Q&A: Entrepreneur Mary Kay Huse On The Future Of Live Events

Photograph by Tony Valainis

You grew up in the small town of Lebanon, which isn’t exactly known for its startup culture. How did you find your way to a career in tech?

I was an Orr Fellow after college, and I worked at Rose-Hulman Ventures for a couple years, which is where I learned about ExactTarget. I joined ExactTarget in 2004 and it changed my life. I moved to London and later San Francisco. By the time I came back to Indy two years ago, we had been acquired by Salesforce and I’d been gone for about a decade. Last year, I decided to start Mandolin.

Mandolin livestreams concerts, which have been all but impossible to stage live during the pandemic. Was it a love of music that made you want to leave your cushy corporate job and take a chance on this startup?

I love music, but High Alpha brought this opportunity to me, and I liked it for other reasons. My two cofounders are Robert Meitus (who’s a music lawyer) and Steve Caldwell (who’s a technology leader). Steve had been an entrepreneur-in-residence at the venture studio High Alpha, and Robert brought up what he was experiencing in the live music industry with his clients during the pandemic. High Alpha has a process they use for starting companies from scratch called Sprint Week. They put a team of people on it for a really intense, long week of work, and then they decide if it’s something they want to continue to pursue. This wasn’t the first idea they had brought to me out of Sprint Week, but it was the first one I got super excited about. With very little market research, it was easy to see that COVID would play an accelerant role. This is an industry that’s frankly a little behind in how it’s taking advantage of technology.

Once you decided to take the leap, what was the next step?

Robert, Steve, and I sat down and quickly built a plan for the things we would need to start streaming concerts on a regular basis. Steve got to work on the product side, and Robert introduced me to his network. I wanted to talk to as many people as possible—concert venue owners, musicians, labels—about livestreaming and whether they would consider doing it. Those conversations were eye-opening on how important this was. There were big artists that could afford to sit on the sideline and wait to see how COVID played out. But just like many other industries, the majority of artists couldn’t afford to stop touring and still pay their bills. They needed a way to make money, and this was the most fruitful way. As we saw that demand, we quickly got to work on building a team. Our first big show, Judah & the Lion, was in July. We were about six weeks old then. We had almost 1,500 people viewing, which wasn’t bad for a first shot.

How have things blossomed since that first show?

We have really exploded. We did about 75 shows from July to September, and then in October alone, we did 95 shows. So we had to figure out how to scale our processes pretty quickly. We exited 2020 having done more than 350 shows. We’re starting 2021 with a lot of momentum, which is exciting.

What role did Salesforce founder Marc Benioff play in the start of Mandolin?

We needed to find capital quickly. High Alpha offered to lead a small seed round, and I reached out to Marc. I knew he was a huge music fan because I had the opportunity to work closely with him in some of the roles I had at Salesforce. Marc connected me to his chief investment officer. I just said, “This is what I want to get done in the next 60 days,” and then I went and did it. That earned us a lot of credibility, and they chose to invest.

Tell me more about the conversations you’ve had with artists and venues. What are their thoughts on livestreaming?

They might not have done livestreaming yet, but they definitely know about it. Nine times out of 10, they’ve also had a conversation with another livestreaming platform, or they’ve researched how they might do it on Facebook or Instagram. A lot of times, the biggest hesitation from artists is, “Will I sound the way I want to sound?” That’s everything to them. So we’ve focused a ton of energy on making sure the audio/video is of superior quality before we put any additional features around it.

The pandemic will be over soon. What future does livestreaming have once people can attend concerts in person again?

Live music and entertainment are going to come back, but I believe livestreaming plays a big role in the industry returning stronger and more resilient than ever. If you look at livestreaming as the cornerstone of a broader digital engagement strategy instead of thinking of it as a replacement for the in-person experience, it’s really just an extension of reach and engagement capabilities, and the opportunities are endless. For example, the data we’re collecting on fans can help artists and venues make smarter business decisions. So I think it affects the future of touring. It can help make advertising, merchandising, and targeting decisions. And ultimately, that digital medium can help artists reach much larger audiences in the live realm than they ever thought.

Having lived in London and San Francisco, you have an informed perspective on what a healthy tech scene looks like. What’s your impression of Indy’s tech sector?

I’m really proud of the talent that exists here. We always want and need more. But the talent that exists today compared to where we were 12 years ago when I left is tremendous, and that was the single most important factor for Mandolin getting started. Companies, ideas, infrastructure, education, and financing are all super important, but ultimately, it’s people that make technology happen. It requires a very important skill set that is often only gained by doing. Growing the number of people here with that experience is the single most important thing we can do. 

Lastly, I’m curious: Any relation to Craig and Steve Huse, who own St. Elmo Steak House?

No, unfortunately not. I get that question a lot. I do love the cocktail sauce though.