Unrolling the Unroll.me Conundrum

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TL;DR: The Unroll.me scenario highlights the need for more discussion on legal and TOS

Blowup

A couple weeks ago, NYT journalist Mike Isaac wrote a piece on Uber CEO Travis Kalanick that inadvertently gave legs to another story: Unroll.me. I’m not going to restate the facts of the backlash—you can go to multiple sources to read those. I will, however, point out something that I think was missing from the overall conversation, which I think is important for the tech community to assess as much as anything else about the story.

The exact implications of the backlash notwithstanding, it brings up two main points, both of which are connected, and one of which I’ve only seen any real discussion. In short, here’s why Unroll.me CEO Jojo Hedaya’s apology doesn’t solve the underlying problem:

  1. It placed all of the culpability on the Unroll.me team, and
  2. It presented “lack of TOS transparency” as the main problem, while the bigger problem as I see it is a lack of discussion and knowledge of TOS in general.

The first was a misstep because it painted Unroll.me as the villain in the narrative. It’s true: Unroll.me could have been much more transparent about their TOS practices, as plenty of people have already pointed out. In particular, Hunter Walk and Steve Sinofsky presented valid points on this in our tweet conversation. As Hunter pointed out, the company’s suggestion that users simply “Read the TOS” was at best insufficient and at worst callous. Steve also tweeted that trying to write an explanatory text of a contract (TOS) in plain English may well not hold up the same legally. Both are correct. But I also see something deeper.

The Precarious Balance

However, the full, unequivocal admission of guilt left Unroll.me holding the whole bag, while only a portion of any perceivable guilt actually lay with them. The cold reality of the entire situation is that the Terms of Service are there for a reason, and that reason isn’t just to take up space or peeve users when downloading a new app. It’s to protect and indemnify the company against any possible legal action; to assert that the company is in the right, and that some responsibility has to rest with the user.

Is the company always right? No. Is it always clear of indiscretions? Of course not (just look at Uber). But the point is that the TOS exists for a reason. And contrary to what many users might want to believe, that reason is not to please them or give them warm feelings inside. It’s to make sure that the company is legally protected.

But what about transparency? Is that not equally important?

The answer, more and more, is “yes,” it is important. But it’s also important that users don’t conflate transparency—of TOS, for example—with a lack of responsibility on their part.

Legal knowledge shouldn’t be seen as a dark art, and—companies’ TOS should be sufficiently clear so users understand and accept the terms outlined therein. It needn’t be a good/bad scenario—just one where all parties are clearly informed. In the context, the legal concept of “good faith” applies almost without question.

The Real Point

All of this leads up to the real point which should be central to everyone’s perspective: that the tech press and blogosphere should cover legal matters, especially those related to TOS, far more than they already do. I read countless articles and posts, and listen to numerous podcasts on fundraising, user-acquisition and retention, hiring, firing, going public, etc. But for all of that, I see only a handful of posts or podcasts where legal knowledge is discussed with as much vigor and depth as new funding rounds are. Sure, those posts and podcasts exist, but they don’t get tweeted nearly as much in the tech mainstream as others on the aforementioned topics.

Why? Well, frankly, because legal stuff is perceived as boring. It’s not “move fast and break stuff”—it’s “move slowly, and make sure you read every word.” That’s not fun, but it is necessary. The larger lesson one should take away from the Unroll.me incident is that founders, VC’s, accelerators, and tech journalists should all turn around and discuss the Terms of Service as much as any other metrics. After all it’s the legal footing upon which the financial relationship between companies and customers ultimately rests. Well-done TOS should be emphasized just as much as raising a Series C round. After all, many companies won’t even get to Series C, but they for damn sure won’t get to Series A without a rock solid TOS.

Firsthand Experience

I learned this firsthand when I was starting my first company, a music-tech startup. What’s the first thing anyone thinks about when they hear “music company?” Getting sued. And I knew that.

So I read every TOS and license I could relating to music—I read Spotify’s, Apple’s, YouTube’s, SoundCloud’s, and even Rdio’s before they went under. I read every single word, and took notes on where each license and TOS assumed too much responsibility—some of which was unrealistic. And then I made sure that our own license and Terms of Service didn’t invite unwanted legal exposure—I wrote it that way. I knew everything in our TOS, and could run it over, forwards and backwards, in my sleep, to artists, founders, VC’s, or anyone else who asked.    

