About the episode

In their first few years of operation, Humanitix didn’t spend a cent on traditional marketing. Despite this, they managed to build up a client list that includes Google, TED, Red Bull, Canva and Facebook, and gave millions to charity in the process. How did they do it? 

Adam McCurdie is the co-founder and CEO of Humanitix, the new contender disrupting the fiercely competitive ticketing industry for all the right reasons. After making a pact with his close friend and co-founder, Adam left the corporate world in search of more meaningful work – and that relentless pursuit of purpose is the driving force behind Humanitix’s unconventional marketing. 

Adam explains to host Dr Juliet Bourke why traditional advertising hasn’t been an option for most of Humanitix’s history and how the company's clients have done the talking for them. 

Professor Frederik Anseel, Interim Dean at UNSW Business School, explains why the purpose-driven marketing of Humanitix works for some companies but isn’t necessarily the right approach for everyone. 

Want to know more? 

For the latest news and research from UNSW Business School and AGSM @ UNSW Business School, subscribe to our industry stories at BusinessThink and follow us on LinkedIn: UNSW Business School and AGSM @ UNSW Business School

  • Adam McCurdie  00:07

    People can pick up on whether or not something is authentic and you're doing the doing or something is a company trying to virtue signal for the purposes of marketing and greenwashing. And it's, as a result even harder and harder to convey when you're doing something authentic like we are Humanitix. It's harder to convey that it's not a greenwash that it is actually what it is, and what we're saying it is. But even more so in marketing, you are seeing a heightened scepticism of brands and companies that are obviously not authentic and are obviously just trying to take a cheap win for public praise.

    Dr Juliet Bourke  00:57

    Optimism is a pretty tough sell right now.   

    That’s especially true if you only talk the talk – consumers today are savvier than ever, and if you’re not walking the walk, they’ll see right through you. 

    Even if you are the real deal, how do you prove it to an increasingly sceptical market?  

    How can you break the pessimism cycle dominating social media and convince people that optimism’s still worth a shot?  

    I'm Dr. Juliet Bourke. And this is The Business Of, a podcast from the University of New South Wales Business School.  

    Adam McCurdie is the founder and CEO of Humanitix, a ticketing company that operates on a pretty unique business model. 

    Adam McCurdie  01:38

    Humanitix is an events ticketing platform for live events all around the world, where 100% of all the profits from booking fees go to children's charities, Humanitix itself is a registered charity, we're a nonprofit. So there is no equity, there are no shares, I, as a founder don't own a large percentage of the company that I'm hoping to sell one day and make a lot of money that does not exist. The big question for us when we started Humanitix was can you run a company, let alone a software business without shares such that rather than the company's produce production of profit going to shareholders, which is the point of a company instead, could you redirect that profit into the world's most effective charities, essentially, replacing shareholders with charity partners, and everything else about the business will run in the exact same fashion, you have to have a compelling product, you have to have happy customers, you have to keep your costs down. And you have to try to make as much of a profit as you can exactly like a regular company. The only difference being is where that profit ends up at the end of the day.

    Dr Juliet Bourke  02:47

    That is very interesting business model. How has it been received in market?

    Adam McCurdie  02:53

    Initially with a lot of scepticism. But after we broke through that, it's now being widely adopted by literally tens of thousands of event hosts all around the world, who are sick of the old way of doing ticketing, were very willing to switch their ticketing provider for their live event. And they do so for several reasons, not just because we give away 100% of our profits to charity. And the event host is able to then talk and market that to their ticket buyers that this year, we've teamed up with a ticketing platform, that's both lowering booking fees that we all hate paying and donating 100% of all the profits to charity. This week, Humanitix will give away another $4 million to our partner charities. And they talk about that gladly. And their ticket buyers are very happy to see that.

    Dr Juliet Bourke  03:46

    Take me through the startup of it. How did you come up with the idea with your co-founder, Josh, you know, how did you come up with it? And the relationship between you, what’s that about?

