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Podcast: Startup Stories – From MVP to Techstars With Stan Mcleod from Headliner

Dan:

Hey there, and welcome to the Lighthouse London podcast. Today I’m speaking to Stan from Headliner. Hello Stan.

Stan:

Hello, hello.

Dan:

I’m obviously Dan, so nice bit of rhyme there. Stan, tell us a bit about yourself and Headliner, just briefly. What’s the elevator pitch these days?

Stan:

Well basically, Headliner connects talent – musicians, bands, and D.J.’s – with event planners to perform at private events.

Dan:

Polished.

Stan:

Thank you!

Dan:

I think it’s good to have you in today. You and your team are the reason why, when someone comes into Lighthouse to talk about startups, I can look them in the eye, stick on the new business voice, and go, “We’ve been working with startups here at Lighthouse for five years,” which is a long time, especially in startups. I mean, think about things that weren’t around five years ago. Probably on Basecamp Classic.

Stan:

Yeah, absolutely.

Dan:

Right. I even read the email again the other day that you sent.

Stan:

I heard this almost five years. Was it March 2011?

Dan:

Yeah, absolutely.

Stan:

Yeah, blimey.

Dan:

It feels a lot longer, but has that time gone quickly?

Stan:

It has and it hasn’t. I think when you look retrospectively at what we’ve done over those five years, we’ve achieved a lot, but at the same time, running a startup’s pretty hard work. I think often when you listen to people talk about startups, it’s quite clipped, and there’s a summary of all the great things that happened, and they tend to leave out the bits that are a lot harder, so yeah, so that certainly five years feels like it. To some extent it has zipped past.

Dan:

Yeah, yeah. When I’ve read the email back, it was very hard to perceive that I was talking to someone who was still going to be an entrepreneur in five years’ time. I think one of the things from back then, and the reason I count it from when you came and started working with us, is because we had dabbled in a bit of startup stuff before that, but Bandwagon as it was then, said that – we’ll get into the difference between Bandwagon and Headliner, and the story there – but that was the first one where after we built that thing, suddenly you … Normally people would then just disappear, and you kind of rang up a month later and were like, “Okay, so there’s 2,000 people in the database,” and we were like, “What? What do you mean? What are we doing about that? Has anyone saw the hosting company?”

Definitely for us it was like the first time we’d worked with people who had a plan. I suppose one of the things really want to talk about today, like in line with a lot of things to talk about in the moment in terms of prototyping and testing plans, testing features, is how people should know when to develop. With Bandwagon, about five years ago, how did you decide you needed to come to a web agency? What’s the bit before you emailed us?

Stan:

I think when we sort of describe it to people now, we say that we sort of naively got into tech through discovering a problem, having a mission and a vision for what we wanted to do, and trying to fill in the gaps by learning about technology. I started as a music promoter, and we were promoting emerging and unsigned talent, and the guys that we were promoting were fantastic, but they were really struggling to find other venues to play at, and other opportunities to play at, to kind of elevate their career.

It was at a time where we began, when we very first started promoting using MySpace, and MySpace kind of changed its focus away from that sort of emerging and unsigned talent ecosystem, to one where it was very focused on more recognized names. We were in a position where we needed to create something, and wanted to create something, where we, as promoters, could accept new talent, but where new talent could find venues and promoters as well. We kind of took what we knew, vaguely, probably from the usage of MySpace, and started to think about how we could do that. What we did is we started with Facebook, which, in effect, was the new MySpace.

Dan:

Right, and this is what five years ago looked like.

Stan:

Yeah, exactly. This is Facebook in 2010, or probably back in the 2009.

Dan:

I was still sharing photos of nights out on it.

