We had the pleasure of meeting Rebecca Kelly, a Forbes 30 under 30 Alumni, and Co-Founder of VenueScanner. We discussed how their product is utilising data, and the process of scaling your business at speed.
Great to meet you, Rebecca. Could you give our readers an introduction to you and your background?
Of course, I’m Rebecca, Co-Founder and CEO of VenueScanner, we started VenueScanner three years ago to effectively solve the problem of finding and booking a venue online.
I had a lot of personal experience trying to find event space whilst working M&S for our team ‘away-days’, Christmas parties and meetings, and had a few startup type things in the past, my Co-Founder Benji was having similar challenges with finding a funeral venue and a kids birthday party venue at the same time as well, and we were asking ourselves “why is this so hard?”.
“Why do we always end up in the Hilton Hotel next door which becomes really boring, really expensive and is not inspiring to anyone?” Yet we are in central London with loads of amazing rooftop venues, upstairs of pubs, warehouses, galleries and we looked into it a bit more and actually there are 200,000 spaces at least across the UK which includes 30,000 churches, school halls, university buildings only 5000 were even online when we started the company – a tiny proportion.
And what that means is that because there’s a small amount of supply online, all the demand is going to that supply, the pricing is totally incorrect. So it means that people are way overpaying for those venues, purely because they don’t have easy access to the rest of the supply.
So we set out with a mission to build ‘Skyscanner for venues’ which is where the name came from. Where you can start searching and book online, any venue, anywhere in a few simple steps, so that’s where it came from.
You must have some excellent stories about how you have benefitted smaller venues and increased revenue or popularity? As arguably the venues are as much a beneficiary as the individual searching for a venue?
Yeah definitely, when we first thought about it, we thought about it from the organiser side but actually the venue side is something I am particularly passionate about – which is: how do you give a platform to people who haven’t previously haven’t had that platform to allow them to compete at the same level?
We do have really cool success stories where we have found venues that haven’t previously been used in Oxford Circus for example, that you can book for a third of the price of next door. And actually, that space is lighter, bigger, more interesting.
So we saved the customer money, but generated revenue for the venue that they would have lost to next door! There are lots of those case studies for churches and schools.
Pubs have been something that we really focused on as there have been so many pubs closing down due to changes in tax rates and the interest rates.
How does VenueScanner utilise data?
We are very data-centric as a company and as a platform. We use it in a number of ways, including driving performance on both sides of our marketplace. So for example, one of the things that creates a really great user experience for event organisers is venue hosts responding really fast to a request, which doesn’t usually happen. We built a search algorithm, that will rank and sort companies based on performance around things such as response time, book rate, response rate. We use data to help with that. We also do a lot of ratings and reviews so that we can show users how quickly a host often responds, which really helps our user experience.
We also use it to see where we have gaps in supply and demand. So we use it across the UK to monitor growth and see where customers are searching location wise, and then go and find lots of venues to build in a location we get lots of requests for. So for example, Cardiff saw a huge rise in searches recently, so we then did some marketing in Cardiff to grow our presence. We use a lot of search data from users, so if lots of people are searching for gig venues or blank canvasses, we now tag all of our venues to help with that.
Half of your team are in Poland, what is it like to manage teams in different countries?
It’s great actually, from a diversity side it’s massive for us. In light of Brexit, we talk a lot about diversity in gender, diversity in race and age, but we don’t talk about the diversity of culture very much. And so it has been so helpful in helping us grow and finding great people. The guys in Poland have a great attitude, they are very direct, which we often aren’t always here in London. This really helps us move forward.
We have multiple functions in both locations. So Poland is not only our tech function. We have marketing, sales and tech in both locations, so the whole team learns to work apart from each other. We do team away-days every year, to bring everyone together. We do most of our stuff on Slack, we ‘work from wherever inspires you’ one day a week, so everyone learns to work remotely on that day.
It is challenging creating and sustaining culture and motivation in both offices, but we are learning and developing this every day. More trust is required, but when we get that balance of freedom and performance is right, it will be amazing.
In 2013, you completed a Graduate Programme. Fast-forward to 2019 and you are now Co-Founder of a brilliant business and a Forbes 30 Under 30 alumni. What do you attribute your success to?
I always say yes to everything and stretch myself to do it well. I am very passionate about learning. I am very focused on improving, and I’m fairly impatient! When I came out of University where I studied Economics, I actually got rejected by pretty much every company I applied for. I applied for over 40 companies, and as I am severely dyslexic, I could never pass any written tests and thought I would never find a job! I actually got a First in Economics, so I was thinking “Is someone going to give me a job?” I eventually got a job working for an Investment Management company, did my first level of CFA and enjoyed the work, but being in front of companies all the time, I knew I wanted to be on the other side of the table. I very quickly made that decision that I wanted to be on the company side, so switched to the grad scheme, and during that programme, I just said yes to everything people asked me to do.
