Interview conducted by Bex Burn Callander
When it comes to creating a business in the tech industry, Michelle You proves you don’t need to be super technical or an expert.
With no background in coding or programming, but a love for music, she helped to co-found Songkick, a company that helps you find out when your favorite artists are playing live shows.
This business idea came with major obstacles, with long hours scouring the internet for live music listings and an eventual lawsuit against industry giant Ticketmaster.
This left her dealing with the undeniable symptoms of burnout and handing the business over to Warner Music.
With a backpacking trip around the world and a new lease for life, Michelle has now taken on a new venture that battles the issue of climate change and aims to create more diversity in the workplace.
Enjoy this episode and discover how Michelle is bossing the business world.
Here’s everything we cover:
The Rhythm and Rhyme Behind Songkick
Michelle, I’m so excited to chat to you, especially because you’ve smashed it with one startup, you’re in the midst of creating a new one, and you’ve also been a VC [venture capitalist].
So it feels like you’ve got this amazing tapestry of experience to share.
I think it would best if maybe we start at the beginning with Songkick.
So do you want to just cast your mind back and tell me first, how did that brilliant idea come about?
We started Songkick in 2007. I met my co-founder, Ian, in Beijing when we were studying Chinese, during a gap year. He and his best friend from university always wanted to start a business together.
Around that time, we came across Y Combinator and decided to apply to it.
Ian and I had always been really huge music fans. We loved music, we really bonded over music, and I had just moved back to New York after a few years away, and I found it really difficult to know when gigs were happening.
I was subscribed to every mailing list, scouring every website and that was when iTunes and the iPod were starting to become a thing.
I just said, “Can we make something that will look at my iTunes library and tell me when any of these bands are coming to my city?”
Because that’s the source of all the music I love, and it would make it a lot easier if I had a personalized concert listing service.
And that was really the kernel of the Songkick idea that still holds true today.
And just to get this straight. You weren’t a coder, you weren’t a programming genius at this point, you were just confident that you could find the people to make that kind of technology happen?
I wouldn’t say I was confident.
I was not a coder. I studied English and philosophy, and I was a writer. I was working at an arts magazine at the time.
So really as far away from tech as you can get.
I definitely had imposter syndrome, starting a tech company as somebody who wasn’t technical, but I figured out my own way of contributing.
I think that communicating clearly, having empathy for your users, those are all skills that I learned in the humanities that helped us build a great company.
So how did you get Songkick up and running?
So we were really lucky in that we applied to Y Combinator as a first way of getting capital.
We were accepted into one of the early batches back in 2007.
Our first investor came to demo day at YC, and that’s how we met him, Saul Klein, and that really set us off on our fundraising path.
But we then moved back to London and had to do the hard grind of figuring out how to get users, build a product that people loved, and we really learned by doing.
And you raised quite a significant amount of venture capital.
Was that all from Saul? I think it was more than $6m in the end.
Oh, no, it was far more than that.
We raised several rounds of funding from angel investors, Index and Sequoia, and we ended up merging with another business back in, I think it was 2015, and we raised funding off the back of that as well.
So I don’t remember the full amount, but well over $6m.
That’s an old number.
We ended up exiting the business to Warner Music, so it was acquired by Warner.
Which is just the most amazing sale to make, knowing that the acquirer is completely allied with the needs of that business and wants to make that live music industry thrive.
A business making money from day one
So I want to hear all about how that came about, but how did you make money in those early days, or does that not matter when the tech is just so compelling?
We did make money from day one.
So the way the product worked was it would scan your music library, whether that’s your iPhone, your Spotify, etcetera. It would find all the bands that you loved based on your listening history, and then send you a notification anytime a gig was announced for that band.
So it was very simple concert alert service—a personalized concert alert. Then we would aggregate all the ticket links across all ticket vendors.
When those concerts were announced, we would send you off to the ticket vendor to buy a ticket.
That was the first initial way we made revenue, and we would get a small affiliates fee for any ticket that was bought off of our recommendation.
Later on, we started getting into ticketing ourselves.
So at one point, we were ticketing, I think a third of the concerts that were happening in London, and we became a ticket vendor.
So we acquired inventory, sold it to our users, and we tried to create a really great ticketing experience, because I know that fans have been perennially frustrated with how to buy tickets online for their favorite bands.
This question, I think the answer is going to make my brain bleed, but how did you find out the concert date of every band that’s playing everywhere around the world?
Do you have an AI that like scours the internet for everything related to that data point?
It’s actually an incredible data challenge, and we had such a talented team of engineers that attacked this challenge.
So we would go out and scour the internet for every single live music listing across the world.
I can’t remember how many websites we were looking at every day, but it was in the hundreds.
