Team, proximity, slow & steady wins the race

Meliza Solan Surdi · August 7, 2009 · Short URL:

Smule co-founder and CEO Jeff Smith says, 'Put zero distance between the code and the customer'

In this segment of Lessons Learned for entrepreneurs, Bambi Francisco interviewed Jeff Smith, co-founder of Smule, a maker of popular iPhone apps, such as the Ocarina, which recently eclipsed one million users, and Leaf Trombone to take a look. Smith was also the founder of Tumbleweed, which he brought public in 1999.

BF: With all of your experience, I am sure there are a number of lessons you have learned. Please share a few pieces of advice or lessons with our community of entrepreneurs.

JS: Thanks so much for having me. It's been great to watch Vator take off and be part of that. The first lesson involves team and culture. They're everything. It's going to come down to the set of people you've recruited to join you, that buy into your vision and unleashing their talent. Great teams build great companies. I have been fortunate to have a great team thus far to build Smule.

Number two is all about proximity to the customer. Too often as technologists, we see a great idea and we end up spending a lot of time building and implementing that and by the time we put it into a customer's hand, it's a rude awakening and the customer doesn't want it. I've experienced that and it ain't pretty. So the challenge is, how do you put something out there in the customer's hands that is valuable, and also still continue building your platform or whatever it is that you are doing? This is the way I would approach building a company. With one of my past companies, Tumbleweed, we had a great vision and a great team, but after spending two years building it, nobody wanted to buy it. We thought about how are we going to morph this value proposition into something that's actually compelling to a customer.This ended up being a long term exercise in building a company.  With Smule by contrast, we going to put a product right into the customers hands in three months. Then, we put an analytics engine under the hood which helped us measure every little thing our customer is doing from the start so we can understand the product from the start to model behavior and to model value proposition. So this is about proximity to customer.

It's not just the CEO but the entire company. What can you do in terms of your compensation or systems, and processes so there is little distance between the code you're writing and the customer who ultimately be using that code.

The third thing I would say is slow and steady wins the race. You've seen hsoe certain companies that have grown and have done some amazing things.There are exceptional companies that have done that. Yet, there is this frenetic energy within startups and it goes in all different kinds of directions. But what does it yield? If instead you take a step back and ask yourself what the goal is adn how you are going to focus on that goal and chip away at that goal day after day and month after month and get away from the more faster paced model. You would make a remarkable difference in a shorter amount of time, ironically. Team, proximity to customer, and the notion to put a stake in the ground and focus. It doesn't seem like you're throwing the same amount of time, energy and pace against that objective.

BF: I disagree with all of your advice. Just kidding. Thanks, Jeff for joining us today.

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Smule develops interactive sonic applications for the iPhone and other technology platforms.   Smule is developing the new sonic network, connecting users across the globe through expressive audio.  Smule's Ocarina, I Am T-Pain, and Leaf Trombone have set the standard for iPhone applications, combining innovative uses of the hardware with compelling social experiences. 


Jeffrey Smith

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