Stan:

Yeah. There was a really good opportunity at that stage where Facebook really hadn’t implemented any of their monetization strategy, so as a page or as a group, you could actually bring two parties together. What we did is we started by effectively advertising our own night as an opportunity to come and play. We knew two or three other promoters in the London area that were willing to do the same. What we did is we just started to advertise those opportunities to musicians. What we saw was a kind of quick, rapid rise of musicians that were joining the page, that were applying, in effect, to come and play, and wanted to perform at our events. That gave us the kind of early idea about how Bandwagon could potentially operate.

Dan:

So it was kind of your minimum viable product, to use today’s terminology.

Stan:

Yeah, exactly.

Dan:

Which that wasn’t even there, the terminology then.

Stan:

No, we didn’t call it the MVP at the time, but it certainly was, that was the way that we approached it.

Dan:

But it was just a Facebook page, essentially.

Stan:

Yes, absolutely.

Dan:

Awesome. Were people asking for it? Were they saying this … Were the people on the page saying, “Can we have another platform?” Or did you just think there’s things this Facebook page can’t do which we could.

Stan:

A bit of both. We had a few people contacting us and saying that the page in itself was a great idea, and then suggesting, then saying, “Well then how do I send you different links? How do I send you my biography?” Because it wasn’t necessarily there and present. Not all of these musicians necessarily had a page, they were more of a, they had their own profile. It became apparent to us that we needed to sort of take it a stage further. At that stage we had, maybe 2,000 artists on that page.

Dan:

Wow.

Stan:

We knew that that would give us an opportunity to create a community, and that was ultimately what we wanted to do. We’d started by creating a community in Facebook, and we knew that to some extent we could migrate that across if we built the right features for them. We sort of took the blueprint of what we knew about MySpace, the community we’d built on Facebook, and then, obviously, tried to build a product that had the best of both worlds, really.

Dan:

And that was where we stepped in.

Stan:

Yes.

Dan:

In terms of the vision that you had, did we keep it very close to that original Facebook page – because I didn’t see the interactions on that – or were there other stuff that we added on?

Stan:

The vision was obviously to connect artists directly with venues and promoters, and enable them to communicate and negotiate that kind of booking of a performance. I think, to some extent, probably, with the early versions of Bandwagon, we probably built way too much. We got a little bit excited about the proposition in terms of how much people would interact on the platform. We certainly, knowing now what I knew, we just gave people too much choice.

Dan:

Yeah.

Stan:

Too many things to think about, and actually, to some extent, just got a little bit away from the fact that it was an artist and it was a venue or promoter, and it was just about connecting them, and that was the first thing that we needed to achieve.

Dan:

Yeah, I distinctly remember that we built out some features around how artists and promoters would communicate with each other that, looking back on it, I think we were essentially attempting to take text messaging and email, like out, you know what I mean? That that was the problem we were coming after, and yeah, of course we hit a bit of a brick wall with our kind of … There was some kind of complex way people penciling each other in, like a sort of three step confirmation thing, which surprise surprise, resulted in no one ever confirming.

Stan:

No, and this was a problem. Giving, again, referred to nowadays as sort of choice architecture, we were giving people far too many choices, choices that they probably hadn’t even thought of themselves, and yeah, you end up with an interaction that kind of sits in limbo. In a product where you want people to go end-to-end, from essentially connecting with one party, to negotiating, and then agreeing that deal, you have to get them over the line, and giving them five or six different options, or statuses, along that funnel was just way too much, and we were seeing too many people in limbo.

Dan:

Too many penciled people. Yeah, and I think it’s kind of amazing when you look back on that, as to how the design and execution of those kind of services is now actually so different. The user experience of getting someone through, and the things I think that even you’re … When I look at Headliner now, it’s so different, the choices that have been made about how you engage someone and get them through, whereas I think, what’s happened there is what’s happened with a lot of the industry, I think, is that people have realized that you need to get that feedback in. You’ve got to put something simple out, and then you can start seeing, if you develop it, because I think what we learned was that once you coded that, it seemed like such a small thing to then say, “Well let’s just take that out again.” But it never really happened, and it’s not that we weren’t working on the product back then, so it must just have been that it was just never … Once your startup’s going, you can’t afford to be spending time removing things, I suppose.

