THE BLOG
10/15/2014 07:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Meet Mitch: Climbing Through the Ranks of a Growing Startup

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Mitch Colleran is one of those guys whom you immediately feel like you've known since college. He answers questions without any flourish or buzzwords but with a great amount of thought and humility. I first met Mitch when he was running partnerships for Eventbrite. He's since moved on to product for the company. Hearing stories of people breaking into startups is something that's dear to my heart but also seeing the trajectory of others' careers evolve within the startup community is another beast in itself. I had the opportunity to catch up with him in their new offices in SoMa.

What was your major?
I have a BA in Business (focused on Information Systems) from University of Washington.

Where did you start right out of college?
I started at Ernst and Young for under a year doing IT Consulting.

How was that for you?
It works for some people, but for others like me, it doesn't. I didn't operate well in the rigid structure, and I felt like my performance was limited by the micro-management of a large company. If you're not happy or fully satisfied in your company, you should leave. I remember Sunday nights being the worst because of what awaited the next morning.

But you made the jump.
Yeah but leaving Ernst and Young was scary. Big companies get you caring about things you shouldn't be caring about straight out of college.

Like what?
Such as something like, "think how good this will look on your resume" or "you should stay for two years to show stability." Especially when you're young, you should be optimizing for learning/growth, rather than long-term career ladder or title. I personally think that the amount people learn isn't linear, instead knowledge compounds on itself like interest in a bank account. So it's important to not stagnate -- never put up with a job where you're not learning.

How did you end up at Eventbrite?
I had friends who worked in startups and I felt I should try to give it a go at a startup myself. At the time, Eventbrite was hiring and I interviewed with Kevin and Julia. It was there that I fell in love with their vision and the product.

And then what happened?
So I joined the then 40-person company, starting in entry level sales -- which they called Business Development Representatives -- and within six months, I was promoted to Account Executive and did that for another six months.

How did you end up in the Partnerships department? What made you think you were ready for such a position?
I saw the role open, and I started working to prove that I could meet the expectations. I think good start-ups will look internally first for filling a role. There are a lot of unknown variables (culture fit, work ethic, team dynamics, etc.) that disappear when you hire someone already working at a company. The position called for a focus on API integrations and I already was comfortable with technology (from my degree and previous job at EY), and I taught myself everything about Eventbrite's API. I started by becoming the API Expert for other teammates, which then opened this path for me.

How long did you do that?
Three years but building a program from concept to scale was extremely difficult. There were singular success cases that we built, but the entire program took a long time to make successful. It wasn't until about 18 months when we looked back and really defined how Eventbrite's API platform could be successful to the masses. Now, we have over 100 active integrations into popular web applications (some built by big players like SurveyMonkey, MailChimp, Zoho, Salesforce, and WordPress.com/Automattic) and thousands more custom integrations with smaller developers.

The biggest challenge is when there are infinite opportunities -- and wanting to spend time on everything. However, one of the purposes of building a platform/API is creating a product that is very high leverage -- we build an API once, and then we incentivize developers to create many diverse/disruptive apps off our API (without incremental effort to support each additional app). So, we didn't see success until we really narrowed down the successful implementations of our API and encouraged developers to play with those limited use-cases.

For example?
The most valuable information on the Eventbrite platform is the event organizer's attendee list. We saw success when 3rd party platforms allowed for our event organizers to 'connect' their Eventbrite account and import their attendees (into CRMs, Email Marketing services, Lead Generation software, etc.). Identifying this allowed us to focus on building more incentives for developers to implement Eventbrite's API.

It seems like having a lot of opportunities is a good thing, not a challenge...
It is. But it's also challenging to evaluate outcomes when the opportunity size is completely unknown. Having small, executable deals allowed us to cut through ambiguity and learn from partnerships in a more controlled environment (we were standardizing deals and isolating variables, which allowed us to have more predictable outcomes). Especially early on in building the platform, I learned that it's very important to be pragmatic: it's good to paint a long-term vision but it's even more important not to get lost in big deals. The best advice I would give to someone starting a partner program at a startup is to initially focus on the smaller, less sexy deals.

What did those deals look like in particular?
Oftentimes, Eventbrite's input was zero -- we were resource strapped and the program was unproven. So, we would never offer new endpoints and we didn't draw resources from other parts of the organization, which meant that the program was very high leverage when it started contributing to the business metrics. The other benefit was that when deals failed, and many did, they were low-risk because the only invested resource was my time.

That can be difficult when you're a smaller company.
You have to know what you're selling and what you're partners are looking for. That's where my background in IT was helpful. It allowed me to understand the implications of each part of a partnership. It's what we've internally begun to call "Lean Partner Development."

Could you explain that?
Lean Partner Development is essentially minimizing the input that it takes to gather customer feedback on partnership opportunities. For example, when partners needed data to justify the work that they were going to commit, I taught myself SQL instead of taking an analyst's time to do the digging for me. In other cases, we've hired 3rd party developers to launch applications off our API to prove a business concept, rather than allocating our engineer's time.

You saw Eventbrite grow from being a young company to an internationally thriving one. How has the culture remained to allow creativity and growth?
Eventbrite's culture allows creativity and growth by embracing autonomy -- which to me, means celebrating both the successes and failures of those who self-start. It ends up that if you want to see something done and think it's important to the business, then it is often up to you to Make it Happen (this is our internal motto).

Like those who find a way to have their own questions answered on their own.
Haha. Exactly! I'm really impressed that the culture has actually retained the scrappiness of the early days -- I think that a lot of companies that raise large venture rounds will scale too quickly and then everything will become 'someone else's problem'. We've grown diligently, so I think we've retained the personal ownership piece.

How did you move from Partnerships to Product?
Again, there was an opening to do product and since it was to develop our API and Platform, I was asked if I'd be interested. Product always interested me, and I found that I was already doing a lot of product responsibilities in my current Partnerships role. In the current role, I'd be much interested in figuring out the details on how an integration would work, than negotiating a contract.

What made you say yes?
Having worked with the API regularly and years of hearing what major companies wished to see from Eventbrite, I believed I was able to bring something unique to the table. Our potential is bigger than what's been realized thus far. Additionally, I love creating. Although internal work is often not as sexy as putting together a big partnership, watching products get built and launch is a lot of fun.

Having worked with 3rd parties, managing teams internally and expectations externally, what are some key ways to build and keep excitement for all involved?
Be very realistic about what you want to work on and ship. As I mentioned before, if you design something massive -- then a lot of work goes in and there are massive expectations. It is much easier to keep people excited by starting small, shipping, and seeing results.