What to Outsource and Working Remote Whatever the Circumstance
By Scott Thomas / Agency Culture, Data + Analytics, Marketing, Technology
Before the global health crisis took mass effect, I sat down with Brian Peters, Founder and CEO of Bucket List Events for the first episode in our MODcast series, conversations with industry innovators. Brian graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, but quickly pivoted to an entrepreneurial career having founded, run, and exited several companies in his more than twenty years in business.
I think his comments in particular about working remotely are most relevant to our current climate, but our discussion touched on other valuable topics from his journey to business ownership of his premier global travel company to the decision making along the way—including a stint in a Brazilian prison. Here’s part of that conversation:
Tell me a little bit about how you got started? You started a company called Red Carpet Tickets in 2004.
Primarily it was about event tickets. We had a contract with a company called ClubCorp, they owned golf and dining resorts nationwide. We had an exclusive relationship with them to provide their members with event tickets for everything in their local market: the college team, the sports teams, concerts, theater, and that was all from 2004 till about 2015. We would do anywhere from $10 to $15 million a year in revenue with 10 to 20 employees at any given time.
I sold that business in January of 2015 to a group out of Kentucky, and was on an earn-out with him for another year and a half. I went from being the owner of a company to being basically an employee. I didn’t make the decisions anymore. For a little bit, that was liberating. I didn’t have to worry about the next payroll cycle or much of anything really. But, eventually you get the itch back.
So, about a year and a half into a two year earn-out, I approached them and said, there’s this piece of the business that I always enjoyed more than the rest of it—the experience on the ground at a major event. We met clients face to face instead of shipping them a FedEx envelope with tickets. So, I approached the company that had bought Red Carpet Tickets, and said, “There’s this piece of the business that I don’t think you can do without me—and I’m leaving when my earn-out is done. But, I’d be willing to buy it back from you.”
That was the founding of my business, Bucket List Events. We incorporated that as its own business in May 2017.
When that decision was made, was the company that bought the event portion, were they really paying attention to it in your mind?
They bought Red Carpet Tickets for the ticket piece, and even more so, the relationship with ClubCorp. They turned around and sold that to another entity, they made more on that than they’d spent with me acquiring Red Carpet Tickets.
Meanwhile, we were on site for the Rio Olympics. We were on site for the next Masters. It took my team, my Red Carpet Tickets team to fulfill that. They had no experience in fulfilling a hospitality experience on the ground. We were doing the tour business, they were doing the ticket business, and they sold the ClubCorp relationship and made their money. So, it just seemed natural.
Did you know when you sold it, that ClubCorp would be the crown jewel?
Oh, absolutely. It was an exclusive contract. ClubCorp, for those who don’t know, own something like 250 Golf and dining resorts nationwide, with about 400,000 members. Average household income, I think is over $200,000. It’s an affluent audience to have exclusive access. […] A few years later, ClubCorp approached me at the next Masters and asked, “Could we please come back? We prefer the way you served the Masters.” So, Bucket List Events has the relationship with ClubCorp once again to serve our events.
I’m always interested in the importance of relationships—[especially when] the relationship survives all those gyrations and who owns what.
It’s unbelievable. But yes, it’s the relationships that matter the most. You don’t buy from a company, you buy from a person at a company.
You mentioned the Masters. I was going to ask you your favorite event, but I think I know the answer. There’s a lot of discussion on business and passion, some people say “Follow your passion. That will turn into your business.”
The irony is, in some ways, I founded this business, because I love the Masters so much. I’m in Augusta for the entire week, every week of the Masters for the last 21 years, but the business has gotten so large, I get to spend less and less time actually on the golf course because I’ve got so many clients to take care of.
I love the Masters because, more than any other event I could think of, it has done the best job of maintaining tradition. When you walked out onto the golf course there is no marketing, no billboards, no signage, no hospitality tents. It’s just you on the golf course. There are no cell phones either. You’re disconnected from technology for an entire day on the most beautiful piece of real estate in America. It’s an other worldly experience.
The fact that they’re doing that, and they protect the experience [is so different than] what you see in other events and other arenas. When they try to monetize it, it loses some luster.
The event everybody always points to is the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is the antithesis of the Masters in my opinion. You’ve got a totally corporate event. Most of the people that are at the Super Bowl, got their tickets because they were the top salesperson at their Fortune 500 company. They’re not a fan of either team. […] It’s a very sanitized, corporate—$15 beers, if you’re lucky—experience. The exact opposite of what the Masters is and tries to protect.
I think that speaks to more and more you hear a lot about people looking for authentic experiences. As something grows, how do you preserve what’s great about it?
