How a booking agent put himself out of business by creating GigSalad – with Mark Steiner
POSTED ON MAY 18, 2015
Imagine you’re organizing a party and you want to have musicians play. Maybe you want to have a comedian do his act later on to liven things up and have some face painters for the kids so they’re entertained while the adults are having a good time. Where do you find all that?
Well, you go to a site called GigSalad. Mark Steiner is the founder ofGigSalad, which helps you hire live entertainment and book event services.
I wanted to find out what it’s like to build that business and, frankly, is it as easy as it seems to me from the outside? Is it easy money? We will find out today in this interview.
Mark Steiner is the Co-Founder and CEO of GigSalad which helps you hire live entertainment and book event services.
Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com and the fast-talking former New Yorker who’s got to learn to slow it down because now I’m on camera. This, of course, is home of the ambitious upstart. How is that for pacing?
So, here’s the deal. Imagine that you’re organizing a party and you want to have musicians play when people come into your party and maybe have a comedian do his act later on to liven things up and maybe have some face painters for the kids so they’re entertained while the adults are having a good time. Where do you find all that? Well, you go to a site called GigSalad.
Today’s guest is the founder of GigSalad. I wanted to find out what it’s like to build that business up and frankly, is it as easy as it seems to me from the outside? All he seems to do is need to get entertainers to list themselves on his market place and people who are organizing events to go to his site, find people to entertain and it seems like easy money. Is it easy money? We will find out today in this interview.
The interview is sponsored by TheArtofCharmPodcast.com. I’ll tell you more about why you should listen to them later on. But first, Mark, welcome.
Mark: Thank you. Thanks, Andrew. It’s a pleasure. I’m a fan of you and what you do there. So, thanks.
Mark: I wish what we did was as easy as you described.
Andrew: It always seems so easy from the outside. You sit down and you go, “Huh… this guy doesn’t have to create content like I do. He doesn’t have huge software expenses. He just has to create this site where people can find entertainers and he gets paid every time an entertainer lists himself,” and all that. We’ll find out what that’s like.
But I want to just get to know you a little bit before we go into your business and I start prying into your revenues. I remember walking through New York City and I’d constantly see these food trucks for Hollywood shows that were going on. You were the guy who was running one of those food trucks that we weren’t allowed to get close to, right?
Mark: That’s the one.
Andrew: What was your first gig?
Mark: Well, first craft service gig, which was where I found my niche was “When Harry Met Sally…”
Andrew: How did you get to work on “When Harry Met Sally…?”
Mark: I had been bopping around movie sets for about four or five years at that point. “When Harry Met Sally…” was ’89-’90 that it was shot. Up until then, I found my way from starting in the shop, the construction shop as a construction shop PA, which just happened to be a place where I stumbled in. That was not my ambition. I moved to New York to be an actor but got a lucky break working in the production side. It got me close.
Andrew: So, you wanted to be an actor and you started out by working in the construction part of the entertainment business? Okay. You said, “This is going to be my in.”
Mark: That’s right.
Andrew: Okay. And because that was your in–
Mark: It was one of those lucky breaks. I met somebody who said, “Yes, I’ll help you. Here’s where we can find a place for you.” So, production assistants in various departments, set PA, kind of placed in locations department and it was the locations department that oversaw what’s called craft service. That’s a job that feeds the cast and crew on movie sets.
So, on “When Harry Met Sally…” the craft service guy couldn’t figure out how to show up on time and have a good attitude. The locations department was grumbling and complaining and trying to figure out how to get rid of this persona and how would they replace them. I was dumb enough to raise my hand and say, “I can do that.”
It came with a little bit of a background. In high school, I took a vocational course, a two-year vocational course that was one year hotel/restaurant management and the other year hands on cooking. So, I was actually on my way to go to a culinary school before I did my senior musical and fell back in love with the performing arts as opposed to the culinary arts.
Andrew: But Mark, on your way to learn how to cook is not exactly being a cook. It sounds like you just felt, “I’ll figure this out. I’ll wing it and I’ll know how to do it.”
Mark: That’s exactly right.
Andrew: Did you know how to do it? Were you able to figure out how to do craft services and feed people?
Mark: Yeah. I had watched them serve. I knew that, “Hey, I’ve got to figure out how to have gallons and gallons of hot coffee available first thing in the morning when the teamsters pull their trucks in and crews start showing up.” I had to figure out where the suppliers were. These are often 14, 16-hour days.
So, the craft service guy has got to be the first one there by the time the first truck pulls in and the last guy there so that that guy can grab a soda or Coke on the way out. Then, you order your food for the next day and you either go pick up some or all that food that night or you have to pick up little hot bagels in the morning. So, take that long day, add another long day on top of it. The logistics of all that was the hardest part.
Andrew: Why would you go through all that? There’s no chance of being rich doing it. There’s no chance of being famous doing it. Why put yourself through all of that?
Mark: I think that was the first hint of my entrepreneurial spirit. I think it was something that I could own. It was truly contracted work. Everybody else on the movie sets, they were union jobs, IATSE and such. So, I thought not only can I do that because of my background, but there was a little bit of an insight that I had about food and serving people that didn’t seem to be what was utilized. That was presentation and fine, good quality food, those two things.
