Founder Insights: Smule CEO Jeff Smith

Sylvie Leotin · November 22, 2010 · Short URL:

How Did Smule Find Its Groove?

Innovation is the act of creating something new. But something new doesn't mean something loved and embraced. How do you build products customers don't know they'll eventually love? 

The best way to answer that question is to share a case study of Smule, a maker of popular musical iPhone apps. The idea for the company germinated from a computer music project in Stanford. Eventually, the company became the leading provider of sonic applications, pioneering a new category, and successively topping app store charts. How did they do it? And what lessons can we learn about productizing emerging technologies?

Roots: Stanford computer music department

Behind the scene a few years ago, Jeff Smith - a successful serial entrepreneur, on semi-retirement to pursue a PhD in Computer Music in Stanford - met Ge Wang, a newly appointed Professor, creator of the Chuck Audio Programming Language and founder of the Stanford Laptop and Mobile Phone Orchestras. They clicked. Jeff was impressed with Chuck. He started experimenting with the language, composing fairly complex acoustic pieces. Ge and Jeff shared a deep interest in exploring what forms music may take in a post-post modern era. With the ubiquitousness of mobile phones, they foresaw the possibility to evolve from a passive appreciation of music, to an active participation and engagement at internet-scale. They were not thinking of starting a company, but the stars and investors lined up, and they decided to take the plunge and build a commercial platform for mobile audio applications.

Product and customer validation

Since there was no precedence for their products, they saw questions they needed to test/validate, before pouring money into the business. They boiled it down to 3 key questions:

  1. Does the technology (Chuck) work on mobile (Apple iOS)?
  2. Is there a distribution opportunity on iPhones?
  3. Will customers like this new form of playing and engaging with music?

The easiest way to answer the first question (does the technology work on mobile) was to build a Sonic Lighter. The Sonic Lighter is a “simple” application leveraging sound waves to ignite and blow virtual flames on iPhones. They decided to sell it on iTunes for $1 to test the second question (is there a distribution opportunity on iPhones) and see how it goes. The Sonic Lighter was an immediate hit; with massive downloads around the world. Jeff showed me the ignitions map across the globe; it never goes dark!

To test the third question (will customers embrace this new form of making music) they built the Ocarina. The Ocarina is an ingenious application that transforms any iPhone into a flute-like musical instrument. Smule wrote the first 5 scores, and the user community quickly contributed several thousands on their own. Today the Ocarina counts 2.7 Million users worldwide. They validated that people want to compose and play music on mobile phones.

Furthermore, to monitor usage and gain real-time insights on customer behaviors Smule developed a sophisticated analytics platform from the get-go. Understanding customer needs, dislikes and preferences is the company’s foundation for product innovation. “Inside the company, we only have our opinions," Jeff said. "How customers react and engage with our products is what validates or refutes our hypotheses”. 

The findings were fascinating and eye opening.  For example, they initially envisioned that people would want to play the Ocarina being in the same physical place -- as we do with traditional instruments. Instead they found out that people preferred playing with strangers over the network! Will this be the post-post modern future of music our children will experience?

Blueprint for new product exploration

To further deliver and validate their vision of social music for all, they created Glee Karaoke . It is a mix of karaoke and the 1000 voices project. This time they teamed with Fox, the producer of the highly popular TV show Glee. Smule technology enables Glee’s audience to evolve from passive viewing, to active participation in the show. Essentially anyone can now join in and sing songs with other viewers and fans around of the world. Before bringing the product to market, they tested a prototype with Fox network and Smule user group, and conducted joint focus groups. Today Glee is a huge success with over 640,000 users worldwide, having just launched six months ago.

With success on the iPhone, Smule has taken on the iPad, with the recent releases of the Magic Piano and (just launched) the Magic Fiddle for iPad (turning any iPad into a piano or a violin this time!) You must watch the video of St. Lawrence Quartet performing Pachebel's Canon on the Magic Fiddle. It is breathtaking!

The company DNA from its formation as been one of testing hypotheses and listening to customers. They started with a vision that music appreciation could evolve from a passive form - recorded music - to an active form of self and social expression. They did not know what form the products would take. They first built a minimum viable product (sonic lighter) to test the technology and revenue model. Then they added more complex features and applications to further deliver on their vision, leveraging the lessons learned from the previous products. Every new product is an iteration towards their vision, with continuous learning.


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Sylvie Leotin

Sylvie Leotin is an entrepreneur, advisor, writer and polymath, with a unique approach to bridging the worlds of business, technology, arts and culture.

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