    Adam McCurdie  03:57

    We've been best friends for now, almost 20 years. And the two of us, Josh went down more of a finance career and finance path. I went down in engineering mathematics, path in our careers. But we were always incredibly excited to use those skills and form a career that was interesting and unique and had a genuine contribution to society. You see, you have these kinds of businesses that can produce a profit, and then decide to give away their profit all of it or some of it to produce impact that's broadly social enterprise, one aspect of social enterprise. That was really interesting and really inspiring to me and Josh, where we saw the gap was that you're seeing social enterprise cafes pop up, you're seeing like Thank You and fast moving consumer goods run a social enterprise. That's great. But all the money's being made in software and technology. These are the biggest, most powerful, most influential companies on the planet. And where are the social enterprises in that space? And so it was from that place that we started to look at potential industries in technology and software that could be disrupted with a social enterprise model. And that's where we started to go down our path of discovery. And so, in order to get serious about it, we ended up on a handshake. Rather than doing this in our spare time, you know, outside of our jobs, we made the decision that I would leave my job, give up my salary, and focus full time on building what would become Humanitix. But Josh would stay at his job, so that we could share his salary so that we could still share a lower but some income to put a roof over our head and feed ourselves. 

    Dr Juliet Bourke  05:45

    I have never heard a startup like that, before that that is unique. Did that give you enough capital? Or did you need to go and raise some capital?

    Adam McCurdie  05:53

    We were unsuccessful for many months to raise money. The main reason was because venture capital, being the primary source of funding for most startups was not available to us. Because there's no equity in Humanitix. Yeah, there's no return to them. So that source of capital was off the table for us. Debt also wasn't an appropriate source of capital. For us, we had no hard assets in the business, it's a piece of software on the internet. So that's not an appropriate source of capital. But philanthropy was our only option. And so slowly, but surely, we started to meet some very brave and courageous philanthropists, who saw what we were doing saw the initial success that we've been having. And we built up on a very basic ticketing platform. And they saw the vision that we are right now asking the philanthropists for money for us to grow to get to a particular scale. But what's exciting and different, all the other philanthropy that they're giving is that if this works, we're not going to have to come back to them for more money. The point of Humanitix is that we're able to ask philanthropists for an initial sum of money to build a team to build a great product. And for then at scale the business to both fund itself and to produce excess profit that is given away to the most impactful charities, which will far exceed the amount of money that we're asking for them to fund us right now.

    Dr Juliet Bourke  07:24

    Well, you just said you're giving away $4 million. So have you hit that point? 

    Adam McCurdie  07:28

    Yes. As of this week, our total is six and a half million dollars that we've given away. Yes. And just $4 million this year, to give you a sense of the rapid rise and everything that the company is doing. 

    Dr Juliet Bourke  07:44

    Right. So just want to take you to the core of Humanitix’ offer, is an idea of this feeling of optimism and purpose. How do you sell optimism?

    Adam McCurdie  07:55

    Amazingly, in events, ticketing, our event hosts are incentivized to help us sell that optimism. We sell the optimism to the event host which is wouldn't it be amazing that 100% of all the profits from these booking fees go to the world's best children's charities. Here's what we've done to date. And here's why that would be an amazing fit for your event and for your community. Where the secret sauce really lies is when the event organiser understands that and switches their events to Humanitix and realises that this is the biggest no brainer choice they could have made both from a price product and social impact perspective. And then they want to tell their entire community about it. Event hosts are more and more weaving that into their marketing efforts. So we get a fortune of people signing up to Humanitix to run their events every single day. People that we've never spoken to, when we ask them, How did you find out about Humanitix, they'll say what purchased a ticket to an event A friend of mine was running. I saw what you were doing. I love it. The event host was talking about it about how amazing this ticketing company is that we've teamed up with. And so that becomes an amazing source of acquisition for the Humanitix ticketing platform where there's this inbuilt virality with event hosts wanting to communicate why their choice of ticketing platform is good.

