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Another conversation with Eugene Carr & Rachel Hands




Rachel Hands interviews Eugene Carr about his journey from professional cellist to tech entrepreneur. 


Rachel: Hello and welcome.

Eugene: Hi.

Rachel: Today for a change of pace, I'm gonna interview Gene about his journey from musician to CEO, to founder, to all kinds of other things. Really excited to have you on the hot seat today, Gene.

Eugene: Thanks.

Rachel: As we do here, have you start with telling us about your artistic journey?

Where did you start this whole process?

Eugene: Yeah, sure. I'm pleased to, to say that I started playing cello. When I think I was eight and I. Started in public school. I was one of those people that the teacher came around and said, who wants to play an instrument? And I didn't really think much about it.

I'm like, oh sure. And I got into it and I realized it was really fun and that I convinced my parents that I should get private lessons. And the great thing about playing cello is that you plan an orchestra. And suddenly when you're in an orchestra becomes a communal. And different than playing piano, let's say.


And so I got pretty serious about music all through high school. I was lucky enough to get into the precollege program at Julliard. And so I grew up on Long Island and I would go into the city every weekend for lessons in orchestra, chamber music at Juilliard. So I was on a pretty serious music track. And then I decided to pick a college that offered me something unique, which is a music and an academic program. I went to Oberlin where they offer you a conservatory education and a degree in cello. And at the same time, I was in the college. And I got a degree in history. So I had a really wonderful and fulfilling time.


And I would say at Oberlin, school was small enough where I could flex early entrepreneurial muscles. And I got involved in a trio that I booked for concerts and we played concerts all over the country. So I had a little bit of that managerial bug in me even back then. . And then I graduated fully convinced that I was gonna be a musician and moved back to New York City.

And I did what most musicians do when they get to New York, I thought, oh, I'll be a freelancer. And maybe I'll play for musicals and I'll play here and there. So I, in those days, there was pre-internet, who you knew. And so I managed to meet a bunch of people and got engaged to play in a pit orchestra for a production at a place called the Long Wharf Theatre, which is in New Haven, Connecticut.


Now I was in New York City. And if your geography, New Haven is not exactly a short ride. It's a good two and a half hours. And that's if there's no traffic. So for a period of a couple of months, a violinist and I got into his car and we left New York City I wanna say around three, we got to New Haven. We had a bite to eat. The show ran from, let's say 7 or 7:30 to 10:30. Then we got back in his car and we made it back to New York city by midnight. And then we turned around and did the same thing. Every day, I think Monday was day off. Otherwise we were doing this routine for months and I was young and it was fun, but there was a little something in the back of my mind that said this might not be that sustainable.

And of course I wasn't getting paid a lot. So that was the beginning of, oh me. I'll be a cellist and. So that's now the fork in the road comes, so I'll end my musical answer there.

Rachel: And so we know you today as founder and CEO of a bunch of companies that were really tech companies. And tell us a little bit about that. How did your path sort of vector off into, now you're running a technology company?

 

Eugene: So I have to I'm gonna have to make it a slight detour to say that when I was in New York, I also decided to get to know a lot of the people that were running cultural organizations in New York City, partially because I had done some of the stuff at Oberlin and I had been an intern and I thought maybe I could apply for some of these sort of admin jobs.

And luckily. I was friendly with the executive director of the American Symphony Orchestra who was looking for an operations manager precisely at the time that I was running around, trying to decide if I'm gonna be a freelance musician. And lucky for me, his number one candidate who he had hoped to get the job, turned him down and suddenly it was the beginning of the season and he was scrambling, and he called me and I was definitely the second. I was the first runner up, but I got the gig and I ended up staying at the American symphony for three or four years as head of operations. And during that time, it gave me a lot of time to think about whether I wanted to stay as an orchestra manager or not.

And the quick story is that I had enough managerial experience that I decided to really make a left turn. And I decided to go to business school. And I got an MBA at Columbia which everybody was aghast, my family and my friends thought what are you doing? You're a cellist, you're running an orchestra. What are you getting an MBA for? But in the back of my mind, I always knew that I wanted to run my own business. And growing out of that experience, I recognized the earliest days of the internet. And it's akin to how many people think about crypto today. It's a thing that only some diehards really know about.


Nobody knows if it's gonna be successful or not. The internet itself was like that there was no Amazon.com. There was a thing called Yahoo. There was a small company in Virginia called America Online. That was just getting started. But I saw this and I thought, oh, this is a great opportunity to latch onto new technology. Use my musical and cultural. And fuse it with my managerial stuff. And so I came up with the idea of a company called Culture Finder, and the idea was to essentially recreate on the internet, the arts section of the newspaper because I thought every newspaper has a listing site and you can buy tickets and sits the internet, theoretically was gonna displace print media.


