It was an overcast day in the spring of 2014, but everyone at the meeting was wearing sunglasses. Dave Howard and Pete Swulius, a pair of quiet software gurus, chose the recently opened Wild Detectives as the site for this unusual rendezvous.
“It was a hit job,” Howard recalls. “And we didn’t want people to see us with him.”
The “him” was Andrew Dreskin, CEO of the ticket distribution service Ticketfly. Howard and Swulius were in the fifth year of business with Prekindle. They had a healthy stable of clients and a brand that was gaining local recognition with each new partnership. Dreskin was coming to take all of it.
According to J.R. Denson, the third Prekindle partner, Dreskin had done this kind of thing before.
“We were aware that Ticketfly was going to smaller mom-and-pop ticketing services in places like Fayetteville, Arkansas,” he says. “They were companies that might sell 20,000 tickets a year, and Ticketfly was buying them out just to add to its haul.”
Howard says that was only part of Dreskin’s meeting agenda.
“I think 5% of it was him trying to see if we’d be viable for a buyout, and the rest was bravado. He told us he was coming to take our clients.”
And he did. Over the next several days, Prekindle started losing clients left and right, some of whom had been with the company since its inception.
“We knew we had to do something,” Swulius says. “Or we wouldn’t survive.”
Howard and Swulius founded Prekindle in 2009. The two musicians had what Howard called “cush jobs” in software consulting but yearned for a challenge.
“We realized we were more marketable in software and music,” Howard says. “And we wanted to create something that combined what we can do with our love of music.”
In 2009, a company like Prekindle was still somewhat of a rarity. Unlike ticket resale companies like Stubhub, Prekindle partners with venues to act as their ticket provider. That means Howard and Swulius build software that matches the needs of the event and venue, with a goal to make selling tickets faster and easier. Like many new companies in nascent fields, Howard admits there was a lot of uncertainty.
“I remember sitting at my apartment thinking, ‘Should I call someone to tell them to buy a ticket, just to see if this works?’”
Denson, the company’s lead for client relations, is more blunt.
“We didn’t know shit about any of this,” he says. “We just figured it out.”
Double Wide helped. Howard and Swulius partnered with the venue in 2009, making the Commerce Street watering hole the first official Prekindle client. Soon after, they met Denson, a music scene veteran, then a member of the band Greater Good, and invited him along for the ride.
The trio makes an enduring team. Howard and Swulius are the unassuming coders decked out in T-shirts, while Denson is the unabashed pitchman prone to wearing a flat-brim cowboy hat. While the former two are quick to talk about coding and the infrastructure needed to get Prekindle off the ground, Denson is eager to talk about the numbers: 10 years in business, over 10,000 annual events and a projected five million tickets sold this year. All three of the partners love talking about the people who got them where they are today.
“That’s what makes us the most proud,” Denson says. “It’s been a grassroots company from day one: no investors, no outside money, just the community.”
One of those people is Chris Jeffers, the restaurateur best known for his work with Bolsa and The Statler. In 2010, Jeffers and his associates planned six months worth of charity dinners, an ongoing event called 48 Nights. Every Monday and Tuesday night, Dallas denizens could enjoy a BYOB meal at Sylvan 30, each one featuring a menu devised by a celebrity chef.
“Imagine trying to sell a ticket to a dinner three months from now,” Jeffers says. “I didn’t know where to start.”
Howard and Swulius did. To them, this was their opportunity to show the Prekindle model could apply to all kinds of events.
“Pete really got what I was trying to do,” Jeffers says. “And because of them, we were able to sell out six months of dinners in one week.”
The Prekindle partners look back on 48 Nights as their “big break.” Jeffers has used them for any and every ticketed event since, and with Double Wide and a major, months-long event under their helm, they began racking up clients across town. Radio station KXT, The Kessler and The Granada soon followed, and it wasn’t just the software that venues and event organizers came to admire.
“You can’t find nicer, more organized guys,” Jeffers says. “I have a ‘no-look pass’ relationship with them. They knew what we needed before we even needed it.”
Hospitality has paid dividends for Prekindle. In 2012, Howard & Co. were the ticket provider for the now defunct 35 Denton. The festival had one of its most vaunted lineups yet, with headliners The Jesus and Mary Chain drawing droves to Denton.
“There was this one girl who we saw driving a golf cart around all day, going from one thing to the next just to make sure everything ran smooth,” Howard remembers. “Then, late in the day, she pulls the cart up to where I’m standing, and just says, ‘Get in.’”
The Jesus and Mary Chain had visa troubles and would not be making the journey from Scotland to Denton.
“She was in full meltdown mode,” Howard says of the festival planner driving the golf cart. “When you put so much time and energy into an event, and things go wrong, the sky starts to fall.”
Howard was there to pick up the pieces and reassure her that the festival would still be a success. There are contingencies for this, he said. Some people will be annoyed, and some refunds would have to be issued, but the show will go on.
“I think I got her to a place where she was a little less freaked out,” Howard says with a laugh. “And that’s when I realized that we do more than just sell tickets.”
“We do these events every week, but for most people, these things happen once a year. It’s their world, their livelihood, and we have to be there for them beyond just the tickets.”
Being known in Dallas comes with its challenges, too. When controversial performers come to town, it’s not just the venue that detractors criticize — it’s Prekindle, too.
“I remember sitting at a bar in Deep Ellum one day, and people are getting angry about some band coming to town next month,” Howard says. “They say, ‘I can’t believe the venue is going to promote something like that, and the Prekindle guys should be ashamed of themselves.’”
Other times, local concertgoers or potential clients disregard the company, thinking that they must not have the same capabilities as top dogs like Ticketmaster because they’re based in Texas, not California.
“People think we’re either too big or too small,” Denson says. “But I just like that, when you call us, it’s one of us answering, not a call center.”
Nevertheless, when Ticketfly came to town, some clients bolted, including Double Wide. Facing the end of their company, the Prekindle team had to adapt fast. While Howard and Swulius stayed up until 3 a.m. adding new features to compete with what Ticketfly and their ilk offered, Denson also stayed up, hanging out with the clients to make sure they knew Prekindle would be there when needed.
“We would be at the office working on new features, and every now and then J.R. would text us, telling us what the clients wanted to add,” Swulius says. “So we’d add it.”
By attaining feature parity with their industry’s top dogs, Prekindle was able to weather the storm that followed that fateful meeting in 2014. Eventually, Double Wide came back to Prekindle. A year later, Pandora bought Ticketfly, then sold them to Eventbrite in 2017.
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“He told our clients we wouldn’t be here in three years,” Howard says of Dreskin, a prideful, devious smirk stretching across his typically nonchalant face. “But we’re still here.”
As they share this story, the Prekindle partners are hanging out in their new office in Oak Cliff. The work space has been constructed within a modest two-story house, and the atmosphere resembles a rustic Silicon Valley. If you walk a minute or two out their front door, you can see the Trinity River, and beyond that, the city that made them. A thin majority of their business remains in Dallas, and the rest is spread out across Texas, the country and the world.
“We want to be the best ticketing company in the world,” Denson says.
In August, Prekindle will celebrate 10 years of business crossing over 100 million dollars in ticket sales. Last year, Eventbrite shut Ticketfly down.