    Dr Juliet Bourke  09:25

    I mean clearly that influences the name choice Humanitix, am I right? Yeah. And I love the fact that people are playing back to you your vision in the way that you hear it But I have to confess I have used Humanitix a lot of times as a consumer I have never heard this message before. I'm just wondering like, how is that gap occurring between your aspirational state and my lived experience of never even understanding what your mission was?

    Adam McCurdie  10:06

    Two things, it's happening more and more now, where people are starting to understand what Humanitix do. And that is one because we're for the first time at Humanitix, putting an emphasis and starting now to invest in our marketing invest in our communications. Up until really, midway through this year, we've not spent a cent on marketing, it's been product, customer service, client acquisition, keeping our organisers happy, and giving them a product that they love. And then talking about it as best we can, but not really putting much focus and emphasis on that, that is now changing as we start to refine that message and to start to look at new and creative ways that this message, and the penny can drop for you as a ticket buyer. The second thing is now we're getting to the stage where the amount of money that we're giving away that Humanitix is giving away, is speaking for itself. And the idea is that those numbers speak for themselves as just a ridiculous sum of money that a company is giving away purely because it's adopted a model to give up shareholders as the primary reason that the company exists. And rather replace that with genuine outcomes for society via the best charity partners that we can find. And we want those numbers to speak for themselves. And we're very well on that path now. And that's why things are starting to change.

    Dr Juliet Bourke  11:39

    To just pivot then that you didn't have a marketing budget yourself, you were very organic, it was really relational. And now you've actually put someone on to help you with the marketing. You know, the product speaks for itself in a way why the pivot, and why the choice at the beginning not to do marketing. So then why the pivot?

    Adam McCurdie  11:57

    I would call it more of a complement than a pivot, our focus still remains on our product, our clients, everything that we've previously focused on, we're now just complementing that with our brand messaging and how that's working. It's just an opportunity that we've not invested in as much as we ought to invest. And previously, it was all about, and it still is largely about the ticket, you can have a great concept of we give away 100% of all of our profits to charity. Okay, let me look at your platform, oh, it doesn't have all the features that I need. I've got a music festival with thousands of people coming into my gate, I need an amazing app that works. I've got thousands of people hitting the site all at once trying to get the early bird tickets. Once ticket sales go live, I need fancy promotional features, I need marketing tools, I need email tools, I need a way to express my brand. Unless you can come to the table with a comparable or better product. The giving away of profits is nice, but it won't close the deal. And so focusing on that product like we still do, we can never take our eye off that we can never rely too heavily on the reason why clients use us being purely because we're giving away 100% of the profit that has to be the cherry on the top helping event hosts day to day is then a huge source of word of mouth, viral word of mouth that we've been able to create amongst the community of event hosts all around the world now. And marketing is really what people say about you when you're not around. And that that kind of more internal word of mouth marketing has been where the secret sauce continues to be. It's just now complementing that with more traditional brand communications messaging, that we're just we just ought to be capitalising on that would be silly to not get that as punchy and memorable as it can be.

    Dr Juliet Bourke  13:55

    So the marketing of optimism -just talk us through that a little bit. And what does that look like in practice?

    Adam McCurdie  14:01

    Our clients know they're working with us as in being different when they're working with us because we have intentionally instilled a few key company values at Humanitix that we intentionally express on a daily basis, predominantly to our clients. Show up, be bold, keep it weird, and the world is not fucked. Okay. And that fourth value sounds funny, and it uses a swear word which captures a bit of attention. But it's very intentional and is having huge impact. And that is that it's all very well to want to do good for the world, and so very well to want to help the planet. But coming from a place of pessimism is not helpful to anyone. Feeling like the world is fucked is not helpful, wanting to produce something and contribute something to society. It is, and coming from a place where we don't feel that the world is fucked. We just feel that we can be doing better as a society and taking opportunities where opportunities show up. It's exciting. And there's been a very, very intentional perspective on a social enterprise. That's really important for who we hire, and how we operate as on a day to day as a company, that we're doing our best, we're not upset with the world, and trying to fix the world. We're trying to do our best our contribution to the world, which is very, very different, and our clients, but the ticket buyers, and the event hosts who deal with Humanitix acts on a particularly on a one to one basis, and hopefully soon on our brand more and more. Appreciate that. And they understand that. And that has had the most profound, interesting and amazing effects on how optimism is expressed to our clients, and how our clients are then excited to be partnering up with a platform like Humanitix, which is showing optimistically what we can do with the tools that we've got to make a better contribution back to society. And that's a good thing. It's a positive thing. And we should be capturing all those opportunities as best as we can, rather than coming from a perspective of negativity, about all the things that are wrong with the world. That doesn't help anyone. 

