For Episode 82 of Amplify Your Business, we’re joined by Derek Manns—Co-Founder and CEO of Stagehand. His app, started by him and his partner, simplifies the event booking process for local artists. From corners of cafés to bustling airport terminals, cold calls to curtain calls, Derek walks us through the highs and lows of launching a live event-driven platform during the pandemic years that threatened the future of public gathering spaces.
(1:03) Tell me a little bit about the business—when you started and what you do?
We’re a software platform that makes it easy for businesses to work with local artists. Particularly, we’re focused on activating public spaces. My wife and I are both engineers, and all three of our daughters are talented performing artists. It was through the experiences of my girls as they grew up that I was exposed to the amount of local talent out there.
It seemed a shame to me that there weren’t as many opportunities as there should have been for these artists to connect and grow. Most of these folks had second or third jobs just to make ends meet as artists
The problem rattled around in my head for twenty-five years as I worked in technology sales and business. The last company I was with was bought out in 2015. In 2016, I left and founded Stagehand. The rest is history.
(3:37) I know there is an app to the business model, or was it later evolved into one?
The initial vision was like Airbnb for the arts. We saw that there were all these interesting venues for performers, but the owners are often restauranteurs. They have a passion for music, but couldn’t connect real estate with the artistic talent during slow hours.
We started building a platform for business owners like this that would make it easier for them to schedule and manage performances. The app was always in the plan—something to make it easy for businesses and artists to work together.
(5:12) How does this business model work from your end?
Anyone who works in the arts understands that business models in the arts are difficult, especially at the grassroots level—there simply isn’t much money. So that was one of the first lessons that we learned.
The biggest challenge when working with small venues like cafés or microbreweries is that you tend to be working with the owner. Those folks typically don’t have a large budget. As an app, you either need to scale fast or charge a reasonable fee—something that always poses a problem with small venues.
In 2018, I listened to an interview with the Calgary International Airport. Of course, they’re not talent bookers—they’re an airport. They ran into the same problems as small café owners in efficiency and talent acquisition. After a few meetings, we helped them launch a music program, even iterating our tech for their needs uniquely. From virtually nothing, they went to 1800 live performances in the terminals with local artists. The people loved it. It changed the airport feeling entirely.
That’s when we saw that corporate businesses needed this service as much as small businesses—anyone with a large space. Even malls undergo vitalization projects. There is a challenge in reactivating public spaces, and that’s where we can help—bringing in culture and feel.
(9:27) Where does your revenue come from?
Revenue comes from the venues. It is free for artists to sign up. It is essentially a SaaS model for venues that want to use the service.
It’s a staggered fee—the airport with 1800 boo
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(10:20) How would you describe the pandemic’s effect on your business?
Things were really just starting to ramp up for us in early 2019. With a few successful airport event launches, we had found a scalable niche. All of a sudden, the pandemic hit, and air traffic dropped 95% in just a couple of weeks. The mood changed from bustling to financial survival almost overnight.
To iterate on these changes, we worked to secure live streaming features. At the same time, we worked to maintain our relevance and develop new relationships with governments, venues, and artists. The pandemic was an exercise in innovating, continuing to develop the software, and looking forwards to reactivation plans.
Downtown occupancy is down to 10% in Los Angeles. With work from home, commercial real estate properties are starting to think about the experience of downtown spaces. The pandemic may have systematically changed our relationship with spaces—how will property owners keep up and bring people back?
(13:12) If we can activate culture, we can attract people. Through your app, you can activate downtowns easily—seven days a week if you want! That’s exciting.
For those who may not be familiar with how it works, the artists who are “making it” would be the 2%. That’s not our target demographic—we’re trying to help the 98% who are talented but having trouble finding venues or contracts. These artists are a huge untapped resource in every community.
(16:12) Your business, like some, is challenged by creating demand and supply at the same time. You need a catalogue of artists, but to get artists, you need venue demand. Walk me through the challenges of building the app from both sides at once.
What we have discovered is that artists are the easy part—that side of the market is simple. The challenge is bringing the venues on. To demonstrate our value, we’ve started working with the City of Los Angeles to revitalize “pocket parks,” and we hadn’t worked with anyone at that time. As a result, we had virtually zero artists in the city.
They promoted on their end, and we worked on Facebook to promote our platform with local music groups. Suddenly, applications came flooding in. So yes, there is a perception that without artists, there is no value. However, if we can find venues, there is no shortage of places where we can communicate with artist communities to bring artists on.
(18:44) How is it that you are attracting these venues to the platform?
Oftentimes, we’ve started with industry associations like those related to airports, hotels, or downtown associations. They often hold customer experience conferences, which present a great opportunity for networking.
Usually, we look for those sorts of organizations—pushing our message through their networks.
(20:40) If you were able to turn back time and do something different with what you know now?
There are a lot of little things—small mistakes in product developments, features that no one needed, wasted development time… But I’m not sure if there were any big mistakes. You might think it’s a mistake to have started small before transitioning to corporate accounts, but I don’t think so. We cut our teeth with those small teams and learned a lot.
I’m always looking for ways to move faster. Obviously, the pandemic has been a barrier there—so that’s been a challenge.
As an entrepreneur, there is so much opportunity for support. One of the things you need to learn is to balance being “coachable” and trusting your own intuition. You might look at a successful businessperson and take their advice, be it good or bad. You have to decide for yourself in the end. You have to balance listening and your own experience.
Trust yourself. Drive forward, despite any insecurity or imposter syndrome.
(24:43) That’s great advice. You have domain expertise—even though others have been there in the business before, they likely aren’t an expert like you are. Rely on your gut. Any other lessons you’d like to share with the audience?
I mentioned the fact that I’m an engineer, even if I’m not a “real” one. My partner is the architect of the code, whereas I worked on the minimum viable product—in the end, the product was looking at being in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in development cost.
If I had millions of dollars in backing, the challenge of bringing such an ambitious product to market would have been lost. We had to start small and allow our customers to direct our efforts based on necessity alone. So, my advice would be this—take your MVP and cut it in half. You could probably cut it in half again. Even then, you’ve probably still planned too much. Whatever you think you need to build, find ways to cut it back massively.
You will quickly discover what is valuable and what isn’t. Allow demand to shape the valuable processes forward. You can always do a lot more than you think with less if you get a little creative.
(28:33) That’s a great point—start small and find out which features are actually used. It reminds me of a pre-selling tactic where you can start selling an unfinished product to determine interest. Build a landing page, sell ads, and start promoting. When folks go to buy, alert them that the product isn’t finished yet and that you’ll reach out at a later date. Even if you lose sales this way, you’re determining demand. It’s all about testing.
Are you an artist looking to connect with new performance spaces? Or a venue looking to bring local flair and value to your visitors? Contact Derek directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, online at stagehand.app, or at @stagehandlive on social media.
Thank you Derek for joining us, and thank you for watching!
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