Well, there’s a couple of ways I can answer that. One thing I would tell you is this: we only serve the events that we enjoy. We like going to Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls. It has been going on in Pamplona for hundreds of years, down the exact same street, and they do a good job of protecting their tradition. Same for Oktoberfest in Munich. It’s been going on for hundreds of years, on the same grounds, in the same tents. It’s a very similar experience today as it was 200 years ago. It’s those events we really enjoy the most.
That brings me to another topic, in your business, you operate largely remotely.
Not largely, completely.
What are the challenges, upside, downside and what your day to day is and what you’ve learned? Will you ever go back?
Well, I used to think we might go back but no longer now. I love it now. From 2004 to 2015, I believed you had to have an office to have a business. With Bucket List Events, the initial idea was we’re going to keep our overhead as low as possible. One of the guys that I knew had to work for me lived in Round Rock and one of the women we wanted to work for us lives in Munich, which made it very convenient for Oktoberfest, but she wasn’t going to commute. We had to solve for that. It has been a learning experience, I would say early on, when we were just three people, it was very easy to have a three-way conference call and everybody could just talk. As you add a fourth and then a fifth and it goes from there, it became very important for us to figure out the tools to have effective meetings and to have accountability.
Basically, we start with some good news, we review the numbers for this past week and then everybody’s got an eight-minute window to present what they’ve been working on this past week and what they’re working on for the next week. Throughout the entire meeting, we listen for issues. Anytime an issue comes up, we quickly record that issue, and when the last of the updates is done, we’ve got another 45 minutes or so to go through the issues by priority.
At the end of the meeting, we rate it and offer one suggestion that we could do better to make the next meeting even better. Ever since we switched that model, it’s been phenomenal.
Partly, you don’t have a choice—you could have an office but Munich and different time zones, hard to get in one place. There’s a lot of folks that adopt the technology but, if there isn’t a pain point that drives them to use it, a lot of times it doesn’t get used. I say that just for context because Salesforce, HubSpot there’s a lot of different tools.
I’m a huge HubSpot fan. A few years back, the old company, I started with Salesforce and was paying Salesforce prices. Somewhere along the way someone said well, HubSpot is the same thing and it’s basically free. It’s not, but the CRM portion is. On a whim, I switched HubSpot, just to see and it has been life changing.
When we are remote in a remote office, it’s important to keep track of the conversations, not just that I’ve had with a client but that someone else has had with the client. On our fulfillment side, the person who’s delivering an experience at the Masters or at the Tokyo Olympics, needs to be able to quickly pull up a document that the salesperson shared with them, what’s included in their package.
The CRM is obviously core to your business. How have you taken it to the next level?
I have, thanks to you, actually. For a long time, we used HubSpot, and everything that we did in HubSpot, we did manually. If I had a client ask me for a quote for the Masters or for the Olympics, I had a template that I had written up and I would copy and paste it and press send. On occasions where we would send out an email blast to all of ClubCorp’s members, I might end up with 1,000 requests for a quote for the Masters in one day.
Literally, that is one day’s worth of work to copy and paste and press send on an email, even though the emails already written, it takes a full day to do that. It was a very inefficient system. Now, we have the auto response feature set up in HubSpot, where if someone requests information on the Masters, they get an email back from me “personally.”
In all honesty, what you have done, what your company has done to automate HubSpot for us, I didn’t know was possible. I wouldn’t have known to go to [the metaphorical] Home Depot and buy the parts. I didn’t know it was even possible. You opened up new doors for me.
That’s great. Do you mind talking a little bit about [your] journey from engineering degree to running an event company, and maybe it wasn’t much of a journey, but I’m curious to know.
I graduated and was working for IBM, and then that transitioned into a PC manufacturing company. I was selling PCs to follow that owned a ticket company. Margins on PCs were getting smaller, but the ticket industry was looking more and more interesting because the internet was just coming about and people were trying to figure out how to buy tickets online.
There came an opportunity to create this software product to serve the ticket industry. I left the PC industry behind and co-founded a company called Real-Time Ticketing to make software for ticket brokers. I traveled around the world signing up ticket brokers to use this software product. It was an accounting program, basically. We keep track of your inventory and your receivables and payables and whatnot. It allows you to share inventory with one another. The key piece of that story is they would invite me into their office.
I got to see the 101 different ways that they run their businesses. Everybody had a different angle to the business, and I got a front row seat. The software company didn’t make it. We got beat by another player in the space, but I had this lesson from being in all these ticket brokers offices about all the different ways to run the business. In May of 2004, I started Red Carpet Tickets with that experience.
How did you make that leap? Can you talk about the dynamics, and even just the decision making to jump off the cliff and build the wings, so to speak?
Well, I started with one customer, but it was a big one. I had along the way with the software product, we had some VC backing. One of the members in the VC firm said, “What you really need to do is find somebody that can use this software product, who’s not a ticket broker.” Prove that somebody besides a ticket broker could use this software to manage tickets.
