Two Dragons’ Den contestants who turned down an offer on the BBC show are now making ten times what they originally bid for.
Steve Pearce and Sam Coley, both in their mid 20s, are now making millions since founding their tech product TickX, based at Tower 12 in Spinningfields, in the Northern Quarters of Manchester, Manchester Evening News reports.
Their business product, which started garnering traction once backed by the Ministry of Sound, is founded on one basic premise: that humans are social animals who love to be entertained.
Founded in 2015, the platform brings together events from 75-plus ticket sellers, including Ticketmaster, Headout and Skiddle, allowing users to compare prices and get the best deal for their night out – through the website and app.
The idea came to Pearce while he studied economics at the University of Manchester and found himself desperately sifting through flyers or scrolling websites for the best prices.
He said: “There was a lot of conflicting information from ticket vendors and promoters and that’s when I saw the opportunity.
“You look at almost every market globally and there is a billion pound aggregator, so if you are booking a flight you would use Skyscanner, hotels maybe Trivago or car rentals would be Rentalcars.com.
"We couldn’t believe that there wasn’t already a local or global firm filling that gap in the market so that’s when we decided to join forces on TickX.
"I bought a sports car instead of going to university"
The 26-year-old knew he had the business development and sales expertise but was lacking in the product and tech experience – which is where Coley excels.
Having grown up on the west coast of Scotland, 25-year-old Coley admits being obsessed with technology and business from a young age.
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“It started off with selling toys to my friends and then chewing gum at school to learning about tech and teaching myself to code.
“When I was a bit older I set up an online auction site from my bedroom to sell boats called Bid Marine.”
Calling it an ‘unbelievable learning curve’ the youngster headed off to Harvard University for work experience before setting up a software development company aged 15.
“I started building websites for local businesses and that grew into app development and big scale projects like cloud software.”
However, when his youth became a barrier to getting larger projects, the enterprising youngster took an office in the local town and employed his father.
Defying expectations he turned down a place at university to focus on the company and fondly remembers buying his first sports car as his friends settled into student life.
Starting up TickX
Interested by Pearce’s concept for a ticketing comparison site, the pair set out to build a one-stop destination to discover what events were happening, who was selling tickets and at what price.
“While Sam was building the platform on evenings and weekends I was going out and bringing on board ticket partners,” says Pearce.
Once the product was built and they started getting traction the founders knew it was time to ‘put their foot on the gas.’ “We believe that fortune favours the bold so we wanted to give it a good shot.”
This turned out to be very true as they managed to get Ministry of Sound on board after a cold call.
“It was their first ever tech investment and it was a huge stamp of validation for us having one of the biggest independent record labels in the world back TickX,” he added.
Coley chips in brightly: “It allowed us to jump that stage of credibility which a lot of small companies struggle with. People instantly took notice and the name had a massive impact.”
Now the platform pulls in 125,000 events from more than 75 ticket partners and prioritises them in order of cheapest first. Last year they sold more than £4m of tickets and are on track to grow that significantly.
In fact, they have set their sights on building it into a billion pound business here in Manchester.
Coley explains: “The opportunity there is massive. Globally it is about £160bn a year on experience spend – in the UK it’s £7bn all in.
“It’s a huge market and if we nail it then it is a massive opportunity – that’s why we are excited and why the investors are excited.”
Turning down the Dragons
Another reason people have been taking notice is their appearance on BBC hit programme Dragons’ Den where the duo audaciously turned down £75,000 investment from three dragons.
Filmed in May 2016, Pearce recalls: “We never applied to go on to the show. The researchers actually reached out to us after the Manchester Evening News featured TickX in a top start-ups list.”
His business partner says: “As we were already trying to raise investment we had the research to hand on what the problem was and how it needed fixing – so we got invited to audition and two weeks later we were pitching to the dragons.”
Comparing it to an ‘intense boxing match’ Coley also praised it as ‘an unreal experience’ – although they didn’t expect to be in the pitch for an hour and a half.
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“It was pretty surreal because we had both watched the show since we were young and then to find ourselves in the den was crazy.”
This intensified as Nick Jenkins, the founder of online greeting card retailer Moonpig.com, Touker Suleyman and entrepreneur Peter Jones made them offers.
However, the pair felt what they were asking for in equity undervalued the business.
“We made the brave, or stupid, decision to decline them,” smiles Pearce. “Actually, we realised there are other people out there who can add value to the business and once they were excited about TickX we could find the capital externally.”
This risk paid off, literally, as they ended up raising ten times more than what they had asked for in the den.