    Dr Juliet Bourke  16:28

    The person who's going to help you now with branding and marketing, which you haven't had before. What's their brief? What do you ask them to do?

    Adam McCurdie  16:38

    First is to do an audit to all the touch points throughout our platform of which there are many as a ticket buyer, as an event host as to where people are interacting with the platform, we're at opportunities to be celebrating this, these milestones and these amazing outcomes and impact. And then finding creative ways to use our own channels, our own platform, to be talking about what's happening and what we're doing and the impact that we're making, and how to make that fit for event hosts as well. That's really the first piece of the puzzle, before going into more traditional public marketing on public channels. 

    Dr Juliet Bourke  17:16

    When you're trying to sell a feeling and it's in this emotionally, effectively emotionally charged marketing, sometimes that in your case, it's worked, but sometimes it can backfire. You know, I'm thinking about Kendall Jenner's Pepsi ad during the Black Lives Matter protest, you know, expecting one emotional outcome actually got the reverse. What are the risks associated with leaning into emotional marketing?

    Adam McCurdie  17:42

    Well, if you could call it emotional marketing of what we're doing, which I guess is selling that feeling, we're reporting back the actual tangible income impact that we've made, through giving away money to the most impactful charity partners possible. That is very different to coming up with a brand marketing campaign. That is signalling how we feel about society, or something more on that vein, like you were talking about with Kendall Jenner. That's a totally different kind of emotional marketing compared to we just gave away $4 million. And here's what variety children's charity has to his doing it. Here's what the Smith Family doing with it. Here's what these indigenous charities are doing it. Let me talk to you about the value of specifically girls literacy and girls education in developing countries. The research on it is phenomenal. And here are these amazing programmes that are actually doing the doing in community that we are funding. We're not standing in some marketing campaigns signalling to the world, how we care about girls literacy. In developing countries. We're funding girls literacy in developing countries. And to me, that's just a totally different. It's chalk and cheese, it's totally different. And therefore the risks. There are risks, of course, because you're hoping that the charity that you've done a lot of research on and our partners have done research on that they do great work, to do great work, and there's a risk that they do less good work or don't do good work at all and have negative outcomes. Obviously, there's that risk. 

    Dr Juliet Bourke  19:31

    If you were to distil what you've learned around marketing, what would that come down to? 

    Adam McCurdie  19:37

    People can pick up on whether or not something is authentic and you're doing the doing or something is a company trying to virtue signal for the purposes of marketing. And greenwashing now is becoming more and more common, and it's, as a result even harder and harder to convey when you're doing something with authentic like we are Humanitix. It's harder to convey that it's not a greenwash that it is actually what it is, and what we're saying it is. But even more so in marketing, you're seeing a heightened scepticism of brands and companies that are obviously not authentic and are obviously just trying to take a cheap win for public praise. And that's not working. And it's working less and less as the years go by. And the bar has been raised on what companies have to actually be doing, if they want to be telling the public about how they're making a genuine contribution. And so that authenticity is becoming more and more important and critical in the whole message.

    Dr Juliet Bourke  20:44

    So is the message their words and actions? Is that what it is? It's not just do the virtue signalling, but actually, you've got to show that that's materialising. 

