“Dabble was founded on the idea that everyone has interests, skills and passions and we all long to connect,” says Dabble CEO and Chief Dabbler, Jay Swoboda. After all, it seems like most people today are too busy with work to cultivate after-hours interests (they’re lucky if they squeak in a trip to the gym), much less “dabble” with a few to find one they love—or just play with their curiosity.
Dabble, an “event marketing technology and interest discovery platform,” aims to change this by connecting “curiosity with passion in local communities,” says Swoboda. “We believe that learning doesn’t need to happen in a classroom, can be “fun” and that anyone can teach, learn or host.”
Erin Hopmann and Jess Lybeck founded the company in May 2011: As “young professionals in a big city, they found it hard to just “dabble” in their interests, try new things and meet new people rather than committing to often expensive, multi-session classes,” says Swoboda.
Originally, both had quit their day jobs to launch a marketing and branding company that would focus on small businesses and entrepreneurs, Swoboda says. “One thing that seemed to be a common denominator was that everyone needed more customers, and that many talented people needed support sharing their passion and skills. Over and over, it seemed that events, classes and workshops were an incredible way to find new, loyal customers.”
The founders drew on sites like Skillshare.com andLearnapalooza.com for early inspiration and began building the first website on WordPress for what would eventually become Dabble.” After attracting their first teacher partners they launched with 18 classes and bootstrapped for a year before raising funding and moving the platform to a Ruby on Rails site in late 2012,” says Swoboda.
Hopmann and Lybeck built the company for three years “before handing the reins over to the new team when resources ran out,” says Swoboda. Today, he says “they remain some of our biggest cheerleaders.”
A Rollercoaster of a Ride
Dabble’s ride hasn’t always been an easy one: It’s “grown and scaled back many times over its five-plus year existence to make ends meet,” says Swoboda.
Dabble laid off “just about everyone in September 2013,” says Swoboda. “The company was very close to going under, but the idea is just too good to die and has proven resilient against the odds.”
During that time, they launched a website that would deeply resonate with the startup community. “When Dabble was considering what to do in the fall of 2013, the founders launched a website that struggling entrepreneurs still read today called “30 Days of Honesty” that documented the founders’ journey as they struggled to keep Dabble alive,” says Swoboda. “The resulting response and surge of energy from the community as a result of their candor and transparency very likely saved Dabble.”
They’ve carried on that spirit in their current operations. “It is this same transparency and honesty that we embody every day in how we operate Dabble with our team and our community,” says Swoboda. “Running a startup is hard. Really hard—even with funding—but without funding it’s like having your kneecaps slammed with a sledgehammer if you’re not honest with yourself and your customers.”
Since 2013’s hard times, they’ve seen support come in from some significant sources: They won an Arch Grant in 2014 and followed it up with participation in Capital Innovators Spring 2015 cohort, which “was very instrumental in the rebirth and continued existence of Dabble.”
“Over the years, we’ve learned that even without funding and money in the bank, a good idea can survive,” says Swoboda. “We exist today because of the strength of our teachers and hosts and the willingness to keep working–despite a lack of financial resources–to provide a platform where over 75,000 people can explore their interests, try new things, meet new people and build their own brands by offering events on the platform.”
Even last year saw big changes: “Earlier in 2016, we had 10 staff members and our own office in the River North area of downtown Chicago. Now, we have four distributed full-time staff with over 28 part-time company ambassadors supporting 4,000-plus teachers and hosts who list on the platform in the US.”
No longer in the River North office, the team members work out of Soho House in Chicago, and they’ve created an office culture that’s lively and vibrant. “We make an effort to make each other crack up throughout the day through frequent GIFs and passive-aggressive fake support emails we take turns fighting the urge to send,” Swoboda says.
They’re not the only ones in the learning/experience/events space, either:
“The event and experience ticketing space is pretty crowded with some big names like Eventbrite, Meetup, Ticketfly, Ticketmaster and even the relatively recent addition of Airbnb,” says Swoboda. “However, the local event ticketing and marketing space is a bit smaller, led by Chicago-based Groupon. Other competitors like Coursehorse, Vimbly and Zozi have partnered with larger companies or moved to SaaS platforms and don’t seem to directly compete.”
There’s one big competitor out West, though: San Francisco-based Verlocal. They launched a little more than two years ago, says Swoboda, and “raised a bit more funding out of the gates.” Since then, “they’ve grown aggressively to 15-plus US markets, expanded with a handmade marketplace and are pushing local services (hair, nails, etc.) and a social network.” But they’re not where Dabble is: Although they’ve grabbed a lot of the market, they still haven’t been able to crack into Chicago, Denver and St. Louis.
All that aside, Dabble occupies a unique position in its world: By focusing on class and experience ticketing and marketing, they occupy a niche that other companies orbit. “As a result we have the No. 1 spot on Google when it comes to anyone searching for ‘classes’ in Chicago, Denver and St. Louis without having to spend a dime on SEO/SEM,” says Swoboda.
Passing the Torch
When Swoboda took over as Chief Dabbler in 2014, he was ready for a challenge. “Growing up without a lot of resources on a working Missouri farm as one of 13 kids will prepare you for just about anything,” he says. “I’ve been financially independent since I was 14 and had started six companies in the nonprofit sector and sustainability space before taking over Dabble in 2014. I’ve learned to be self-sufficient but also to really appreciate the lucky hand I’ve been given.”
Despite their difficulties, Swoboda sees big things ahead for the company. “Dabble has come a long way over the past five years, but we’ve got a lot of things we can still do and improve upon. I’m incredibly encouraged that we’re growing so well (75% YTD over 2015) with such a limited geographical footprint and a lot of opportunity with our tech.
In December 2016, the company had just listed their 10,000th in-person class or experience, “which truly demonstrates the depth of skill and passion among our teacher network around the US.”
And more funding is coming through: “We raised $1.5 million in equity [in 2016] and $2.25 million to date and are raising a new round to keep growing our monthly revenue beyond the $50,000 per month average to keep growing our community to hit 100,000 users in early 2017,” says Swoboda.
Speaking of the users, who exactly are Dabblers? “It changes from city to city, but the overwhelming demographic of the Dabble user is a 25- to 40-year-old professional woman,” says Swoboda. “They love to explore their city, mix up their routine and even share their skills building their own businesses. Dabble is a tremendous resource for them and they support us in a huge way. They are our best ambassadors for Dabble and push us to continue to improve and bring new experiences to the community.”
“If we can secure the resources to keep growing Dabble, we are pushing hard for an expansion across the US through some national partnerships as well as the organic demand for authentic and affordable local experiences,” he says. “We’re building a seamless and simple product for anyone looking to host and promote events anywhere that is more affordable than the competition and, more importantly, tied to data-driven marketing technology to actually market listed events driving revenue and loyal customers.”
As far as all this means to its users: “I believe that Dabble can become the de facto site for monetizing your side hustle and finding cool things to try in your local community,” says Swoboda. “My search for someone to teach me how to build an oak cask and to learn to plaster led me to Dabble. What can it lead you to? There is so much knowledge in the world that is not being shared, and I would love for Dabble to be such a repository of skills and knowledge.
Dabble seeks to empower lifelong learning, and I believe such a vision can inspire millions of people to share their skills and break up their routine through one-time classes and experiences.”
Part of the platform is bringing the local aspect to a globalized world, where it seems like you can learn anything with a quick Google search. “There is inherently a very local network effect required for Dabble to flourish on a global scale, but through my travels and our team’s work, we’re making the world more local every day empowering human connection through Dabble experiences,” says Swoboda.