Jeff Smith, Smule: Music For All

If you could turn back the clock would you change anything in your career as an entrepreneur, manager and engineer?

I would give all to time except what I myself have held. So no. I’ll keep it. But were there a lot of mistakes along the way? Yes. Did I learn lots of lessons? Absolutely. But I remember starting my first company, I just had become married and we bought a house in the Bay area. It was highly leveraged, we borrowed everything and more. And the house was falling down, so we had to fix it, but it was all we could get. We were eating just noodles. And two months later I came home and asked my wife: honey, does your health insurance at your job cover me? Because I just quit my job.


I’m starting a company and it occurred to me I don’t have health insurance. And she asked: how do you want to pay for the mortgage?

So was it a rational decision? No. If I went back in time would I’ve changed it? Probably not. But we managed to figure how to pay the mortgage. And my new startup started generating revenue a few months in. So it did work out. But I don’t think my path was necessarily a chosen one. It was more faith intervening and dictating a series of steps that I was anxious to follow and take. I’ve got a friend who said: I’m almost 35 and still haven’t started a company and you already have started and run three. Should I go and start a company? And my response was: Gosh, isn’t that a silly way of thinking about it. Maybe you should start a company because you’re passionate and have a dream, or more likely you’re a little crazy. I think you should do it because you feel obligated to do it. In my case it just happened.


What were the first few months like after starting this first company?

Hectic, crazy but inspiring. My former colleague Jean Christophe and I were programming during the whole night and then during the day I was taking sales calls. I was working out of my home. We hired our head of business development and we would sit in a room in my home, and I would type and he would be on the phone selling. And my dog would run into the room and grab the bottom of the phone and run outside. And that would make it harder for us to close sales. But that was part of the process. That was 1992. It was a company that did electronic publishing.


Having the whole experience of starting a company, developing it and then selling it, was it hard or emotional for you to sell those businesses at the end?

I don’t mean to be contrarian but for me it was never about the exit. Maybe that means I’m not the best entrepreneur. It was more about a dream and passion or exploring a problem, it was what motivated me. If eventually we took it public or someone wanted to buy it, and that made sense then OK. But it was not my goal. Back in 1992 the problem we were solving was that people couldn’t share content – it was all proprietary formats. This was before the web. So we built a product like PDF before Adobe shipped Acrobat. And we licensed that to all these companies and had a significant market share. In the next company we wanted to focus on e-mail security standards because you couldn’t send information across a public network securely, there was a huge privacy risk. So we built a lot of the standards for encrypting email. Because we believed it was an important problem to solve.

And I don’t think about it as series of companies. For me Smule instead is a really important problem to solve, an opportunity to allow a lot of people to create music rather than listen to music. And many ask: but how many people want to create music? And the answer is: many more than anyone realizes. I feel this is an important mission and something that I feel probably more passionate about than anything I’ve done in my life. That’s why I don’t think very much about an exit of IPO, although we have shareholders and we want them to be successful with their investment. But to make them successful means we have to execute our vision.


We have a goal – 1 billion creators.


How did you become passionate about music and where lie the crossroads between music and technology?

I did a BS in Computer Science and years later PhD in Music in Stanford. My family is very musical, my mother is a music teacher. My father and mother met in a dance band where the performed all the time. The rules in our house said that when you are four you start playing the piano, and if you wanted dinner you had to practice. When you turned 13 years you could elect to stop but most of us never stopped. It was just part of the fabric of my life. so when I came to undergrad I kept on performing, I did piano every quarter. I studied Musicology, music history and gave recitals. Even when I was doing my first startup, I was still taking piano lessons. It was always part of me. But I always thought that music was very human and personal and computers and business were not. So I was reluctant to bring those two worlds together, in fact I saw lot of value in separating those worlds, and for me to leave the world of business and computers and immerse myself in the world of art and expression came almost as an escape or as an opportunity to explore a different world. When I went back to Stanford to get a PhD was to leave computers. But again all the best laid plans were changed when I met a person who had built a new audio programming language, we figured how to port it onto an iPhone, we created an orchestra where people were performing music on their iphones and laptops.

