A second chance at the ticket promotion business is a global success

February 10, 2014

Montreal cityscape at night

Mary Teresa Bitti, NATIONAL POST

When John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, better known as Monty Python, announced in November they would be hitting London’s O2 Arena for their first live show in 33 years, some 20,000 tickets sold out in just 43.5 seconds. While the announcement was big news globally, the company behind those seamless sales is decidedly low profile — at least among the general public.Since its launch in 2006, Montreal-based Outbox Technology has become the ticket-selling tool of choice to the world’s top promoters, venues and artists and sells more than $1-billion worth of ticket sales each year on behalf of those clients. In 2013, it was named EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year in the technology and communications category for its leadership in taking ticketing to another level.The brainchild of husband-and-wife team Jean-Francoys Brousseau and Constance Raymond, Outbox Technology is their third venture and second wave technology in the ticketing space. This time, they are joined by two key shareholders/partners, Cirque du Soleil and AEG, as well as their three children — the two eldest, Isabelle and Pierre, work in Outbox Technology’s Los Angeles office in fraud prevention and product development, respectively; their youngest Eric is in Montreal overseeing the rollout of Outbox’s new onsite scanning devices as he finishes a degree in economics.“We never set out to build a family business and our partners certainly don’t see it that way. They see it as an investment and growth opportunity. We are family centred and have grown into a corporate entity. We tread carefully to get the best of both worlds,” Mr. Brousseau said.Their partners, both much larger multinational companies, benefit from the entrepreneurial spirit that drives Outbox and because of the business structure, which has no majority shareholder, the family avoids many of the conflicts typical when two or more generations of a family work together. “I think it’s interesting to see the children have gravitated to the business but it was never our expectation,” Mr. Brousseau said. “They happened to be at the right place at the right time.”Outbox had just launched its e-commerce site when Isabelle, a math major, graduated from university and was looking for an internship. “She jumped in, liked it and now she is a fraud prevention manager,” Mr. Brousseau said.“Pierre was a more obvious fit because he’s a computer and math major. We were hiring a lot of people four years ago when he graduated and we gave him some projects. In each case, they proved they were capable. The shareholders were aware. There was no special treatment. If they weren’t good, then they’d have to go. They’re treated the same as all employees,” he said.To ensure that remains the case, Pierre and Isabelle don’t report to either parent, but rather to their respective department heads. “It gives us distance and ensures there is no free pass,” Mr. Brousseau said. “The people that supervise them know they have free reign to manage them as they manage everyone else on their team.”The couple also make sure to play to their individual strengths and divide duties accordingly. While it’s hard not to talk shop at the dinner table, the clear delineation of roles has served them well through their entry, exit and return to entrepreneurship.Their first business, Microflex, launched in the 1980s as a hardware and software company focused on managing data. A young engineer, Mr. Brousseau started the company after a stint working in government. As Microflex grew, Ms. Raymond, came on board to manage the finances and recruitment and talent management. “We have always had different projects and we’ve always respected each other’s abilities,” she said.“I knew he was doing the right thing. I have an architectural background so I’m able to put my organizational and team building skills to work to find motivated candidates with passion.”That’s something Mr. Brousseau appreciates. “It’s hard to find and keep great people and she’s done that. She built the team quickly and makes sure everyone is happy and has the tools they need. I focus on the technical side.”Microflex changed direction when the NHL’s now defunct Quebec Nordiques signed on as a client and asked them to manage season ticket sales. “We improvised a solution and within a few years ticketing became the sole focus,” Mr. Brousseau said.Gradually, Microflex built a global client base and created a network to better compete with the Ticketrons and Ticketmasters of the world. They sold a system to Cirque du Soleil that worked so well, the entertainment company bought part of Microflex and together they formed Admission Network, which attracted clients such as the Montreal Expos, the old Forum and the Montreal Canadiens. The business model involved distributing tickets as well as licensing the underlying software. They sold both companies to Ticketmaster in 2000 at the height of the tech bubble.“That was our exit strategy. It was the emergence of the Web and crazy valuations for technology companies and we realized what Ticketmaster offered was more than we could generate on our own,” Mr. Brousseau said.“After 15 years, we thought maybe it was time to do something else. That turned out not to be true but we didn’t know that at the time.”In 2005, Cirque du Soleil came calling. Its success meant it had 14 different companies selling its tickets worldwide, which created a marketing challenge. At the same time, its brand is so well known, it did not need a third-party brand like Ticketmaster to handle sales. “They asked us to create a one-stop shop for them and we partnered again,” Mr. Brousseau said.“Outbox is a white label, an invisible brand. We offer our clients the ability to put their brand first. From a marketing perspective, that’s the big difference between the other offerings and ours.”In short order, Ms. Raymond put together a team of young minds and Mr. Brousseau began creating a Web-based, new and improved technology that now features the signature interactive seat maps, 3D customized venue plans and one-page checkout. Former clients the Montreal Canadiens and the Bell Centre came back as did U.S.-based AEG. Outbox now has 125 employees in Montreal, Los Angeles, London and Stockholm.Jacques Aubé, general manager of Quebec-based independent promoter and producer Evenko was one of those returning clients. One of its venues, the Bell Centre, was the first arena venue to use Outbox.“We had been a client of the preceding Admission Network and enjoyed the personalized service and adaption of the software to meet our needs on the hockey side and the entertainment side,” he said. “When Outbox launched it offered the ultimate technology. The fact that it is a white label software was also attractive because it meant we could showcase our own brand.”“We have moved beyond where we left off when we sold to Ticketmaster,” Mr. Brousseau said. “We’ve breathed fresh air into the non-sexy tasks of pricing and repricing seats and delivering tickets.