So, the first thing I did was throw a tablecloth on the table, put a vase of flowers and all of a sudden everything looked better, whereas before it was just a bare wooden eight-foot table with doughnuts and sugary food thrown on top. I said, “I’m going to do this different.” I watched crews crash in the midday after lunch because they had been jacked up sugar all day. So, I started putting out quality, more healthy food, more holistic food and it made a difference.
Andrew: I see. Even now you’re taking pride in it. I can also see why this would be the beginning of an entrepreneurial path for you. There’s one other thing I want to talk about with your past before we continue on how you evolved past it. That is I see this note here where you said, “I equated love with admiration, so I wanted to be famous.” I never hear people talk that openly about their ambition. Why did you equate love with admiration?
Mark: Sure. Well, it goes a little deeper than that. I’m adopted.
Andrew: Adopted. Okay.
Mark: I’m adopted. So, March was my birthday and it was my adoption day. It was the day I was brought home. March 10th and I was brought home. March 30th I was on my parents’ doorstep. And I knew it at as young an age as somebody could comprehend it. We celebrated those two days. There was a gift on the day I came home. There was a book we read about how special I was because I was chosen. My parents did as good a job as any parents could have done to love me and make me feel valued and make feel special. All that said, there was still a sense, with I think many adopted kids experience, there was abandonment. This wonderful event happened, as wonderful as it was. And I believe in fate and I’m a spiritual being. I believe it all had a purpose. It had worked out exactly how it was supposed to work out. There was still a bit, on the lowest side, there was curiosity. But on the greater side, a part that really formed with this is part that there was that letting go–
Andrew: Your mother adopted you and that was a thought that you might go to sleep with saying, “Why would she adopt me? What’s wrong with me that she would adopt me?” Is that what you would go through?
Mark: No, the reverse. “Why would somebody get rid of me?”
Andrew: Oh, sorry. That’s what I meant. Why would she put you put for adoption? “Why would my mother want to put me up for adoption?”
Mark: Yeah. I was a cute baby. Why would she? Now, here’s the great part of it. I did a search. I found my biological mother. I know the story. All is well.
Andrew: What’s the story? Why did she put you up for adoption?
Mark: She was just a year out of high school. The father, he was a senior in high school. It was the summer of love. It was 1965. I was born March, 1966. Here she was. She was in a position where, as a young person, her parents were just working class folks. Her youngest sibling, my uncle, was four or five years older than me. So, they’re working through it. He, the father, denied it right off the bat. So, she did what her and her parents thought was right, which was give me the opportunities which she knew she could not provide–two parents, all that.
Andrew: It’s amazing that you feel that growing up, even though it was just who you were, that you’d feel the sense of abandonment. So them why equate fame with love or admiration with it? Why does admiration and fame fill up the void?
Mark: Well, again, it’s a lot. But it was that idea that, “Okay, you can be let go.” So, I thought my parents, I thought my parents took me–and this was the naiveté of a child–but my parents walked through a baby room and said, “I’ll take that one right there,” I was cute, maybe, and then bam.
But then as I grew up and had a personality and started to have challenges with relationships and communication, whatever that is, my first girlfriends and breaking up with girlfriends and what’s wrong with me–typical childhood and then later teenage angst and such. It was that idea that I, number one, have to stay cute. I want to be attractive. I want to be loving in that way. And then personality–
Andrew: You’re saying that if someone could reject you when you were young, then they could reject you later on when there are reasons to reject you. If you could be picked for something like–what else could they pick you based on? If it was just the smile or charm, then you want everyone else to see your smile and charm and so on so that they’d pick you again in the future and not abandon you.
Really, how do you get to that self-realization where you can notice both sides of how you’re feeling and see how it’s effecting you as an adult? Most people try to tune that stuff out.
Mark: Yeah. I spent a lot of time thinking about it. So, whether it was fan magazines and such and you see rock stars and movie stars and what appears to be this absolute love–but again, it’s all surfacey. It’s the ignorance of a young person. But it’s what I had. I used to watch a lot of movies. I used to listen to music. I had my own icons. I had the rock stars that I used to look up to because of the music they could write and the lyrics they wrote that helped me get through my years. So, I adulated them. I admired them.
Andrew: So, if they were getting all this adulation, you wanted that adultaton and you said, “I should be a performer too to get that.”
Mark: That’s it.
Andrew: What about with business? With me, it was the sense of being nobody. We talked before we started recording, I grew in New York and it’s so easy to be a nobody in New York. There are people who are running around with $100 million and think that they’re nobodies because there are others who are billionaires in that same city who are pushing them aside.
To me, being in business was going to make me into someone, being like the radio guys who grew up listening to made me feel like I could be someone because everyone was listening to Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh I felt like in New York when I was growing up. So, that was the path. That’s why I went into business and now I’m recording.
Do you feel that business too is your way of getting this adulation that you craved since you were a kid, filling the hole that you felt since you were put up for adoption? Do you feel that business is filling that?
Mark: It certainly could. It’s not as important anymore.
Andrew: Why? How did it stop being important?
Mark: Well, it goes back to working in the movies and then finally meeting those people, finally meeting these icons, these people, whether it was the TV star at the time–after “When Harry Met Sally…” my next film was “She-Devil.” So, I was working with Roseanne Barr, who was the number one TV personality in that year and Meryl Streep.