Of course not every person is equipped for feels prepared to write their own TOS. I did, but then again, I can’t code, so we all have our strengths and weaknesses. However, because I spent so much time researching, reading, and refining our license and TOS, I was intimately familiar with everything it said. You don’t need to be a lawyer to prioritize knowing your TOS. This is a massive advantage.

You Should Know Your TOS Forward and Backward, Inside and Out

Knowing what your company does and doesn’t do—what you’re allowed to do as written in your TOS—is an advantage because it’s something you can then share with your users. This gives you power. When you are well-versed in the legal aspects of your company as well as the financial or technical ones, you are able to paint a full picture for your customers and control the narrative that is told. It’s not about being deceptive—I would never advocate for that.

But people feel a whole lot less deceived when they’re able to have a real conversation about what they’re signing. Fear and doubt tend to dissipate when questions are welcomed, and people feel respected as customers and users.

This is what the takeaway should be, and where we focus future discussions. Yes, Unroll.me made some mistakes, and companies should try to learn from them and be open and honest with their TOS and other licensing agreements before anything questionable comes out. But we as an industry should similarly prioritize legal knowledge and versatility the way we do engineering prowess and marketing brilliance. In the end, it’s all required to make and run an amazing company.

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Thanks to Jason Rowley, Nick Abouzeid, Alex Marshall, and Eric Willis for reading drafts of this.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

How a Blog Post Led to Relationship Building with Lowercase Capital

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your networking is simply to express interest in the things which interest you. Mere blog posts or tweets can lead to amazing opportunities. Part of networking is setting yourself up for mutually beneficial outcomes with others. Let me elaborate.

A Chance Message

Just over a year ago, in March 2016, I wrote an article on AngelList Radio’s podcast episode with Jason Calacanis and Tyler Willis. I got some great feedback on it, and Jason even tweeted it! But that was only the tip of the opportunity iceberg.

About four hours after I’d posted the original piece, I received a DM from Eric Willis, one of the top hunters on Product Hunt. He articulated that he really liked the breakdown I put together, and had an interesting opportunity to share with me. And just like that, I was introduced to a variety of amazing people working with Lowercase Capital.

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At the time, I had a very limited network in L.A., so connecting with Eric was incredible because of his wide range of relationships and positive reputation. Of course I accepted immediately, even as I was juggling, my own company, writing on the side, and planning to leave for Israel in a couple months.

Rule #1 when building your Minimum Viable Network: Never say “no” to opportunities which will put you in contact with incredible people.

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Just as the point of any initial meeting with an investor is to get a second meeting, the point of any serendipitous connection is to see where the relationship can take you. Good returns will follow.

The Experience: Working with Lowercase Capital

It turned out that accepting the offer to work on this new project opened wide doors. I had the incredible opportunity to speak with and learn from Matt Mazzeo on numerous occasions. I was able to again work with close allies like Kiki Schirr, whom I’d known for some time. Lastly, I met a whole host of new people who have become integral parts of my learning (through Twitter and posts) and support network. Including, Eric, Matt, and Kiki, I was introduced to Laz Alberto, Jackson Dahl, Stefan Stokic, Soroush GhodsiBrandon MayU, Patrick Hodgdon, and Ross Simmonds.

That particular project has concluded now, but the relationships have not. They’ve continued to grow over the last year, and have led to new opportunities in the interim. Retrospectively, I’m grateful for two things: 1) for Eric’s initial message and enthusiasm, and 2) that I had enough common sense to say “yes” and not let the opportunity slip by.

All this matters because it could happen to anyone; it’s all about putting yourself out there. But it’s about something else too. During our initial phone conversation regarding the project, Eric articulated that part of the reason he was interested in connecting me with the opportunity was because of my writing and editing skills, and what they could possibly bring to the venture. At the time, I was writing posts wondering if anybody at all besides my small network was reading them. It turned out that other people were.

The Takeaway: Mutually Beneficial Outcomes

The lesson here is this: project yourself as if people are always watching. That doesn’t mean don’t be quirky or don’t have fun—it means don’t be fake. Be real, win where you win, and project a magnetic quality which will draw in others.

