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What Broadway Taught Me About Running A Tech Startup

6min read
Business

While most people think of tech startups as chaotic, and risky getting mine off the ground felt leisurely compared to Broadway!


In January of 2016, I was scheduling photo shoots for Liev Schreiber and Janet McTeer, the stars of my latest Broadway production, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which was set to open in October.

(Fun fact: The day this provocative photo was shot was the first time Liev and Janet ever met!). My days were a whirlwind of cast auditions, costume and set design, budgeting, show press, and ticket pricing. The show was a success—but it was also my last as lead producer. Because by the time Les Liaisons wrapped in January of 2017, I had already launched my new tech startup company, What Should We Do, personalized recommendations and culture covering online and app-based service in NYC (and we've since expanded to L.A. and Chicago!).

The worlds of theater production and tech startup might seem galaxies apart, but the truth is I couldn't have had better preparation for my new venture than putting on plays and musicals. Each one of the 26 shows I've produced in my career was a startup! Beginning with just an idea—sometimes in the form of a manuscript and sometimes not even that much—my team and I would bring it to life by finding a space, hiring the cast and crew, and getting the word out to potential audiences. Every production presented new challenges that had to be solved quickly.

So while most people think of tech startups as chaotic, risky, and distressingly fast-paced, getting WSWD off the ground felt leisurely compared to Broadway!

That's not to say it has been easy, of course. Having never worked in tech or publishing, I had a lot to learn. To bring my idea to life, I kept these four lessons in mind every day.

Believe in your vision. I was really worried about being taken seriously. I didn't know the difference between an API and a CMS, and yet here I was wanting to build both of them. But I knew I had a good idea for WSWD. One of my lifelong missions has been to make arts and culture accessible to all (which is why I'm the chair of the Board of Trustees at the Public Theater; their motto is "Theater of, by, and for all people"). There is so much incredible art in New York City—art that goes way beyond expensive theater tickets or old-master painting exhibitions—but not everyone knows how or where to experience it. As someone who has lived in and loved NYC my whole life, I really wanted to help people find and enjoy all the cultural wonders of the city, no matter how much money they had. That's what we do at WSWD: Connect locals and visitors to incredible art, performances, food, and experiences at every price level.

Whenever I felt insecure about my qualifications or my lack of understanding about the specifics, I would remind myself of my vision. You can figure anything out when you love and believe in your idea. And, yes, I now know what an application programming service and a content management system are, thank you very much.

Build a great team. The first thing I would do as theater producer on a new show was hire a director. Together with her, we'd assemble the rest of the team: stage managers; a technical director; designers; a choreographer; PR people; and many others. I never pretended to know how to light a stage, but I knew the importance of hiring an experienced lighting designer. So when I decided to move forward with WSWD, I knew I couldn't do it without a great team on my side. That's the thing about trying something new: You don't have to know how to do everything; you just have to know when to accept help. I hired a fantastic team of web and app developers, editors, business development experts. I reached out to my network of artists, curators, critics, and tastemakers to create WSWD's team of local experts who could keep us up-to-date on the best performances, restaurants, and events in the city.

Then, trust the team you've built. It's one thing to build a team, though, and another to trust them enough to change the course of your business. No one should try to alter your vision, but sometimes the path to get there is different than you expected. In WSWD's early days, for example, I was reluctant to have a heavy emphasis on traditional theater because I was ready to be done with that world. I wanted to highlight quirky, avant-garde, and immersive performances and adventurous places to eat before and after. We do offer that—immersive theater is one of the most popular categories on our site and app—but my editors convinced me not to shy away from my experience and expertise on Broadway. Today, theater companies are some of our best partners and users can trust us to point them in the direction of truly great shows.

Always be making connections. I've talked and written many times before about my goal of meeting at least one new person every day, something I've done since I was just starting out in the theater scene over 25 years ago. And I don't just mean, "Hi, nice to meet you." I make it a point to sit down and chat with people, whether it's my barista, a fellow entrepreneur, a performer, a writer, my kids' friends…anyone! Everyone has a story to tell and everyone has a fresh perspective; these casual and often impromptu "meetings" have always been mutually beneficial.

Also, you never know when a connection will be made. When I would tell people about my new business, they would say, "Oh, you should meet my sister! She's an app developer!" or "I know a food writer who would be great for WSWD!" You may not become best friends or professional partners with all of the people you meet, but creating a large and diverse network of connections is indispensable to any business.

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