It’s not to single them out at any level. But just in general, all these movies I worked on and all these people that I’ve met and came in contact with, I was feeding them. I realized that, just as you mentioned, $100 million doesn’t make a different; $1 billion doesn’t make a difference. Happiness is at the core.
What makes people happy–and I know that there’s a certain number of celebrities that are out there that pursue stardom, not to be great actors but pursued stardom for the very reasons that I chased after it. I just happened to realize at a younger age that I was not wanting to be a great actor. So, I wasn’t willing to put in the time to hone my craft and be awesome at it and it wasn’t really my passion. Once I realized that what I was chasing was empty–
Andrew: I see, and it wasn’t going to fill the hole. So, then you moved on from there to becoming–and you did this for what, for three years you were in craft services? How long?
Mark: I worked in the movie business for ten years.
Andrew: Ten years in total?
Mark: Yeah, ’84 to ’94. By the way, I want to mention that because of that craft service experience, that next film, “She-Devil,” I got a part. The director wanted to throw me a bone because she knew really what I wanted to be was an actor. She also wanted to reward the fact that I did a fantastic job in doing my craft service. So, I got this part. So, for the next year, I would bounce back and forth between running this craft service company and doing some bit part acting, day player here, lots of extra work.
Andrew: You were in “The Godfather?” No, you did craft services for “The Godfather.”
Mark: Exactly. I worked on “The Godfather,” did craft service there. It was a great experience. But when it ran its course, I knew it ran its course. I was like, “It’s not going to happen. I don’t feel as passionately about it as I want.” So, I turned the page and went to that next chapter in my life.
Andrew: And the next chapter was when a friend asked you if you wanted to be an agent?
Mark: Right. I had moved to Connecticut and started commuting back to New York to work in this small little boutique agency called Phoenix Talent Agency with my buddy, who was running it.
Andrew: Why a talent agency? What was it that appealed to you?
Mark: I needed a gig. There was a short period there where, again, my entrepreneurial spirit took off. I had designed a teddy bear that was this multiple-colored teddy bear. There was a pen pal component to it. It was to teach kids not to be racist. It was the love of all colors. It actually got me some recognition and an award or two and a trip to Russia for the Goodwill Games. But I did it all on credit cards. It was the right time, right place. I was broke. I had credit card debt. I needed a job.
Andrew: But you could have done so many things. What was it about being a talent agent that appealed to you? Basically, what we’re doing here, what we’re talking about at GigSalad is a talent agency on steroids.
Mark: That’s right.
Andrew: So, what was it about being a talent agent that drew you in? Were you good with people? Was it just that if you hustled you could make more money that appealed to you?
Mark: Well, I knew little about. I’ve always been gregarious. I’ve always been personable. I like people. But it was my mentor. It was this friend who was the one that thought I’d be good at it because of those things. He thought I’m from Jersey. I had the rat-a-tat-tat. I had hutzpah. He just thought, “This guy could get on the phone and he’s going to book stuff.” And I did. There was that.
Andrew: What was it about your phone presence that allowed you to book stuff? We’re going to talk about the early days of GigSalad, you were working the phones. So, what was it about your ability to get on the phone? I always like to learn from people who are good at that?
Mark: Yeah. Well, it was 1994. So, really, I was a late comer to the computers. Our company had no computers. It was all phone and it was fast. Interestingly–it goes back to possibly just wanting to have my name known–I was making, on average, 50 calls a day, sometimes 100 calls a day. I thought, my hope was that at the end of the day, if nothing else, even if I didn’t book anything, there was going to be 100 new people that knew Mark Steiner’s name. It was really simple. These were calls all over the country.
Andrew: I see. So, your motivation wasn’t just, “Hey, this is succeed or fail.” It’s if you don’t succeed at getting the result you want from the call, at least someone else is going to know your name.”
Mark: That’s right.
Andrew: So, this need for fame, this need for recognition was still there.
Mark: At that point it was, for sure.
Andrew: I get it. Believe me, I still have it to this day. As much as I think I’m evolved, I still have it right now. I still want everyone who’s listening to this to really love me. One of the reasons, actually, there’s a light on your face is because we told you before the interview started that you should have light facing you.
One of the reasons that I didn’t get into, “Maybe we should adjust it,” before the interview is I wanted you to have a good experience here. I thought, “Well, if I send him to do one more thing, then maybe it’s going to not work out.” We were having trouble connecting. So, there’s a sense that I still even want people on a one-on-one basis to like me and I feel like I’m really self-assured. I still have that.
Andrew: By the way, why don’t we do this? Do you want to try reducing that light and I’ll do my sponsorship message?
Mark: That would be great.
Andrew: Okay. Go for it. The sponsorship message is for my friend Jordan Harbinger, who runs an interview program. Actually, it’s a podcast that features interviews the way mine does. But Jordan doesn’t just do business interviews. He talks to authors. He talks to entertainers. He goes broader than I do here at Mixergy. So, if you like the work that I’m doing here and you want to listen to another entrepreneur do a similar but not as focused set of interviews, I urge you to check out TheArtofCharmPodcast.com.
One of the things about that is that he is a good interviewer. He brings in a wide collection of people who I think you’ll be entertained by and also get to learn from. And every time I go to that freaking iTunes store, I see that he is top ten. Today he’s like top three in the business section of iTunes for podcasts. He’s always in the top 50 if not up higher than top 10.