I think where Bandwagon kind of … Maybe let’s go across the what then happened about how Bandwagon turned into Headliner. Not that it turned into, Bandwagon still exists. There was a bit in the middle where it almost became that the features people wanted off Bandwagon were like festivals and things? What ended up happening there?

Stan:

Yeah, so I think once we’d kind of nailed down the process for artists to be able to apply for opportunities, what we needed to do as a product, and a business, next was ultimately to be able to offer them different opportunities. Some of the artists on our platform started to grow and they were getting firm bases, and therefore the opportunities that they needed were different to, say a new artist that was joining Bandwagon.

At that stage, then, we started to approach larger venue groups, and that led on to then speaking to festivals, as well. They all, at different levels, have exactly the same problem, which is that there’s so much availability of talent, but there’s no real way to be able to manage and review them and contact them. Most of these guys are using email, and as we all know, we don’t need anymore email. So having a really simple solution to be able to select from those different types of artists appeal to all types of venues and all types of festivals. We saw it as a great opportunity to grow the community of artists that we had, and certainly I think working with festivals did that. Some of the festivals that we worked with enabled us to bring up to 2,000 artists into the platform at any one time, and then serve them with the more local opportunities that we were offering, so it was a sort of natural progression for us to do that. It’s something that we probably could’ve done sooner, again, if we’d thought more closely about that interaction between promoter or talent buyer, and artist.

Dan:

It felt like you did it without tweaking the product too much, as well?

Stan:

Yeah, exactly, so it was almost like a kind of nice step up, linear offering. It was just doing it at a larger scale, but we wouldn’t, we weren’t adapting the product too much to be able to offer it, and I think that was important for us, to be able to scale the business and the product at the same time. If we were having to offer different solutions for different buyers, that would’ve been very very difficult, but actually the very basis of what we built was right, because it’s what people ultimately needed in the product, so it was quite easy to offer it between very large festivals and small local promoters and venues.

Dan:

Bandwagon almost sort of became then that part of it, which the festivals used, that was nearly a prototype for what I felt was going to be another kind of business model entirely, of taking Bandwagon into the kind of on other people’s sites application.

Stan:

Yeah, absolutely, yeah, and I think we learned a lot about the potential for how you can use widget technology, how you can use other people’s promotional platforms to grow your own distribution platform, and your own ecosystem, but its mutually beneficial by doing that. We had it where venues and festivals would be able to offer that solution as an application form and as a process on their own site, which would in turn grow the ecosystem of Bandwagon, but they were getting that under-the-hood solution, where they were managing all of their submissions, so we were building it, but it was a mutually beneficial feature for both parties, and enabled us to grow and scale the business a lot faster than we would’ve done just as a stand-alone platform, I think.

Dan:

Sure. So Headliner, when you went and started there, what features did you take across? What out of Bandwagon made it into Headliner? Was there a moment of being like, “We can trim off a load of stuff here,” or how did you go about designing what features should be in Headliner?

Stan:

I think the big difference between Bandwagon and Headliner, and the ultimate frustration, I think, with Bandwagon, was that as an opportunity platform, it worked incredibly well. I think we booked just over 14,000 gigs in three-and-a-half years.

The next stage of that, though, was to enable these artists to have a sustainable career around performance, and in order to do that, they’ve got to get paid, and with the opportunities that we were offering with Bandwagon, in traditional music venues, often that pay was pretty low. You’re lucky if you get a cup of tea and a sandwich, and as a marketplace, that’s pretty difficult to transact on those terms. With Headliner, there was a natural audience in the private event space, that were actually willing to pay for talent.

What we had was the opportunity to take what we’d learned with Bandwagon, in terms of the interaction between two parties, which we spent a lot of time refining, about how one person interacts with the other, how that deal is contracted, how it’s accepted or declined, and we learned all of that through Bandwagon.

