How you change from seed to unicorn with Renaud Visage8 min read

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Renaud Visage, Co-Founder of Eventbrite and Partner at Index Ventures, stepped on the CTO Track stage for one of the final chats of SaaStock 2017. It was a “last but not least” kind of talk, taking the audience through Eventbrite’s story packed full of insight. Renauld was the product architect, the first engineer, the CTO, and a co-founder and has seen the company grow from 0 to $4B.

In a fireside chat with Rodrigo Martinez, Partner at Point Nine Capital, he laid out lessons he learned from each of those roles, sharing how each overlapped and conflicted as the engineering organization grew.

What was your path as a founder?
When I came out of school, I wanted to build “real” things. I studied civil engineering. In 1996, I got a job as an environmental consultant in San Francisco. That’s exactly when the web took off. I read books, followed the developments, and started implementing it in my job as an environmental consultant. I got hooked on the power of this new medium to create an entirely new experience just with a few lines of code.

I switched to computer and software engineering and joined Zing Networks right before the dot-com bubble burst. The staff went down, then up, and then back down again. By the end of the year, I ended up as director of engineering!

In 2005, I met my two co-founders and became the CTO of Eventbrite.

What attracted you to the opportunity at Eventbrite?
Kevin’s track record of entrepreneurship. He had invested in PayPal and was interested in building businesses on top of it. At the time, PayPal had a huge advantage of experiencing low friction when it came to sending money to someone. We could apply that to events and tickets.

It appealed to me because the product was simple and it could be applied to a tremendous amount of people who didn’t have the technology at the time. There was a big market. We could apply the right tech and sales service platform with instant payments directly to your bank. That was appealing!

Did you raise any seed money? What was the early stage like?
We bootstrapped it with $250K from my co-founder, for two years. It was very streamlined. They were in California, and I was in France. They did product design during the day; I coded during the night. We had a constant iteration loop that moved fast. We started getting traction in SF with tech events. That was our natural playground. Two years later, we were in 150 countries. We were the only product in our space, a category leader. When you’re in that fortunate position, you end up in a range of places you never imagined you would have.

When did you start hiring a team?
Within six months. Our first hire was a brand new engineer just out of college. My co-founder had met him and liked him. But he didn’t stay long because I was teaching him more than he was contributing. After two years, we still only had three engineers. We stayed small for a long time.

When did you see that Eventbrite was going to be big?
After we raised our series A, we felt like, “Yes, we are onto something.” This was at the end of the crisis in 2009. We needed the money in ‘08 when VCs weren’t investing, so thankfully we were able to raise from friends and family. We still grew nicely. We were only 30 people at the time. Traction was good and so were our numbers. Our word-of-mouth was strong. We started payment processing, so we could see people were willing to pay for our service. And ultimately all of this was compelling to Sequoia, who invested with us in 2009.

How did the engineering organization evolve, from your first hires to hiring a VP of Engineering? When did you split the team? When did you expand to new offices?
I think many startups focus on finding a jack of all trades. That was me. I’m a specialist in nothing but understand everything. In 2009, we had a few people who were generalists and could do anything from frontend to backend. After series A, we got more specialized. At this point, we could solve architectural problems, go back and fix code from when we were young and built faster.

We kept the team in SF for a while, because at the early stage, there’s a need to have everyone in the same room. We stayed that way until 2011 and then we hired a VP of Engineering. We had 15 engineers, and I was managing them from France. We had a lot of technical problems related to growth. As a CTO, I needed to focus on bringing innovation to the product, whereas the VP could handle the organization of the team. It was the right move.

We expanded geographically when we acquired a company in South America, which happened four years ago. The cost is lower there, yet the quality of talent is on par. It made sense as a new development center. Now we have our customer support in Nashville. Eight months ago we had 150 engineers, but we just purchased 2 companies so now we have over 200 engineers.

What was your experience during that growth?
Learning is very gradual. You are going to school all the while you’re building a company. You have to stay focused on the most important thing you can contribute to. I try to find the toughest problem and do it myself or build a team around me to help. I took on the task of making us international, working on localization in different places. I had projects where I probably stayed too long doing the heavy lifting. One thing you don’t do well, in the beginning, is the strategy. But as you grow, you need a strategy to follow so that your work is concise and effective.

These are things we probably should have done sooner, even at the expense of moving faster. Every time we expanded the team, I had to adapt to my new place in the company. As a founder, your role is always about inspiring the people and making sure they understand why you started this thing, and to make them a part of it. To show them, “We are building this company together.” As a CTO, your role is about technology trends, hiring, and how to work with product and other departments.

You mentioned the issue of letting go of projects or tasks too late. Any lessons learned on that? What would you do differently today? Anything you should never let go?
I’ve learned a lot about how to build software correctly. I grew up with ASP and scripting languages. Four key lessons that stand out are:

1. Invest in setting up the architecture properly. Nowadays I realize the importance of testing, however, we didn’t have tests for several years. We had to catch up on many things that wasted a lot of effort. We probably would have been able to move faster had I set it up right from the beginning.

2. Hire the right people from the get-go. Don’t settle for what you can afford.

3. Celebrate each new milestone. We hit $100M in ticket sales in 2009. Then we hit $1B, and this year we’ll hit $4B. Each time, the stakes are higher, but so is the reward. As long as you’re creating value for customers and stakeholders, you realize the possibilities are really large. Now we are talking about unicorn level. We’re going upstream, building new verticals, developing new products. We’re entering areas we haven’t even touched yet. We could definitely be a $10B business.

4. Build a lasting, self-sustaining company. Eventbrite wasn’t profitable until this year. Reaching profitability gave us peace of mind. We are in control of our destiny: we don’t have to go public, we can take financing if we so decide. It’s empowering at this stage. When these 200 people joined the company last week, it gave us a new lease on life. They filled the building with a new energy, and we have a new structure. It’s really exciting to me.

How do you deal with not knowing the answer?
Get the right people in the room to think through the problem. Attack it together. You have to trust the experience and the talent you bring on board. It will help guide everyone to a positive outcome. As a team we always wonder: do we have the right structure, do we have the right goals? We review this together every six months.

What’s been your North Star?
The problem we are solving. For us, that is “How do we solve ticketing and make it available to everyone?” This still is 99% of revenue. However, we have lately realized there’s a lot of potential outside of that. For example, the entire event experience and event lifecycle could be disrupted. At 11 years old, the Eventbrite product has a lot of tech debt. It’s very easy to focus on short-term revenue growth and forget about long-term product roadmap. It’s crucial to keep in mind the problem you are trying to solve.

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