Every venue website, back when MySpace was a thing, Ticketmaster, TicketWeb, anywhere there was a live music date, our crawlers would go out, read the information, find out when the concert was happening and pull it back into our database.
They’d then clean it up and match it with every source of information there was.
So it was a real data challenge, and we did that hourly to make sure we had the latest concert information and the most up to date, comprehensive database of gigs in the world.
Getting more women involved in investment
Tell me about your experience of fundraising because some of these venture capitalists firms that have invested in you, they are the biggest, most well-known, Index, Sequoia.
So what was your experience going to these pitches? How did you wow them?
Tell me some anecdotes about those times.
Well, I wasn’t the CEO of Songkick, so it wasn’t my primary role to fundraise.
My co-founder, Ian, was a CEO, and he was incredible at establishing those relationships, telling a great story and then rallying the team to back it up with the numbers that we achieved.
But I did go to many of the pitches as a co-founder and as chief product officer. I was there to explain the product strategy, and it was intimidating because I always felt like an outsider in the room.
I was usually the only woman in the room, and it didn’t feel like it was an accessible world to me.
I think that back then in 2007, the conversation around diversity wasn’t very sophisticated, not as sophisticated as it is today for sure. The tech industry hadn’t yet had its inward facing reckoning around its own diversity challenges.
I think that fundraising today is a completely different story, and I’m really proud that one of the things that I set out to do with Supercritical, my second company, was to make sure that I raised half from women angel investors.
Back then, I can’t remember a single investor we had that was a woman.
I might be wrong, but I can’t remember any investor during our Songkick times and that just makes no sense.
Half of our users were certainly women and if you want to change the ecosystem, you have to start somewhere.
So for Supercritical, when I fundraised, I made sure that half of the investors that I raised from where women and I worked really, really hard to make that happen.
I’d love to hear more about that, but I think it’s an important point to make that the world has changed so drastically in a relatively short space of time.
Because I remember I started writing about entrepreneurs around that time, in 2007, and we were always struggling to find women to put on the cover, and we were struggling to find any sort of diversity.
We were all women working on this magazine.
There was a team of four women, and we were quite diverse as a team, but we just couldn’t find the people that we wanted to see on the cover.
And then when we did find these amazing mythical creatures, we would end up asking them, “Well, what’s it like to be a woman in business?”
It would be this sort of obsession, which was sort of necessary, but also somewhat awful to have that be the focus of an interview.
But has the world changed that much since then?
Do you feel like the woman in business conversation is sort of done or is it still on its journey?
I don’t think it’s done until we have equal representation in every aspect of business, and we certainly don’t have that now.
So it’s definitely not done.
It’s changed dramatically. I think it is at least a point of conversation.
Back in 2007, no one was talking about it. I wasn’t even thinking of it as something to be self-aware about.
Now it’s something I’m incredibly passionate about and talk about and in recruitment, I look to have representation in our team.
Whereas we didn’t actively work on that back then. So we’ve improved, but not enough.
Twitter handle mishaps
I did notice because I was looking at your Twitter. Why is your Twitter handle wreckingball37, by the way?
That is such an embarrassing question.
I set up Twitter and I didn’t think it was going to be a thing and at that time one of my favorite songs was Wrecking Ball by …
Is it Miley Cyrus?
No, no it was before that.
It’s a guy that came out of the band, Wolf Parade, which is like a Canadian indie band.
And I just really love that song, and I’m quite critical I think and can be pretty full on and critical at times.
So I just picked it, but now I wish I changed it to my real name because it’s a little bit cringy.
I love that that’s your story because that’s exactly what I’ve done.
I’m still sparky000 on all my social media because I set it up like the early noughties, and I’ve just never changed it.
And now I’m stuck with a teenage handle, which was my first ever AOL handle when I used to do IMing when I was just a little nerd.
Old school, so I sympathize.
The mission of gender parity both at home and at work
I was looking at your Twitter, and you’ve been tweeting about some of the big issues that I think a lot of women are facing right now.
Like gender pay parity.
The fact that even the high-earning women, especially during the pandemic, are still taking on a lot more housework and childcare.
And you are attacking a lot of these issues with Supercritical, but how does that play out in your life?
Are you still doing more dishes at home?
So, I guess my entry point into these kind of issues was when our first employee at Songkick, a man, told us that his wife was pregnant, and we thought we need to have a parental leave policy.
I’d never thought about this before. I was 25 years old. I had no idea.
My instinctive reaction was, well, it should obviously be the same for a man and a woman.
They should get the same amount of leave. I then learnt about the statutory requirements where men get two weeks’ paid time off, women get six weeks’ paid time off and up to a year unpaid.
I was thinking two weeks versus a year. That makes no sense.