Many times, it’s common to have the perception that if you don’t see someone following you on Twitter or tagging you in blog posts, then they must not know who you are. This is an incorrect and potentially disastrous assumption. It closes off potential opportunities for relationship-building and possibly even monetary compensation. So while the vanity metrics of how follower-count and who’s on your follower list are great for feeling good, they are just that: vanity metrics. You never know who’s lurking in the rafters, watching what you create, observing how you speak, forming their own opinions of who you are.

Networking—especially minimum viable networking—is a function of cultivating an approachable persona where people want to reach out to you because they sense confidence, competence, humility, vision, and potential. Creating such a persona encourages others—even subconsciously—to hook their stars to your own, because a rising tide lifts all ships. Whether the tide ends up being yours or theirs is almost inconsequential at a certain point, because both parties can reap the benefits of it. Creating circumstances for mutually beneficial outcomes is one of the main keys to becoming a master networker. People are naturally attracted to mutually beneficial outcomes precisely because they seem like no-lose situations.

Drawing Power from Possibilities

This was one for me.

I loved to write, and wasn’t going to stop. Working with Eric, Matt, and Lowercase could only enhance the mutual benefits. I would meet and learn from new and talented people. I would prove my skills to a new network. I would gain valuable experience in sharpening my writing for a specific project. And at the end of it all, I would walk away with more contacts than I’d started with. There was no downside.

Endeavor to view all potential networking opportunities like this. Some will work out and some won’t. But even those which don’t result in monetary compensation, or a huge hit product, will do much to sharpen others’ perception of you. And that gives you power. It gives you a chance which you otherwise might not have.

Follow your gut and say “yes” to new opportunities when they feel right.   

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

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Unbundled, Part III: Democratizing the Future

Why democratization and identity are the future of music.

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This is the final entry in the Unbundled series on music dynamics. Read the previously published pieces here:


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Power, Gatekeeping, Scarcity, and Democratization

Which brings us back to the last step in the cycle: unbundled once again. Only this time, the unbundled dynamic refers to power and ownership. The new unbundled form of power—referenced above—removes the focus of power from the major labels and fractures it, splintering it to varying degrees among the plethora of new artists and startups now emerging.

This is the best thing that could happen because it leads to a more stabilized version of meritocracy in music. The top-heavy, unbalanced paradigm of major label control over everything that a fan is exposed to is ending, and being replaced with a much murkier—but more expansive—reality. This in turn affects scarcity and gatekeeping on a massive level.

Scarcity is obsolete; democratization wins.

Ownership

Perhaps the most prickly point here is the concept of ownership in the new age. This is a contentious topic even among friends, and no one really knows what the landscape is going to look like in the next few years. What can be surmised, however, is that concepts of ownership of musical material are evolving. Sampling and other trends in electronic and DJ music, along with self-recording and independent releases, have muddied the waters of who owns what and to what extent.

Now the action of covering or remixing someone else’s song and posting it online bristles feathers. But (most) artists who do this also attribute the proper credits to the original artist(s)—many times in the cover or remix’s title—simply because it’s the right thing to do and because it helps them to disseminate their new version.

Asserting that cover songs and remixes hurt the original artist is a cloudy and jaded argument at best.

Yet, the argument can be made that with this new overhaul in ownership orthodoxy, perhaps the right people are now able to own the things they should have been able to all along. Let us not forget the reality of master tapes (where a record label owns the rights to an artist’s original recordings) which so many artists have regretted. Controlling one’s own material, and deciding what to do with it, are the ultimate power plays an artist can make. Appealing to this new sense of power is the best avenue for emerging music startups to make.

Such a concept is fairly reminiscent of a point Daniel Mark Harrison makes in a piece regarding bitcoin, wherein he illustrated that controlling access to material is the ultimate power: “…any major purchaser goes direct to a Bitcoin ‘miner’…and negotiates steep discounts for their volume purchase action.”

In this scenario, the music fan is the purchaser, the artist is the bitcoin miner, and the service that serves as a conduit between the two is better off appealing to and providing value to the artist rather than only the fan. Both are important, but the latter controls the material which the former wants to consume.

Money and Community

One of the loudest major factors that floats around is the argument over money, from streaming, downloading, merch sales, ticket sales, etc. Let’s be clear though: streaming and downloading—the purchase of musical material—is not where the real money is for artists. It never has been. The money has always been in the merchandise and live ticket sales. What does this mean nowadays? Community.