There’s a reason for it. He’s a hustler and he hustles both within the interviews and to get people to listen. I really admire what he’s built and I urge you to check out TheArtofCharmPodcast.com.
While Mark is getting that, I should say, boy, I’ve got to always have my notes up here when I’m doing a sponsorship message. I clearly remembered some of this, but I didn’t have it all in front of me. So, I don’t think I was on message or was as persuasive as I usually am. It really is just another reminder to do the freaking homework before the interview. For some reason, I didn’t get my list of notes on today’s guest–excuse me, not on today’s guest, on today’s sponsor.
So, we’re still getting a lot of light on you. Is there like a window that’s pointing at you?
Mark: Yeah. It’s something I correct.
Andrew: Okay, because you’re in a new location and you’re barebones you were telling me before we started.
Mark: Yeah. And I apologize.
Andrew: No. It’s okay. What I care about is frankly not so much the looks. I’m making an effort to look a little bit better. That’s why I’ve got a jacket. That’s why I’ve got lights. But to be honest with you, I never care about that. I really have to force myself to even care just a tiny bit. What I care about is that you’re as open as you were at the beginning, that you talk about that hole that you want to fill with fame, with attention, with all that, that realness is what I care about. That’s what I strive for.
Andrew: And we were getting into it. So, you were an agent. You were doing well. You wanted to make your 100 phone calls a day. Was it 100 phone calls a day that you were making?
Mark: It often was. I was very driven. I had very high goals. As many as I could get in–often it was just messages, leaving messages and hoping for phone calls back. It worked.
Andrew: So, then you had this idea for putting yourself online. It wasn’t even yet GigSalad, right? It was just, “I’m an agent. I should have a website,” and you put a website up and what happened?
Mark: Yeah. So, 2001 I decided to go on my own. I had worked for this small agency for seven years. Classic, “Hey, I don’t think I’m getting as big a piece of the pie as I could or should,” and I had bigger vision. So, I decided to go it on my own. I started Steiner Talent. I called my friend, Steve Tetrault, who was dabbling with designing websites a little bit. He had graduated from FIT with a degree in graphic design.
Andrew: So, how did the talent agency lead to the web business to GigSalad?
Mark: So, 2001, not the infancy of the internet by any means, but in my industry, it would have appeared that I was the only agent with a website out there because I put this thing up and all of a sudden, the phone started ringing. The email started coming in with local regional artists looking for opportunities. They wanted representation. They wanted gigs. They wanted to be listed on my roster. Having been that starving artist at one point, I thought, “I’m going to help these guys,” even though they weren’t within my business model.
I was mostly booking national touring acts, headliners, celebrities. They had more household names. They weren’t your local wedding bands. They weren’t the classical quartet. They weren’t balloon twisters and face painters. They were established names, $5,000 acts and higher were my threshold. That ended up being based on a ten percent commission. I had to make $500 a gig when I booked something or it wasn’t worth my time. That was just my business model.
Andrew: I see. Meanwhile, people who weren’t going to produce that kind of revenue were calling you and you thought what?
Mark: Well, the first thing I thought was, “They’re finding me,” and, “Wow, they’re finding me and they think I am somebody,” no idea that I’m working at home, in my underwear and my roster looks like I’m a hotshot because I have all these other names on there. But they’re putting in for the first time, having left the yellow pages and now they’re starting to go into search engines and looking for a talent agent, booking agent, whatever, and my site is popping up.
Andrew: How did you have such a big roster? I see at the time–what did you have? Dizzy Gillespie? Benny Goodman–you couldn’t have had those people on your roster.
Mark: Well, see, that’s who I worked for. I worked for the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Glenn Miller had been dead for five decades. There is what’s called ghost bands that are out there for all those groups. There’s some remnant of most all of those big bands and swing bands still out there, sometimes owned by a relative, a grandson or a son even.
Andrew: So, if I look at your old roster and I see that Glenn Miller is on there and I call you up to book Glenn Miller, who do I get?
Mark: Surprisingly, that’s a really unique talent and kind of unknown. They’ve been on the road every year since Glenn died.
Andrew: So, you’re saying not Glenn Miller himself that comes in, but the Glenn Miller band, which has been–obviously it’s not Glenn Miller because he was dead–but it’s the Glenn Miller band that has continued after him and that’s who I would book. It’s been different musicians who have been part of the band.
Mark: That’s right.
Andrew: I see. So, that’s the kind of person you were booking. You were also booking some speakers. Because of that, people were contacting you and saying–and I see a big contact link on the page–they were filling out that form or calling up your number and saying, “I need your help, can you book me?” And you thought, “I need to find a way to help these people.”
Mark: That’s right.
Andrew: How did you come up with this marketplace where entertainers could list themselves and people who need to hire entertainers can come and find them? Where did you come up with that idea?
Mark: Because the other part was true too. I was getting contacted by those people looking for those services. I was getting contacted by brides looking for a string quartet. I was getting contacted by a corporate event planner that was looking for a strolling violinist or a speaker. I was getting contacted by moms looking for clowns and magicians and balloon twisters and face painters.
I always tried to be helpful. It was in my nature. I wanted to say, “Well, I’m not that person, but here’s where you can go.” And then it just got to the point where I was not able to do my job. I was answering calls and facilitating these services that I wasn’t even a part of. I just went back to Steve because we had bounced around like, “Hey, we should try to do something together some day.” I was explaining to him what we going on.
