How the Shubert Organization Puts Startups on the Broadway Stage

By Kelsey Alpaio |  April 10, 2019

When Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Cats” first premiered on Broadway in 1982, the spandex-clad cast members pranced down the aisles of the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City — and kept prancing for almost 7,500 performances. Built by the Shubert Organization in 1911, the Winter Garden is now one of 17 Broadway and six off-Broadway theaters the company owns.

Along with managing the company’s real estate, the privately-held Shubert Organization also supports the production of musicals and plays in its theaters, and provides infrastructure for marketing and ticket sales. (It owns the ticketing system Telecharge.) And according to Kyle Wright, the Digital Projects Director at Shubert Ticketing, innovation and technology are a high priority for both Shubert and Broadway as a whole.

“As we think about trying to maintain our cultural relevancy as an art form and as a storytelling medium with successes like ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ ‘Be More Chill,’ and ‘Hamilton’ — those are all great,” says Wright. “Those will hopefully continue, but we have to do our part. A big piece of that is making sure that we, as an industry, continue to stay current and innovate. Innovation is key to maintaining an ongoing relationship with an audience that is changing.”

In his role, Wright interfaces with all of the divisions at Shubert to help identify opportunities to find new efficiencies or generate new revenue. Wright is also assisting with the organization’s new Broadway Tech Accelerator, which aims to identify and mentor entrepreneurs in the live entertainment industry. The application period for the accelerator opened on April 1, 2019, and its first cohort will launch in May.

Wright sat down with InnoLead to discuss the accelerator, Shubert’s innovation priorities, and the company’s history of working with startups. Highlights from the conversation are below…

The Shubert Organization

The Shubert Organization [has] three big divisions.

We have real estate — we own a bunch of different real estate in New York. [That’s the first division.] Some of that real estate is commercial theaters. That’s the second division, our commercial theater arm. [We have] 17 Broadway theaters and six off‑Broadway stages here in New York City, as well as one theater in Philadelphia, and one in Boston.

Our tickets division then facilitates the ticket sales, predominantly for our Broadway brands, for theaters, for productions that are owned by independent companies that exist within our theaters…

We don’t own the brands themselves, so we don’t own “Phantom of the Opera” but we do own the Majestic Theater. … One of our roles in the marketing space, and in the innovation space, is to provide ongoing support for the artists, rights-holders, and producers that are creating these beautiful stories that we have on our stages.

Because, when you book a Broadway show, you don’t know if [the show is] going to be around for a year or 30 years. It’s very difficult because of that to create long‑lasting infrastructure that helps these businesses operate in a modern setting. …

[I] sit between all the different divisions at Shubert and identify opportunities for efficiency building, for new revenue‑generating opportunities, or for helping our producers and artists continue to innovative and create current and relevant stories for our audiences to enjoy.

That’s a very broad‑based thing. Tactically, what that comes down to is, I work on everything from projects that involve data acquisition and visualization, so that our producers can make the smartest ticketing and pricing decisions they can make — all the way to helping our theater operations and audience services department create an on‑demand solution for closed captioning for our patrons who are hard of hearing, or for audio description for our patrons who have low vision.

Not surprisingly, pretty much everything I work on has a technology side to it. In today’s day and age, that’s where a lot of these opportunities are surfacing…

Moving from a Sandbox to Accelerator

Over the last six to eight years, Shubert has worked with about 10 different startup companies, spanning everything from…data visualization to accessibility testing. We’ve done that in an unofficial capacity, where we provide the sandbox environment for startup companies to test what it’s like to be in a Broadway theater. …

Our focus really was on finding…solutions that didn’t exist out of the box for us.

Inherently, because we are who we are and because we work in theater and entertainment, you’re not going to get a lot of enterprise-level companies that custom‑make…platforms for your business if you’re not a Fortune 500 company. We’re not big. We know that. We’re Broadway. We’re probably a billion‑dollar business, but it’s not a $100 billion business.

As we were looking for ways to innovate and improve patron experience and business practices, oftentimes, the tools we needed just didn’t exist. …

What we found is a great deal of success [collaborating with startups] to help them develop a lot of products that met our needs and that we would become a significant client of.

In many cases, if we really believe in the product and found that there’s a lot of interest, we will begin to kind of open up our network via our sales teams and a distribution model for that product.

In rare cases, we would invest if it’s something that we felt was core to what we believed in and we saw the need in the industry. … [Because] we found we got through this whole process and we were providing value. We got really excited about the company. Then we were like, “Wait, why didn’t we invest in the beginning of this?”

We realized that the way to do that was to create a formalized program where we put out there what we’re going to provide, and made that a more official kind of relationship along with our partners. …

The reason that we launched [the Broadway Tech] Accelerator, was a natural extension of that process. We wanted to go from it being an internally-driven, “Call us and we’ll set up a test” kind of thing, to a separate entity that we can point to, talk about, and have people apply to.

We’re democratizing that process and widening the net that we cast outside of our little bubble here in New York.

