Most people think that to see the best artists perform intimate and interactive shows you need to have an industry connection who can get you in the back door or get you backstage passes to engage with the artist. But after having the opportunity to speak with Laura Simpson, we have a feeling that you will be looking to slide in the Side Door for your favourite artist’s next performance or maybe even host your own in-person shows in a non-conventional space like your living room, backyard or in a community centre, bookstore or warehouse.
Laura Simpson, Co-Founder and CEO of Halifax-based Side Door is a serial entrepreneur that traces her entrepreneurial spirit back to working with her mother, who ran a small business out of their house in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. “I had the opportunity to do a little bit of everything working with my mother and her company from deliveries to accounting. I kind of learned what it was like to run a business through her eyes,” said Simpson.
In 2011 Simpson started hosting artist shows in her own home. At that time, she was working in the live music industry supporting artists and events. What Simpson uncovered from this experience was that the most enjoyable events for the artists and the audience were the ones that she was hosting at her own home. Those attending loved the intimate and interactive experience. They could enjoy the performance with their friends and family in the comfort of Simpson’s home rather than going out to a bar or pub that required making all the necessary arrangements to do so with a young family. She also found that the artists loved the engagement with the audience and the fact that they received 100% of the proceeds and were paid right away.
“I experienced an entrepreneurial explosion after 2015, I had some pent-up energy, a few ideas and just wanted to get things done and explore these opportunities,” said Simpson, a self-proclaimed efficiency nerd. Simpson had dabbled a little bit with ‘no code technology’ when she was with Music Nova Scotia and was trying to build more efficient ways of doing things. It was that experience, that started the idea for Side Door. At that time, she didn’t really know what Side Door would look like or the technology that would be needed to get the company off and running, but she did know that there was a need for this platform, and she was determined to create it.
Simpson continued to explore the idea and was introduced to Dan Mangan, a West Coast-based JUNO Award-winning artist, who would end up being a co-founder of the business. At the time of their introduction, Mangan was a successful touring artist that had just started a new label and was looking to book gigs for his artists and himself. Mangan had built a loyal fan base by playing smaller venues and started using this same model with his artists to do the same.
Simpson explains that their first platform was basically a spreadsheet, “the music industry at the time was built on spreadsheets,” said Simpson. But she and Mangan had a mutual goal to put the artist first. They wanted to make sure the artist would get a good return on investment (ROI) for their shows, that it would be easy for anyone to become a host of one of these events, and make it easier for the artist and host to connect with each other. “Simplicity is the key to the platform.” Simpson goes on to say that the pair basically brainstormed for about a year, as they both worked on other projects. During that time, Simpson ended up hanging around Volta, which is a tech startup space in Halifax. She was able to make a connection with a developer and they collaborated together and came up with a tech plan for the project, however, she is quick to say, “I didn’t really know what to expect, but we had a plan.”
In 2017, Simpson and Mangan launched their web-based platform, Side Door, which provided artists and organizers with easy-to-use show-booking tools to connect artists with hosts looking to have in-person shows in non-conventional spaces like living rooms, backyards, warehouses, and community centers, as well as traditional concert venues.
Everything started to take off, artists and hosts were using the platform, and Side Door was doing their first shows, Simpson and Mangan started fundraising and developing the platform as a valuable industry tool. The business pair was also excited to start to break into the US Market and then the pandemic hit.
With the pandemic and government attendance and health restrictions, they had to cancel shows. But as they say, ‘When one door closes another one opens,’ in this case, it was the Side Door.
Thankfully because the two co-founders live on opposite coasts in Canada, one being in Halifax and the other in Vancouver, they were already running the business with a remote team so meeting online and via Zoom was part of their culture. Because of their experience online, they came up with the idea of experimenting with online artist performances using Zoom. Being a true Canadian Technology Company, Side Door was also able to solve the ‘Zoom Bombers’ problem before Zoom’s own technical team. Simpson and Mangan wanted to make sure Side Door offered a secure way of buying tickets where only purchasing customers enjoyed the very intimate and interactive show experience online. The production of the online shows was very successful, and Side Door ended up branching out to doing broadcast shows as well. By the end of the peak of the pandemic, Side Door had streamed over 1200 online shows.
As pandemic restrictions were being lifted, people were having pandemic burnout; the online music experience was losing its appeal with both the audiences and the artists starving to get back to live shows again. The Side Door team saw this as the opportunity to start pivoting away from streaming back to in-person small-venue live events even when it looked like pandemic numbers were starting to rise again. Simpson explains, “It felt really scary to be putting everything back into live music with in-person shows but we made the decision and went with it.” It was also at that time that Side Door released its third version of the platform this past August, the redesigned and refined platform better connects hosts with artists to create incredible in-person concert experiences. Simpson adds, “We are on track to do better than we did at the end of 2019 empowering anyone to turn their space into a venue to create memorable live experiences.”
We at Spotlight on Business are impressed with the Side Door brand because it doesn’t compete with traditional concert promoters and venue operators, it enhances it. Live shows have vigorously returned post-pandemic, but hundreds of music venues across Canada have closed. There are more artists than ever trying to compete for fewer spaces and the costs of touring have skyrocketed. So, the need for a vibrant network tool that Side Door offers for artists at every level of their career to connect with their fans and tour in an alternative way has never been greater. It also gives music lovers the opportunity to bring artists into their community in non-traditional venue spaces, creating a more vibrant cultural ecosystem.
When we spoke with Simpson in October, the Side Door platform had facilitated over 2000 live shows for more than 700 artists and bands, with these artists earning over $1.3 million in ticket revenue. More than 140,000 tickets have been purchased on the platform and over 2700 hosts offer spaces that can hold 20 or more people for artists to offer shows.
Side Door’s co-founders recently appeared on CBC’s Dragons’ Den to pitch the Dragons on investing in their company and platform. The show’s seven-minute segment started with Simpson greeting the Dragons before the two-time JUNO Award winner, Mangan entered the den playing his guitar and signing for the potential investors. The two made a solid pitch, explaining the Canadian tech company’s platform and while most of the dragons were impressed with Simpson and Mangan’s inventiveness, it was Arlene Dickinson, who made the pair an offer, which the two partners accepted. Getting praise and an offer from Dickinson validates the need for what the Side Door is doing and for their vision to keep it easy for small venue concert hosts to offer memorable experiences for music lovers and for the touring artists to connect with fans and build a following.
Since appearing on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, Side Door launched a redesigned and refined platform that better connects hosts with artists to create incredible in-person concert experiences. The core of the new Side Door platform is a powerful tool called “Show Calls” which allows artists and hosts to broadcast their availability to their fan bases and the Side Door community. This one-to-many approach works with demand and momentum to make the best matches and create the best shows. Artists find shows based on where and when they’ll be, and hosts can dictate when they are available and what they can offer. The unique smart contract technology allows for a simple ticketing and pay-out process.
Side Door’s Show Call platform allows the artist and host to follow how many tickets are being sold. It offers a full guest list manager that can even comp tickets and provides all the things that a traditional ticketing company would do. Since the host and artist have already negotiated the revenue split, the money is actually held in escrow and then deposited in everyone’s accounts the day after the show. There is no need to do any invoicing, the artist doesn’t have to do an envelope at the end of the night. There’s none of that. All of Side Door’s settlements are documented and can be taken to your accountants, whether you are the host or the artist. Making the platform easy to use for artists, hosts and music lovers alike.
by Ryan Myson