I was so excited, so enthused by the learning and developed really fast. I was doing loads of online courses, including digital marketing, and then got quite lucky. I got headhunted by the Founder of Naked Wines, when Majestic Wines bought them. And so I went in to help the Founder / CEO grow digital channels and open up new acquisition channels which were content led. VenueScanner started as an evening and weekend project and scaled fast.
The strong ‘just do it’ attitude helped me get to where I am. I’ve also learned a huge amount from the people around me, in particular, Rowan at Naked / Majestic and people I worked with at M&S Digital. I knew it was time to leave and make the jump if you like, as I just got so ill from working all the time, trying to do both jobs, I had no time to actually live. We got VenueScanner to a good stage so I made the jump!
What goals did you set when you started and where are you with them now?
We were very focused on growth. We knew for the business to be a success, for a marketplace to work, it has to be about the volume on both sides. We had to have the most supply, we had to have the best user experience.
So our first goal was to get to 10,000 venues on the platform. The second goal was – how do we get to 50,000 users a month? How do we increase the conversion rate of bookings on the website? How can we incrementally increase that? So we aimed for 30% month on month. Growing supply, growing demand, and driving the conversion rate.
Our revenue goals are certainly the most challenging, as we began focusing on content and experience. The industry is complex and there are many different event and venue types. A fully transactional marketplace is the next challenge. Our goal this year is to get to launch in Europe.
What challenges did you face upscaling so quickly?
We stayed quite small to start, for the first couple of years we didn’t go above 10 people. In fairness, we did lots of work with a small team. We’ve grown very quickly at nearer 30 heads in the past four or five months. Fast hiring comes with many of its own challenges! As a Founder, if I am hiring people who are directly related to my background then I find it quite easy. But as a Founder, I am hiring across functions that I do not know too much about. You have to quickly become an expert in everything or bringing in the right skills.
Something we did very well early on was getting the whole team to define our values. We then hired against those values as well as skills, although I do think we could have taken that further. Another thing I would suggest is to use people outside of your business, but from your network when hiring for challenging roles. We utilised a contact from M&S to hire our first tech people. We also have an awesome Board Advisor who has a tech background, he helps hire for Senior Developers.
Those who visit the VenueScanner website will find a microsite dedicated to careers at VenueScanner. It’s rare to see a company put such emphasis on hiring and EVP from such an early stage. What was the thought process with that? This approach to hiring is something we normally see from SMEs.
The driver for that depends, there is such a fine balance between managing culture and performance. The decision to focus on culture came when I was out fundraising for our last investment round. It takes a long time, a lot of energy, and we lost a lot of good people in that phase, so we needed to create an environment that would withstand in those periods when I was not there.
One of my big commitments when fundraising was to put a lot of emphasis on culture. This is a great place to work, creating a place that people want to come every day, setting inspiring principles – so I spent a lot of time getting that right.
We are in a good place with this now, and it really helps when hiring, especially when you are trying to get things done fast, you can check skills quite quickly. But having a guideline for behaviours of for example, five things has really helped us pull together and perform. One of our values is ‘make it happen today’. Because so often people say ‘I will do that tomorrow’, but that value pushes us to grow fast, as things get done.
What has been the highlight of your VenueScanner journey so far?
That is a good question! This is so hard! I think probably two stand out. In the early days, we got our big partnership with Regus, and that was very early. We got a few early like Eventbrite, and so it was that feeling of ‘we have a great brand’. They were great feelings.
In more recent times, having the team a bit bigger, working together, where we have all had one goal, and seeing the energy in the team, watching them come together is so exciting. The journey is so relentless, so having a team that carries the energy and operate without you is a great feeling.
What would you have done differently?
Make hard decisions faster. There have been maybe 10 decisions that at the time, I knew in my gut, we need to do this. It may be something you don’t want to do. Very early we had to re-do the website because we hadn’t done it correctly for SEO purposes and it took us a while to make the decision, but had we made it sooner we would have grown a lot quicker.
Similarly with investment, you always have investors messing you around, but actually setting a deadline to make a decision, and being firmer in those situations would have been a huge help.
Do you think of yourself as a ’young’ entrepreneur?
That’s an interesting question! Probably not. A lot of my Founder / CEO peer group are of similar age. You get used to interviewing and hiring people older than yourself and I believe it’s about finding the right way to adjust yourself to ensure that you’re communicating and working effectively with people of all ages. As a Founder, it’s your responsibility to hire people more experienced and better than yourself so I’m focused on finding amazing people of any age and facilitating an environment where they can do the best job and be the best version of themselves.
There are plenty of people who are 19-25 in the states, who build and sell a company before they are 25. Age is not an indicator of success but maturity probably is. We could do more to support young Founders. I am very lucky that my Co-Founder did a lot of the administrative setup when we started, dealing with HMRC forms, the technical side of setting us up – young founders would benefit from the support and more simplicity in this space. We should make it easier for people to start businesses and get off the ground.
Who inspires you?
I read a lot of books. A lot of US companies and leaders; Google, Netflix, Facebook. The Netflix culture deck is something that had a big impact on me.
You can learn more about Rebecca and VenueScanner by visiting venuescanner.com