Many companies have tried, and are trying, to remove the friction from the event discovery process. The perennial problem of what to do on any given evening may lead you to any number of sources — Google, Ticketmaster, Timeout, Eventbrite, or some combination. But one company is setting out to become the automatic go-to for both discovering and buying tickets for events.
YPlan launched out of London in November 2012, landing in New York in 2013 and San Francisco in 2014. YPlan’s proposition is simple — you can browse local events by date (e.g. “Today” or “This Weekend”), then narrow down by type (e.g. “Film” or “Music” or “Comedy”), and book directly through the app. Events are curated by people working behind the scenes. Some events are available a while in advance, while others arrive at the last minute.
YPlan is a mobile-first company, insofar as it launched purely for mobile devices initially (though it has since arrived on the Web). In its early days, YPlan was said to have been installed on 30 percent of all iPhones in London, and it was this kind of traction that led the company to launch in other markets and gained it the attention of some big-name backers.
The company has raised almost $40 million to date, including a $12 million round in 2013 that included actor Ashton Kutcher, followed by $24 million a year later. Actor Stephen Fry, an early adopter of the app, has also lent his Twitter publicity powers to the cause.
Today, YPlan is rolling out a notable update to its Android app that makes it easier to search for and bookmark events, with a new one-tap toolbar designed to minimize the number of clicks needed to buy a ticket. So now seems like as good a time as any to delve a little into this European startup.
VentureBeat caught up with YPlan cofounder Rytis Vitkauskas in the company’s London hub, home to around 50 employees, to get his thoughts on where things have come from, where they could go from here, and what they plan to do to realize his ambitions of becoming a billion-dollar company.
Why plan? YPlan.
Lithuania-born Vitkauskas founded his first startup at 14, a job that involved assembling and fixing up computers. By the time he was 19, he ran a five-person business “earning some good money,” he said. “But my parents told me I had to get an education abroad, which is what I did. I went to study at a liberal arts-type college in Germany.”
It was there where he met Viktoras Jucikas, his future YPlan cofounder and fellow Lithuanian, in 2003, playing for the college basketball team. “He’s a proper geek, extremely smart, a ridiculous brainiac,” said Vitkauskas. “He was the smartest technical guy on campus. And I was doing my business stuff, always keen on finance, entrepreneurship, that kind of thing.”
It was this complementary mix of skills that would help sow the seeds for what would become YPlan.
After university, Vitkauskas went to Harvard to study for an MBA, then joined a VC fund in London. Jucikas went to work for Goldman Sachs, where he flexed his coding skills. But it was these demanding careers that led them to rethink what they were doing.
“We said, ‘If we’re working 100-hour weeks, every week, we may as well do it for ourselves and build something of great substance and value to the public,'” said Vitkauskas.
So they quit their jobs with roughly a year’s worth of cash to see them through, and they decided to create a company — though they didn’t know what that company would yet be. “I gave up my apartment in 2011, camped out on his (Jucikas’) couch, and after half-a-year of what we called ‘MVP’ (minimal viable product) testing and iterations and ideas, YPlan came about,” said Vitkauskas. The concept came first, and the name later.
The YPlan concept arose during the early ideating stages — one evening, they were looking to take a break from their business planning and do something else instead. They decided to go to a concert in San Francisco, where they were at that time. “After an hour of Googling for what to do in San Fran tonight, we were still Googling,” said Vitkauskas. “That hour didn’t lead us to an event, and we thought, ‘This is broken, how do we fix that?””
They realized in order to “fix it,” they had to connect “discover” with “purchase.” They wanted to make the purchase as quick as possible from the moment of discovery. Instant. Real-time.
“The more we tested it with consumers and the industry, the more we realized there was some real opportunity there — because people always had that question of what to do at the last minute,” said Vitkauskas. “And there was no one place where you find and book and go at the same time. It’s either listing sites or ticketing sites, and the options are limited. They’re not catered for discovery. You go to Eventbrite or Ticketmaster when you already know exactly what you want to buy.”
And this is essentially what YPlan is. It’s for people who don’t know what they want to do. It pulls together the various pieces of the entertainment puzzle into a single easy-to-use app.
