When I asked around the London tech scene this week for opinions about Seatwave founder Joe Cohen, who yesterday announced his retirement as chief executive of the ticketing marketplace, two themes stood out: conviction and cojones.
Cohen, widely regarded as one of the most talented entrepreneurs in Europe – he is, of course, an American by birth – occasionally rubs people up the wrong way by telling the truth in an industry slathered in air kisses, but those who have worked with him have little besides effusive praise for the man they describe as a “strong, but unconventional leader”.
Under his tenure, Seatwave has grown into the largest European ticket marketplace and raised $52 million in venture funding. It’s huge amount by European standards and has come from some of the best VCs in the business, including Accel Partners, Mangrove and Atlas Venture. He has also amassed a cabal of ferocious supporters.
“The key to Joe’s success is that he gets everyone thats works for him to believe in his vision,” James Hamlin, who served as marketing director at Seatwave under Cohen, told us. “He’s a true pioneer in the ticketing space and customer advocate, and he’s done more to promote much needed transparency in the ticketing category than anyone.”
Perhaps that’s because Cohen has imported his values, which derive from a natural affinity for running earlier stage businesses that tend to have greater licence when it comes to baring their chests, to a larger company. Cohen handled what could have been a nasty scandal earlier this year with finesse, leaving rival Viagogo to endure the majority of the opprobrium in the media.
Now Cohen is moving on from the business he founded almost seven years ago, saying good-bye to a company in strong shape with aggressive growth plans, for pastures as yet undecided. Normally, the departure of a chief executive who does not announce his next move would be cause for raised eyebrows, but no one I spoke to agreed.
“Joe has worked tirelessly for years on building this company,” said a colleague, who preferred not to be named. “Perhaps he felt it was time for someone else to take the reins, which isn’t unusual after such a long time. He has a wife and five children he probably wants to spend more time with before moving on to his next business.”
When we sat down to discuss his future plans, Cohen advised against relying on past performance as an indicator of future direction. Yes, he might have a track record in ticketing as an executive at Ticketmaster and as founder of Seatwave, but there’s “no reason to suppose” his next project will be in the same space.
“I may even go work for someone else again,” he whispers, as if it were a naughty confession. “Imagine that. Though, if I’m honest, it would take a pretty enticing offer for me to work for some corporate.”
According to one of Seatwave’s investors, who was almost as effusive in praising Cohen as some of his erstwhile employees, such a move wouldn’t be a surprise at all: “Joe has proven he can run big businesses just as fluently as start-ups. That said, I think the early stage is where he really shines. That’s what’s in his blood.”
Cohen says he will continue to explore angel investments in technology start-ups, and he remains a board member and investor in Sofar Sounds, the pop-up gig organisers.
The rumour is that a new chief executive for Seatwave has already been fingered, though Cohen, who is leading the search from his new role as chairman of the company, is tight-lipped. “I’m focusing on finding just the right person,” he says, “while also considering my options now.
“I’m interested in mobile commerce, video and health and fitness, but I haven’t seen an idea or thesis that excites me enough to start anything tomorrow. I’ll be looking around. There’s no need to rush into anything just yet.”
In a career defined by good judgment, Cohen concedes he made one public relations error a few years ago: his Twitter handle. What will happen now he’s no longer @SeatwaveJoe? “Oh, I’m still Seatwave Joe,” he says. “Until the next adventure starts.”