musicfellas

How we found our designer

And almost did not hire her:

One of my mentors once told me: “Good design is no longer a USP for internet products. It is table stakes”. We’ve believed in this all along and have wanted to build the best possible experience at Musicfellas. A major role in that has been of our designer, Sneha Patel. This is the story of how we found our designer and almost did not hire her.

It was a Saturday, the day of the monthly Startup Saturday meet. As a newly turned entrepreneur, I thought it would be wise to meet some of the people from the startup community. So, I went for what would be my first and only SS meet.

But before that, let’s turn the clock back a few hours: In the morning, I get a call from a newly opened Dentist chain called MyDentist. They offer me a free consultation. I decide to go because it happens to be close to the venue of the SS event as well. 

Back to the SS. I got late at the dentist’s and thus reached the event a little late. Sweating and panting, I signed up and paid the fees. Suddenly, someone asked for people who were going to make a presentation about their startups. I had no idea why, but I raised my hand.

The presentations began, and they were full blown powerpoint presentations. And I obviously didn’t have one. I just didn’t know that you were supposed to actually bring a proper presentation. So, I decided to just swing it.

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I tore up two pieces of paper and wrote MUSICFELLAS across them. Holding it up in front of the audience, I spoke. I spoke about music. I spoke about the independent artists industry. And I spoke about design. I must have spoken a lot about design because at tea break, a girl I just said hello to said she was looking for me. I had no idea why. So, we just spoke a little bit about what we do, exchanged cards and bid goodbye. I did tell her that we were looking for a designer and she happened to be one. She was a self taught designer, who had just recently started out on her own and we would have probably been one of her first few clients.

A few days later, I got an email from her saying she would like to discuss where we left off. I checked her portfolio and honestly, I wasn’t impressed with the website designs she had done. What we were looking for at the time was a website designer but her expertise seemed to be in identity design, which by the way was pretty damn good. So, I told her so. And, that was that. 

A few days later I got an email from her with an attachment — Musicfellas — website design. And I was completely blown away. 

Musicfellas - Original website proposal

The rest, as they say is history.

Key Takeaway: Never discount first timers. Never take things at their face value. And most importantly, talk about your startup. And I mean really talk, communicate. Let your passion reach out and touch others. Because the best people see a good fit when they see one. You are the biggest evangelist of your startup, behave like one.

Oh and why the dentist story, later I got to know, that our designer was also the identity designer for my Dentist chain. Happy coincidences.

One year

Today, I complete 1 full year of quitting my first job. The ride since then has been adventurous to say the least. It has been a, *cliche alert*, roller-coaster year. 

Before quitting my job, I had certain fears. Not being able to maintain my lifestyle was the biggest one. While at work, I had gotten used to spending money whenever and wherever I wanted to. And I was afraid that I might not be able to handle losing that freedom.

That lifestyle did go away. But, I managed to pull through. Eating out now means roadside aloo paranthas, and rolls or eating in Dhabas rather than Pasta Arrabiata and Fondues in fancy restaurants. Maggi has become a staple part of the diet. Exploring new pubs and sports bars is replaced by drinking beer at home or scouting for happy hours in cheap watering holes. The waiter no longer remembers our usual drink. 

Honestly, it is scary at times. There have been times of immense lows, some which I had never experienced before. But the highs more than make up for it. The past one year has made me a better and wiser person, and I hope that the people whom I care about feel the same.

If I had a choice, I’d do it all over again because you know what, chilled beer still tastes the same at home.

What makes us a pirate

And my story from a pirate to founding a digital music store

In the last 6 months, two important things have happened:

1. I am more broke than ever before in my life

2. I have purchased more music than I did in my 23 years before that

This might seem odd. After all, who pays for music these days, anyways - just the rich kids and audiophiles, right? Certainly not a broke entrepreneur. It was my belief that people who pirate and later turn to buying music do so because they are financially more well off. Because of the simple reason that many considered ‘buying’ music a luxury but not a necessity. I did too. And boy, was I wrong.

Back in college, I did what any music loving, self respecting, on-a-small-pocket-money-budget college kid would do. I grabbed a senior’s hard drive and copied his complete music collection into my machine. I was so high on the shining new music collection of 50 GBs.

Watch Out! was the monthly student magazine of our college. It was what the cool kids read. For one of the columns called Almost Famous,they interviewed one famous student of the campus. All the young kids wanted to be on that column one day - it was the peak of popularity you could attain. I remember reading one particularly well where the interviewer asked this highly popular chap: “What do you consider your most prized possession in 4 years of college?” His answer:“My 34 GBs of hard drive full of amazing English music by bands from all over”. I was so amazed and blown away. I wanted to be that guy. Imagine having 34GBs of new music to listen to and show off. I craved for his music collection and more. It didn’t matter to me that it was pirated or not, which of course it was.

