‘Business is Boring’ is a new weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound will speak with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and text. This week: Sam Gribben of Serato and Melodics.
Imagine taking a company from before it even being a product to becoming a global leader and a household name amongst anyone who’s ever spun a record, and then starting all over again. That’s what today’s guest, Sam Gribben, is doing. He was CEO of Serato, the DJ technology, for 10 years. Taking a local company to the world, meeting some heroes, and redefining DJing in the process. He’s now heading up Melodics, an app that helps you learn how to finger drum but that’s just the beginning.
What is Melodics now, what’s the premise?
Melodics is software to help people learn how to play musical instruments. It started, for me, learning off Youtube. I was learning how to play keys and bass, both of which I play quite badly. It’s no exaggeration to say that there are millions of music lessons on Youtube but it’s super low-tech, really. It’s super one-way. You can pause it, you can rewind it, and that’s not very different to what you could do with a VHS tape in 1985. That got me thinking, what if I could plug my instrument into Youtube, or something that we made, and it would listen to what I was playing and know what I was getting right, know what I was getting wrong, and adapt to my ability.
Cool. Like timing and pitch and the rest of it?
The way it is now it just basically shows you what you’re playing versus what you should be playing and you can see if you’re early or late or playing the right notes or the wrong notes. It’s fairly simple but it works quite well.
So you’ve started with finger drumming. Tell me how finger drumming starts as your first entry point into that musician journey.
I might seem like kind of a strange place to be working but when I was at Serato I know from being in the industry that as a product category, these devices with pads on them had exploded in the last four-five years. There were lots of them being. There’s one called a Launchpad, which is from a UK company called Novation, and they’ve had hundreds of millions, I think over half a billion, views of Launchpad videos on Youtube. So people are interested in these things and lots of companies are making them but very few people know how to actually play them. It’s also kind of hit this cultural tipping point where they’re starting to appear in movies and music videos. Places where you’d see an electronic musician or a DJ, you now see people playing pads.
People like Kanye West helped to lead the way and then suddenly people in bedrooms all around the world are wanting to give it a go. I imagine it’s probably not too scary to take on learning how to play something that has a grid of 9×9 squares on it as opposed to a flute.
They’re fun, they’re fun to play. But at the same time it does get incredibly technical and there are some real fundamental musical skills that you need to have, like understanding time signatures and syncopation and independence, all those sorts of things. We’ve actually worked quite a bit with the University of Auckland music department to help us to put together the learning programme, the teaching aspects of it.
That’s really cool and you mentioned just before that at Serato, which is where a lot of people would know you from and your journey there for more than 10 years as CEO, what’s the links here outside of the obvious music? Is this something that you had been thinking about for a while while you were with Serato? Was it time to go from big to small? What’s the journey?
I was at Serato for 10 years and I got to the point where I thought if I was ever going to do anything new or different, then was really the time. So I took some time out and took a break. I was also really motivated by the fact that the part that I really enjoyed was growing the company from nothing. I felt that I was quite well suited to that. The years where we were fighting it out to go from this unknown thing to trying to take over the world. I wanted to – it feels a bit crazy at times – see if I could do it all over again.
So I went out on my own and I was kicking around a bunch of different ideas in those first few months after leaving Serato. Quite a few of them are music and technology related but not all of them. I kind of got to a point where I was thinking, who do I know in this world and what do they have already and what do they not have? I knew a lot of artists and I knew a lot of the equipment manufactures. I was like well I’ve already got DJ software so I don’t wanna do that, that would be dumb. It’s already been done and it would be kinda stink to be competing with my friends so I don’t wanna do that. They’ve already go software and products to help create music, there’s lots of that sort of stuff. There’s lots for performing music but what if we could make it so that practising to play an instrument was actually fun? We started thinking okay it’s gonna teach people to play instruments and we’re gonna take over from all those neighbourhood guitar teachers. All those signs at the supermarket, “Learn to play guitar”, we’ll take those guys down. I was talking to a friend of mine who is an incredible piano player, a guy called Mark de Clive-Lowe who’s a Kiwi living in LA doing amazing things. He was like “How are you gonna teach how to hold their hands in the right position? It’s really important. Are you gonna use an X-Box Kinect camera and 3D and all sorts of stuff?” I was like wow that sounds really hard and no, we’re not going to do any of that sort of stuff.
