Laura Simpson

Entrepreneur and CEO, Side Door

Bachelor of Journalism, 2004

That attitude of challenging the status quo, of critical thinking and really digging deep on your research before you make decisions, that’s what I do every day now.

When asked about her career trajectory after finishing the one-year Bachelor of Journalism at King’s, Laura Simpson smiles, realizing that she spent exactly seven years as a journalist, followed by another seven years working for Music Nova Scotia (MNS), a non-profit music organization that supports musicians. She’s now a few years into a new role as entrepreneur and CEO of Side Door, a tech platform connecting artists with alternative spaces to play shows—anywhere from a back yard to a bookstore—with locations worldwide.

“The entrepreneurship seed was planted pretty early because my mom was an entrepreneur,” she says.

Laura’s mother owned Verbatim Inc., the largest recording and transcription company in Atlantic Canada at the time. Laura had worked occasionally for her mother’s business since she was 14—everything from making deliveries to the daily accounting. “So I had a real taste of entrepreneurship from an early age.”

Some may have expected Laura to study business and follow in her mother’s footsteps. Instead, she made her way to Kingston, Ont. to study history and philosophy at Queen’s. “I was always interested in critical thinking and theory,” she says. Having been offered a job in advertising after graduation, Laura said she “couldn’t fathom being in the rat race in Toronto,” and so she went to Cape Breton for a three-week Internet-free getaway to decide on her next steps. It’s then that her aunt, CBC Radio producer Mary Lynk, suggested journalism.

Laura began freelancing. She worked on her aunt’s documentary and then freelanced as a music journalist for The Chronicle Herald. She interviewed icons like Boy George and Busta Rhymes, and wrote concert reviews, including one for heavy metal band Slayer: “The most insane thing I’ve ever done was be in the pit for that concert,” she says. Finally, she decided to cement her path in music journalism—a decision that led her to King’s.

She speaks fondly of her time at the university, and particularly the journalism program. “The professors were challenging in a way that I hadn’t been challenged before,” she explains. “They were edgier, they weren’t scared to challenge the status quo and make us think. That attitude of challenging the status quo, of critical thinking and really digging deep on your research before you make decisions, that’s what I do every day now.”

During her time at King’s, Laura got involved in the student union and says she felt connected to her peers and the community in a way she didn’t during her time at Queen’s, even though she never lived on King’s campus. “The smallness allows you to have an outsized impact on your school experience,” she reflects.

After graduation, she got a job in news radio. Eventually, though, she missed working with musicians.  “I felt so far away from music. Plus, I wanted to be one of the people I was interviewing, talking about the cool things they were doing.”

During a trip to New York, she made the decision to switch careers and go into communications. That’s when she joined MNS. “But eventually I was using all of my vacation time to work other festivals. I felt like I had learned everything I could at MNS.”

Laura had also been hosting house concerts from her home since 2011. Those shows spawned The Syrup Factory, described as “a custom project-based solution for artists, labels, and music-focused events.”

“I had drawings of Side Door as far back as 2015, I just couldn’t figure out how to make it happen yet. So I started The Syrup Factory first.” (Laura is still a partner in the business, though she now performs a largely advisory role.)

It was a chance encounter in 2017 with fellow King’s alumnus and musician Rich Aucoin which spawned the genesis of what would become Side Door. Rich informed Laura that JUNO Award-winning musician Dan Mangan, had been speaking of a similar concept and suggested they meet when Dan was in Halifax performing with Symphony Nova Scotia. They had brunch at the Lord Nelson and clicked. “Dan literally said to me ‘You should be the captain of the ship’” And so she was. Laura is now CEO of Side Door while Dan focuses on the product side, securing larger artists to use the platform.

The company has been a success since its beginning—it was even featured in Billboard Magazine in March 2019. And though many music-focused businesses have suffered throughout the pandemic, Side Door has grown. They now have approximately 12 employees and 13 contractors across Canada, the US and Europe and have done over 1,000 shows. During the pandemic, they’ve been forced to go virtual—a blessing in disguise.

“It was a lifeline, not only for the people who did the shows, but also us, the staff, because we were so mentally committed to having people be able to do something.” They hosted interactive concerts over Zoom which allowed for the interaction that people missed from live concerts. It worked—Side Door sold more tickets during the pandemic than in any other year since its inception.

The company will continue to offer virtual concert experiences moving forward. Laura explains, “The audiences are different. We have people who don’t want to be in a bar or around alcohol or are in an area where people don’t typically go to tour. We want to keep serving that.” But they’re also excited to get back to in-person events, especially now with the bigger team. “We have all this velocity and experience. We can throw all that weight and energy behind the upcoming in-person shows.”

Despite having shifted focus from journalism to communications and then entrepreneurship, Laura is quick to point out that writing is still her craft. “I still write to the staff every day, especially now that we’re a remote team. I write something about the world as a way to check-in with the staff every day. We have a back and forth and it’s that constant curiosity, it’s paramount not only as a business owner but as a human these days.”

That curiosity will no doubt lead to even more exciting accomplishments as Laura continues to forge a path within the music industry and beyond.

Photo by Meghan Tansey Whitton