The important thing to note is that this answer came from a senior student of one of the best engineering colleges in India. He was actually proud of his feat. Whether he was unaware of the implications of his actions or was just playing the fool is anybody’s guess. The magazine editors who pride themselves on their slogan We have Issuesdidn’t seem to have any issue about him pirating music. That to me is the crux of the piracy problem - ignorance.

When we were young, a lot of us were ignorant about what piracy actually means for the artists. Unfortunately, some of us are even today. A lot of us don’t know that it is illegal and harmful to the artists to do so. I met the ex-head of a major record label once who told me that his teenage kid doesn’t buy music because he thinks it is stupid. And I found this a common trend with most people I spoke to. Very few seemed to have the idea that it was hurting the artists.

Earlier I used to think it’s about the money - that as soon as I start earning, I would start paying for music. I did, by going out and paying for gigs, but not so much for digital downloads or CDs. Then, Musicfellas happened.

My first music purchase was a CD by the band Sulk Station. I emailed them requesting their CD and they were kind enough to send me one with a hand written note on the envelope. It felt good. But it wasn’t until I started working on Musicfellas that I started purchasing music. I was completely unaware of how badly it is affecting the artists.

As I got to know the artists personally and hear their stories, it made me realize how hard they work to give us the music we love. Stories of having to worry about the next month’s rent - every single month were not uncommon. I met artists who sacrificed sleep, comfort and even food to do what they loved. And it changed me.

Thus, it is my opinion that, like me, there are others out there who need to be educated. Most people are not stingy, but simply ignorant. I have a seen a lot of my friends convert into paying users on and off Musicfellas and it warms my heart. We need to tackle piracy at the root level by educating the next generation and not merely by putting bans on torrents or releasing DRM-restricted music. People will always find ways to break the rules until they know in their heart what right thing to do is.

About that 50GBs of music, I am slowly deleting more and more of it and replacing it with legally bought music - Thanks to iTunes’ entry into India.

On Flyte Shutdown

This article was originally published as a guest post on YourStory

India’s biggest e-commerce player, Flipkart shutdown its digital music store Flyte. This comes as a surprise to me given the fact that Flipkart had invested so much in building it. They bought a company navigating a can of worms, built the technology, made licensing deals with the labels which can take ages to close and of course built a whole team to do that. Then why did this happen? 

As a digital music entrepreneur, here are my thoughts on this:

1. iTunes: This could be the single biggest reason on why Flyte didn’t work out. A lot of people I know preferred iTunes over Flyte, I do too. The ease of buying and having it downloaded automatically into your Apple devices is one of the biggest reason to do this. This convenience even overrides the lower costs that Flipkart had for some albums.

2. High content acquisition cost: The record label-online store partnerships work in a way where the store has to pay a minimum setup/guarantee fees at the beginning which could be in the tunes of crores depending upon the catalogue size. This is to hedge the label’s risk in case the store shuts down (like Flyte). After the minimum fees is recovered, revenue share on the sales begin. So, even if the store makes huge revenue, it might end up paying most of it to the labels.

3. Few paying users: India is among the countries which pirate the most and it is not without reason. There are just not enough people buying music here. The funny thing is that a lot of people who are just getting into the music scene don’t even know the concept of buying music. They think that torrents is a genuine way of doing it. That is tough to change. 

4. Changing patterns for paying music: World over, people are increasingly paying for access to music rather than for its ownership. Spotify, Rdio, Pandora give the users access to a huge library on the fingertips without giving them the ownership of the content. And users have responded fairly well to that. Thus, digital downloads are also probably going to become lesser as the cost of music access comes down.

What this means for the digital music scene in India:

From our experiments in the Indian market with Musicfellas, we’ve learnt that, there are just not enough paying users to make it a big sustainable business. Sure, you can probably make it a decent lifestyle business. But, that’s not what Flipkat would want, right? They would probably want to focus their efforts in some other directions instead - would say it was a commendable move. To build a big business solely on digital downloads in India is super difficult. At Musicfellas, we entered the business thinking of India as a test market and with plans to expand into international markets. Our assumptions that there are just not enough paying users was kind of validated.

Sure, there are some among us who would disagree with me and tell me that they pay so much for music. I know, I am one of you. But, there are very few of us - few enough to not make good business sense. 

What I see as the future:

The future of digital music according to me is going to be more and more about being able to listen to any song whenever you want at the exact moment. Not 5 minutes later after you download it but right when your heart desires it. So, models like Spotify, Rdio or in India - Gaana, Saavn and Dhingana are probably the way forward. But, then again, these services have to be careful as to what happens to them once Spotify comes to India (which should be sooner rather than later, given its entry into Asian markets via Singapore). Because honestly, these services are not even half as good as Spotify when it comes to the product. 

