Lessons from a Recovering Doormat

Tim Westergren’s passion has always been music. He began his career as an independent musician, a composer for films and other aspects of the music industry. In 2000, he created the Music Genome Project™. An enormous collection of songs were gathered and analyzed, one by one, along close to 400 musical attributes, by a trained musician. They break down music into its most basic components—every element of melody and harmony, rhythm and instrumentation. An analyst gives a number to each of those attributes and together they make up a song’s musical fingerprint. When you type a song into Pandora, it looks at that song’s music fingerprint and starts connecting it to other songs that are its nearest musical neighbors.

Working as a film composer Tim had to figure out the director ‘s musical taste and translate what they said into a musical composition, which gave him the idea of creating the Genome. He shared it with a friend who’d already started and sold a company. A week later they began a business plan.

The original plan was to build a recommendation technology and license the Music Genome Project™ to other companies, such as, AOL and Borders, so they could use it to recommend music to their customers—a business-to-business licensing company. They tried to make that idea work for about four years. It was a bad time to launch a company, right before the dot com bubble burst. But Tim had already invested a lot of time and money, and also felt an obligation to the people who had been working with him, so he became even more determined to get it off the ground.

Every door that could be tapped for possible investors was tapped hard. Tim was relentless in his determination to make his Project happen. In fall 2005 he launched Pandora. His initial intent was to have a subscription service, but he quickly switched to a free site that’s supported by ad revenue. He has direct deals with AT&T and Sprint so people can listen to Pandora on their phones. It gets bigger almost every week.

I’m a big fan. After you register, you can choose an artist you like and Pandora creates a personal radio station of many songs that are similar. They don’t all sound alike. The Genome knows what other music I’d like by the artist I enter. I have a bunch of stations chosen and listen all day long to a stream of only music I enjoy. That to me is the best radio station on earth!

Pandora is fast becoming THE online radio station to go to for great music! If you’re a music lover, check out Pandora and create your own stations! And if you’re a musician with a top quality finished product, submit it! Now here’s some questions I asked Tim. Hearing his joy about what he’s created illustrates how SUCCESSFUL Tim and Pandora are.

Why do you think Pandora continues to expand its SUCCESS? The two reasons behind our growth, which is outpacing other forms of online radio, is 1) It’s super easy. Pick one song and we immediately deliver you a very personalized stream of music. That’s a big promise to make and a hard one to deliver. That’s the function of the Genome. 2) Since the Genome is blind to popularity, you hear a ton of music on Pandora that you’ve never heard before. So it’s a huge fountain of discovery. That, to my mind, is really the magic of a good radio.

Why did you keep going when you ran out of money and were in a deep hole? I knew I had to make it work or head to Mexico. I had nothing to fall back on. In some ways, when you start the kind of businesses, a little bit of naivety is healthy. If you knew the odds against you or what you were getting yourself into, you might never try. Once you start, you keep going. It’s kind of like gambling—just one more hand. We owed so many people so much money that we had to keep going and going, hoping somehow we could get across the desert. I had no idea what I was signing up for.

What motivated you? I never stopped believing in the idea and that it would have its time. It wasn’t just me who made it happen. It was a group who were willing to sacrifice because 1) they believed in it and 2) you start feeling an obligation to each other and some sense that I’ve invested so much already I’m not going to walk away from it. So there’s a natural momentum that keeps you going. Plus, I felt an intense sense of responsibility for all the people I borrowed money from, all the people who hadn’t been paid in a year or two. I was either going to make this happen or die trying. There was no choice.

What do you consider the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur? When they hit a road, they immediately start problem solving. And they adapt. They figure out how to get around it. They don’t view it like a sign saying you shouldn’t be going this way. They view it as an obstacle that has a solution. You can’t be rigid in your thinking. You’ve got to be able to be creative and resourceful. People really ought to learn the lesson—that you can do extraordinary things with your mind and body.

How did you find investors? I looked everywhere and pitched it hundreds of times. The pitch that led to the real financing in ’04 was my 348th. I pitched anybody I could find. I was always networking and trying to find somebody—from friends and relatives to bankers, investors, wealthy people, musicians, celebrities. I’d go pitch anybody who’d listen to me. In the end, to get over that four year period, I found money in the most unlikely places. You never know what stone you turn over will be the right one. Ironically, being in a band and being a self-employed film composer was great preparation for trying to raise money for a business, because you don’t get deterred by being told no. When you’re a musician, that’s your life. And you have to learn to sell yourself. If I believe in something, I can be pretty convincing.

At what point did you get advertisers? In November 2005 we made a commitment that it would be ad supported and free to use it. The strategy for that, and products we have for that, have evolved steadily since then. That’s been a combination of innovation on the product side, creativity of the ad sales team—a bunch of people coming together. One of the position challenges for online radio is that most people don’t look at it. We thankfully learned about Pandora is that people like to look at it a lot. They go back to it a lot to skip a song or go back to one, to see who an artist is that they don’t know. So it generates a lot of interaction with the site and driv
es enough advertising inventory to support the business.

Why travel around the country to do town halls? People want to meet the company that’s helping them discover such great new music. That excites them. There are people who come to the town halls that are 75 years old. They’ve been checked out of music for 50 years and now they’re back in the game. They’re finding new stuff, buying music, discovering old hits, finding new music they like. Tommy Dorsey fans have discovered Michael Buble and Red Hot Skillet Lickers. They’re getting reintroduced to music in a way.

How did the Town Hall meetings begin? It was kind of by accident. I originally planned to drive around the country to spread the word about the Genome in local music scenes across the country and let people know we were looking for music. Someone in my office suggested I have meetup in each town. I’d post on my blog where I’d be if people wanted to meet up and talk about Pandora. The first ones had just a few people. Now there are hundreds of people when I do one. I’m going to keep doing it!

How important to follow your passion? For me it’s impossible not to. There is something so uniquely satisfying and rewarding in doing what you love to do. Nothing compares to it. That love kept me going during the worst times of this company.

What are you most grateful for? A lot right now! I pinch myself all the time. I’m grateful for all the folks who have hung with me and this company all these years—a lot of people. People made tremendous sacrifices and put themselves under tremendous personal pressure to get through it, when there were a lot of voices saying “What are your doing?” I’m very grateful for that.

What does SUCCESS mean to you? A musicians middle class. That’s really how I’m going to measure the SUCCESS of Pandora. If I sold the company for a bunch of money and it got pulled into Clear Channel and wrecked, I wouldn’t be happy.

What do you see for the future now? I think a lot about possibility now. Even when we launched, I used to think, would people like it? Will it grow? Will it work? The usual kind of stuff. Now I think about what kind of a difference it could make. We could really change this business in a very fundamental way, for the better. It could be enduring. That’s what really excites me now.

Do you feel successful now?
Yes! I’m very proud of what we’ve done. There’s a lot to be proud of in having taken it this far and survived.

So what are you waiting for? Go to Pandora and listen to some great music as you continue!

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