Startup Spotlight – SoundBrush

As part of the on-going series to profile local startups, I met with Basil Al-Dajane Co-Founder and Product Lead at SoundBrush – an iPad app that lets users create music by drawing lines on the screen, in the VeloCity Garage at the Communitech Hub. We found a quiet room aptly named “Fortress of Solitude” and Basil was kind enough to give me some time out of his busy schedule to talk about his journey with SoundBrush, the experience with Y Combinator and everything else (related to startups and tech)

SoundBrush recently won the VeloCity Venture Fund(VVF) with Ted Livingston (CEO KiK Messenger) personally handing him the prize money. Post VVF, Basil and Jayson are busy developing new and exciting features for their iPad app. For those like me wondering if there will be an Android version – Sadly no.

Lets start with – What is SoundBrush and what’s the story behind it?

SoundBrush is an iPad app that allows you to convert lines you draw on the screen into musical notes. The whole value behind drawing music is that all of a sudden you don’t have to learn how to play an instrument to create music. Right now what’s the best way to create music? Play an instrument. So we have completely flattened out that curve.

“You can think of SoundBrush as the Instagram from music”

Originally Jayson and I were sitting in front of a whiteboard coming up with a bunch of ideas to learn iOS. That’s how it started – finger painting. In 3 months we developed the first version while we were doing Co-Ops, working 8 hours a day and then developing on iOS for another 7 hours after we got home. That was literally our days and weekends! We moved into the VeloCity Garage in December and for the next month we worked all day and night – just popping by the house for a shower and nap then back to work again.

So we launched it and the biggest thing we learned about why users are using it was that all of a sudden they didn’t need to learn an instrument anymore. They could just create music that they wanted. So this is what led us down the rabbit hole of asking ourselves what exactly are users looking for and is this actually solving the problem which is ‘anyone can make music’

We developed it further and we made a new version of SoundBrush and released it in June this year.

For perspective:

  • Version 1 had 130,000 downloads in a year
  • Version 2 130,000 just within a month

What got you the downloads? Any clever marketing tricks you can share with us?

Well the first reason was that we switched the first version from a paid app to a free app – that definitely spiked our downloads. And secondly, Apple featured us in their App Store in the UK and we also landed a feature on TechCrunch.

Apple featured you in the App Store? How did that happen?

After WWDC (Apple Developer Conference) I emailed Apple, I called up Apple, I found every single contact at Apple and sent out a whole bunch of emails.

Incidentally one of the many emails I sent ended up in the right person’s inbox at the right time. Even though the queue was massive (after WWDC), he liked us enough to get us on the front page.

Before that we had no downloads and it was really bleak but the Apple feature really got us going.

And how did TechCrunch happen for you?

I emailed John Biggs who I met at a conference. I have emailed him before but he ignored every single one (haha).

So I emailed him again with the subject “Apple featured App SoundBrush”. And I explained that Apple might feature us at 5pm today in the UK. Do you want to talk to us? He said Yes and that resulted in the feature on TechCrunch.

Did TechCrunch result in a server crash?

Surprisingly no. Techcrunch resulted in a 15% increase in downloads. But surprisingly it is not as crazy as people think like 80% or 90%. It was really the Apple feature that really pushed everything and set things in motion.

All this with zero dollars spent on Marketing?

Actually we spent $5000 dollars on a video by Arc Media which has been viewed 25,000 times on Vimeo as of now. Goal is 100,000 views but we’ll see.

We regularly check in on public metrics and see how we stack up against other startups from VeloCity and other startups in the space. If someone else has better numbers than we do at something then I talk to them about what they are doing and look at what we can do better. Metrics are crucial to our business and they keep us in check. We set benchmarks for ourselves to know how we are doing.

Our primary marketing strategy is social media. Two instruments can be unlocked in the SoundBrush app if the user tweets about us or likes us on Facebook creating a viral loop on social networks.

Sharing and integrating with YouTube is another area we are looking at. Say a user has a couple of thousand views on YouTube but not as much on Discover (SoundBrush’s social sharing platform), we can pull those views from YouTube into Discover. Our target demographic is teenagers as they spend a lot of time on social networks so essentially we’re trying to penetrate more deeply into social networks. Another tactical item we’re looking into at the moment is talking to various YouTubers and inviting them to make a song with SoundBrush and share it with their audience.

