Timing, Trust, and Taking Life by the Horns
By Jessica T. Brown
Photography by Leslie Hodge
“If something's in your heart, go all in. Why not? If you crash and burn, you're going to grow because of it and become a better person.” Randy Cohen, founder and CEO of TicketCity, has been living by these rules ever since he was a young boy. It would be fair to say that ticket selling may not have always been Randy's key focus in life. However, sometimes people are born to be in business and you could definitely say that about Cohen. “I sold the lemonade on the corner. I did the lawn-mowing, the babysitting, whatever it took. I like money.”
His journey with ticket selling began when he landed in Austin, Texas around 1982. A young, ambitious and determined student at the University of Texas, he saw an opportunity in getting involved with selling some tickets on the side. It wasn’t until 1987 did the idea of TicketCity really begin to blossom.
In 1987, The University of Texas, third in the country in college basketball, was going against the Arkansas Razorbacks, currently first in the country. Cohen took a gamble. With the magnitude of this game, he thought, without a doubt, that the game would sell out. However, life doesn’t always work that way...or does it? “I took my life savings of $1,200 and I bought 200, $6 seats for the big game. The game didn't sell out. I'm going there with my tickets. I'm like, I can't believe I'm dumber than a fishing worm here and my life savings is gone. I get to the stadium and all of a sudden the lady from the box office pulls down the little sign in the window saying, ‘Sold out.’ There was a big line there. There I was with 200 tickets. Looking strong.” Cohen’s ability to navigate and understand the game of the business became his best benefit. In that moment, TicketCity was born.
“We had really good growth in the beginning, 1990 all the way to 2000. I'll never forget, I got the opportunity to buy another company in the year 2000. The company had just gone for it and ended up belly-up, [because of ] too much advertising spent. That was in the days of Yellow Pages. This company was called Soldout.com. I decided I needed to buy this company. This was going to give us an East Coast presence.
We needed a quick $300,000. I had gone to the bank a month earlier. They said, ‘No problem, you're doing great Randy. Happy to give you the note and a loan.’ The big day came, I'm like, ‘Mr. Banker I need the money today.’ The bank goes, ‘Randy, we just hit year 2000, all hell's breaking loose. We can't give you the money anymore.’ I'm like, ‘You're kidding me.’
My heart dropped to the floor with the plans of buying this company. I said, ‘We've gotta still go for it.’ We [decided to] max out all the credit cards. We got all the money together that we could, and we bought Soldout.com. That gave us a big mailing list. It gave us a bunch of phone numbers throughout the country in yellow pages and an East Coast presence. All of a sudden, the phone started blowing up. It was August and US Open Tennis was on. September and October happened and all of a sudden the Yankees ended up playing the Mets. It was a subway series. Our phone lines were [still] blowing up. That was in October. Then November, December and January happened and the Giants made it to the freaking Super Bowl. All of a sudden we had paid back our investment in six months.” Today, TicketCity holds around $150 million in sales annually, all with organic growth, and is growing by the minute.
In a perfect world, Cohen’s banking experience would be the end-all, be-all of his business hiccups. However, the reality is that every business venture has multiple bumps along the way and Cohen isn’t excluded from this.
It was 2014 and that year’s Super Bowl was in Phoenix. Cohen explains a catastrophic experience that lead to discovering what true customer service means. “The tickets actually blew up in price to about $10,000 per ticket. We have people that sell tickets on our site and we don't own everything. Different brokers who put tickets on our site for $2,000 and $3,000, were not delivering the tickets to us. Here we are with customers waiting to pick up their tickets and the tickets were not there. Now we have choices. You have an angry mob of people. You can run and figure it out later or you meet things head on.” For Cohen, the bottom line was: “You don't stay in business for 30 years by doing the wrong thing. You're trying to take care of everybody as best you can.” And that’s exactly what he did.
“We set a straight policy that said, ‘Anybody that orders tickets, you're going to get your money back plus an additional $2,000 per ticket.’ We threw a big party for everybody so they didn't get to miss the game. [That was] better than running for cover. It was tough because you have every story in the book. Someone's proposing to somebody. Somebody is needing tickets for whatever reason; they're taking out clients. When you don't take care of your customers, you feel horrible.” When these misfortunes arise, there are two choices. You can flee the scene, while disregarding the needs of your customers, or you can follow Cohen in his dedication to giving his customers the best experiences they can have out of an unfortunate event.
“You grow from those things and you do the right thing long after those feelings-of-doing leave the scene.” Even if that means flying a customer out to Austin, taking them to Franklin’s, and then to a big TicketCity tailgate party, as Cohen has also done. “At the end of the day, you want to be true to yourself and show [your customers] who [you] really are.” Cohen is also aware that you can’t make everybody happy. “When you're selling hundreds of thousands of tickets, sometimes people get angry just because they're angry. You can't please everybody.”
Supporting your customers is a given, but supporting your staff is just as equally important. “After 30 years, it gets a little tricky. I don't want to work 18 hour days. But [if] you have a good staff and you have them make a difference and it's their time to shine. One of the great things that I did was hire an amazing management team. My management team at TicketCity has been with me an average of 22 years, each person. If you treat them well, if you're humble and you're kind, at the end of the day it's empowerment. If you empower your employees to not be micromanaged and to do whatever they need to do to get the job done and you don't control them, that's enjoyable in your job.”
Cohen believes that his staff’s loyalty revolves around his openness to mistakes and his appreciation for positive attributes. “Give people rope. Give them feedback. Give them assistance to be successful. You better be able to give the credit and take the blame and let them figure out how to be the best they can be where they give it a whole.” Humility, honesty, compassion and care has been driving forces for Cohen through his, and his staffs, progression and success at TicketCity.
As his company continues to grow, so does his ability to explore other avenues of interest. Cohen is now an author of three books. Ticket To The Limit is about “how passion and performance can transform your life and your business into an amazing adventure.” Secrets Of Swagger digs into “collaboration, charisma, commitment, courage, coolness, competitiveness, character and creativity. I talk about people that have swagger in those different dynamics”, said Cohen.
He believes that your journey for learning doesn’t end when you graduate from college. “You don't want to do the same thing for 30 years. You want to mix it up. If I can pass some of the knowledge out there of things I've learned over the years and help somebody not make the mistakes I did, why not give that. We know what we know. We don't know the unknown and you're going to meet that head on and figure it out.” He has even released a children’s book called Deedee and Daddy's Big Night Out. “The whole thing's a Dr. Seuss rap book. All the characters are bugs.”
When it comes to creating and running a business, Cohen believes that honesty is key. “You can't just spin your wheels. You have to be doing something authentic and true to yourselves. You also want to be an expert in the industry. Most of the time, you don't have that silver spoon in your mouth. You have to go out and hustle. Sometimes you've got to go for it and the cards will fall for you. Nothing's wrong with getting a Yahtzee every once in a while.
"You've got to take chances in life. If you're going to be the one head above the sea of heads that stands out, take chances so that you crash and burn. Take yourself up again. You're going to go through ups and downs. You get stronger and better as you make mistakes and learn.” Believe in yourself and your ideas. Take the risk. It might pay off and it might not. At least you tried. In Cohen’s words, “Go big or go home, ladies and gentlemen.”
You can find Cohen’s books on Amazon.com. You can call 1-800-SOLDOUT or visit TicketCity.com for more information on TicketCity.