In October of last year, RAMP, Roanoke’s business accelerator, saw a graduation of sorts.
Ticket Spicket, a startup co-founded by RAMP graduates Russell Hertzberg and Donnie Schemetti, sold out to another company. In the startup world, that is considered a significant milestone.
“Oftentimes, entrepreneurs are looking to grow their companies to a point where other, larger companies are interested in partnering or merging or acquiring their companies,” said Lisa Garcia, the director of RAMP. “It’s a great way to move on to a next level in a lot of ways.”
While other RAMP alumni have been successful, Garcia said, “Ticket Spicket’s the only one that’s been acquired that I’m aware of.”
RAMP, or the Regional Accelerator and Mentoring Program, located in downtown Roanoke, is a 12-week accelerator for business startups. The nonprofit’s mission is to propel high-potential STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) businesses in the Roanoke-Blacksburg region toward greater success.
RAMP is an affiliate of Verge, which Garcia describes as “a coalition-building nonprofit entity around technology and entrepreneurship and biotechnology, health and life sciences.” Verge’s funders include the city of Roanoke and the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
“We have a spring and a fall cohort,” Garcia said. “And each one has five seats available. It’s a competitive selection process. And each company that goes through RAMP gets $20,000 of non-dilutive funding, meaning they can use it for whatever they want.” The next cohort starts in mid-March.
RAMP welcomed its first cohort in 2017. Since then, 38 companies have been through the program. Garcia came on board as an instructor in 2018.
[RAMP celebrated its fifth anniversary last year; read more about its creation here.]
Ticket Spicket co-founder Russell Hertzberg explained how he got the idea for the company.
“My wife, my oldest daughter and I were sitting around the kitchen table talking about how her volleyball team could raise revenue,” he said. The Hertzbergs’ daughter played for Cave Spring Middle School in Roanoke County.
“My wife suggested to my daughter, ‘Why don’t you sell season tickets?’ And while I was sitting there, I, being a developer, technology person, I started thinking about how the process works today — or at the time — and it basically involved getting a plastic card that you would then take to the game and show at the event to get in to gain admission.”
Hertzberg visualized using a mobile app instead, with advertising to raise extra revenue for the school.
Hertzberg, then working mostly in Richmond, approached colleague Donnie Schemetti. “We had been working together at another company. Donnie has a marketing and design background. So those are the types of skills that I didn’t have, and needed some help with. We probably sat on it for a year and a half before we really started to make things happen.”
Schemetti suggested bringing in the third co-founder, Ernest Hawkins, who was actively involved from the official start, in 2016, until 2019.
Entrepreneurs use various means to raise money. Schemetti, a Richmond resident and Virginia Commonwealth University basketball fan, entered a half-court shooting contest at a VCU game, with a car going to the winner.
“And sure enough, he hit the shot,” Hertzberg said. “But he didn’t need the car at the time. So he was able to trade that in for the value. And a couple of months later, he decided that he was ready to make a move. We were working on this part time, right? We had a full-time job. And he quit his job on a Monday and decided to go all in on Ticket Spicket and so the rest was history from there for him. He never went back to another job.
“He was really our first full-time employee. And so we were able to accelerate the business. The traction was tough to get, but it was even harder if you’re trying to do it full time and you’re paying half attention.”
Attempts to reach Schemetti for comment were not successful.
Roanoke businessman Russ Ellis, for whom Hertzberg had done some work in the past, suggested applying to RAMP. Hertzberg and Schemetti went through the program in 2019.
“All of the classes, the instruction, the lunch-and-learns that we participated in, were really invaluable,” Hertzberg said. “I distinctly recall various things when I would see something, and I would recognize that that was something that we talked about in class, or some example that somebody like Allan Tsang, who was a negotiation expert, brought to the table.
“Mark Lucas was our mentor during RAMP who helped us through the program. Very successful entrepreneur here in Roanoke, and he continued to mentor me personally, but also, helped with the company, even up until our exit, so having him behind us and being able to kind of guide us I think has been tremendous.”