One of the problems many startups face is coming up with a catchy, memorable name that isn’t cheesy or a hackneyed homage to another well-known tech company (e.g., Eventify). “YPlan” is actually a brilliantly simple name — it rolls off the tongue, it’s easy to remember, and it’s a clever play on words. Given that YPlan is chiefly about what to do at the last minute, “spontaneous” is a core part of the concept: “Why plan? YPlan!”
“The litmus test was when we mentioned the name casually to a group of friends, and then asked them the next day whether they remembered the name that we’d told them,” said Vitkauskas. “Everyone remembered YPlan. In terms of the name and the brand I think we got it right; ‘Y’ is not an overused letter to start a brand name from.”
The rise of YPlan
In the early days of any business, it can often be little quirks of fate and luck that can help get the ball rolling. Having Stephen Fry as an unofficial brand ambassador must have been useful. But how did it all come about?
Shortly after YPlan launched, the two cofounders were introduced to Stephen Fry’s assistant, who set up a meeting between them. “He’s smarter about 100 things than I am about any single one, and he’s just extremely eloquent, very smart, and passionate about technology,” said Vitkauskas. “When he saw what we were doing, he said he loved it. This was two weeks after we launched. And before you know it, the next day he sent out a tweet.”
Yplan – now that’s a seriously good app. Last minute events London of all kinds booked in seconds. Free and damned smart. Android soon.
— Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) December 13, 2012
But how much of an impact did Stephen Fry’s involvement have?
“All those things, they help, but the half-life on Twitter for one tweet is five minutes,” continued Vitkauskas. “That’s how long it stays there. All that said, to have the support and backing of someone as respected and as smart and close to a lot of people in the U.K.? It’s a money-can’t-buy kind of thing.”
Ashton Kutcher is also a big fan of YPlan — so much so, he even put his own money into the company during the series A round. “He found us too, as he was spending a lot of time in London at the time, because his girlfriend was filming here,” said Vitkauskas. “He heard the buzz, and took her on a date through YPlan to the Royal Albert Hall, to a fantastic event where I happened to be as well. The next day, we received an email from him saying, ‘I love it, can I stop by?'”
So Kutcher turned up at the YPlan office, they had a chat, and he became an investor. “Ashton is an incredibly smart product person, incredibly thoughtful, loves thinking about user journeys,” added Vitkauskas. “He loves thinking about the psychology behind people’s thinking, how they actually behave, and that’s how he got involved.”
Today, Kutcher still chats with the YPlan founders once every few months, and he has given some advice over the years too that has been fed into the actual product. “A lot of important product improvements and changes came off the back of our conversations with him,” said Vitkauskas.
Location, location, location
YPlan’s core markets may be London, New York, and San Francisco, but it has dabbled in other cities with varying degrees of success.
The app was made available for a festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, back in 2013, but it was ultimately too small a market to launch there permanently. And it was also briefly introduced in Las Vegas. The company learned some valuable lessons with its foray into “Sin City. “We tried, but very quickly we learned it’s a completely different market — it’s a tourist market,” said Vitkauskas. “90 percent of our customers are locals — there is no ‘local going-out’ happening in Vegas.”
With Vegas, you typically have people who arrive in town, spend a few days, spend a lot of money, then leave. Being mobile-only, YPlan had a problem — when you arrive in Las Vegas, you had to find out about the app, install it, register an account, and then discover what the app is all about. “There were too many friction points — it would only work in Vegas when we’re live in key feeder markets for Vegas,” admitted Vitkauskas. “So when we’re live in Los Angeles, and everyone’s using YPlan there, that will be when YPlan will become a natural extension into Vegas.”
Three years on, YPlan is really just in those three main cities. While it is technically available in Dublin (Ireland) and Bristol (England), this hasn’t really been shouted from the rooftops yet.
From the outside it looks as though YPlan is adopting a similar launch strategy to that of its fellow London startup, Citymapper, which also began in London before taking a city-by-city approach thereafter. But Vitkauskas said that this isn’t how YPlan will operate, because the two companies are ultimately very different beasts. Citymapper has to integrate with local transport providers’ data, which varies from city-to-city, which is why it tends to follow a more staggered approach.
