“From Avocation To Vocation: How I Turned My Hobby Into A Career” With Riley Ramone & Rebecca Breen

There’s no such thing as an overnight success — A lot of people assume you’ve come out of nowhere, and while some companies do appear to simply set up shop and make millions, that’s with a lot of money behind them to start off with. We had a year’s worth of late nights and weekends to get […]

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There’s no such thing as an overnight success — A lot of people assume you’ve come out of nowhere, and while some companies do appear to simply set up shop and make millions, that’s with a lot of money behind them to start off with. We had a year’s worth of late nights and weekends to get to a prototype (around a full time job), and a few more years of finding our first few customers before we had a product both we and our clients could stand behind.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Riley Ramone and Rebecca Breen (Becs). Riley and Becs founded ticketlab.co.uk together and have been running the site for seven years now. Riley is a web developer with a background in design, working on projects for companies such as Nando’s, London Dungeons and HSBC. Becs has been working in digital supporter engagement for charities including British Red Cross and Parkinson’s UK. They live together in Walthamstow, East London and are due to get married next year.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Riley: I’ve always been around computers and hacking together bits of code to make something new. My family had a PC in the late 80’s and I’d grab bits of open source games, add music, title graphics and edit the levels to package up a new game. I got into web development with a job at Friends Reunited, (which was the UK’s first social network) shortly after they’d been bought out by ITV and have been making websites ever since.

Becs and I met when we were both working at an advertising agency and bonded over our love of music and introduced me to Get it Loud in Libraries.

Becs: I’ve always been really into music. From back when I was very young, listening to my parents’ records to when I discovered a love of new and alternative music, and more specifically indie rock and roll, in my teenage years. I went to Lancaster University to study Geography in the mid-noughties. I wrote my dissertation on the Geography of sounds in Liverpool. And whilst at Uni I started trying to find live music in the town, I quickly discovered that loads of upcoming bands and artists were playing at the Library. Nobody had heard about these gigs at the University so I popped in and asked how I could help with promoting them. I started volunteering that day and have been helping where and when I can ever since.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

Riley: Becs told me about the library gigs, which I thought sounded really cool and I said that they should definitely get a website live so people can find the gigs more easily. I designed and built an early version of their website at getitloudinlibraries.com and we’d upload the gigs as they were announced and share them to social media. Stewart, who runs the programme and books the bands is always really busy, so after a time, he asked us to start uploading the gigs to the two ticketing providers we used at the time. The process was slow, none of the ticketing sites at the time were mobile-optimised, the booking fees they were charging our customers were ridiculously high and even included a “print at home” charge, which I know some sites still charge today.

Becs: I think we were in the pub one day, chatting about what a pain it was to keep uploading these gigs and I asked how hard it would be to just build our own system that was easy to use and didn’t completely rip people off. We sketched out what our USPs would be on the back of a couple of pub menus and Riley agreed to start working on it.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

Riley: I have a history of agreeing to build projects without needing much proof there’s a need, but when Becs said “Let’s do this!” we knew we already had at least one customer in Get it Loud in Libraries. And that was a good enough reason to get started.

Becs: We also knew that if the service was cheap and simple enough, then it was sure to find it’s way into the hands of other event organisers… but actually, even if no one else used it but us, then we’d have a system that made our lives easier and the people going to gigs at the Library would be happy they were paying less in fees.

Riley: Once we had the idea it was a year until I could get it live around my full time job. It was really satisfying to see the first sales to library gigs go through, but even then it wasn’t a proper business until we moved from Camden up to Walthamstow in East London a few years later and I was able to start introducing it to the local community.

Becs: Yeah, everyone seems to know Riley in Walthamstow now, it’s hard to go out for a quiet coffee without Riley getting into a conversation with someone he knows!

Riley: Well, yes — but that’s what people actually love about Ticketlab, that it’s run by real people and not just a big faceless tech company, and that’s the main reason people come back and keep using us too.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

Riley: Just to not give up. If you believe in an idea and have proven (if only to yourself) that it can work, then just keep at it.

Becs: But also to make sure that you have at least one customer in mind — someone who says “yes, I’ll use your product” (get it in writing if you can!). And then when you launch you can test it with them and know you’ll have a customer straight away.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

Riley: For me it’s really just the variety of events we keep getting and the evolving challenges that come with that. We got into this because we love going to gigs, but we have all kinds of events on the platform now, and they’re invariably by people who just want to share what they love with a bigger audience, whether that’s music, craft, football, cinema, comedy — whatever.

Becs: We also live together, so we have to take time out from Ticketlab and make sure it doesn’t completely take over our lives. Unlike Riley, I don’t work on Ticketlab full time, but we make sure we have meetings outside the flat so we’re not always talking shop at home.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

Becs: It’s great to be self-reliant — to know that we can make money from our own skills and not worry too much about the whims of a big company. It’s also great that we can set our own rules for the kind of company we want be and try and set an example for an industry that’s seen a lot of shady moves by bigger companies.

Riley: On the downside, you have to be ready to deal with issues at any time. If the server goes down, or there’s a bug and you’re on holiday, then the sightseeing has to wait until a solution can be found.