    Adam McCurdie  20:54

    Yes. And I think it's up being honest as to whether or not your marketing is cheekily embellishing what's happening, or reporting on what the organisation is doing in a compelling way. You're allowed to report on what the organisation is actually doing in a compelling way. That's the job of marketing. But once marketing takes on a spin of a spin doctor are starting to embellish greatly on what's actually happening, you get found out eventually, it's just a matter of time.

    Dr Juliet Bourke  21:35

    When you’re “doing the doing,” simply reporting on what your company is up to can be highly effective marketing.  

    It's tempting then to focus on your core purpose to the exclusion of all else, but that's not the right approach for everyone, according to Professor Frederik Anseel. 

    Frederik is Senior Deputy Dean at the University of New South Wales Business School. He studies how people and organisations learn and adapt to change, and one change he’s seeing in business right now is a shift towards purpose. 

    But is that the right move for you?

    Professor Frederik Anseel  22:07

    So purpose driven organisations are very interesting and a very contemporary sort of organisation because they found a way to attract and motivate and retain people on the basis of a clear vision about sort of, Why do we exist in the world? What are we doing here? What is your added value? What is your contribution, and if you get that sort of vision, that purpose, crystal clear, the clarity aspect is very important to it. Sometimes it becomes a bit muddy if people are using too many words and are trying to be too many things to many people. But if it's a very clear, well-articulated purpose, a way of being in the world, why you're here, there's clarity around it, then people will sort of self-select into that type of organisation and say, Okay, this is something that I really want to contribute to this is important for me. And this gives me meaning this gives my own life or my own professional life, a certain purpose. 

    Now, the risk here is that a lot of companies saw how well that is working for those purpose driven organisations, and a lot of other businesses and companies have also started adopting this strategy. And the problem here is they're not really fundamentally purpose driven organisations, they're very traditional businesses, there's nothing wrong with that. But they're trying to use that purpose as a sort of almost like a doping sort of thing that they give a bit of an extra boost in terms of motivation. But often, it's not very genuine or not very credible. And that's where things often go wrong. And for those companies, I would say, look, there's nothing wrong with articulating a purpose, something that you believe in. But if you're not very focused, purpose driven organisation, do not enforce or impose that purpose on people. There's a lot of misunderstandings about emotions and consumer behaviours. And some people think, a bit simplistic that there's positive emotions and negative emotions and you just want to have positive emotions. And you want to avoid the negative emotions. One of my colleagues in the School of Built Environment in Art Design and Architecture, Professor Oya Demirbilek sort of summarises all the research on emotions and design and how you can build that in. And she has some very interesting sort of observations where she says, Well, it's not just positive emotions, but these are very specific types. For instance, familiarity, things that you have gotten to know during your childhood that you build up a social associations with positive stories that your family told you about, and that creates a sort of deep familiarity and that is something that you would want to Repeat in the future.

    But it can also hinder you like, for instance, if we think about another state or emotion is ambivalence and ambivalence basically means that you're feeling several emotions at the same time, it can be both positive or negative. For instance, a colleague of mine at UNSW Business School, John Roberts, who's Scientia Professor of Marketing, has done some research on that sort of ambivalence. And I'll give you an example imagine that I really am attracted to car a Tesla, right. And I find that design, it's very nice, i It looks sleek, I get a very positive feeling with it. But at the same time, it has associations may be with the founder and Elon Musk and what is happening on what was used to be called Twitter now X. And a lot of different emotions come up. And as soon as people feel that sort of ambivalence, very different emotions that they don't have any clarity that might interfere with decision making. And so you can see that it's not just positive or negative. It is a very sort of complicated emergence of states and feelings that people experience when they think about a certain product. And that, of course, makes it challenging for any company because how do you how do you manage that complicated picture of emotions.

    Dr Juliet Bourke  26:30

    Purpose is powerful, but it can’t just be a marketing tool. And as more businesses lean on ideals and values in their marketing, it’s harder than ever to tell who means it, and who’s just playing the game.  

    But if you’ve matched the promise of your business to your actions – you can be optimistic people will see your authenticity and trust it.  

    The Business Of podcast is brought to you by the University of New South Wales Business School, produced with Deadset Studios.   

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