While it is certainly arguable and many times probable that new unbundling dynamics have struck at artists’ ability to make money from the sale of their music, it is equally arguable that it has enabled them to make money from other, more lucrative, avenues.

An artist can only sell a $10 album so many times (unless you’re a major label darling). Their real bread and butter is in their community cultivation: growing their base, getting people to come out, getting people to spread their music and message, and capitalizing on those efforts. Streaming and downloading revenue is at best a holdover until a better stream is tapped.

The dynamics that exist now in this new unbundled world provide new opportunities for artists. Now, they don’t need to make their money off music sales or streams. Enough access to fans and communication/funding tools exist that they can actually give their music away for free and turn a profit somewhere else.

And this is exactly what a growing number of artists are choosing to do.

The dissemination of their material onto a global stage is much more important than a few album sales here or there, and leads to better things on the other side. A more expansive universe brings more shows, more exposure, more true fans, and more branding opportunities. These are the real things that grant artists staying power.

The Expansive Powers of Identity

Lastly, there is identity. I examined in a previous piece how we’re seeing the rise of “identity platforms” in media. Music is no exception to this. In fact, it might be the shining example of it.

Identity gives music—and by extension all art—certain powers that contribute staying power. Identity is so powerful precisely because it exists independently of genre, mainstream recognition, money, or history; it’s unique in it’s own ability to build bridges where previously there were none. Regarding music, identity brings together people on a core level that can almost supersede differences they might otherwise have.

The power identity—especially in relation to art and music—in its potential to create ever-expanding identities—to create communities. Money is certainly a factor in this, but if a shared identity which draws people towards one another, and can shield them—for better or worse—from outside forces seeking to compromise that unique, collective identity. As music is given the ability to disseminate more and more, more communities will arise around newly-minted identities, and art as a whole will become more lush and layered.

In the wake of these trends in art, music, and media, the power will lay with companies and platforms to not only cultivate these newly emerging identities, but to provide fertile ground for even more embryonic ones. Music becomes a vessel for the expansion of art and identity.

The Upswing

Where does this leave us? In unchartered territory to start with. Artists will continue to grow their power as new technologies make the opportunities possible. The companies which see this trend and capitalize on it will be the ones to stick around and do well. The others, however, who are resistant to this new set of events, will find it challenging to court artists and acquire material if they are determined to hold fast to a paradigm that was beneficial mostly to the major record labels.

Independents artists, and consumers of all strata (not merely the mainstream), will not be ignored or marginalized anymore. They will continue to experiment with the bundling/unbundling process until they find the right fit for themselves, and for their careers. There will be less of a set standard that all need to conform to, and more of a flexible set of possibilities and avenues for people to mix and match to reflect their changing personal experiences.

The future of music is three things: freedom, community, and democratization.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

How to Get That Coffee Meeting You Can’t Get

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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Reflecting on “Creating Value” and Reaching Out to Others

A couple weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Poornima Vijayashanker of Femgineer. We spoke about startup failure, resilience, new opportunities, and networking. During the course of our conversation, we discussed the notion of reaching out to others—particularly the idea of reaching out to influential people in one’s network “without a reason.” It occurred to me recently that there is a massive difference between reaching out to someone in a tactless way and building a bridge with someone to facilitate dialogue and potential partnership in the future. Let me explain.

Poornima and I both expressed to be fans of the mantra “create value for others before asking for it for yourself”—a notion that I was opened up to and drawn to through following Chris Sacca and others. Part of what the mantra espouses is the belief that doing things for other people leads to people wanting to do good things for you in return. It underscores the idea of good karma and proving one’s worth rather than just saying it. Sometimes, actions do truly speak louder than words.

But it also presented a challenge the more I thought about it. In my mind, part of creating value for others is recognizing the importance of their time, and treating it, as Mark Cuban would say, as their most precious resource. That understood, what if you want to get to know someone simply for the opportunity to get to know them? What if you don’t (yet) have a company or idea you want to pitch, or a fund round you want them to lead, or even an intro you want them to make for you? What if it really is as simple as identifying someone whose personality has an impact on you and wanting to cultivate a relationship with that person?

In short, how do you build your Minimum Viable Network without alienating the very people you hope to forge connections with?

