Eric Baker: Premier player in online ticket trading takes on his critics
A Day in the Life: Eric Baker's Viagogo aims to bring safety and certainty to an often murky marketplace,but he has to work hard to defend his industry
Saturday 26 April 2008
Eric Baker likes to get an hour in the gym in the morning to "clear my head, think about what is coming up and organise my thoughts". This requires an early start, but today it will pay dividends because he's going to need a clear head.
The company that Mr Baker founded, Viagogo, is very much in the news following the call by the Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, for websites such as the online exchange to stop reselling tickets for "crown jewels" sporting events such as the Grand National, Wimbledon, the FA Cup and the Rugby World Cup final.
Mr Burnham has said legislation is very much a last resort (and the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is opposed), but he has called for a voluntary code of practice. As part of his response to this, Mr Baker is planning to do his bit to defend the industry on Radio 4's consumer programme You and Yours.
After his workout, the Harvard University graduate returns to his Knightsbridge home, his laptop and the overnight emails. "A global business like ours spans a lot of time zones. We have an office in San Francisco, for example, and, you know, the sun never sets on tickets. Whatever time it is, somewhere in the world, they're being bought and sold."
Mr Baker has arrived at Stamford Bridge for a meeting with Chelsea's chief executive, Peter Kenyon. Viagogo would rather work with sports clubs and event promoters than against them, and caused quite a stir when it signed partnership agreements with Chelsea and Manchester United to enable fans to buy and sell tickets, and particularly unused season tickets, over the internet (for a price, of course).
Such partnerships are required in the Premiership, but not in the US, although Viagogo has signed a deal with the NFL's Cleveland Browns and would like to do more. Says Mr Baker: "I sit down with Peter Kenyon and his colleagues, so I can see how our product is going, what the feedback is like, and how we can expand the concept. Chelsea is on the way to the office, so it's easy for me to stop by on my way in."
Of those who run the club, he says: "I find that they are very focused. They are very focused about winning on the field, but they also want to be the best off the field. This will to win extends through everything they do, and so it's an exciting place to go."
Viagogo now has similar partnerships with a growing stable of Premiership clubs, including Everton, Fulham, Portsmouth and Blackburn Rovers.
Controversial it may be, but ticket trading looks like it is here to stay.
The meeting is over and a satisfied Mr Baker has arrived at his office in Hammersmith, where he is holding a get-together with his senior management team.
"I'm sitting down with the guys who run marketing, operations, business development, and we talk about our objectives, what we have coming up and how our existing partnerships are going. We talk about the music festivals coming up and Livenation, the biggest promoter in the Netherlands, which we have a partnership agreement with."
Still, Mr Baker has some powerful opponents, who include Harvey Goldsmith and the Glastonbury Festival. But he argues that they will eventually have to come around as they become increasingly isolated.
"Look, we're there for the fan. The fan is our customer, but we want to work with the industry. Allocating tickets so only the buyer can get in doesn't work anyway, it's logistically impossible. Look at the World Cup. They told me when I came over here that if anyone could organise individual allocations it would be the Germans, but it didn't work.
"What we provide is a safe, secure environment for people to do this. It means they can sell unwanted tickets and buy them without having to deal with touts, or the man in the pub. A lot of operators like the fact that we are there because if you deal with the man in the pub you'll often end up with a forgery, and the venue gets it in the neck when they have to bar the buyer from entry."
Viagogo guarantees you will get your ticket when you buy over its site, and that it will be legitimate. This guarantee, of course, comes at a price, with 10 per cent of what the buyer pays and 15 per cent of what the seller receives going to Viagogo.
The controversy has come about, for example, by people sweeping up tickets for big events and then selling them at vastly inflated prices in the secondary market.
But, then, Viagogo came into its own during the aforementioned Rugby World Cup, which saw thousands of Australians and New Zealanders buying tickets to the final, only for their teams to crash out, while the English, with little faith in their team, found themselves in the opposite position.
Mr Baker is at the BBC studios in the West End for You and Yours, where he takes his critics head on. It's a job he's got used to, and he's good at it. He talks very quickly, but clearly. A casual dresser (sweater and slacks today), in common with many internet entrepreneurs, like so many Americans he's very open. A confident talker, he is blessed with the salesman's gift of the gab, which is so important in business. It makes him an effective advocate for his product.
After the programme, he heads back to his office for lunch, a sandwich, hurriedly eaten in front of the computer. "I'm a lunchtime worker. If I'm not meeting with someone, I'll work through, reading reports, looking at the website."
After lunch, he sits down for his 2pm meeting, which will focus on Viagogo's continuing international expansion. "We are talking about Spain, and we have some exciting events planned there.
"You know, I don't want to slag off America, but we do sometimes tend to see Europe as like the United States of Europe. We say Europeans do this, Europeans do that, and that's just wrong. Europe is a collection of individual countries, and each is very different. Each has its own culture, its own way of doing things."
After a short break to catch up with emails, Mr Baker has to interview a candidate to be his Spanish country head. "We are a growing business, so this is something I have to do a lot of. I like to spend an hour with them, to see whether they can do the job and fit with us. I'm looking for people who have high energy and are passionate about what they do."
He adds: "Look, we're not doctors here, I know. But we are proud of what we do, of what we've built and the service that we provide."
After a debrief with his HR head, he's on the telephone to New York and LA about the company's US operations before embarking on what he calls a "clean-up" of the day's events and a look through his calendar for tomorrow.
He won't finish until 8pm, when he will head out to meet his fiancée for dinner. "It's usually sushi or Lebanese food. It's a great way to unwind. I like to make sure I meet my fiancée for dinner every night. She's very understanding about my work and doesn't mind if I'm a bit late occasionally, but you have to strike a balance. I'm lucky, I have a wonderful fiancée."
The road to Viagogo
Name: Eric Baker
Position: Founder and chief executive, Viagogo
Marital status: Engaged
Education: Harvard University
2006-present: Launched Viagogo, where he remains CEO
2000-2004: Presidentof StubHub (founded while at Stanford)
1999–2001: StanfordBusiness School (MBA)
1997-1999: Bain Capital,associate based in Boston
1995-1997: McKinsey & Co, focusing on internet and e-commerce
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