Dan:

Yeah, and never penciled.

Stan:

Yeah, and never penciled. Then adding into that, really then, the transactional element of the marketplace, which we were unable to do with Bandwagon. That was really, it was really just an additional step. It was just taking … again, it was that, taking that idea of, “Okay, so how do you nudge people along this funnel? How do you get them to make the right choices?”

Certainly what we’d learned through Bandwagon made it a lot easier to build the first version of Headliner. That’s not to say that with Headliner there were issues with the new audience that we were bringing and this wasn’t, it wasn’t a promoter or a venue, so it wasn’t somebody that was used to dealing with musicians and talent. We had to be aware of that as well, but that basis and that understanding of how to build a product where two parties contract, negotiate, and ultimately confirm a deal, had all been taken from our learnings from Bandwagon as well.

Dan:

Did Headliner have a Facebook page-esque, from Bandwagon era, version? When you decided, “Okay, we’re going more for the corporate stuff here.” What did you put out there to test that?

Stan:

We decided that our competitors were traditionally kind of commercial agents, so we really wanted to get a feel for how a commercial agency operated. What we did was whilst we were beginning to build the architecture for the platform, Maria and I, one of the co-founders in Headliner, pretty much set up shop as a commercial agency.

Dan:

Right, nice.

Stan:

We really wanted to understand where are the pains in operating that agency. We were very lucky through our contacts, that our first client was Facebook, and we did Facebook’s Christmas and summer party, but we managed that as an agency, first and foremost. We worked out very quickly where the problems were between, as an agent sitting in the middle as a gatekeeper between the talent and the buyer of talent, where that could be dis-intermediated. Where no longer you needed that role, because there were so many steps where it could’ve been very easy for the talent just to manage that process with the talent buyer, which was, to some extent, validating exactly what we were doing. We were just learning that process by kind of being in the role, and doing that job as a commercial agent.

Dan:

That’s awesome.

Stan:

Yeah.

Dan:

That is exactly … Yeah, I love that as a way of learning. Just basically, put yourself, make yourself the technology, basically, and then try and replace yourself, try and get yourself made redundant by building something better than yourself.

Stan:

Exactly, and that’s a really fun and exciting thing to do, because every headache that you have through that process is what you’re building in the product, so you know that it’s the right thing to do. Often you see, when people are starting businesses, startups, they are generally coming out of a domain, or an industry, where they have identified a problem through their processes or their workflow. Then they’ve built a business of the back of it, and it seems like a sensible thing to do.

Dan:

Do you think that you have to have that as an entrepreneur, or can you go about tackling a domain you don’t really know?

Stan:

I think sometimes, to some extent, being naïve in the industry in which you’re operating in can be a good thing. It can work in your favor, because, if you take music for instance, there are a lot of players in that ecosystem, that I think working in the industry you could get bogged down with, and you could feel that it would never be possible, for instance, to refine or make that workflow or that deal-flow more efficient.

I started as a promoter, but I wouldn’t say that I was hugely entrenched in the music industry, and that enabled me to look at it from a different perspective, and say, “Okay, well I understand a little bit about how this operates. I have some domain knowledge, but actually I’m going to approach this from a completely different angle. I’m going to take technology and make that work for me in this industry.” If you’ve got some understanding of how it operates, I think it’s huge advantage, but at the same time, if you’re too entrenched in the industry, I think it probably would be very difficult for you to have that perspective and to build something that’s different and new and innovative, ultimately.

Dan:

Yeah, just enough, basically. Not so much that you’ve had the passion knocked out of you by entrenched processes, you’ve got to still be angry, but you also got to know your customer.

Stan:

That’s right.

Dan:

Yeah. No, that makes a lot of sense. You know, one of the reasons we’re chatting today is because recently we sat down and started looking at where Headliner might go next, in terms of its feature set. We did that via a little prototyping workshop, we did. Before that, how were you going about tracking features and testing features and those kinds of things? Was it all still coming from your knowledge of what you’d done when you’d been an agent yourself?

