S2E03 Starting a Multi-Million Dollar Business Without an Idea: Meet Pete Finlay, Co-Founder of Songkick

Today we’re in a rather different location. We are recording this episode from a houseboat in Central London, the home of startup entrepreneur and co-founder of Songkick and Silicon Milkroundabout, Pete Finlay (formerly known as Pete Smith).

After graduating from Cambridge in 2005, Pete went on to become the co-founder of Songkick in 2007, alongside his mate Ian Hogarth and his then-girlfriend Michelle You. If you haven’t heard of Songkick, it’s the largest concert discovery service in the world.

After suffering from burnout and leaving Songkick, Pete co-founded Silicon Milkroundabout, a free tech jobs fair for the UK’s startup community. Pete created this event in order to help fledgling entrepreneurs face the challenge of hiring the right people. At Silicon Milkroundabout, young entrepreneurs can showcase their skills and get connected to a startup.

From decision to brainstorming to idea

Pete grew up near Bedford, one of five kids, and had a pretty lovely childhood. This included a group of friends with whom he is still in contact today.

He studied Law at Cambridge, dragged his heels a bit, took a few gap years. He was still dragging his heels into his mid-20s and not doing much with his life. This all changed when, together with his friend, Ian Hogarth, Pete decided to quit his job and start a business.

The one big issue Ian and Pete had was they weren’t quite sure about what they wanted to do, but they knew they could learn from other people about how to do business, and then do their own thing when ready. They started pinging around ideas - some good, some terrible.

While Ian was stuck in Singapore until the end of the tax year, he started chatting with a guy late at night. This guy was going on and on about music and how great the industry was. Suddenly Ian and Pete realized they wanted to do something with music, since they were both musicophiles.

Next up they created a massive spreadsheet of all the existing and startup ideas in the music scene: what these companies were trying to tackle, who their users were, what their revenue model was. This was a very process-driven period of idea creation that eventually zeroed in on live, as a growing sector that had not yet been disrupted, but actually strengthened by the revenue reduction of recorded music. The rise of iPods, mp3s made recorded music extremely accessible.

Getting tickets in the hands of fans, not touts

So what is Songkick? It’s basically 100.000 concerts in your pocket. Wherever you are in the world, Songkick knows your music taste and it will tell you what concerts you’re going to be interested in.

Neither of them knew anything really about the live music industry, and luckily for them, nor did a lot of their tech investors at the time. They started by joining the Y Combinator. The flew over to Silicon Valley for an interview, and, as Pete says, they must have come across as very intense young men, because the investors trusted that they knew music.

A lot of the early investors and angels that they brought on were tech-focused, and at the time everyone felt that the tech way was definitely going to disrupt live music.

They pitched Songkick as a solution to actually getting tickets in the hands of fans, and making touts’ lives hard.

Ticketmaster, Viagogo, StubHub, they are all fronts for the shenanigans of the bands and of their promoters. Most of them focus on scraping for margins. Fortunately, there is a very simple solution to touts, one that they also use at Songkick. You issue digital tickets and offer 100% refund if you can’t make it to the concert. If the concert is in demand, you can sell the ticket to the next person in the queue.

So why don’t bands use these solutions? Well, because they make more money if they don’t. And it’s not just the bands. It’s everyone else too: the venues, the promoters, the ticket vendors.

Burnout and a new adventure

After getting funded, they started working flat out, six days per week. They launched within six months and then launched another big version of the site within another six months.

They focused their efforts on growth, and on building up relationships with music blogs. The bloggers would embed their widgets on their sites, and they would gain more and more visibility.

By the time Pete left Songkick, they had raised about $20 million. Songkick continued to raise probably another $15 million, and then they merged with CrowdSurge. CrowdSurge themselves had raised something like $20-30 million.

Pete decided to leave Songkick simply because he ran himself into the ground and burnt out. One of the reasons they succeeded in the early days, despite being first-time founders, was that they just used up everything they had. They made substantial progress as a startup, but it ragged them as founders.

After he left Songkick, Pete co-founded Silicon Milkroundabout, a jobs fair they set up so that developers can meet startups in London.

What Pete didn’t get when he was a first-time founder was that you basically have to reinvent yourself every six months. You have to be constantly learning what your job is supposed to be. Pete thought that if he could just be himself and work super hard, everything will turn out great. Instead, he was burned out and couldn’t do a good job. His advice for first-time founders: skill up, make changes in your life and remember that you need to change who you are.

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