When we finally honed in on this thing and settled and said, “You know, let’s figure it out,” we said, “Let’s just create a directory. Let’s just take all these names that you’re getting and who’s already in your personal Rolodex and let’s create a website that just at least as those names and maybe that’s the thing that they’ll find as opposed to your Steiner Talent website.” That was the first step.
Andrew: It was just a directory of people that you already had known?
Andrew: Okay. And I do see that there was a little bit of search on there. I can search and say, “I need acrobats in Alabama.”
Andrew: And something would come up when I hit the go button. How did you have so many search results?
Mark: Well, that’s interesting because in the beginning stages, like our first developer, the guy who actually did the first nuts and bolts back end stuff, was a rocket scientist and like me, saying I could do craft service. This guy said, “I’m start enough. I can figure out how to develop a website.” So, we had something up there.
How it worked exactly in the beginning is I’m not entirely sure except that there must not have been a lot of other content being drawn from a lot of other websites that were coming up that were even remotely close. Our beginning stages, the first people that were on the site, the first 100 or so were, again, personal contacts, people I said, “Hey, you want a listing on this thing?”
Andrew: I see. So, if I said I need an acrobat in Alabama, probably in the first year nothing would show up.
Mark: I don’t know.
Andrew: But you still had that option. I’m guessing partially it’s because of SEO, because of the way that you guys were doing some keyword stuffing which worked back then.
Mark: No doubt.
Andrew: I see. So, it’s not so much that you’ve had all these options, it’s that you were giving the search engines an understanding that this is what you were about. Okay. And there is a link on the site that says, “I’m talented. Join here.” When I click that, I can see that I could pay $3 a month. I could pay I don’t know how much or $10 a month. It was also a $350 lifetime membership. Is that what it was?
Mark: That’s it. Yeah.
Andrew: So, a talented person who wants to be listed can come to your site and pay and then get a webpage on your directory. I see. That’s the way it worked.
Mark: That was it.
Mark: That’s right.
Andrew: That’s what the $350 allowed them to do. Do you remember the first person who bought $350? That must have been exciting.
Mark: I think I do. Steven and I have gone back to this. I think it was about 50 people nibbled at that. We thought we had won the lottery, that people number one trusted us enough to think that they were going to have a lifetime with this site, that it wasn’t going to be gone next week. But there was a Marvina Boker out of Chicago, a singer. She was old enough to be my mom and she would often remind us of that. She said she was Steve and my’s surrogate mother. But she gave us her money and she trusted us and it just felt so good.
Anybody that was paying us at that point was an honor. It was like we’ve created something that people see any value in at all without any delivery. All we could say was, “We’re going to do our best to get your name out there.” I’m going on the premise that, “Hey, you were contacting me before as a talent agent looking for exposure, gigs or to be listed on my roster. Well, I’m going to give you some of that.”
Andrew: So, if we have a chicken and egg issue with marketplaces, it’s always, “I can’t get the talent unless I get the people who hire talent.” What are the people who hire talent called?
Mark: Event planners, party hosts, corporate event planners.
Andrew: So, I can’t get the planner’s post in there until I get enough entertainers. Entertainers don’t want to be in a place where people who hire them, the planners and hosts aren’t on. So, you need both. What you decided to do was focus on getting the entertainers first, knowing that then you could go after the hosts and party planners. I see.
The early version of your site said, “When ‘America’s Got Talent,’ Disney, ABC and the US government are looking to book quality talent for events, they use GigSalad.”
Mark: That is true.
Andrew: “GigSalad is used by thousands of talent buyers and agents across the country and has helped many performers like you get gigs.” How is that true? How are you able to say that?
Mark: Oh, just because it was. People found us. Those sources were finding our site in the exact same way everybody else was.
Andrew: How did you know that they were finding you?
Mark: Oh, because we would see the inquiries coming in. We could read the data. We would know. We had a phone number. So, people would call wanting to have more personal concierge approach to it.
Andrew: I see. So, the model was entertainers pay to get listed, people who are hiring entertainers can come and search for free. If they were contacting your entertainers, you could see who it was who was contacting and then you’d know, “Alright, ABC is clearly is trying to contact. Someone at the US government with a .gov email address is trying to hire.” I see. That’s what you were doing.
You also said that you were working the phones a lot at that period. What were you working the phones to do? How was making phone calls allowing you to grow the business?
Mark: Well, I’m not sure how much we were working the phones. The fact is our site has grown about as organically as any site could. We were bootstrapped from the beginning. We’re bootstrap now.
Andrew: You weren’t buying advertising to get people to come in to pay for–
Andrew: No. None of that. But I’ve got a note here that says, “2007 was the official launch, the phones were ringing and we were working on my kitchen table.”
Mark: Yeah. That’s true. The reverse was true. So, we were working the phones because the phones started ringing.
Andrew: I see. So, people would call you up because your number was on the site and say, “Is this real? What am I getting for it?” And you had to reassure them and tell them and explain.
Andrew: I see.
Mark: Yeah. We needed to answer a lot of calls and a lot of emails started coming in, more than I could facilitate, the two or three people working around my kitchen table. So, we were growing.
Andrew: Why do you think people were signing up? Was it because they thought that you really did have access to “America’s Got Talent,” or did they just need a webpage at the time that allowed them to send people–a webpage that they could send people to?