Stan:

We did a lot more this time, in terms of we spoke to a lot of what we saw as our future customers.

Dan:

Sure.

Stan:

So we sat with the, we would interview them for one or two hours, we would not talk at all about Headliner, the classic Mom Test.

Dan:

The Mom Test.

Stan:

The Mom Test.

Dan:

That gets mentioned every single podcast.

Stan:

Yeah, well it works.

Dan:

Yeah, yeah. It’ll be in the show notes again this week.

Stan:

It’s so true. I think it’s something that if you … I always advise people to do it in that way, because if you’re talking to a potential customer, and you talk about this solution, this amazing product that you’re building, they – if they like you, and they’re most likely to like you if they’re going to sit down and spend an hour of time with you – they’re probably likely to agree that everything that you’re building is going to be incredible.

If you don’t talk about that product, and you talk more about the issues and the problems that they have around a particular process or job, that gives you a far greater understanding of what you should be building. Sometimes within that, there are things that you have already thought about, and that’s fine. That validates that in its entirety, but also, I think at times small things come up from people that they will openly share when you’re not discussing a product that you’re going to build. That enables you to flesh out what that road map looks like over time.

We did a lot of interviews with both stakeholders, so both artists on the supply side, and then potential customers on the demand side. We looked at people, for instance, that were getting married and looking for artists, and how they were going about it. We were also speaking to people that had got married, or a corporate that had booked a band, and how had they gone about it, and what was their experience of that? What worked and what didn’t work? That’s what formulated the sort of early idea. We took some of our experience in building a product, but we listened very carefully to what people really wanted.

Dan:

Yeah, incredible. Yeah, it’s great to hear someone who’s running something talk about that. I mean, that’s we preach to people. That workshop that we ran, I mean I knew that you would’ve already seen it, but a lot of people won’t have read something like the Mom Test. Normally we just send them a copy afterwards, and be like, “Right, you’ve got your prototype now, here’s what to do.”

Stan:

Absolutely.

Dan:

Did you use sort of line-for-line the techniques out of it, or did you find that as you went along, you started adapting them to something more useful for you?

Stan:

Yeah, I think you can … again, you have to be very careful that you don’t bias that conversation. It’s very easy to do that. For us, we got a lot of use out of that. There were certainly some things that we were thinking early on that we would build into Headliner, that became quite apparent that just wouldn’t be useful for either party to use. There were surprises as well, in terms of what people ultimately wanted.

I think the thing that excited us in terms of the artist, was that they were looking for a much more managed solution, so beyond the transaction itself, they were looking for ways to be able to manage their calendar, manage that deal-flow, whether it be not just in the leads that we generated that were for them, through the marketplace, but also all of the other leads that they were getting after performing, or through phone, or email as well. That was exciting for us, I think, because we saw something that had longevity. I think marketplaces nowadays need to move beyond just the transaction, and they need to create a community, and a tool, and a service for the users on the platform. Those conversations came out of the early conversations with artists, even before we’d built product.

Dan:

Cool, and then turning that learning into an actual feature on the site, was that just a case of take it, design it … What did you do with those designs between that and pushing the live button?

Stan:

We started with a staging environment. We would build the very basis of an artist profile, so we understand what most artists, at least, would require, but really what the booker needs to be able to see. We would test those as well, in terms of their usability, so what was the UR/UX like? We continue to do that now. Every new feature that we build, we will turn to A/B tests, so we’ll look at where do different buttons set? How do we get people, for instance, to add the content that we need? How do we get people to interact between bookings? Often it’s the small iterations, rather than the large design or feature changes, that make the biggest difference.

