The year was 1999. The song was “Sunburst” by guitarist Andrew York of the LA Guitar Quartet. I was driving, listening to my local NPR station. Before the song finished playing I was ready to buy it, but I knew neither the title nor the artist. It took many phone calls to the DJ and several weeks to find out. There has to be a better way, I thought, and there was. That is the moment my world changed.
I was working for IBM at the time, on a team building “in-vehicle” systems (aka telematics), which are computers designed to be embedded into the dashboard of your car. Remember, this was 1999, and such systems were not common. I presented a simple idea to IBM: capture the song in flash memory inside the telematics radio and allow the listener to press a button if he or she wants to buy it, then make the song a permanent part of the listener’s music collection. This was before iPods, before internet radio, before iTunes. Satellite radio was just launching its birds. Mine was a novel idea, and IBM suspected they could patent it. They were right.
Having worked for IBM for 17 years, I knew what would happen. They would be grateful, give me a pat on the head and a $1500 check, and send my idea into oblivion. Imagine the final scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark“, where the crate containing the precious ark is carried off by forklift into a cavernous warehouse full of similar looking crates. Yeah, it was gonna be like that, and I knew it. IBM was then, and still is, a great company, but not an applications company. They would license the patent to others but never build it out themselves. If I was going to watch my baby grow up, I was going to have to leave IBM, and so I did.
Because IBM owns my original idea, which was for digital (satellite) radio, I had to some up with a new one: the same ability to instantly buy radio content, but for terrestrial (AM/FM) radio rather than digital. This was considerably more complex, but with the help of retired IBM senior systems engineer Bruce MacAlister and Alen Docef, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University, we figured it out. In a few months we had a working protoype. The business model came from my friend and partner Bob Griffith, then a Senior Executive with the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), and more recently with Google Radio. Bob knew squat about technology, but he knows the radio business like the back of his hand. “Make it work without station involvement,” he told us, “and focus on the ads, not just the music.” And so we did.
The idea was novel, the prototype brilliant, the business model ironclad, and the team A plus. But the venture failed. Why? Timing, and scope. We launched in March of 2000, just as the “dot com” bubble was bursting and becoming a “dot bomb.” Six months earlier and you could have raised millions by shaking a tree, having a venture capitalist fall out, showing him a “dot com” idea scribbled on a pizza box, and walked away with a contract. Now, in the spring of 2000, if you said “technology” and “start-up” in the same sentence, it had the effect of saying, “I have the Ebola virus and I’m about to sneeze.” We spent the balance of the year chasing VC’s into the hills. I gave up in December and went back to work in a cubicle.
Thinking back, I now believe the venture was far too grand in scope. It required too much capital to start, and there were too many parts that had to fall in place for it to succeed. But I had the IBM mentality of thinking big, and in those days bold, even audacious ideas, were in vogue. Today I am much more modest and prefer “bootstrapping” ventures to ones that need high dollar life support.
In the past dozen or so years, I’ve seen many try, and fail, with the idea of radio tagging. Apple has done the best, I think, the app Shazam is fabulous, and internet radio stations like Pandora and Spotify are close but need to pay more attention the the second part of Bob’s advice: focus on the ads. That’s where the money is.
I still love the song “Starburst” and remember whenever I play it. My world has changed, for the better mostly, as the opportunities to learn about and buy music are better than ever before. Ways to reduce instrusive, obnoxious ads are emerging, as I have written about in another post.
Oh, and there is one other wonderful change — I no longer work in a cubicle.