How SeatGeek avoided becoming a COVID casualty
COVID made software central to the economy. Ecommerce, edtech, and email jobs all boomed.
SeatGeek was the rare exception that went from generating billions of dollars of GMV to nothing. COVID could have killed the company.
Huge credit goes to SeatGeek’s exceptional CEO/Co-founder
Jack Groetzinger. He is savvy beyond his years and seasoned by a decade of competing against sharp-elbowed incumbents. He also reminds me of the athletes and entertainers who populate his platform. SeatGeek sells tickets to watch world-class performers ply their trades. What fans don’t get to see is the dull repetition of simple tasks that precede superstar performances. Drilling piano scales. Countless free throws. Hours in the gym. Jack rose to the occasion of COVID because he had spent the previous decade doing the equivalent of business burpees. The painful and tedious work of building a business, selling a vision, and keeping his team focused.
Sadly for VCs, Jack can’t be cloned. Luckily, there are a few virtues that I’ve witnessed Jack practice consistently for years. I recommend every entrepreneur try to cultivate similar habits. They will come in handy when hard times inevitably come.
When COVID hit, SeatGeek was growing rapidly, a major investment in a new business line was beginning to pay off, and then revenue cratered — overnight. I can’t stress this enough; revenue didn’t decline or “soften” — it effectively went to zero.
The underlying business was strong, but the balance sheet couldn’t hold forever. Jack recognized his situation, made peace with the cosmic unfairness of having to raise capital from a position of weakness, and took on the dilution to extend the company’s runway.
I think most founders would have eventually accepted the inevitable logic of SeatGeek’s situation. But the fact that Jack was clear-eyed and proactive allowed him to find more potential investors and close the best deal possible in a tough moment.
I’m sure Jack panicked a bit in the early days of COVID, but throughout it all, he never shared it with his employees or me. He may have wanted to vomit, but he never gave voice to anything but pragmatic optimism and a can-do spirit.
He seemed to operate knowing that live entertainment would come back, eventually, and the only question was when. The challenge was to keep the company alive until society reopened. The gap between present calamity and future commerce was just another problem to solve.
People follow confident leaders. Through all this turmoil, SeatGeek lost only a single executive team member. These are incredibly talented people who were surely being actively recruited. That they stayed speaks volumes about Jack’s leadership.
Jack makes himself available to people at all levels of the organization. He legitimately welcomes input from senior execs and brand-new software engineers. This kind of respect generates loyalty.
To my chagrin, a genuine openness to feedback is a rare trait in founders. Many entrepreneurs need to be slapped by reality before they’ll accept advice. There were times I was guilty of this as an entrepreneur. But Jack is a sponge and seriously requests/appreciates counsel.
I can’t think of a startup in my portfolio that has had tougher luck over the last five years than SeatGeek. A global pandemic and a scuttled SPAC would make most founders throw in the towel. Not Jack.
If you’re a newly funded founder, I encourage you to find a way to practice these traits for the tough times that await all startups. Not every startup is fortunate enough to have a leader like Jack, but nothing he did is beyond you.
If you’d like to learn more about Jack, firsthand, he’s currently hiring a chief of staff. This role is a transformative opportunity for a recent MBA grad or an early career, entrepreneurially-minded self-starter.