As to what happens to services like us - we will continue serving niche yet large enough markets of independent content. We are not Gaana’s/Spotify’s competitor but are complementary to them. We are not fighting for the same listening time - we want to help you discover new independent music (which you probably don’t find on these services). We operate at lower content acquisition costs (since we don’t work with the major labels). And, our users are passionate music fans, usually willing to pay for the music they love. We will always find space in that hipster heart of yours wanting to find good new music and break the usual clutter of overplayed commercialised music. 

We are rolling out a mobile app pretty soon and would offer it on subscription only, hoping that a combination of downloads and subscription in the international markets should do it. 

Disclosure: Times Internet Limited, the parent company of Gaana.com is an investor in Musicfellas via TLabs. The opinions in this article are my own and do not represent TIL.

Observations from a post’s 2 minute stay on Hacker News

A few days back, one of my posts made it to the Hacker News front page. Here is a brief background to what had happened before that:

Behance tweeted about Musicfellas to its 500000+ followers but sent out a wrong link. I responded by tweeting them and writing a post on how it affected us and posted it on Hacker News. A lot of my friends retweeted, personally emailed Behance and some even raised a ticket. Behance responded, emailed us an apology, deleted the incorrect tweet and sent out a new tweet with the correct link.

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The Hacker News post got a lot of hits. And based on Google Analytics, I was able to make some interesting observations. Also included are stats from the following 5 days:

  1. After direct traffic from HN, the top three sources were: Feedly, Inbound.org and Hckrnews.
  2. 80% of traffic was from US, India, Canada and UK.
  3. In US, San Francisco gave twice the traffic from New York. 
  4. Germans stayed on for more time than anyone else. 
  5. Chrome was the most popular browser at 70% .
  6. In the first hour, hits were way higher from Mac as compared to Windows. As time progressed, things got evened out and they are now almost equal.
  7. iPad brought more than 80% of the mobile traffic.

Quick Note: HN shows up as direct traffic on GA instead of referral. More on it here.

The crazy, twisted story of a logo

musicfellas:

Rome was not built in a day. Our logo was built in one (month). There’s been some talk about our website design and the logo. And we are glad you all liked it. We have spent a lot of time working on it and it feels good to see some appreciation.

Today, we give you an inside view of how our logo…

Uncertainty

A startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty." - Eric Ries

Most of us would agree with this Eric Ries on this one. The point I would like to stress on here is ‘conditions of extreme uncertainty’. 

Uncertainty is one thing you can definitely be certain on in your startup. I realised this the hard way and wish I and my team members didn’t have to find it out like we did. And this is one of the reasons I haven’t been able to honor my promise.

I’ll be honest with you - we were running behind on our product development schedule. Not because we were confused as to what to do. Nor was it poor planning nor was it lack of motivation. It was factors which were just out of our control and all of them happened at the same freaking time

  • Two of us had our family members who were sick and we had to go to attend them. Days Lost per person - 15.
  • One of us had to leave country for what was an unavoidable trip with the parent. Days Lost per person - 15
  • Two of us went about looking for new place to rent. Then stuff gets packed and moved. Then stuff gets opened and settled. Then a man takes a beer and relaxes. Days lost per person - 5

There were more but I’d refrain from listing them all down. There were a few bright lights in between but mostly it was pretty bad. These events were unavoidable and were emotionally sapping. You just can’t plan for such things. And its not a startup specific thing but can happen to anybody - though its just that its effect is felt the most in a startup because we are all building what we think is going to be next big thing and running on really tight schedule to make it happen.

Lessons Learnt: Shit happens. You will run into things that you have no control over. You will feel its a conspiracy against you. But, more often than not its just sheer bad luck. Things eventually do turn around for the better. We came out stronger from that phase, touch wood. We are working harder than ever before on our product. The team has responded admirably to all this and I feel proud of us all. So, thanks team! Keep the faith and keep building. 

Suggested Reading: This too shall pass

When in doubt - TALK!

In any startup, you ARE going to have arguments, misunderstandings and even fights with your co-founders.

You have a co-founder with you whom you know him from your school/college days. So, you can shout at him when you want to and he probably would understand. But, what in case you had met someone new and who became your co-founder over a period of time, what to do then? Do you shout ? He might get offended. Do you sugarcoat your words? It might lose its effect.

We have the same situation - 3 co-founders, 2 of them who know each other from college days and the third one is someone whom we didn’t know for a long time. The best way to deal with the situation is to TALK it out. Start with the belief that all human beings are inherently nice people, and you know what, you’ll find that it is true. So, just relax, take a  deep breath and speak your heart out the way you would to a friend. And see the the effect. This obviously comes from personal experience as declared earlier.