Actually if people go out and get more music lessons as a result of using Melodics, that’s a good thing. What we’re going to focus on is practice. This really cemented over that first year of thinking about it and planning it into “This is a tool to help people to practise. If you practise, you’ll get better. If you don’t practise, you won’t.” That’s our core theory that no one’s really challenged us on so far. Actually, we are starting to work with some of those music teachers. The idea being “you do the lessons and the courses and you show people how to do it. This is a thing that will help them practise in between times.” Again, I remeber some of those early conversations with the university, with lecturers there who are professionals, and university students who were spending years of their lives and paying lots of money to go and study music, and they still don’t practise. Those guys were like “If you can help get people practising more, that will change everything across all levels. From the very beginners right up to the experts.”
What level were you at at Serato after 10 years there? You’d taken this product from pre-launch to being the global number one, name-checked in songs by the world’s biggest artists, used by the world’s biggest DJs. how many staff did you have by the end of that? And how big was the operation you were running?
It was significant. I think there were about 80 people at the start of 2014. It’s bigger now, it’s gone from strength to strength. The company’s still going really, really well. I was perhaps a little bit comfortable and perhaps a little bit nostalgic for days when the challenge was to be the scrappy little guys and not be known by name. The Serato name now is an amazing door opener, particularly in the US where the brand is the strongest. There was a certain kind of challenge in wanting to do it all over again. I have quite strong opinions about how technology can be a real powerful thing for New Zealand and we’re well suited to export technology and export IP. We’re isolated and that’s a barrier but also a bit of an opportunity. We have really well educated people and it scales really well. So you can create some technology some technology and grow it, double it, triple it. If we rely on agriculture and growing grass and turning it into milk powder, it’s hard to get enough rain and sunshine to triple or quadruple the output. It just doesn’t work. So I think there’s a real opportunity for New Zealand to be known as a creator of great technology.
There is a huge industry here. I mean, the ICT sector is bigger than film and wine put together, but it’s still a way off New Zealand saying hey, we’re a tech leader. But with things like Serato, that is the global leader and huge in the States and it’s quite amazing that you’ve built that from here. What does it take to be building a global company like that and is that something that is part of Melodics from day one as well?
There are actually a surprising number of companies doing that. I think that New Zealand has a bit of a way to go. It’s changing, it’s getting better, but a bit of a way to go in connecting those people and celebrating those successes. There’s a lot more that can be done which would help the people doing it and inspire other people to do it. So for Melodics it’s very much our plan to build that kind of brand and that kind of name and really believe that you can build a really, really strong brand that people associate with something. In the world of music learning there aren’t that many strong brand names. Our aspiration is to become that name. As more younger and younger people get into learning music, they’re more digitally savvy and I think also more inclined to look for “the tool” that goes with “that thing”. If I’m gonna learn a language…learning language, the old-school name is probably Rosetta Stone or Babelfish, and now things like Duolingo people associate with learning a language. We wanna be that for learning an instrument.
What’s quite cool when looking at what you’ve got going already is you’re not starting quite from zero again this time because you’re already sitting there with endorsements and partnerships and friendships with some of the top names in music. That’s a pretty cool position to be in.
One of the great things we were able to do is sort out distribution and a way of reaching people before we started building the product at all. That was by teaming up with the gear makers and going to them saying “I’m gonna make this thing, it’s gonna help your customers learn how to use your products better. Will you help us get it out there?” And they were like “Sure, we all want that. If our customers use our products more then they’ll like it more and they’ll probably buy the next one that comes out.” All those things. So we were able to get a lot of support before we committed to building any sort of product.
You’ve got the three elements of a successful business if you want to be really simplistic about it. Your product, your distribution, and your marketing. Talk about some of the partnerships that you’ve got with musicians and how you try and build credibility there?
One of the biggest challenges with anything new is overcoming your obscurity. Kiwis do fall into this. We do tend to focus on “make the awesome widget and everything will come from that.” It is more about getting it out in front of people. We worked with the instrument makers and we also worked with artists and both of those are ways to reach people. We worked with artists to make lessons and we share the revenue with the artists. That’s not really in user-facing, it’s not in our website, but the deal is we share a percentage of our revenue with the artists. So it’s a way of making money for the artists in a world where it’s harder than a lot of people think. Even quite big name artists do have to work damn hard to make a living because you don’t sell CDs anymore, you don’t sell MP3s anymore. Streaming is not particularly lucrative.
You can’t be performing every single night unless you’re in Vegas for a run.
And I think a lot of these big artists, they have to be working really hard on the road to get their music out. So working with is a way of making money. It’s an interesting way for them to engage with their fans and we are really keen to pay them for that. We‘re paying them for their music, licensing their music from them, but it’s also for the exposure that gets us. For example, DJ Jazzy Jeff is someone I’ve worked with for a long time over the years. He was really, really supportive of what we’re doing with Melodics. Did a lesson with him, he shot a video of him playing his own lesson and he’s like a natural in front of the camera from years of being on TV, and quite a natural comic as well. It was quite cool, he was playing his own lesson and struggling with it and complaining about how hard it was. He put it up on his Facebook and Instagram and that is huge for us, it’s reaching a lot of people and a massive endorsement, it gives it a lot of credibility.