Nobody knew if it was or not, but that was what the evangelist said. I thought at some point every cultural organization's gonna have a website and everybody's gonna sell ticket. And why don't I have a compendium, a website that, that lists thousands and thousands of events all over the country. And if you're going to Philadelphia and you wanted to see theater, you could click in a couple of buttons. And so I started that business and lo and behold AOL had a program that was similar to shark tank, where you could go down to AOL, you could apply. And give them an idea. Now you have to remember that there were no ".com" companies that were making any money.


This was, it was pre eCommerce, but I went down to AOL and I said, I've got this great idea. I come from the music business and I ran an orchestra and the arts sections of newspapers take get a lot of advertising and tickets are sold. So we should do that on AOL. And I won that competition or that the thing and AOL actually invested in my company called Culture Finder.

And so almost on a dime, I went from running an orchestra to running a tech company. And I had no reason to believe that I would know what I was doing. I absolutely had no tech background, but then again, the internet was young and the people that did have a tech background had maybe six months.


There was nobody that had been in the business for 10 years. They had been in the business for a year. So I didn't feel like I was that far behind, but that's how I made the switch. Now. I'll fast forward to say that the company I started Culture Finder did really well. We were running for a while.


All of the message boards and the forums on AOL for the arts and everything was going great until the market collapsed much like the market collapse of 2022. Where everything is imploding. I lived through that experience myself, all of the funding dried up, everybody marched in a different direction.


And that company didn't survive that .com crash. But what came out of it was my, I took all that learning and I thought if every cultural organization is gonna sell tickets online and raise money online and promote themselves online, they're all gonna need technology. They're gonna need email.


They're gonna need ticketing. They're gonna need fundraising. So why not create a company that provides all of that back office technology for cultural organizations. And that is the company that turned into Patron Technology and ultimately our ticketing and fundraising product called patron manager.

So that's the journey that led me to running a tech company.

Rachel: That's really fascinating. And it's the first time I'm hearing some parts of that. And it's really interesting in particular, I'm interested in the resilience that it shows to have a company that goes under during a big economic collapse, like the .com collapse.

And then to say, you know what, this is still the track. I'm I think I can do a different thing and I think I can do it better. And then to do it for, a good long time after that.

Eugene: Yeah, I think I bury probably my own memory. To, to share a little bit, I had in the Culture Finder days, I had a staff of 60 or 70 people.

Who all got laid off, not through my own bad management, but that's what happened. And I went into the office, the week after to an office of, desks and chairs and computers. And I sat there for six months. Unraveling the mess that was the outcome of the .com crash. And I just sat there and I thought there is nothing wrong with the internet.

There is nothing wrong with, I was more convinced about the future of the internet than I had ever been. The only thing that no, the only thing that was not convincing was that the investor community wasn't convinced that the internet was gonna be for real, but I was convinced and I just thought, I'm gonna do this because they're gonna catch up to where I am.


So I won't say that it wasn't a lot of soul searching and a lot of days sitting in an empty office and really, but I just believed, I really believed in it. And then I threw everything that I had. And, anybody that started company will tell you that it is a seven day a. Enter enterprise and it's no vacations and it's you're up early and all of those things are true.

But I just the resilience part came from a really deep-seated belief that there was something truly valuable about this idea and that I wanted to pursue it.

Rachel: Yeah. There's also something here. How many different kinds of organizations you were able to impact over the course of these various companies.

So not just the, being in one symphony orchestra and managing it well, that's a path and, a lot of folks do really well on that path themselves. But where I see you tend to light up is where you see potential for that kind of idea to spread and sort of the capability that tech has as an amplifier for the best practices that you learned, as, a manager of the American Symphony. To be able to say, now we have the ability to codify this and make it easy for lots of people to do this same kind of thing. And make it more straightforward. Does that resonate for you?

Eugene: It does. I think the two things that this comes out of my personality, but. I never aspired to be a teacher in a classroom, but I love helping people understand something new, which I guess is a form of teaching. And I set about as part of the mission of Patron Technology and Patron Manager in particular, to educate the field, to open people's eyes up and say no, the future looks great. And here's how you can do it. We started that company. We built a product called Patron Mail, which was the very first email marketing product in the arts. And then we morphed into Patron Manager, which was ticketing, fundraising and marketing. And in the Patron Mail days, I wrote a book called "Wired for Culture: How email is Revolutionizing Arts Marketing". And then many years later Michelle Paul and I, co-wrote a book called "Breaking the Fifth Wall" about CRM and eCommerce and all of that. It just makes me feel good. To help people see, do things better. I just that I really get excited about that. And that's part of what made doing what we were doing not really feel like a job. And I suppose it felt like being an evangelist. I had, I was beating a drum saying no, look, try this. And then when it comes back and when people come at you later and they say, oh my goodness, we did this and this. And it made our lives so much easier. That for me is what really made it all really worthwhile.