“Don’t Ask to Pick My Brain Over a Coffee Meeting”

Investors always say “don’t ask me if we can meet for coffee so you can pick my brain.” I’ve heard it numerous times from influential investors who I respect. However, it didn’t match up with the private interactions I’ve had with a few influential investors myself (who shall remain unnamed to protect their inboxes). So, how do I have multiple standing offers to meet with some important people just to grab a coffee and chat—talk music—talk politics—talk relationships?

I put in time to get to know them beforehand. Before any coffee meeting was ever discussed.

I believe that when influential people say, “don’t ask me to meet for coffee or to pick my brain,” they’re not really saying “I’ll never have coffee with you.” (Though, as with all generalizations, there are always exceptions).

What they’re really saying is, “I won’t meet with you if I don’t know you.”

You Build a Minimum Viable Network Through People Knowing You

So what does “knowing me” mean?

Sometimes it means that someone in their network has recommended and vouched for you.

Other times, though, it means that they know we might share similar musical taste, a similar sense of humor, similar worldviews, and/or similar values. They’re articulating a desire to meet with people who’ve put in the time and effort to cultivate a relationship prior to the coffee meeting; time speaking on Twitter, helpful feedback on projects, and certainly time cultivating good reputation amongst the other people in their network.

This is how you get that coffee meeting that it appears no one ever gets. Be real, be engaging. If you share a similar musical or movie taste with someone you want a relationship with, let them knows. Post funny gifs, make references, lurk in conversations and make great observations—show that you have things in common on a human level outside the work paradigm.

This is how great networkers build great relationships.

Then, when you do have a specific idea you want to pursue, fund, or are seeking feedback on, reaching out to these people will be so much easier because a rapport has already been established. Not every good relationship needs to begin with a double-opt-in intro (though this is certainly one of the best techniques). It is possible to build great relationships on the backs of numerous coffee meetings where you just shoot the breeze with a sought after investor—but these will take much more time and care.

Be prepared to be patient, and always reciprocate good karma with good karma. Be humble in valuing someone else’s time, and it will speak louder than any idea you try to pitch in the moment.   

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

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Be Resilient in Your Networking

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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Don’t let people get you down. I know that’s a pretty “duh” statement, but it holds true for so many aspects of life. Particularly those which you never thought would be the ones to turn negative.

Part of networking—and especially building your minimum viable network—is understanding that things in life can sometimes change on a dime, and not letting that reality affect your personal edge. It’s sometimes harder to deal with things that you assumed were going to be positive things—a new gig, a new introduction, a new assignment which was supposed to be your big break—than with the things you knew were a long-shot anyway. We’re wired to assign certain values of ease to the things we set as goals, and the ones which show more promise are supposed to work out well. But that’s not always the case.

The trouble comes in when those disappointments—the ones which were supposed to be big breaks—turn your personality from positive and magnetic to dour and cynical. When that happens, you end up losing twice; you lose the initial opportunity, and more importantly, you end up losing out on future networking connections which might yield new opportunities.

When these things happen, remember that tomorrow is always a new day, and that the whole point of networking is to open yourself up to new possibilities. Any one potential new contact could mean a huge payoff down the road, but it only ends in a good place if you continue to project an opportunistic mentality. It’s ok to be disappointed, that’s a valid emotion and part of life. But don’t let it rule your entire outlook thereafter. New things arise, and by building out your minimum viable network, you will be well-conditioned to take advantage of them. Be resilient in your networking.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

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The Spotify-SoundCloud Supergroup Is Dead

Originally published on Mattermark on December 29, 2017. 


tl;dr: The SoundCloud and Spotify deal is dead. For Spotify, no deal avoids unnecessary headaches. For SoundCloud, the road ahead looks lonely as the platform heads into 2017.

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Cream. Bad Company. Temple of the Dog. These were some of the greatest supergroups that ever existed. The Spotify-SoundCloud union could have been next, but like many supergroup concepts, it only lasted a short time.

The real question is why. Ultimately, in my view, the deal died because SoundCloud tried to become something that it wasn’t, alienating its core fan base in the process.

It was easy to argue that a Spotify-SoundCloud combination could benefit each party: SoundCloud’s independent-heavy catalog and Spotify’s major label material are natural complements.

But the prospect is no longer on the table. It recently became known that Spotify passed on acquiring the little orange cloud.