And we were beginning to realize that people were ready to create music much more readily through a phone and with each other connected through a network, than they would maybe on their own at their home. Together with my co-founder Ge Wang who is a Professor in Computer Music at Stanford, we realized that there was an opportunity to bring music back to its roots. I had to be convinced that you could marry music with computers and business and I was reluctant to see that. But eventually I saw that we could allow people who couldn’t play the piano or the guitar and were afraid to sing, that we allowed them to start creating music.


How did you market such an unortodox product at the beginning?

We built a product that people would want to share. We would think about the used case upfront on how someone will use it to share the experience with someone else. And that became part of the concept phase and then we captured it on video. So that’s how we marketed – through the product and video showing that same used case. Our key factors are to measure how likely are people to share the product experience with others either physically or virtually. We knew that mobile was going to be more face to face than virtual channel. It seems obvious now, not so much 10 years ago.
It all comes down to having an authentic experience that you’re crafting and sharing. There’s lot of marketing that is very polished and professional but doesn’t resonate as much because young people become more sophisticated and discriminating. They don’t trust as many things and are asking more questions. For us it’s about communicating an authentic experience with all its imperfections. Life isn’t perfect, singers aren’t perfect. That’s what makes it unique. It’s about celebrating the imperfections of this world.


Was second time at Stanford totally different from your first stay there?

Right, so I did the BS in 1989 and the PhD in 2013. It was quite different for me as a person, but also the school had changed. I was an adult with children, established in life, with more opinions. As a student I was impoverished, struggling to survive, terrified about what the future might mean. For me it was quite a different stage in life and because of that I immersed myself and better took advantage of it. First time around I don’t think I fully understood the opportunity. The funny thing is I was at the first computer science class at Stanford – there were 17 of us majors. Today in Stanford graduate 3,540 computer science majors. We were the first batch. Stanford has changed quite a bit – there’s so much more emphasis on technology for better or worse. And it has much more resources now to support students.


Would you encourage others to continue studying in university even at a later stage in their careers?

Yes, absolutely. I always wanted to get a degree in music and for me it did come later. But with the time and the perspective it was much all the more meaningful for me. There’s so much value in always studying and growing at any stage in our life. It’s quite unusual to go back and get a PhD at age 40 but maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe we should encourage that more in our society.


And it led you to your new company?

Which was not the plan. The plan was to become a music professor.


Where do you see Smule in five years?

We have a goal – 1 billion creators. We want to have a billion people creating music using our platform. It’s ambitious but goals have to be ambitious. But how do you bring different types of people who are not that skilled to come and participate in this musical experience? Perhaps by leveraging the richness of the experience of others on the platform – this notion of teaching and research is very relevant on the Smule platform. We have this nucleus of skilled musical creators who are composing and arranging songs that enable people who don’t have those skills to come and play this songs.

Artists like us today because we pay them. Some other platforms don’t, but we do. We pay a royalty to everyone who wrote music. It’s a very attractive platform for artists because there’s a degree of fan engagement that they don’t get at other places.


Why did you pick Sofia for your R&D office?

Because we had such a great experience building a business together the first time with Eric Dumas being a leader here and building an office. At our former company we had an office in Redwood City, in Bangalore and in Sofia. It was a bit of a case study and test. And what we found and it’s also credit to Eric, is that there’s a culture of science and engineering here that was just woven into the office. And there was pride in the degree of science and skill around. We found it was incredibly valuable for us to tap into that culture and that segment of society. We didn’t have that same experience in India and even in Redwood City. So it was very natural to want to come back and scale even more that capability, product innovation and science. I think it’s inevitable.
In just 10 months we went from zero to 85 people. Eric is the Chief technology officer of the whole company and he is based here, which says something. We think it is a unique place and
we think we can take some of our expertise in San Francisco around consumer marketing and data science in our particular market segment and bring it into the center in Sofia, and grow both together. A lot of our core engineering is already done here, probably a third of our marketing budget is also run from Sofia.


Source: Original article is published in on June 14, 2019