Rachel: Yeah. And I can see that just in all kinds of conversations with you and I think there's also maybe some benefit here to talking a little bit about how your cello playing still factors into your life, because through this whole journey, you're you're still very tied to your musical core. And I would love to hear a little bit more about how that fits into your life today.

Eugene: Yeah. It, yeah. So this is fascinating. I would say that when I was working at the American Symphony that old adage about if you work at a candy store, you don't eat candy because you're around it all day. When I was running the American symphony, I really didn't play the cello very much.


I was with musicians all day. I was immersed in music, but I just didn't have that bug. But when I started running Culture Finder, I will tell you a quick aside that I hired, I think my second employee at Culture Finder was an employee who was a cellist. She was a graduate of Columbia University and her resume came in and I noticed that she was a cellist.

And I remember telling her on the interview that she had a huge disadvantage, a huge advantage. Over every candidate because she was a cellist. So it turns, it turns out that she was the very best candidate. She stayed working for the company, I think for five years, but somewhere along the line, she and I had a Monday morning conversation and I said what did you do over the weekend?


And she said, oh, I got together and I played chamber music. And a light bulb went off in my head and I'm like, wait a minute. I'm making money. I've got a life that I've got some free time. Holy smokes. I could play chamber music. So what happened is I said to her, let's play some cello duos. So we did, and then she introduced me to a bunch of people that were playing chamber music.


And I this world that I already knew was there opened up to me and then. And then I coincidentally ended up for over 10 years playing in a band at a synagogue in the upper west side of New York City. Keyboard, cello, piano, guitar and drums that accompanied the services of a synagogue that got 800 to a thousand people every Friday.

And suddenly I had a gig, I had a regular weekly music gig and I did that all of those years. And now running the clock forward, I've managed to meet up with a whole bunch, a whole community of professionals like myself who studied classical music seriously, but now do other things. And there's a whole community in New York city that gets together and plays chamber music.


And it has really been transformative. So I, I am playing a lot. And I have probably more music opportunities. Than I can handle, which is saying a lot.

Rachel: Yeah, I think that's a really important takeaway for folks who might be thinking about moving toward a career in tech or in a new career path that, that doesn't necessarily mean it's the end of your artistic life.

There's more out there for you.

Eugene: I think the key to me was this, first of all, this notion that I could choose. To allocate my time to play music. And it was things that I wanted to do, people that I wanted to play with. And in fact, Rachel, you and I had a conversation a while ago about the notion of commissioning work.


And in fact, I got together with the cellist some years ago and she and I were playing cello duos together and decided that we would commission young composers to write short pieces for two cellos. And again, because I had a job and because I had some resources, we decided to fund it ourselves and we found young composers and it was really rewarding.

I think that what happens in a world in which you've got a, secure way of making money. And you've got flexibility with time, music, actually, you become two things happen. One is that you realize you've played better because you're playing things that you wanna play. You're not playing a wedding job that you didn't really want to take or driving to New Haven, Connecticut for three hours.


And number two it's that much more rewarding. And you get this sort of freeing sense. I certainly know this that I'm playing for the joy of playing. I don't have to be doing this, and therefore it's just, it feeds on itself. And I would say that I have more playing opportunities now and more joy in playing music now than probably at any time in my life.

And that's saying a lot.

Rachel: That feels like a pretty important thing for folks to, to hear in certain points of their career. Any final words of wisdom for our listeners, viewers, readers, following along at home?

Eugene: Sure. I would circle back because I've had a lot of people ask the question you asked me. How did you get into tech and do you need to be good in math and, do you need to be, do you know how to code?


And the answer is a resounding no. There was nothing that I learned about being involved in tech or running a tech company that wasn't learnable that I actually found it to be fascinating. And Rachel you, and I know we work with some pretty sophisticated engineer. And programmers. And I'll tell you what, with no programming background whatsoever.

After a couple of years of being in the business, I could sit down at those meetings and follow much. I guess the answer is if you speak Spanish, you could follow an Italian person speaking in Italian, cuz it's close enough. And so I guess I would say people should not feel like the door is closed to them.


If they didn't have a background in math, if they never did coding, if they ever even thought about it before, none of that matters. This tech world has so many opportunities, so many different facets that it's really worth exploring and it's worth exploring because it's an industry that is going to grow for years and years more and the opportunities are just enormous and ever increasing. 


Rachel: Absolutely. Thanks so much, Gene. And we will see you all next time.

Eugene: Thanks so much. This was super fun.

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