There is no perfect ticketing system out there for non-profits arts organizations.
This is one of a series of conversations with leaders from eight organizations convening in December 2011 around the topic of Audience Engagement and Technology.
Piama Habibullah (ArtsFwd): What is Fractured Atlas?
Adam Huttler (Founder and Executive Director): Fractured Atlas is a national non-profit that provides infrastructure for the cultural sector. The heart and soul of the organization is a ten-year history in supporting individual artists and small organizations, through programs such as fiscal sponsorship, insurance, and professional development.
PH: Tell me about your project ATHENA.
AH: The idea came out of the desire to see if we could take some of the systems we built for running our own operations and provide that as a service to the field. We wanted to offer specialized software tools that can be assembled into systems in a flexible manner that provide ideally much of the same benefit that we’ve been able to realize internally.
We decided to start with ticketing in part because it’s the easiest to monetize. The two pieces of the project are the open source software, ATHENA, and the hosted online cloud based version called Artful.ly. We began with a focus on ticketing alone but we very quickly realized that integrated CRM (Customer Relationship Management) is pretty essential for a non-profit ticketing system to fly these days.
ATHENA Version 1.0 was built with Equity showcases in mind- very small scale, general admission seating. ATHENA 2.0 is going to support subscriptions and assigned seating, among other things.
PH: How has this changed the way you think about Fractured Atlas as an organization?
AH: In the last couple of years we’ve blown things wide open in terms of who we serve. We historically are a service organization that made really effective use of technology. Now we’re both a service organization and a technology company, which is a very big leap. We’ve also started thinking about how we can support larger organizations and policy makers and institutional funders.
PH: Has this project changed your way of doing business?
ATHENA and Artful.ly are totally discontinuous to our previous practices, programs and business model. It requires different management skills, staffing, and financial models. Software development is expensive, it has a lot of upfront costs. Open source software in particular has its own challenges and opportunities at the business model level that the open source community is still trying to figure out. It’s required us to develop new competencies in a lot of different areas.
We’re able to outsource certain things we weren’t able to before. We still have one developer on staff and a number of stable contractors. What I love about that is it allows you to scale up or back your development bandwidth as needed.
PH: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced through the development process?
AH: I have a pretty good understanding of the ways arts organizations do business, and I still write code more often than I care to admit. Of course institutionalizing that knowledge is easier said than done. Things that seem totally obvious about how a theater operates or how somebody buys tickets, you wouldn’t even think to document. At the same time, there’s a learning curve for non-technologists trying to communicate requirements to software engineers. You can’t assume that knowledge.
I was naïve about how easy it is to develop software based on that experience. ATHENA is different from our past experience in that we hired a totally in-house team.
PH: What is your philosophy on open source software?
AH: I am somewhat of a wild-eyed evangelist about open source software and transparency in general. I think people’s concerns and fears about open source software are almost totally misguided.
Especially for software that’s designed to be distributed and run not as a service but by the end user, I think the days of renting 1s and 0s are numbered. It doesn’t make sense in the 21st century anymore. Even Microsoft, the kings of that business model, are trying to migrate to online versions. I believe a better place to provide value is in the ancillary services, whether it’s about providing a turnkey hosted version like Artful.ly, or providing consulting and custom development. Those are all better business models for software organizations these days.
The world changes too fast, technology changes too fast. You have to embrace the community and you have to let your users modify the code to fit their needs or you’re not going to keep up. They’re just going to find something else that’s easier to customize, that’s easier to work with and that meets their needs better. Better to embrace that and help them with that process than try to fight it.
PH: What are some concrete goals in the next phases of the project?
AH: I want to get to ATHENA 2.0. There’s a catch-22 valley in the development process where ATHENA 1.0 supports the off-off Broadway use case but the technical architecture by necessity is complex enough that you have to have dedicated IT staff and some serious resources and commitment to install and run it yourself. The problem is the organizations that have that capability and those resources need more functionality than ATHENA currently provides. The organizations that can get by with what ATHENA currently provides don’t have the resources, interest or wherewithal to manage it in-house which is why Artful.ly is so critical to get us through that valley.
For ATHENA 3.0 we’d like to introduce non-profit accounting as a major third component alongside ticketing and CRM.