“Originally, I thought about doing it city-by-city-by-city, but it’s an expensive way of doing it,” he said. “And it takes a lot of time. What we’re working on now is launching in bunches of cities at the same time, and it will be in partnership with other brands and large distribution partners that will help us get up to speed in terms of visibility.”
What this likely means is national launches — key conurbations from the same region all being introduced to YPlan at the same time.
The business of events
YPlan, ultimately, is a transaction marketplace — it sells tickets on behalf of event organizers. There are no “hidden fees” — something that is a huge pain point on other platforms, such as Ticketmaster, which can often throw an extra 30 percent onto the ticket price with “booking fees,” “shipping fees,” and even “convenience charges” if you wish to print your own tickets at home.
In the early days, YPlan would have to “sell” its service to event organizers, but when word spread about how it works, and suddently there was a great demand to have their tickets on sale through YPlan. “We take a commission from event organizers, because we see that over 90 percent of customers we send to events would not have gone without YPlan,” said Vitkauskas. “That’s a pretty easy pitch.”
Behind the scenes, YPlan vets event organizers and lets them “self-serve” on the platform, and they’re given tools to manage their events. They can set the price and quantity, and see real-time sales, demographics, and more. And this data is becoming a key selling point for the suppliers.
YPlan has a team dedicated to finding and working with partners to develop commercial partnerships. There are more than a thousand partnerships to date, including venues, music promoters, and even the artists themselves. While they do all manage their own events, YPlan works with them to ensure that they’re featuring the right kind of events for YPlan’s users.
For event-seekers, YPlan will serve up a different list of events depending on their preferences and history, but all the events chosen ultimately come from the same original pool. But it’s this personalization and customization that Vitkauskas sees as a big opportunity to differentiate.
“The first impression you give has to be pretty good, but then you need to let them toggle, tweak and choose,” said Vitkauskas. “And it may be different from week-to-week. One week you may be going out with your girlfriend, so your preference will be different to when your family is in town. To try to guess every time what mood or what use-case you’re in is an impossibility. One individual customer can have up to 12 or 15 distinctly different use-cases. So we personalize as much as we can, but give customization tools to filter and tweak. We have a lot more coming up, too.”
Though YPlan launched as a “what can we do tonight?” app, it has long offered events further into the future, even up to two weeks. However, same-day bookings represent around 50 percent of the tickets it sells, so it is skewed towards real-time.
We’ve mentioned other big players in the ticketing and events space, but there have also been been a number of startups similar to YPlan in recent times. WillCall was one such company, focused specifically on last-minute concert tickets — it was acquired by Ticketfly last year.
WillCall was a more niche concept than YPlan, given its narrow focus on gigs, and this is why Vitkauskas reckons his company will stand the test of time. It’s for everyone and everything.
“WillCall launched as we were writing the code for YPlan,” he said. “They carved a niche, got stuck in San Francisco, tried New York and L.A., then got acquired. We’re not sure that’s the right approach — one niche that’s very deep, and one where there is not much margin in. I’m not sure that’s the path to building a billion-dollar business, which is what we’re here to do.”
Other similar companies include Fever, which is available in several Spanish cities, as well as New York and London. It’s probably the most like YPlan, but it relies on you hooking up your social media profile — either Facebook or Google Plus — to use it.
There are many related verticals YPlan could expand into. For example, your night out at the theater is normally accompanied by meals, drinks, transport, and so on. Could there be scope for expanding, or even integrating other services?
“We see meals as a ‘nice-to-have’ rather than a must-have, and frankly the restaurant discovery and booking process has been figured out already,” said Vitkauskas. “There are amazing companies like OpenTable that do this really well. We don’t feel like we have a lot to add. There may be some form of opportunity there, but I’m definitely convinced there is not an opportunity to build a billion-dollar business there. And that’s the only thing that I am interested in, in terms of investing the next 10 years of my time.”
There is scope for a number of third-party integrations beyond that of restaurant-booking services. Uber has been letting third-party developers integrate its service into their own apps for a while, and this would make a lot of sense for YPlan. “Those things are on our radar,” said Vitkauskas, when presented with a few examples of complementary services.
By looking to such partnerships, YPlan could become the ultimate “things to do” app — one that tells you what’s on nearby, sells you the ticket, and gets you to the venue on time after a three-course meal in the West End.