Going back a little bit, back when you were starting out, did you know you were going to be targeting teenagers and how has that evolved with SoundBrush?

Back then, I didn’t even know what a target market was! I thought oh yeah everyone’s going to download it and what not. That didn’t happen. Even for a while with the second version we were stuck and we didn’t know who the customers were. Are we going for the educational aspect? Children aspect? But we soon found out that the children aspect is a bad idea – Simply put kids will play with it for 5 min and never again.

When we looked at teenagers we also thought about how we can fix the

‘This is a cool idea, I am going to play with it for 5 min and never again’.

Discover – the SoundBrush music discovery network played a huge role in that, which is something kids can’t participate in it.

Brett Shellhammer and Mike Kirkup have been great mentors for marketing for us.

What about people who say ‘There are just too many apps out there?”

There are too many websites, doesn’t mean you stop making websites. We always envisioned it as an iPad app because we feel that the iPad is still generally neglected.

As a CS Guy – how was the transition from coding to focusing on marketing/business for you personally?

That’s a change that I had to go through the tough way. You focus on the product so much that you forget about the signup page. How are they going to go in if there is no signup page! Most people focus on the product and never the signup page. And it’s not just about building a signup but focusing on the right areas. That’s something a lot of people including ourselves have struggled with.

So you’re the marketing/business guy then?

I am responsible for strategy and other business matters. Usually I go to Jayson and propose a crazy idea without any back-thought – one example is when we released V-2 for SoundBrush as a different app and not as an update. We did not have backwards compatibility. So instead of reworking the code, we decided to release the new update as a separate app.

The role I see for myself in the future is Product Lead and Jayson as the Technology Lead.

So how did you guys meet?

We met at residence on campus during first year and when I moved to a friend’s house afterwards, Jayson ended up taking one of the rooms there as well. It was after that I asked him for help on a project (LeafNotes); he was the only web developer I knew back then that we become close friends. After helping for 2-3 days, he offered to work with me on the project and it started snowball from there.

It’s the two of us right now and we’re hiring two Co-ops, including one for social media and community.

So what are some of the things you’re looking for when you’re hiring co-ops?

We’re looking for personality and then skills, in that order of importance. If you don’t have the personality or ability to bring new ideas to the table then you are no better than a hired developer from Elance in my opinion. That’s not something we’re looking for. I want this (SoundBrush) to be part of who you are.

Why do a startup? Why not go to Google, Facebook, Desire2Learn or you name it?

When you’re working on a startup everything you do can’t be marginal by definition. Everything has to have an impact. When you work at Google or Facebook or most other corporation, almost everything you do is marginal to the bottom line of the business. You messing up or succeeding isn’t going to make or break the business.

Jayson and I come from an audio/music and graphics background. Jayson is an instrumentalist and I know more about digital audio music techniques and graphics design. It was a good match for us to work on SoundBrush together.

Wait, you have a Graphics Design background? So you did the visual design for SoundBrush?

All the UI and images except for the brush I drew out and we have over 8,000 images in SoundBrush . We’re actually thinking of adding 25 more instruments so I’ll be working on those graphics as well.

SoundBrush

So tell me about Y Combinator and infamous tweet by Paul Graham.

We interviewed for Y Combinator – what actually ended up happening was that we got two interviews at Y Combinator. They interviewed us once and they couldn’t decide. So they interviewed us again and decided no.

The story behind the tweet by Paul Graham is a very interesting one. He never actually interviewed us! He wasn’t even in the room when we got interviewed. During the second interview Paul Graham heard SoundBrush through the wall. He stuck his head through the door, comes in stands next to us and says

‘Oh Wow that’s Cool!’

And everyone ends up playing with SoundBrush. We’re sitting there going ‘hey guys, what about the questions?’

Anyway so while we continued our interview Paul Graham takes my iPad and disappears into the next room and that’s when the tweet happened. Before the interview we were warned by everyone that don’t let any of the partners or Paul Graham have your iPad because they will get distracted with it.