The £750,000 funding round was led by 24 Haymarket giving access to a syndicate of industry leaders and high net worth individuals.
They also got some investment from Nick Ferguson, the former chairman of BskyB, and tech innovator Stan Boland, who is devising a self driving car.
“We were a young team at the time and we just decided to surround ourselves with the best investors, backers and advisors,” remembers Pearce.
His business partner agrees emphatically. “We really want to build an A-class team so the first part of that was getting good investors on board including Tim Chambers, the former Ticketmaster executive, who probably had the best industry knowledge you could ask for.”
And this desire to pull in the right mix of investors and business leaders has paid off for the team.
“The advice for any young entrepreneur starting in businesses is just to really get out there and get meeting people,” explains Pearce.
“Also an investor isn’t always what you think an investor is – one of ours is someone I previously worked with. I think it’s important to remember that people invest in an idea and the team which will deliver it.”
A second round of funding led by venture capitalists BGF Ventures raised £3m and will help accelerate their push into Europe.
So where is TickX today?
The growth has been pretty significant from a few hundred users when they first launched in the UK to more than one million last year. And the only way is up after expanding into new territories, including Ireland and the Netherlands. Not to mention running the ticketing site for NME.
So how does it work? TickX is not a ticket selling platform – instead it "helps people discover what is happening and to go out more to live events".
I find the co-founders are genuinely passionate about this – and albout making sure people don’t get ripped off.
The model works as TickX receives a commission from the ticket partner’s booking fee, making them an additional marketing channel to help reach a wider audience and drive up ticket sales.
TickX’s audience is a very big mix, the paper reports. “We started off focusing on the student market,” says the Manchester graduate.
“Then it was young professionals with gigs before we started to see the huge potential in theatre with high order values and commission.”
Coley agrees: “Our vision has changed a lot over the last three years.
“We started off by focusing on events and now we really see the whole ‘experience market’.
“People are looking to spend less money on things and more on going out and experiencing the world. That’s why the market is exploding.
“It’s not just about the Instagram story, people don’t want disposable things any more – they want these experiences.”
TickX are looking to innovate around this, launching a cinema offering this month and also building on their tech capabilities.
They will make it easier to share events with friends and users can also now follow their favourite DJs or bands so they are alerted when tickets go on sale.
The fully automated system means that no one can add in events to the platform, making it unbiased and also scalable as they don’t need to hire hundreds of people to key in all the events.
In fact, the 25 staff they do have are much more skilled, including developers and bilingual business development managers to help them grow further abroad.
And they are hoping to grow that to 35 by the end of 2018, now they have re-located from The Hive in the Northern Quarter.
Pearce said: “We feel it is important to hire and retain the best talent so we put a huge amount of focus on having a nice place to work.”
This rings true as I’m shown around the friendly office adorned with theatre posters and pop my head in on the games room as an office dog pads after me.
“People have complete ownership of projects here,” continues the business development man.
“The reason we are attracting people from incredible companies to come to TickX is that we are giving people ownership so they feel part of something special and they can have a key part in the success of the business.”
Innovating for the future
Part of that success is innovation on the tech side led by Coley.
“We want to be leading the events and experience market so we strongly believe that the best product will win and that’s why we are taking such a tech-led approach in building the business.”
This includes interactive features like 3D seating maps where people can access the view before booking a ticket.
They have also devised a chatbot app for Facebook. Launched last year it is designed to talk back and interact like a human using artificial intelligence.
The next step is an augmented reality app where users can walk down the street in Manchester and when they hold their phone up it will show them what is happening at each venue overlaid on the street.
The experimental app, which will launch over the next three months, will also allow you to click and listen to that artist’s music.
And if any city is ready to embrace new technology around what’s on – it’s Manchester.
“We see it as a competitive advantage to be based here really,” says Pearce.
“The reason we started in Manchester was the thriving events scene – because of the nature of what we are doing.
“Also we travel a lot so we needed a great international hub with good connections to and from London.”
But it’s not just the transport links which make Manchester the right fit for TickX.
“There is also a huge pool of talent here,” points out the tech man.
To build a diverse skillset they have brought their recruitment in-house using Talentful.
“It is an exciting city and tech is really exploding here so we see those skills growing, especially for developers, which is key for us.
“Our hiring strategy is all based around technical challenges which we try to base on real world challenges – so it is usually something that we have solved ourselves in the last 18 months.
“It’s not a pass fail thing because we want to have a mix of developers and it is interesting to see how different people approach different tasks.”
It may not be the beginning of the journey for this high achieving pair but with plans to expand into eight new European countries in the next 12 months, there’s still some way to go.
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