discussed before about the APIs and the ecosystem, badging seems to be an afterthought for a lot of registration platforms. That’s good for us, because it’s a primary thing. Hey, there’s another opportunity. We can talk about that later.
Willie: Now that we know you personally, you’re definitely going to be our first tap for any time we have a badging request.
John: Excellent. That’s great. I’m just on the other side. You could throw a stone, literally, and find me there. That’s great. Willie, this was great. I think it was an interesting conversation, in the sense that the event planners that listen to this show need to have an understanding that catering to millennials isn’t just the same old same old.
I joke all the time and say a lot of event organizers are partying like it’s 1999, and even that’s an exaggeration. It’s more like 1969. They’re slow to adopt tech. They only adopt it when it’s absolutely been proven out, but when you’re talking about something like a generational wave of people starting to attend professional events, now it’s something that organizers have to stand up and take notice of. I think it sounds like you guys have a handle on that.
Willie: We’d like to think so, at least. This has been part of the strategy all along, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job up to this point. Like I said earlier, we’ve got a long road ahead of us, and we just want to make awesome products that make everyone’s lives easier.
John: Yes. I share that sentiment. I’m glad to hear you say that. Awesome. Willie, if people want to thank you for doing this interview and learn more about you and SquadUP, where can they go?
Willie: I’m on Twitter, @willielit, or you can just send me a personal email, and that’s just [email protected], Willie with an I-E.
John: Willie with an I-E and two Ls.
Willie: And two Ls. Exactly.
John: Excellent. Thank you for joining us, sir. I appreciate it. This has been the Event Tech podcast. If you want to hear more, find us on iTunes. Of course, you can always go to Google and search for the Event Tech podcast, and you’ll be able to subscribe as well as watch the videos. Be sure to subscribe on YouTube. We appreciate you joining us. Until next time.
Willie: Thanks again, John.