The inside story of a Broadway pivot
BY ELIZABETH DURAND STREISAND
As the CEO of a ticketing startup, I planned for many potential obstacles. A global pandemic that caused Broadway to evaporate overnight wasn’t one of them. Prior to the shutdown on March 12, Broadway Roulette – which pairs users with surprise Broadway shows for a fair, flat price (think: Priceline for theater) – had been growing 50% year-over-year. We had amazing traction with our new premium roulette option and with our new feature allowing customers to add a dinner booking to their reservation. We had recently added two team members and were weeks away from filming an hour-long TV special about the company.
"I spent my time in the abandoned space pumping breast milk (I had a newborn at home at the time) and crying. At that point, we thought Broadway would be back in mid-April."
When the shutdown was first announced, I was with my team at our Times Square office. After our initial flurry of customer outreach, we gathered our things and went home. While everyone else worked remotely, I went back the next day, and the next, heading to work like I usually did. I spent my time in the abandoned space pumping breast milk (I had a newborn at home at the time) and crying. At that point, we thought Broadway would be back in mid-April.
My Chief of Staff and I looked at the balance sheet and decided we could weather the 30-day hiatus from any revenue without letting any team members go. Instead, we slashed our overheads by halting all advertising and worked on getting more cash in the bank. My cofounder (who happens to be my husband) and I feverishly applied to every grant and loan program the government was offering. We applied to one so early that we had to reapply because they revised the application after deciding the original, which we had muscled through, was too complicated. We applied to so many that we forgot about one of them completely and were surprised when the money hit our bank account months later.
"My husband and I packed our three-year-old son, our seven-month-old daughter, and our 13-year-old maltipoo into his sister’s spare minivan and drove six hours to Virginia. We argued most of the way."
For the first 30 days, my focus was on tackling big tech initiatives that we never got around to when we had to work like crazy just to keep up with our growth. We built a more sophisticated algorithm. We prepped a membership program. We grew our email list. Then the shutdown was extended to June 6, but it was clear that this was a placeholder for a date much further down the road. When I got home from the office that day, my son was playing a new game he had “invented” which involved crawling onto the dining room table and launching himself over the piano to land on the sofa. It was time to leave the city.
My husband and I packed our three-year-old son, our seven-month-old daughter, and our 13-year-old maltipoo into his sister’s spare minivan and drove six hours to Virginia. We argued most of the way. He wanted to shift focus from strengthening Broadway Roulette for Broadway’s return to creating a new business model that didn’t rely on Broadway being open. I sighed and said: “It’s called Broadway Roulette,” at least 100 times during that drive. I was furious because I knew he was right. And I was already brainstorming ideas for how to pivot.
The thing about being an entrepreneur is that you can’t just turn it off. You’re an entrepreneur whether everything is going gangbusters or whether the entire world is closed. I bounced ideas off my team members, and we zeroed in on a few things that could be done over video chat that we felt confident we could do better than anyone else. Those things were: talking, drinking, and crafting – and Broadway Roulette Mixer was born.
The concept is simple: users pay a flat fee to join a specific time slot for a mixer. Each mixer is 45 minutes long and lets users meet three surprise Broadway guests for 15 minutes each. There are behind-the-scenes stories, opportunities for Q&A, and exclusive performances. The vibe is more Reddit’s Ask Me Anything than a Times Talk, and while cocktails are not required, they are welcomed. We don’t script anything out in advance, and instead let the conversation flow naturally. When there are only a few minutes left with a guest, we flash a homemade sign covered in glitter to let users know time is running out. If it sounds a little fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, that’s because it is – but that’s what makes the mixers fun.
We moved from brainstorm to beta test to first ticket sale over our checkout page in six weeks. Moving quickly made it pretty much impossible for us to second-guess ourselves. We were too busy chasing Broadway artists, strategizing how to get the word out, and learning how to mute people on Zoom. We’re now entering the next phase of development, figuring out how to scale the new platform and how to align it with our standard ticketing site when Broadway returns … which it will … at some point.
Broadway being dark still drags me down. At times, I still mourn the loss of what would have been a banner year for Broadway Roulette. But more often, I’m enthusiastic, energized by the excitement of building something from scratch. Again.
People say: “It gets better,” but I’m not sure that’s true. One of my personal heroes had a different take, which seems more accurate to me: “It doesn’t get better,” Joan Rivers said. “You do.” COVID-19 forced many of us to close our doors and caused a $2 billion industry to evaporate in an afternoon. But it also gave us a license to try crazy new ventures without fear of failure – because when you’re at zero, there’s nothing to lose.