Mark: Yeah. It’s that simple.
Andrew: Sorry. We lost the connection there for a moment. Which one was it? Was it that they just needed a webpage, kind of like an online demo reel or were they looking for you to help them find gigs?
Mark: It’s always been about gigs.
Andrew: They just believed that you could get them gigs and that’s why they were willing to pay a few bucks.
Mark: Yeah. Whether it was my history, my resume, the fact that I had worked in the business for seven years or whether it is just that starving artist mentality that when you’re desperate, i.e. “I have to do this thing that I love so much. I have to perform. I have to entertain. It’s what I want to do.”
I was that guy. I was that actor in New York for that period where I would give out my picture and resume to anybody and everybody frequently. Every week, agency managers in New York got a postcard from me. Every week I was desperate. So, that same mentality of these entertainers and performers looking for that next gig was what I found myself in this amazing position to be able to possibly help facilitate.
Andrew: I do see the other side happening too. So, one of the things that I notice is if I do a site search in Google for GigSalad mentions on Craigslist.org, I come up with about 2,400 different results. I clicked on the first one. It’s a Michael Jackson impersonator who is in Florence. I guess that’s South Carolina. It’s actually a woman named Jen. Jen will perform at your party as Michael Jackson. You can call Jen directly. Or you can go to GigSalad.com/JenNjuice4MJ_Florence. And then you get your site, right? So, it seems like people do use it as their portfolio.
Mark: No doubt. We didn’t make promises. We just created what we thought people needed. What we would often say was, “Listen, you focus on your craft. You focus on what you do. We’ll do the rest to the best of our ability.” So, if you don’t already have a website and you don’t know how to maintain a website, then we have everything you need here.
Andrew: This page will do it for you. Hopefully you’ll find a better URL than Jen. I like Jen’s work here. She’s got 25 different reviews, seems like they’re all positive. But I guess Jen would have gone with GigSalad.com/MichaelJacksonImpersonator or something.
Mark: It was probably taken.
Andrew: I see.
Mark: There are a lot of Michael Jackson impersonators. It’s a crowded field out there.
Andrew: At what point did this thing make enough money that it was your full-time gig, that it got your full attention and you stopped doing the agent business?
Mark: Well, July of ’11.
Andrew: July of 2011, about four years after.
Andrew: I thought it was going to be such an easy thing. Why wasn’t it as easy as I described at the top of the interview? Where was the tough part?
Mark: Well, first off, to do really strong in SEO as we’ve done, and to come up in those searches is not easy. We have a lot of categories. We have 558 categories. That’s a lot of content to try to be relevant in. We have a lot of locations. We’re all over North America. So, for every city and then everything that we do to be really strong in that, it took time. We never cut corners. We never cheated. We never tried shortcuts.
Andrew: So, it was just, “We are going to grow through word of mouth and search engine optimization.” Those were your two marketing tactics.
Andrew: That’s it?
Mark: We did no marketing and advertising. That’s it.
Andrew: How did you know how to do SEO?
Mark: I had no idea how to do SEO.
Andrew: How did you figure it out?
Mark: Our company figured it out. Our team figured it out. In 2007-2008, we hired Locke Bircher, who was a recent graduate from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. He came and joined our team. He was our first full-time developer. He is classic eat, drink and sleep the stuff. He knew it. Steve and I never knew it.
Andrew: I see.
Mark: But it was a big display. After that official launch or him helping us to get that official launch off, we were good to go at that point. Up until 2011, I think Steve did a great job of designing websites. We always had a great look. So, that was always just attractive. People would be attracted to us for that reason. And then once they got there, it was that volume of people. Every time somebody joins our site, that’s additional content. It makes us that much more relevant.
Andrew: I see. And it’s all fully available to Google to index. How do you hire someone who can do SEO for you so well?
Mark: Again, Locke Bircher, our first full-time programmer made sure that he had developed–I’ve said this before. We’ve developed a really beautiful site inside and out.
Andrew: I see it over the years. There were times when it didn’t look good, frankly. There were times when as soon as I hit the site, there was music playing. I don’t know if it was flash or not. But it just keeps getting prettier and more intuitive and better and better and better.
Andrew: I’ve looked at all these screenshots. I’ve looked to see if you guys were fake or not and see what the reviews were. People really like it. But it just keeps improving. You didn’t start out looking the way you do now.
Andrew: The thing is, though, how do you incentive a guy like Locke to spend his nights and weekends thinking about search engine optimization and try to figure out how to make your business into a success? What’s the incentive for him?
Mark: Well, for him, in particular, there’s ownership.
Andrew: I see. So, Locke got a piece of the business.
Mark: He did. We said, “come on board.” He worked for x-amount of time, whether it was six months or something. It might have been a year. I can’t remember. But it got to a point where we just said, “I don’t think we can afford you anymore, Locke. So, if you are willing, staying on another three months or six months or something, we can pay you by way of equity.”
Andrew: And he’s still on board right now as a lead engineer.
Mark: Oh, totally.
Andrew: So, you kept him for a few months and then some.
Mark: Oh yeah. He’s been with us ever since. We’ve continued to build an amazing team. Though nobody else has gotten equity since, I’m actually looking into it now. We have some of the most devoted people in the world. Our team loves us, loves GigSalad.