I just became really interested in how parental leave impacts a woman’s career and that has just carried on. I still see it as a personal passion project of mine.
I’m really lucky that I’ve got an incredibly supportive husband who tries to be as fair as possible.
We took the same amount of time off when my son was born, and we self-consciously talk about housework and childcare and try to split it as fairly as possible.
It’s a work in progress.
It’s hard to know what is fair and how you balance and estimate what fair is. But we actively work on it, and I feel really lucky that I’ve got a partner who tries his best to support me in that.
You don’t need to feel guilty for leaving a company—even if you did help found it
So why did you decide to leave Songkick?
Was it very much related to the fact that it was a much bigger entity and Warner was buying it, and it was time to do something else?
Or what was the sort of catalyst for you thinking right, my time here is done?
It was a really slow realization. I had been doing it for nine years and by the time I left, I was well past the point of burnout. I was just tired.
We had gone through the merger, we were suing Ticketmaster, which was incredibly exhausting, and we were in acquisition talk.
So it was just a lot going on.
I just found myself lacking the energy and the enthusiasm to bring to the team. I just don’t think that’s a healthy place to be.
It’s really hard to decide to leave the company that you started.
There’s a lot of conflicting emotions, a lot of feelings of disloyalty and responsibility.
I think when I decided to leave, it was easily nine months later that it should have been. But I was just burned out and tired.
I was tired of the challenge.
I was tired of thinking about the same problem. I was even tired of music.
I didn’t listen to music for six months after I left. Literally not a single song because I just didn’t want to think about music anymore.
So it got to a pretty bad place.
Burnout: The warning signs to look out for
But that’s really frightening when you feel trapped in that way, trapped by responsibility, I suppose.
And when you say you were way past burnout, is that the typical symptoms of burnout, like not sleeping, being anxious, the stuff that we read about in the press?
What were your burnout symptoms?
I was just really unhappy and detached.
I didn’t feel any positive energy about anything we were doing. I was just going through the motions, and I was very negative.
When people would come up with ideas or want to try new things, I would just slam it down and find ways that it wouldn’t work. And that’s just not a healthy place to be as a founder or anybody working really.
I think in my personal life, I was just very withdrawn, just going through the motions and not engaged, not feeling anything.
The trials and tribulations of taking on Ticketmaster
You mentioned there suing Ticketmaster, which that phrase, just sends cold chills down my spine.
Can you talk about that?
I don’t know if it’s long enough ago that you can talk openly about that experience and tell us a bit of the ins and outs of that.
Well, there’s definitely stuff that I’m not allowed to talk about, but we sued them for antitrust violations in the state of California.
Basically once we merged with the other company, we started selling tickets on behalf of artists, and we were working with amazing artists like Adele.
We ticketed her comeback tour, which was probably a career highlight.
But the better we were doing, the more we felt that they were clamping down on our business, threatening artists and telling them not to work with us.
So we sued them, and this was before the scrutiny that big tech has today. We ended up settling with them out of court, so we didn’t go all the way to court.
Although, I think my inner film nerd would’ve loved that epic David and Goliath moment, but we ended up settling with them out of court because they offered us a settlement that we couldn’t walk away from.
So it was a $130m settlement, which is massive, but as a founder, it feels like a failure because you don’t start a company to end up in a lawsuit.
No, but you stood your corner, and you didn’t just let them swallow you up.
At least, you went to battle.
Yeah, we did. But the timelines of lawsuits are years, whereas a startup works in days and months.
So that the kind of outcome is very, very slow-going.
Goodbye business, hello backpacking
So when you did leave Songkick you said that you didn’t listen to music for six months afterwards.
So what were you doing with your time after you left?
It was the best time.
My husband and I went backpacking around the world for six months straight.
I feel so lucky that I had that opportunity, and it was probably the best thing I’ve ever chosen to do. And after doing that, I’ve kind of resolved to try and do that every 10 years.
Every career break, go backpacking because it really takes you out of your normal world and your comfort zone, and it makes you evaluate what’s important to you.
You literally see the world in a way that you don’t have the chance to in normal times.
I read that you were living on something like $2 a day. Was this like an almost departure from capitalism?
Because you had obviously just come out of this company, you had money in the bank, but you wanted just to live a simple life.
Is that fair to say?
Yeah, I mean we had a very strict budget, so we had to make the money last, and we travelled to incredible, relatively cheap, countries so we were able to do that.
But when you have to downsize to a backpack, not just in terms of money, but your belongings, you really have to think about what’s important.
We tracked every dollar we spent on a spreadsheet, like literally every coffee and every food truck snack, we put into a spreadsheet.
You can really see what you’re spending money on and if it’s worth it.
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