I think once you have a very good idea of what that minimum viable product is, you don’t want to be changing it too much at an early stage. You want to be looking at how are you getting people through that process, and are people comfortable with that? What’s preventing them from doing so? Before you do that, you shouldn’t really be building any more beyond that, you should just be refining that process, which is what we did from the outset, was can we get someone to a booking, and then to pay for that talent? That was all we needed to be able to do.

I think that’s just the way that we’ve continued to develop ultimately, and we use lots of different techniques to do that. Some of it’s very quantitative, so we’re interviewing people, we’re testing, we’re filming them when they’re testing and seeing what they’re actually doing, how they’re interacting on the platform. Some of it’s very qualitative, so we’re actually looking at what those interactions are through the funnel, so we’re looking top of the funnel all the way down to CRO, and we’re measuring every step of the way. Clicks, what they’re viewing, how they’re viewing it, how they’re interacting with it, and making small changes to see whether that improves their intent through that flow, really.

Dan:

Sure. I think the prototyping that we’ve done, I think it’s trying to get in between those two stages, maybe. Sort of somewhere in between the learning, and then the risk of putting something out, because, as you’re saying, you do put something minimum out, and you tweak it, which is great for that kind of small-steering. It’s when you want to make a big leap that I think something like just creating a new prototype of it can help.

Stan:

Yes.

Dan:

I mean, did you get that off the Sprint, or was it … By Sprint I mean Prototype Sprint, of course, it’s all branded.

Stan:

Yes.

Dan:

Go check the video, guys.

Stan:

For us it was, I think we were just trying to get to that initial kind of ah-ha moment, from both sides. Really, with Headliner, it is the direct interaction with either party. Most of the time, prior to Headliner, you would be working with an agent. So actually, for an artist to be able to receive an inquiry, for us to be able to show them a prototype of, “You’ve received an inquiry, this is directly from somebody, this hasn’t been pushed by an agent, we’re not involved in that process, and you can now interact directly with them,” for them to work through that process, and give us some genuine feedback, but also for them to be able to see, “Ah, this is how the product works. This is different to how my current relationship works, in terms of taking inquiries and bookings, as a musician,” was very very different. That’s all we needed to get people to, initially, was do they understand that this is a different type of workflow to how they currently take their bookings and their inquiries. The initial prototype was just enough to show them that they could do that.

Dan:

Cool, and so what’s the next sort of short, medium term looking like for Headliner? I won’t ask long term, that’s obvious. We’re all going to be booking everything through Headliner, probably have diversified into literally TV channels and on-demand everything, but what are you guys up to next?

Stan:

We’ve got a redesign coming out at the end of this month, we’ve been working pretty hard on that. That’s just been focused on really what we’ve learned through what people need on the acquisition side. We’re at a point now where we feel like the product works quite well in terms of people being able to find the right talent and book them. We just have to push more people towards the Headliner platform for that to happen. We want just more interactions, more engagement, so we’re working really hard on that at the moment.

Dan:

Nice. Well, anyone listening to this that needs a band for their corporate event, wedding, or whatever, go back and listen to the elevator pitch at the beginning.

Stan:

Absolutely.

Dan:

Get over to Headliner, what’s the domain?

Stan:

It’s headliner.io.

Dan:

Nice, an io, very now.

Stan:

It is, yeah, very much so.

Dan:

Wicked. Can they find you on Twitter or anywhere else?

Stan:

Yep, same. Twitter, forward slash, headlinerio. Same for Facebook as well.

Dan:

Cool, and what about you personally? Is your private life separate?

Stan:

No everybody can email me, I’m stan@headliner.io as well, please feel free to feedback on the product.

Dan:

Great. We’ll stop there. It’s been brilliant. Cheers for coming in. So that’s been the Lighthouse London podcast for this fortnight, the music you had at the beginning was by Encompass Sound, if you want to get in touch with us, the tweets are @wearelighthouse, and the web address is, of course, wearelighthouse.com. Please give your feedback and do write us on anything your listening to this on, whatever your podcast flavor of choice is. Cheers!