Becs: Somehow, something always seems to come up just as we’re about to get on a plane…

Riley: …and then it’s a race to get a fix or response in before having to go offline while in the air.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Riley: I really didn’t anticipate how much customer support there’d be. People really want and need help setting up events a lot of the time, and so many other services just fail them on this front. I think a lot of tech solutions are built by techie people who don’t want or need to talk to another human to solve their problems, so overlook that side of things. Truth be, I’m that kind of person too, but I’ve learned that even though we’re in the Internet era, a lot of people aren’t confident online, and you shouldn’t expect someone to be a tech expert in order to set up a bake sale at the village hall.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

Becs: We’ve definitely had a few conversations like that. Overall, the benefits have always outweighed the drawbacks. Yes, it can be hard work making sure everything works and keeping up with very specific ticketing requirements, but on the other hand a lot of the event organisers who use us really love the system, and if we stopped, then we know a lot of people who’d have to either go back to doing tickets manually and dealing with all that hassle of chasing funds and keeping scraps of paper up to date, or worse using another system they don’t like and paying more.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Becs: We once helped run a Get it Loud in Libraries (GILIL) stage at Kendal Calling festival — that was definitely a perk of the job. This was in our second year of business, and Stewart from GILIL managed to snag Alt-J to play our stage just before they released their first album. The tent was decorated with books, LPs and sofas. It was a really fun weekend.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Riley: I can’t think of any funny mistakes. On the web side, any mistake tends to mean something breaks, which doesn’t often make me chuckle. Our early branding had little cartoon versions of us lurking in the corners of the site, which was very twee and a bit embarrassing to look back on now.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

Riley: A lot of our clients are entrepreneurs in their own right, as well as small business owners, volunteers and artists. A lot of these event organisers are running their events as an aside to their main business or otherwise hectic lives, so we certainly don’t have a shortage of inspiring figures around us. Although I can’t think of anyone specific off the top of my head, anyone who’s willing to put themselves out there and take a chance on their ideas is both how and why we got into this business, so it’s a trait we really admire in others.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Becs: We’ve tried to! Earlier this year we decided we’d try and go carbon neutral. The main issue with websites is that servers use a lot of power, and we spent a couple of weeks moving everything over to a hosting provider who runs on wind energy. Next we’re looking at how we can go carbon negative by sponsoring tree-planting schemes, so stay tuned for news on that.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. There’s no such thing as an overnight success — A lot of people assume you’ve come out of nowhere, and while some companies do appear to simply set up shop and make millions, that’s with a lot of money behind them to start off with. We had a year’s worth of late nights and weekends to get to a prototype (around a full time job), and a few more years of finding our first few customers before we had a product both we and our clients could stand behind.
  2. Location, location, location — Being an online service, you’d think that you can be anywhere and make a sale, but when you’re a young business people have trust issues, especially when you’re holding on to their money. When we moved from Camden Town to Walthamstow (East London), after the site had been live for 3 years already, we were able to tap into a DIY events crowd that genuinely supported small and local businesses which gave us the social proof we needed to allow businesses all over the country to trust in us.
  3. Find your niche and double-down on your USPs — There are lots of services that sell gig tickets. It’s the glamorous side of the ticketing industry, and what we started out doing, but we soon found a niche in the market: ticketing home-grown and DIY events. We also found that cost was a big factor stopping these people using online services, so we actually lowered our booking fees further to make our offering even more appealing. Equally important to our target audience is that they can trust us, so we’ve made being ethical a part of the company’s DNA and ensure each decision we make is something our customers would hope and expect us to do.
  4. Digital transformation/adoption in culture takes a long time — When you set out to revolutionise an industry, you can’t expect everyone to be ready. For the first few years we had lots of emails from customers asking when they’d receive their tickets in the post. We still get some event organisers asking if we can create papers tickets for them, to the extend where we created an ‘printed ticket generator’ for the FA Women’s National League which other event organisers can now make use of too.
  5. It will never be finished! — Although this could sound a bit negative, it’s true. Some products you have to stop creating at some point and say “it’s finished”, otherwise you can ruin it (for example baking a cake), but websites don’t work like that. You can create something that people will use, but there are always more features to add, and every few years you need to do a redesign, so it’s never truly done.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Riley: We’re at a time in history where trust and transparency in what a company is doing is really important. Companies with a lot of power and money are exploiting user data or resources in the name of profit, and we really need to reprioritise people and the planet over profit. We already have a lot of eco-conscious events on Ticketlab, but we’d love to inspire people to put that at the heart of more of their events: if they’re teaching a craft or skill e.g. dress making, then that’s hopefully at least one less garment that needs to be imported from the other side of the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Becs: “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection” — Mark Twain

To me, this perfectly sums up the agile methodology and how we’ve built up the site over time, but it’s also how we develop as people, so we certainly shouldn’t expect our companies to emerge into the world perfect and fully formed. Try something, then make it better.

Riley: “I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been” — Winnie The Pooh. I’m not sure if this was intended as a life lesson, but I was always a Winnie The Pooh fan growing up. In part it’s about just getting on with the task, even if you don’t know where it will take you, but to me it’s also about questioning the status quo and setting off on your own path.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Riley: We’re hugely inspired by the work Michael and Emily Eavis have done with Glastonbury festival to encourage less plastic use and waste on site, let alone the steps they’ve taken to avoid touts getting hold of tickets for the festival — it’s a blueprint for how things should be and we’d love to pick their brains!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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