Side Door: the tech platform helping artists make a living
Co-founded by Vancouver musician Dan Mangan, the startup enables artists to perform in non-traditional venues and recently secured a deal on Dragons’ Den.
Beer can’t pay the bills, but for Juno-award winning artist Dan Mangan, that was often how he was compensated in the early days of his career. Although he enjoyed performing in bars and other smaller, intimate spaces, the financial returns were always variable. “If I played to 30 people in a bar, I'd get paid in beer tickets, and if I played to 30 people in our living room, I got $500,” he said.
Although Mangan eventually built a successful career as a musician — performing in large venues all over the world — when he founded his own record label, he found it challenging to secure smaller settings that would still be financially meaningful for his bands. “I remember back in the early days thinking, you know, man, if only there was a network of house concert hosts or something that was easy to tap into.”
Side Door co-founders Laura Simpson, left, and Dan Mangan, right. Photo: Lindsay Duncan
In 2016, Mangan connected with Laura Simpson, who was based in Halifax and working to help artists tour and market themselves outside of the region. The most successful shows, she said, weren’t necessarily in larger, official venues, but in non-traditional spaces like living rooms. Simpson was also personally hosting shows out of her home and saw true potential to scale: “I wanted to prove out how anybody could become a host and to make it really efficient,” she said.
Side Door was founded in 2017 by Mangan and Simpson to better equip artists to perform in unconventional spaces. “We didn't create the house concert,” said Mangan. “But we can daylight it and we can give you the tools to legitimize it.” He noted that 97 percent of artists are unrepresented by an agent, effectively preventing access to established venues. “We want you to be able to tour 100 alternative venue spaces in a year, and then have a document you could give to your accountant at the end of it.”
A performance by Reuben and the Dark, a Calgary-based indie folk band, enabled by Side Door. Photo: Lindsay Duncan
Today, Side Door is a marketplace for hosts and artists and offers a unique solution to bring a live performance to the stage equitably between the two parties. An apparent competitor is Sofar Sounds, a startup that organizes pop-up live performances in small venues. “Sofar Sounds is like a curation tool. You pay money to go to a private event and you don't know what's going to happen,” Mangan said. “But it's going to be cool because they've curated something for you.” However, the company was notably criticized in the past for failing to pay its performing artists adequately and failing to pay its hosts at all.
In contrast, Mangan hopes for Side Door to eliminate the gatekeeping between hosts and artists. “What we have built is essentially the engine that allows anybody to be their own Sofar Sounds,” he said. “We create a double opt-in, where both sides have to sign off on the show and all the details to make it launch,” Mangan added. This allows for a custom revenue split for both the host and the artist. “It is a shared risk and a shared reward [...] After the show, automatically dispersed in everyone's bank account is their cut of the settlement. So no one has to be asked to be paid,” said Mangan. “And that's a new thing in the industry.”
A mobile mockup of Side Door’s app, showcasing the startup’s feature that allows artists to make an open call to hosts in an area. Photo: Side Door
Especially valuable, added Simpson, are the necessary tax compliances built into their software that are often overlooked by artists and hosts in informal venues. “We really wanted to make the tools transparent so that it legitimized these shows,” she said. “These artists that are doing these shows can prove out, ‘I can sell this many tickets in this market’ [...] And [the artists] can take that to promoters and venues and other opportunities. And we can maintain that data record for the artists so they can build their career.”
Simpson and Mangan pitching Side Door on Dragons’ Den. Photo: CBC
The company has raised a number of financing rounds but most recently found itself on Dragons’ Den. For co-founders with more experience in the music industry than in tech, learning the language, participating in startup accelerators, and courting VCs was difficult enough, but pitching to the Dragons presented a wildly different challenge.
“It's funny, being in the soundstage with a bunch of lights on you,” described Simpson of their Dragons’ Den experience. “And then all six of the Dragons are basically just firing questions — interrupting each other, interrupting you. You're trying to remember which question you're answering [and you realize] you’re like three questions [behind]. And you have no notes: you can't refer to anything. And a lot of the questions are numbers-based.”
For budding tech startups looking to pitch to the Dragons, Simpson and Mangan offered a few words of advice.
Mangan performing for the Dragons during the pitch. Photo: CBC
“Know your numbers. If you stutter on your numbers, you’re done,” said Mangan. “If Dragons’ Den is the first pitch you've ever done, that's probably not a good idea [...] Laura and I had the experience of being grilled by 100 other investors prior. So nothing they said surprised us.”
“For tech companies, it's tricky because they really go for the tactile stuff on the show,” added Simpson. “That's why we had Dan performing — you had to pitch something that's an experience or something tactile that people can really sink their teeth into.”
Side Door successfully secured a $500,000 investment on a convertible note from one of the Dragons, Arlene Dickinson. But both Mangan and Simpson agreed that even if they walked away without an investment, the exposure alone was meaningful, particularly in attracting new hosts to their platform. “There are millions of untold potential venues: in people's homes, spaces, cafes, bookstores, wherever,” said Mangan. Side Door hopes to bring a performance to a new space near you.