Well, about that time I joined the Hills of Lakeway Golf Club. In my first newsletter that came from my club was an offer for Spurs tickets, tickets to the Bass Concert Hall, or the Frank Erwin Center. I went down and I met the woman that was the Membership Director for the Hills Club. She literally had a desk drawer with tickets flowing out of it, and was keeping track of tickets on a little Excel ledger.
I said, “Oh, I’ve got a selection for you.” She was interested, but ultimately not the decision maker. She introduced me to the president of ClubCorp back in Dallas office. We hit it off. He was interested in the software, and he had a need for it, but didn’t really have any budget for it. He said, “Look, why don’t you just come run this for us? Why don’t you come manage tickets for ClubCorp nationwide because we’ve got a need here?”
When the writing was on the wall that we weren’t going to win that space [for software], I saw the opportunity to create a company around serving ClubCorp.
At this point, I pressed him for the Brazilian prison story I mentioned earlier, as an incredible anecdote on the lengths we go to keep businesses running and how it’s possible to work remote whatever the circumstance:
We had a big program for the Brazil World Cup in 2014, and quite a few clients, a lot of people coming and going. I rented an office space in the top floor of a hotel in Rio de Janeiro—that was our office and I had all my employees there and clients would come to me and pick up and go.
Somewhere along the way, some of the local police thought, I wonder what’s going on up there, and they raided our office. It is illegal to sell tickets for sporting events in Brazil for more than face value, that’s a fact. Mind you, all of our clients where they’re picking up tickets that they had purchased in the States a month before, where it’s entirely illegal to sell a ticket for more than face value.
Nevertheless, we got raided. With four cops asking “What’s going on in here who’s in charge?” I said, “I’m in charge, and there’s nothing illegal going on here.” I’m not the least bit worried at this point. Well, they rounded up every ticket that they could find in the office, they rounded up all the money that they could find.
Mind you, I had a lot of tickets in the office. I still had all the tickets for the finals, and the semifinals, the quarterfinals, the round of 16, the most valuable tickets. Those clients weren’t in town yet, so I’m still holding their tickets for them.
Anyway, they round up all the tickets and me, and we’re going to go down to the police station, just figure this all out. I’m thinking okay, this will be a quick bribe and I’ll be on my way home. Well, it was 15 days before I got out of there. They kept all the cash, they kept about half of the tickets. They gave me some back saying that that was all that they’d recovered.
All of our clients, in spite of the fact that all our cash was stolen by the police, half of our tickets were stolen by the police, and the three people running the event were all behind bars. In spite of all that, all of our clients had a positive experience. None of them had anything negative happen. They all got their tickets on time. They all had their transfers, their plane flights, everything worked for the clients.
Eventually, we were released, we had to hand over our passports to be released, and we weren’t allowed to leave until the trial. That meant, when it was all said and done, I spent six months in Brazil from the time I first got there to then the trial and then waiting for the judge’s verdict. By the way, we were acquitted of everything. In fact, the judge apologized to me for the experience we’d been through. I spent six months in Brazil fighting that battle.
Wow. You were in prison 15 days, but because you were out there six months, where’d you go—
They let us out pending trial and so we rented an apartment in Copacabana. I had my voice over IP phones and that was my first experience with remote office. I had two key employees with me and a full office full of people back here in Austin. We learned about video conference meetings and I just operated as if I was in the States.
There are a number of people on the ticket business who got arrested in 2014, who skipped the country and just left. I knew I needed to come back, and I didn’t want any issues coming back into the country for the Olympics. So, I came back with my head held high in 2016.
That’s an incredible story. We’re going to talk a little bit about entrepreneurship, take a little different tack. Can you talk a little about what your favorite part of being an entrepreneur and then maybe your least favorite part?
There’s a least favorite part is fairly easy. It’s a lonely place to be being an entrepreneur, there are things that come up that there’s just no one you can talk with. If you’re worried about making payroll, you can’t call in your number one employee and say, “Hey, I’m worried about making payroll this week.” You can’t necessarily talk with your wife about it because she’s worried about being evicted from or foreclosed on our home?
I think the best definition of an entrepreneur I’ve ever heard is that an entrepreneur is someone who jumps off a building and figures out how to build wings on the way down. It’s a personality type. It’s, I can’t work for someone else, I need to do this myself.
That’s the type of client we are so excited to work with. Those who are passionate about the products or services they provide, and share our love of innovation. We are able to collaborate, introduce new concepts and help them adopt them at a faster pace. If you think we might be a good fit and collaborator for your business—we’re ready.
Watch this episode of MODcast here, or listen below:
Written by Scott Thomas / Agency Culture, Data + Analytics, Marketing, Technology