Andrew: I see. What do you have, 30 people?
Mark: It’s a culture that is rich with–I’m just about done with having done a review with everybody. I gave them a questionnaire. To a person, the thing that everybody likes first and foremost is that we get to serve people, that we get to help people, that we are the platform that facilitates our members to do what they love. And to help these event planners in whatever they’re planning, it’s something special.
Andrew: How do you get more event planners on board? So, I understand that you got the entertainers on board because they were Googling around and you eventually got better at SEO. Locke was one of the reasons that you got better. I see that you started buying Google ads a little at a time. Today you guys are still buying Google ads for keywords like “booking agents for DJs” and “music booking agents.” But what about the people who hire your entertainers? How did you get them to come to the site and take it seriously?
Mark: If you build it, they will come.
Andrew: You’re saying that if you get enough entertainers on the site, then that becomes enough of a lure for people who need to book them.
Mark: Well, is there a party that you’ll be planning this year? Are you going to celebrate a birthday? Do you have a child?
Andrew: You know what I’m going to do? Before I found out about GigSalad, my answer would have just been to go to Google and type something like “hire a musician San Francisco.” And then I would just see what comes up. Oh, and GigSalad comes up number one. So, that’s the way you do it to to get people who hire your entertainers. It’s SEO.
Mark: There you have it. Wow. What a great testimonial right there, live and in person.
Andrew: Number one. It says, “Hire solo musicians in San Francisco, CA. GigSalad–we make hiring solo musicians in San Francisco a snap. Browse and book the perfect San Francisco, CA solo musicians for your wedding, corporate, etc.” So, now I click over and I see a collection of musicians. I see. So, SEO is your way for both sides.
Mark: And Andrew, that right there is why we have soft sold. We have never been a hard sell company. If an entertainer calls us or emails us, right off the bat they’ve heard about us somehow or some way. So, it’s either been they went to search out that competition to see how they’re doing. They’ve done a Google search to find an agent or something. But there we were.
At that point, the conversation is over. All we have to say–ABC, always be closing–it’s as simple as, “The results speak for themselves. You want to get work, Sir? Madam, you want work?” The search you just did is all you need know.
Andrew: I see. You don’t have to buy Google ads and do everything else and build a website to get people to come over. I see that. To get that, they pay anywhere form free for low visibility to category placement, three photos and accept deposits of up to $200 from your clients. That’s free, up to $40 a month or $300 a year.
Mark: That’s it.
Andrew: What do you do to reduce churn in membership businesses like that? Churn is really high?
Mark: Our retention is great. As long as the event planners come and are booking them, there’s no reason that somebody should leave. Because our price is so low–our introduction is a freemium business model. So, come in and test the waters. Get a taste for nothing. In most any case of anybody we have on our site, the value of their fee should be–they should be able to get a return on their fee in one booking.
Andrew: How can you keep track of that? Well, I guess I see how you keep track of it. The bookings go through you. You hold on to the deposit. You make the transfer of payment after the event. So, you get to see how much money all your acts make.
Mark: Not always. The bookings themselves–see, we’ve given a lot at GigSalad. First off, you’re not paying for leads like some of the other service companies do. You’re in direct contact with the members on our site, free or paid, you are in direct contact.
Andrew: So, I could contact Jen, the Michael Jackson impersonator?
Andrew: I see.
Mark: On the paid listings, they have a link to their website if they have one. They can list their telephone number or you can chat back and forth with email addresses. I think their email addresses are still there.
Andrew: I do see Jen’s phone number there. If I click, I do get to go to her website. Actually, I go to her Facebook page.
Mark: So, you could book Jen. We don’t require the paid members to use that second revenue stream that we have, that contracting systems, the agreement platform that we have. Some people look at it and say, “You’re crazy,” but we want to give a little bit more freedom and independence for these folks to make the choices that work best for them to get work. Now, I think this system works really well. It’s a nifty thing for the event planners. It makes that whole process really simple. It gives them a little bit more sense of security.
Andrew: What kind of revenue are you guys doing now?
Mark: You know, this past year we did $2.5 million.
Andrew: $2.5 million?
Andrew: And your net margin, is it more than 25 percent?
Andrew: Wow. This is a solid business.
Mark: And again, I’m so proud of this, Andrew. Again, bootstrap–never got VC. We have no debt. And we’ve always been profitable.
Andrew: That’s phenomenal.
Mark: We’ve always grown. We’ve always been profitable. I hang my hat on it. Now, have we gone as fast as if we had gotten some VC, maybe not. But we have a good, solid business. We work and grow within our means. We continue to grow. We’re growing still.
Andrew: We asked you about what your challenges were. I know we’re coming towards the end of the interview, but I have to talk about this. One of your challenges is that you and your cofounder are not in the same city. Steve is in what city?
Mark: Wilmington, North Carolina.
Andrew: And you’re still in… is it Connecticut?
Mark: No. I’m in Springfield, Missouri.
Andrew: You’re in Missouri now. Okay. So, how do you make that work?
Mark: It wasn’t easy. It continues to not be easy. When it was just Steve and I, that distance apart has challenges because the Wilmington office had traditionally been design and development. So, my personal struggle with it was, “Hey, I’m cofounder and hey, I’m in this company too. I’m throwing out ideas and things I want to work on, but I can’t work in collaboration with you guys in the same way. I can’t be leaning over shoulders and looking at what you’re doing. You’re not immediately asking me for feedback. It’s all happening there.” So, we’ve had some bumps of just working through those miscommunications or lack of communication.