What have you got this time that you didn’t? For example, I’d imagine you would have much better access to the kind of capital that it takes to licence Jazzy Jeff’s tunes and the networks that mean you do it properly. Are there thresholds when it comes to capital and partnerships and teams and stuff that you need to…is it just not worth doing it unless you do it to a certain degree?
Having a track record and being able to point to something, to be able to say “I’ve done it before”, makes a huge difference. But that being said, you look at the big things and the things that are getting a lot of money and where the funding is going and often it’s young people with a great idea and a lot of drive. You don’t have to have that experience. I said I wanted to see if I could do it all over again but it’s not really doing it all over again because I’ve got introductions and a reputation that does open doors with previous experience so it’s easier, definitely. The other thing that’s really different compared to 10 years ago is that the tools have changed so dramatically. For a tech startup business but I think for any business there’s so many things that you can get that you used to have to either make yourself or pay a lot of money for. The whole cloud revolution for 30 bucks a month, 40 bucks a month, you get these amazing tools for talking to your customers and finding out what they think and how they use the product and all these things. So there’s this kind of tool suite that we have available to us now that just did not exist even five years ago.
What’s your entrepreneurial style and what are you bringing to it now that you’re doing it again? That you’re able to have had a run through and learn some stuff.
Now taking it into a fresh company, things move so fast it’s about being able to always, every day, think about what is the most important thing to be doing right now and what do I need to do to be getting it done. I’m not a perfectionist, a lot of times it’s like “We could spend another three days doing this thing or we could just ship it and move on to the next important thing.” I admire perfectionists, I admire people who have that attention to detail to make things brilliant but I just know that it doesn’t work for me. It’s better for me to just keep turning things over, keep working on what I think is the most important thing and just get through stuff. There is an element of “make it up as you go along” to it. Make it up as you go along is a bad thing, you don’t know what you’re doing but the positive side is everything’s changing all the time and you need to be able to respond quickly and do what you think is the best at any one time.
Do you have business things that you go and look at and read? Do you follow Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz or something? Do you subscribe to a tech leadership style?
Not really. I always mean to and I subscribe to mailing lists and at home I get harassed a little bit for buying all of these business-y self-help books and never actually reading them. I do really value catching up with other people in similar spaces, similar industries, similar stages. I try to that as much as possible, I find that hugely helpful. Just to find out how they’re dealing with things. One of the big things running a company is often it’s the things that you’re not worrying about that will bite you. I got a group of friends together a little while ago and I told them about how Melodics and was like “I’m really worried about this and this and this. This, on the other hand is going really well.” And they were like “Those things that you’re worrying about, don’t worry about them, they actually look awesome. I’d be concerned about this.” And I was like oh, I hadn’t thought about that. That stuff is super helpful.
How is the community now?
I reckon it’s really changing. I said earlier it’s not as connected as it should be. It’s definitely better. There’s some really cool things happening to get high school kids, even younger, across what tech can be. The OMGTech thing, that’s awesome. There’s another programme called Future in Tech, before coming here I did a Skype with a class in Northland of 14-17 year olds. It was basically like “Why should you study maths and science” to these young kids. “Here’s a video of a DJ and some guys playing pad controllers. You can do that. You should do that. You can learn how to code.” And they were like “Oh I thought it was just boring stuff.” So there’s a lot of good things happening, I think, to encourage people. There are more and more things happening to connect tech people and entrepreneurs. It’s all good stuff. I think there’s still a ways to go though. There could be more spreading the good news stories and finding the companies that are still flying below the radar, helping to find those companies and tell their stories.
What does success look like for you? What’s your version of balance in life and work as well, are you a “work every hour” person?
I’m not. Success for Melodics, our success, is we want to change the way that people look at learning to play and instrument and we want to get more people playing instruments. That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. Success for me is making an awesome company and not going crazy in the process. I have three young kids and I like to be home to read them stories to help them get to bed and that’s important to me. I don’t do crazy 80 hour weeks. I just know from experience I can’t maintain that and I just burn out, then I’m no good to anyone. But I also am dealing with a lot of people in Europe in particular and so I do a lot of put the kids to bed and then a couple hours of Skype calls afterwards. The other part of success, in a wider sense, is to create another example of a New Zealand based tech company that takes it to the world. There’s a lot of people here that can do that and should do that. If we can pave the way and set an example and help other people to do it, I think it’ll be great for all of us.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.