As we were looking for ways to innovate and improve patron experience and business practices, oftentimes, the tools we needed just didn’t exist. …

— Kyle Wright

The Accelerator Format

[The accelerator is] a 13‑week program. [The first] two weeks of it will be here in New York. … We have space on‑site here in New York for us to work in during the day. It’ll be intensive… training around everything from hiring and keeping diversity among hiring, to selling into somewhat older organizations, thinking about how you sell efficiency to someone who’s been at the company for a long time. Also, beginning the process of developing our pilot program live in one of our Broadway theaters, our ticket system, or our database.

After that first two weeks, they go back and all of the training and curriculum is virtual. There’s a week-[long], in‑person check‑in…here in New York. … Then, they go back again to wherever they call home. Then, [they] come back at the very end for the final weekend culmination and a demo day. We’re inviting a lot of the industry people from the entertainment sector, as well as private money venture capital for follow‑on capital infusion as well. …

The nuts and bolts are there is a [$140,000] cash investment for an equity stake, as well as a generous amount of in‑kind support from a legal fee perspective, curriculum perspective, access, union fee pays, all that good stuff, when it comes to the implementations of the pilot program. …

Anybody is welcome to apply at any stage, and we’ll see where the fit is. It could be that they’re an immediate fit. It could be that they’re not a fit right now, but they could be later…

The only thing that we’re definitely putting out there is that we really want people to have a technology component that they bring to us. That is a core component. That’s why it’s called the Broadway Tech Accelerator.

Beyond that, it could be anything. It could be efficiency‑building tech. It could be VR. It could be AR. It could be blockchain licensing tech. It could be any number of things. We’re really interested in anything that can help us build efficiency, tell stories better, or make the patron experience more robust.

The accelerator is a separate joint venture. Myself and our C‑suite executives represent the Shubert component of the joint venture. The other two partners are Exponential Creativity Ventures, which is a venture capital firm headed by Adam Huttler who started Fractured Atlas, which is a really interesting company in the nonprofit art space. …

Tim Kashani [is the other partner], who has a consultancy they call IT Mentors. He’s been in the curriculum-building and training space for entrepreneurs and innovators for 30 years. He worked with Microsoft in the 1990s. He used to work with them to develop all their training curriculum and workshops surrounding startup methodology. …

Each partner has a specific thing they’re bringing to the table. Shubert is, obviously, bringing a lot of experience and influence in the Broadway entertainment space. [Huttler] is bringing to the table all of the due diligence and the rigor of a venture capital firm, as well as access to follow-on capital. … [Kashani] brings all of the ability to train these entrepreneurs and provide curriculum to help them not only think about market fit, marketing, and scale within the entertainment industry, but also to think about the health of their product, the development of their pitch, how they do their demos.

What Success Looks Like

Obviously, exit and success from a financial standpoint is a goal, but I would say the more interesting goal for us tactically is [helping] these companies and entrepreneurs find follow‑on capital. …

Frankly, the number of applications is an important metric we’re looking at as well, because one of the more broad‑reaching ecosystem play goals for us at Shubert is two‑fold. One is to make sure that really smart people understand that they can have a career, and they have an impact in the entertainment sector, without having to be on stage.

We’re really looking at the next 10 years of our industry and saying, “We all know that the key to success and ongoing health is smart people in your industry.” While we have smart people today, we need to make sure that we stay on top of that. [We want to ensure] that technology, entrepreneurs, and people who have an idea…will know that, at least, this is one place that they can come to help build those ideas and bring them to market.

The second aspect of it is as we think about trying to maintain our cultural relevancy as an art form and as a storytelling medium with successes, like “Dear Evan Hansen”, “Be More Chill”, and “Hamilton.” Those are all great. Those will hopefully continue, but we have to do our part.

A big piece of that is making sure that we, as an industry, continue to stay current and innovate. Innovation is key to maintaining an ongoing relationship with an audience that is changing. …

Not every company we work with [at the] accelerator will be a fit for Shubert as a client.

That’s not the goal of that. The goal of that is to really facilitate the best entrepreneurs and the best companies to have a shot at scaling in the entertainment industry, regardless of whether Shubert will become a client or not.

Have a Conversation

I think everyone has to look at their own business and see where they most need advancement or opportunity leveraging or problem‑solving.

For some businesses, [working with startups is] not a good fit. For some, it is. … You don’t have to have an accelerator. You don’t have to take an investment. I think I’m always shocked at the level of value that my colleagues bring to new companies simply by sitting down and talking to them.

The best way to get started is to educate yourself. I think the best way to educate yourself is to just frankly talk to young startup companies. … I take literally every sales call I get.

A lot of times I get cold calls from startup companies. I will always take the call even if it’s not necessarily the best fit. I believe in that process. I find that those conversations always lead to ideas. Whether it leads to a relationship or not is a different story. I’m never afraid to have a conversation. …

If you have a conversation, nine times out of 10 you’re going to learn something. That’s how you get started.