That was a very interesting experience to say the least.

Silicon Valley vs Kitchener/Waterloo: if you had gotten into YC would you have stayed back in Silicon Valley?

There’s a lot of opportunity here and there’s a lot of opportunity in Silicon Valley. I haven’t lived there so I can’t comment but Kitchener/Waterloo does have a lot of opportunities right now.

Speaking of which, what are some of the best things about being in Kitchener/Waterloo as a startup?

VeloCity Garage, Communitech easily said. Not to mention UW and the Co-Op system. With the Co-op processes not only can I hire quickly and end the contract quickly, I also get a lot of good feedback on the interview process.

What’s your take on the idea vs execution debate?

Execution is more important in my opinion but even a small idea can make a product great. It’s all about how you execute it.

Looking back on your journey so far, was their any pivotal moment that you look back on? As a company?

I don’t think we have had our pivotal moment. I see this as a long journey. We do celebrate our successes but we always try not to get caught up in it and move on to the next challenge.

Special Shout Out to Mike Kirkup & Brett Shellhammer

wriber

Startup Spotlight – Wriber

It’s a cloudy Saturday evening and I catch John Zupancic – founder of Wriber at a local coffee shop here in Waterloo.

Wriber-Logo

Wriber

I’ve known John for the past two years; we were in the MBET program together and have been close friends since. Dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt, we catch up Wriber among other things. Wriber which just raised $50,000 in Angel funding and from the Jumpstart grant has been the full-time commitment for John over the past year.Those not familiar with Wriber, here’s the pitch: Wriber wants to change the way you write

To kick things off, what is Wriber all about?

The greatest challenge being faced by bloggers, publishers, and marketers is creating original and interesting content and doing it continuously. A lot of the time, the people writing content are not professional writers. Publishers often have volunteers that are writing that need to be chased in order to get their work done. Marketers have other parts to their job and are busy. No solution comes close to solving this problem.

And how does Wriber aim to solve this problem?

I’m building a platform that makes it easy to create and manage written content. Wriber helps bloggers, publishers, and marketers maintain their content strategy by supplying a fresh flow of topics to write about and helps writers expand on content as it is being developed to be more engaging. Wriber is going to be a blogger’s best friend!

What’s the story behind doing Wriber? What was the “aha!” Moment?

I came up with the idea for Wriber when I was in school. I was spending too many late nights working on reports. Writing has always been slow and frustrating for me. I don’t enjoy it. I get writer’s block all the time. I always remember muttering, “I wish this thing would just write itself.” And then I thought, “What if it could?” That’s how it all started. I wanted to create something that solved my problem. And then I realized that most of us face the same problems, but bloggers, publishers, and marketers face these problems most frequently.

Tell me a little about your background story, what inspired you to take the road less taken?

I have always wanted to do my own thing. It is the reason I went to school. I realized through the Master of Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technology (MBET) program at the University of Waterloo that my passion lies in disruptive ideas involving technology that have major impacts on people. Writing has always been the same since I can remember. Why not change the way people write?

What are some of the less glamorous sides to startup dream?

There is a lot of work involved that simply put is not fun. I love figuring out my messaging. I love coding. I don’t particularly love writing funding applications or drafting patents. I’m also very impatient. I’m always thinking about what to do next with Wriber. It can be difficult disconnecting when out with friends and family, especially when they always ask how things are going with Wriber.

What are some of the best things about being in KW?

There is an overwhelming amount of support in the region. If you have a problem, it is not hard to find someone willing to help. I have mentors through Communitech, the Accelerator Centre, the Conrad Centre, and Velocity. Everyone wants you to succeed. Most are not afraid to candidly tell you things you don’t want to hear but need to hear. There’s absolutely no way I would be able to do this without all the help that I am getting.

What does the future hold for Wriber and you personally?

It sounds cheesy but I would really like to grow Wriber to be the next leading technology company right here in KW. I have dropped all my jobs to focus entirely on Wriber. I am looking forward to getting Wriber to a Minimum Viable Product and getting all of your feedback!

You can sign up for the Wriber beta here