SXSW Startups: UPGRADED Smart Tickets

The Forrest Four-Cast: January 24, 2018

At the 2018 SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event in Austin, 50 diverse startups have the chance to impress a panel of industry experts. Half will pitch on Saturday, March 10, and the remaining 25 will pitch on Sunday, March 11. Winners in 10 categories will be honored at the Accelerator Award Ceremony at 7 pm Sunday, March 11, at the Hilton Austin. The SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event takes place within the Startup & Tech Sectors track of programming.

Based in Walnut Creek, Calif., UPGRADED converts event tickets into secure interactive digital assets protected by the blockchain. These tickets work with existing entry systems (no hardware upgrades necessary) while delivering encryption, sales restrictions, stored value, loyalty data, and other dynamic elements that turn a ticket into a “smart ticket.” Learn more about their service at the Sports and Performance Data Technology category pitch session at 12:30 pm on Sunday, March 11, in Salon AB at the Hilton Austin.

For this interview, we spoke with UPGRADED founder/CEO Sandy Khaund, a seven-year SXSW veteran.

What is your goal for 2018?
Like most startups, we would like to continue our growth. Our primary goal is to increase the number of venues where our tickets have been accepted, be cash flow positive by the end of the year, and likely raise the priced round at that point.

Has anyone on your team been to SXSW before?
This will be my seventh year at SXSW. I first attended during my time at Turner Broadcasting as part of our MediaCamp accelerator, attended during my time at CTO at InStadium, and now at UPGRADED.

What was your most outstanding memory of the event?
There are honestly too many memorable moments to recount. Whether it was hanging out with Shaquille O’Neal at the Moonshine Grill, singing karaoke at midnight on Rainey Street, pulling up next to Air Force One the year Obama came to SXSW, or just the countless numbers of relationships that began with a chance intros on 6th Street.

What session are you most excited about attending at SXSW 2018?
I would like to put a plug for my own panel around Blockchain: What Blockchain Means For Media and Entertainment. Sean Branagan from the Syracuse University Newhouse School has organized a panel of several of us from around the media space who will be discussing how blockchain has interesting applications and ramifications in media. For all the hype that surrounds Blockchain, its practical application in existing industries will be what makes it transcendent in my mind.

What are UPGRADED’s goals for SXSW?
We’re always seeking business development opportunities, and the attendees SXSW are often the right people to eventually partner with or sell to. I really enjoyed SXSW Sports over the last couple of years and look forward to meeting some of the people there. And, of course, as we always joke, there are people who I work close to in the Bay Area, but isn’t until we’re in Austin before we finally find time to catch up. I always want to attend a bunch of sessions, but there are a number of years where I can barely find time with all of the events and meetings.

What is your competitive advantage?
There are number of other Blockchain ticketing companies out there, particularly in Europe. A lot of them are acting as the primary ticket provider, not necessarily finding a way to integrate with existing ticketing companies. In this country, there are already so many ticketing providers that we believe that we are better suited to work as a solution across all of them. By creating a flexible use of the blockchain, we can integrate with existing systems as well as create our own. That versatility enables us to reach out to practically any customer and offer our services.

UPGRADED is based in Walnut Creek, Calif. We’ve heard lots of things about the startup scene in Silicon Valley. But tell us something that would surprise us.
I think most people know about the number of smart people, the amount of capital, and the amazing companies that are launch here, but no one ever talks about the community, the network, and a common willingness to help another. I’ve been amazed by how many people are willing to meet and be encouraging about entrepreneurship, and I take it upon myself to do the same for others.

Looking at the entire tech industry, what trend does your team think is most underrated at present?
With all the excitement about augmented reality and blockchain, I feel like the focus is lost off of IoT. I still believe that will ultimately reap the most exciting benefits or how it will change our worlds on a day-to-day basis. I remember being at SXSW a few years ago when they talked about the idea of a FitBit and a Nest working together to turn on the air conditioning when someone is finishing a 5-mile run, anticipating the needs of the user by providing context across devices. That captured my imagination and I’m still excited by the possibilities.

What do you enjoy most about the startup experience?
I love that I wake up every morning with endless possibilities. I love that I’m not hampered by bureaucracy, org charts, or political battles to prevent me from innovating on behalf of customers. I love that everything we do, success or failure, will be our own reward. There’s nothing more empowering them being an entrepreneur. Not to sound cheesy, but I keep thinking of the opening line of the new U2 album: “Nothing can stop this from being the best day ever.” There’s an optimism in that lyric that every entrepreneur can believe in.

What aspect of the startup experience do you enjoy least?
It’s a roller coaster and tremendous risk given the opportunity cost of foregoing a corporate career in tech. Personally, with a wife and two kids, I recognize that we are taking a short-term hit for the risk of a long-term gain. That requires sacrifices, not only for myself, but for those I love.

What has running a startup taught you about life?
At a startup, every day is meaningful. When you’re fighting for survival, you can’t let any missed opportunities get away. You can’t waste time or lose focus. You need to be assertive, you need to be opportunistic, and need to always believe in a higher purpose. When I live life that way, everything feels more meaningful. My relationship with my wife, my relationship with my daughters, my relationship with my friends, and just the way I take advantage of every day.

Person, company, thing or goal. What inspires your team to work harder?
As a team, I think we’re all mission-driven. We feel like we’re solving a set of problems that we’ve all encountered or seen happen. While everyone aspires to the wealth that this business could create, I think the high order bit is that we are all sports and music fans and we know that we can make things better for a lot of people through our product. Ultimately, that’s what every startup has to believe in to not only succeed, but just survive. And when people give us feedback on our product, it only reinforces our vision and gets us more excited that we are truly on to something.

Actors, athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, whoever — you can invite any three living people from anywhere in the world to dinner. Who do you invite and why?
While Steve Jobs gets all the press, I’ve always found a greater kinship to Steve Wozniak. In addition to the fact that he seems like a funny guy, I admire his pure engineering ethos, the way he takes upon himself to help others, and his focus on quality of life over money. When it comes to entrepreneurs, I am sold on Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. Shoe Dog is my entrepreneurial siren song. That book changed everything for me and is the greatest reminder that even the greatest startup success stories have to navigate through the most difficult of times. I’d love to ask more about those times, understand how he’d do things different in the modern day vs the 1970s, and maybe he’ll hook me up with some free shoes. Honorable mention for this one goes to Kevin Plank of Under Armour, who is Knight’s heir apparent in many ways. And Dave Grohl is, in my opinion, the coolest man on the planet. He played drummer on an album that changed the way I listen to music (Nirvana’s “Nevermind”), he’s written what I consider be the greatest song of all time (“Everlong”), he’s funny and down-to-earth, and after watching his keynote at SXSW a couple years ago, I realize that he understands my world as much as anybody does. Every entrepreneur owes it to themselves to go back and watch that video.

Look for interviews with other SXSW Accelerator finalists in this space between now and March. Startups already profiled as part of this series include 70MillionJobs, Bluefield, Cambridge Cancer Genomics, HealthTensor, and PolyPort.

Or, click here to browse the full lineup of startups for SXSW Accelerator 2018.

Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.

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