Just after Hertzberg and Schemetti graduated from RAMP, COVID hit. “While schools were adopting digital ticketing, it [COVID] really accelerated the adoption, because they needed to control their capacities. They didn’t want to take cash. And also control access to the tickets –who should be able to purchase them, because they did have limited capacities, and they wanted to make sure that parents got tickets before the general public. We really started to accelerate. And so did HomeTown and our other competitors.
“We grew significantly over the next two years. We went from 200 schools to where we ended up with over 1,300 schools, but it wasn’t as much the number of schools that we had, it was the amount of usage that we were getting. We went from maybe 10% to 15% of tickets being sold digitally to 100% of the tickets. So it was very fast.
“Because we had such good traction, we were looking to accelerate even further, and decided to look for some funding. We were approached by HomeTown and some others while we were looking for an investment, they approached us for an acquisition. And so it just seemed like the time was right and it just made a lot of sense to start to move down that path or to at least look further into it.”
HomeTown Ticketing announced the acquisition of Ticket Spicket in October. Nexa Equity, a private equity firm, had invested in HomeTown earlier in 2022.
Greg Feldmann is president of Skyline Capital Strategies, a Roanoke business advisory firm. “It’s a real validation that an entity would want to acquire a company, because it’s obviously valuable to them,” Feldmann said. “And so, it validates sort of everything that that entrepreneur set out to do.”
HomeTown describes itself as the leading provider of digital ticketing for schools, districts, conferences, and associations.
“The acquisition expands HomeTown’s capabilities and broadens the company’s geographic presence across the United States,” according to a HomeTown press release. “The combined company will serve more than 300,000 events annually and 40 million fans in all 50 states.
“Together, HomeTown and Ticket Spicket will have 250 employees dedicated to more than 16,500 K-12 schools, community organizations, associations, and conferences across the country.”
Attempts to reach Ryan Hart, chairman of HomeTown, were not successful.
Hertzberg and Schemetti continue to work for HomeTown. “So far it’s been great,” Hertzberg said. “I mean, for being such fierce competitors, the entire team has been welcomed with open arms.
“We have two separate platforms that we’re working to combine and so again, those present a lot of challenges, but a lot of opportunity. And I think that ultimately what we’ll have for our customers is a solution that’s going to blow everything else out of the water.”
One customer who’s already happy is Drew Barrett.
Salem High School tickets were cash-only before the school system switched to Ticket Spicket in 2022. Barrett, Salem High’s athletic director, said some of Salem’s fans started asking about alternatives. Barrett talked to a fellow AD in the River Ridge district who gave Ticket Spicket a good review. School administration gave Barrett the go-ahead to make the switch. “So we’ve done it, and it’s been great,” he said.
Upon entry, fans show a QR code on their phone. “We scan it, it takes 2 seconds, and they’re in and out and no cash is exchanged at all. So we definitely liked that aspect and just the streamlined part of it.
“A football game, we’re not having to deposit a lot of money at the end of the night, pay for security to help with the deposit or something like that, because it’s automatically directly deposited. So we’ve been nothing but pleased with it once it kind of got up and running. And there’s a learning curve with it. You’ve got to teach your fans, you’ve got to teach your students how to do it.”
Among other things, Barrett likes the prompt financial reports that Ticket Spicket generates.
Salem still offers a cash option, but Barrett said he would like to phase it out. “The VHSL [Virginia High School League], their state championship games now are all digital. There’s no cash. So I think we’re just, we’re all trending that way.”
Hertzberg still keeps an office in RAMP’s offices in the former Gill Memorial Hospital building on Jefferson Street.
Lisa Garcia was one of Hertzberg’s and Schemetti’s instructors at RAMP. Asked if she deserves all the credit for their success, she said, “I wish! Who doesn’t like to touch a rising star?”