I hired my own boss to run Shazam: A talk with Chris Barton

By May 23, 2014No Comments

You began your career in consulting but soon went on to start your own company. What was your motivation to become an entrepreneur?

Chris Barton: I fundamentally love creating stuff. But there are two main reasons. One, my dad was a big inspiration – he was running his own company when I was growing up in San Diego. The second were fellow students in business school who were starting their own businesses. These two factors really triggered the process for me to want to start my own company. So I decided one day to focus on coming up with an idea that I could develop. That’s when Shazam started.

Tell us a bit more about this: How did the process look like?

Chris Barton: I spent a summer brainstorming ideas. I would literally brainstorm ideas whenever I had free time – I went for long runs and sometimes I would have sessions at a café with my friends and we’d bounce ideas off of each other. It was a very thoughtful process. I think that anyone can come up with ideas in their daily life, but the best way is to really carve out time and to think through different potential business cases.

So you didn’t come up with Shazam out of the blue. Did you have multiple ideas at first?

Chris Barton: I had a variety of different ideas that I was considering. The Shazam idea, was one that I was tinkering around with for a long time, but it was originally based on a much simpler technology approach.

What happened then? Why did you pick Shazam?

Chris Barton: I was essentially creating something that solved my own problem. But the real aha moment with Shazam was when I came up with the idea of implementing a technology that had never been done before – the sound recognition that could work in a “noisy environment” and over a mobile phone. That was the birth of Shazam. It seemed like an incredibly difficult concept to build, which made it really exciting.

So being the visionary founder meant you needed a technical co-founder with a very specific set of skills…

Chris Barton: … yes, my other co-founder Philip Inghelbrecht and I were looking for an audio signal processing specialist who could execute our technology vision for Shazam.

And that was Avery Wang. How did you convince him to join?

Chris Barton: Philip and I had put a lot of thought into the opportunity of this business. It wasn’t just a simple "Hey wouldn’t it be great to do this” – it was essentially a thoughtful business plan. One of the things that won him over was that we got his professor to join the company’s advisory board. We had walked Avery through what our vision was for Shazam. One of the things that won him over was just how diligent we had been about thinking through building a business around this, combined with clear persistence and passion. We had put a lot of research into the area of his technical expertise in audio signal processing, so we had actually gotten his professor – who supervised his PhD thesis at Stanford – to join our advisory board for the company. That sold him.

What is the key trait for a founder?

Chris Barton: A strong level of persistence has been the core driver for me in my career. And it’s the most useful thing for starting a company. Because when you’re starting a company essentially you’re facing such an endless barrage of challenges that making it succeed is nearly impossible. It’s almost an irrational persistence that is the only thing that really allows you to keep going.

Did you ever reach a point where you wanted to give up?

Chris Barton: Not at all, but it will often be the biggest question that you face as an entrepreneur, “isn’t that just a feature or a product?” But ultimately almost every company starts off as a feature or product. And eventually you build around that success to become a real company. Almost every company starts off as a feature or product. So being able to see where your idea is going to take you is critical, because people want to be part of of building towards a grand vision. No matter whether investors or employees. That’s what creates the big opportunity and that’s what is the most exciting challenge.

What was the next big challenge you faced?

Chris Barton: We had a very simple piece of software that ran on a computer initially where we could show that we were able to recognize a piece of sound collected over mobile phone, and then demonstrate how it would be recognized in a database. That was the very earliest prototype that we showed to angel investors. But at the time we were out raising venture capital, we had built a phone-based system. Again it was not the world’s most comprehensive database of songs, at that time, and was definitely a bit shaky, but it did work.

What was the biggest challenge around monetization after prototyping?

Chris Barton: Shazam initially was a simple pay-per-call service. Finding a way to monetize without having to charge users really opens up the gates. With the introduction of the App Store however there was concern, “if the user pays once is that going to mean there is not an ongoing revenue stream?” Ultimately we went for a freemium model – so for the majority of users Shazam was completely free. There is a premium version of Shazam today, but it’s really not as core to the company as it was in the early days.

Why freemium?

Chris Barton: Finding a way to monetize without having to charge users really opens up the gates to becoming much bigger. The raw volume of new users that was coming in was perfectly sufficient to create a viable and growing revenue stream that was better than that prior model [before the introduction of apps and smart phones]. So Shazam really only reached its potential when the massive distribution available in app stores became an opportunity to reach the masses.

You had already stepped down as CEO in 2004 – way before the App Store and iPhone were introduced. What had happened?

Chris Barton: I actually hired my own boss to run the company. So that created the opportunity for us co-founders to go off and do new things. We had fully vested our equity and had been plowing away at Shazam for a few years. It just seemed like a good time to remain active as a board member but let the hired-in management to run the company. I joined Google at the time and it was prior to being public company, so it was a pretty exciting startup to join.

Any regrets for leaving Shazam as operating CEO this early?

Chris Barton: No, actually not. Shazam was about creating something that could have a life of its own. Shazam was about creating something that could have a life of its own. It wasn’t about fulfilling a vision for what I wanted to be doing day-to-day so it was far more important to me for Shazam to become this successful company and far less important that I was leading it.

What are the chances that we’ll see another start up from Chris Barton?

Chris Barton: I always have the ongoing urge. I’m sure at some point I will do something of my own again in the start up space.