Andrew: What do you do to deal with that? I can see feeling left out. How do you make sure that everyone feels included, especially you?
Mark: Well, now as we’ve grown, now we have departments. Some of those departments are split. They’re working through the same stuff, like, “How do you collaborate? How do we work together?” Steve and I talk every day. We start off every day talking.
Andrew: With a phone call?
Mark: Through a phone call. On my way to work, I call. I know he had just dropped off the kids. I’m on my way to work. The hour difference helps. So, it could be 7:15 my time. He’s at 8:15. He’s just dropped off the kids on the way to work. We recap yesterday, any new thoughts, wake up with any inspiration, what did you dream about kind of stuff to what’s on the agenda for today? Here’s what we’re doing.
And then throughout the day, just on a need basis, sometimes it’s just touch base and chat. He’s my best friend. That in itself is also pretty remarkable. For two friends to say, “Let’s do this business. Let’s be partners on something, and for us to still be doing it this many years later and do be successful at it, which we are, it another hallmark for us which I’m really proud of.
Andrew: Alright. You’ve come a long way. The site started in 2007. We’re eight years later. It took four years for the business to be successful enough for you to quit your full-time gig so you could focus on this. I can see how it’s just grown. I’ve obviously been looking at screenshots over the years. I’ve been looking at ad buys to see what you guys are doing. I’ve been looking at traffic, which is somewhere around $400,000, am I right, a month?
Andrew: No, that’s search traffic alone. Excuse me. That’s only search.
Mark: Yeah. I’m not listening. Go ahead.
Andrew: No, you go ahead. You have the better numbers. I’m just looking at SimilarWeb to see what they can tell me about how the business is doing.
Mark: Which did you want to know? Which number?
Andrew: About a million a month comes in in traffic, non-unique.
Mark: Yeah. Oh, non-unique? No.
Andrew: It’s unique a million?
Andrew: Wow. And I can see you guys are–I love going through SimilarWeb. When you get that pro account on their service, it’s like I’m peeking into your business. I see a lot of people use OnePageCRM.com. I think that’s what you guys use so people can login with their Facebook account or Twitter account.
Mark: That’s new.
Andrew: I see Craigslist is a good source of traffic. That’s how I figured out what was going on there. Kickstarter, for some reason, is a traffic source. My sense is that it’s because artists who have products on Kickstarter often link back to their page on your site.
Andrew: Yeah. But there’s no special magic. The only thing that I couldn’t figure out in your traffic sources is why is Evernote a traffic source for you? Evernote.com. That’s when I get too deep into the weeds with my research and I have to just back up and say, “That doesn’t really matter.” But let me do a quick site search.
Mark: The other key note–I can tell you that our membership grows by about 2,100, 2,200 a month.
Andrew: 2,100 and how many of those are paid?
Mark: Not the greater portion. But those free ones are the ones that will become paid after dipping their toe in and having a great experience within a month or two.
Andrew: And even the free ones seem to send traffic over because they become Google hits. They become people who potentially are linking to you from their Facebook pages, from what I can see, from their Craigslist posts, etc.
Andrew: And you don’t have a system that automatically will post for people on Craigslist, right? They do this themselves.
Mark: That’s right. We don’t get involved with that.
Mark: The other great number to know that on that event planner side, that number grows by closer to 44,000 to 45,000 a month.
Andrew: 44,000 to 45,000 people are coming in trying to book an event?
Mark: Yeah. So, we’ll have a million of those in our database. We started collecting those a lot later, only in the past three years or so. So, this year we will hit a million and it won’t be the end of the year, but we’ll be there soon.
Andrew: What a phenomenal business.
Mark: Thank you.
Andrew: Who’s the designer? I just love your freaking design.
Mark: Thank you. That’s Steve.
Andrew: That’s Steve?
Andrew: We’re talking about your cofounder, Steve.
Andrew: Oh my god. This guy is so good. No one can even steal him away, so it’s not like I’m giving out his name and someone can go and steal him.
Mark: Don’t you dare.
Andrew: What he’s doing is fantastic. The homepage just looks phenomenal. Each individual page, again, over the years, just keeps getting better and better. Little subtle touches, like when I mouse over the team members in the company, I get a different photo of them often in costume and then a description of who they are and what they do and something interesting about them.
Mark: And some of that stuff I would turn to our dev team as a whole. They are brilliant, brilliant people. I’m very, very fortunate to get the talent that we have in Wilmington, North Carolina and Springfield, Missouri, not the hotbed of technology.
Andrew: Well, congratulations on all the success. The website for anyone out there who wants to go check it out is GigSalad.com. I should say too that if you want more interviews like this directly sent to your phone, all you have to do is go to your favorite podcast app and just look up Mixergy or just go to Mixergy.com/Podcast. If you review it, it will help me a lot and I really will appreciate it and it will help other people find it. Even if you don’t, I hope you go in there and get these interviews directly sent to your phone.
Thank you for being a part of the Mixergy audience. Mark, thank you so much for doing this interview with me.
Mark: Thanks, Andrew.
Andrew: You bet. Bye everyone. Mixergy.com/Podcast. Bye.