Let’s talk about why that happened.

Supergroup Not

2016 was not kind to SoundCloud.

Despite signing deals with major labels, securing its largest to-date funding round, and launching its own subscription service, key questions remain concerning its current operational results, where it fits into the M&A landscape, and what an independent SoundCloud looks like in 2017.

Fiscal Expense

Mattermark recently examined, broadly, who could afford to buy SoundCloud, now that Spotify has left the table.

To understand why Spotify might have passed—neither Spotify nor SoundCloud responded to requests for comments regarding this piece—on SoundCloud, it’s worth remembering the smaller firm’s P&L.

SoundCloud’s revenue quickly expanded from $1.8 million in 2010 to $9.6 million in 2012, to $19.6 million in 2014. Its losses tracked upwards, however, from $2.01 million in 2010 to $14.9 million in 2012, to $44.2 million in 2014.

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Much like Spotify and other streaming services, some SoundCloud revenue quickly passes through its books. In SoundCloud’s case, around 80 percent of its revenue from a portion of its aggregate top line goes right to labels. Spotify’s results are similar.

The context for those numbers is simple: SoundCloud has raised around $193 million to-date over a series of five rounds. Just comparing the company’s through-2014 losses, SoundCloud has spent around half its raise so far. And since we’re not including more recent operational results, that figure is very conservative.

The Sophomore Slump

If 2010 to 2013 was SoundCloud’s breakthrough album, then 2014 to 2016 was its disappointing follow-up.

Beginning in 2015, SoundCloud started to move away from its initial user base of independent artists and began courting major labels. The company inked a deal with Warner in later 2015 and Universal Music in early 2016.

Warner and Universal were joined by the last remaining holdout in March of 2016 when Sony signed on. That effectively marked the end of SoundCloud’s days as the independents’ playground.

Following the three major label deals, SoundCloud released SoundCloud Go, its entry into the music subscription wars. The company has yet to report major gains from the subscription product. I’d posit that it may be difficult for SoundCloud to entice music fans to the service. If potential subscribers are interested in mainstream music, they can already go to other music services.

Money Talks

While Spotify sports extensive independent material, its focus is major label artists. That fact did not escape those who made the argument in favor of the combination. SoundCloud’s huge base of independent EDM, acoustic, rock, and other artists could help balance the scales and provide a funnel into the Spotify nest.

If the argument for Spotify buying SoundCloud was that the latter could help the former pull in independent music, do SoundCloud’s operational results matter?

The answer is yes, as Spotify doesn’t want anything to threaten its impending IPO.

Earlier this year, I took a deep dive into Spotify’s own financials, examining the numbers and reasons that they already might have a tricky path to IPO. New cost centers could make that already difficult-looking trek nigh impossible.

Even with SoundCloud’s legal issues seemingly taken care of by major label deals, SoundCloud’s subscription service arrived to lackluster reviews, and its sizable debt may present too much of a headache for Spotify just before their looming IPO.

This is all especially stark considering SoundCloud’s desired price-tag of $1 billion. Even with Twitter’s most recent $70 million investment into the service, valuing it in the neighborhood of $700 million, Spotify would still need to pay an additional $300 million to close the difference.

2017

What does this all mean for SoundCloud’s future?

As with Spotify, the major labels now have a vested interest in SoundCloud’s existence. But that doesn’t mean that they have a long-term interest in its health. As I noted in my previous Spotify piece, the labels may not want to kill SoundCloud, but they also don’t have to go out of their way to help it. So long as it sends in revenue, who cares?

Some people will care. The danger could be that independent artists may care enough to go somewhere else more focused on them. (Since they operate independently, SoundCloud’s major label deals have no sway over their prospective decisions.)

SoundCloud’s challenge is that the faster it rushes to catch up with Spotify and Apple in the mainstream arena, the faster it may alienate its key demographic of independent artists; in working to compete with the larger, mainstream players, I wonder if SoundCloud has become what its initial user base—its core point of differentiation—was trying to avoid

We’ll see in 2017.


Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Stop Telling Me I Need to Code

Originally published on my Medium on September 15, 2016.

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An argument for those of us who write best with sentences, not code.


I’m Not a Coder

Let me start off by saying that I am not and have never been averse to learning a new skill, even one outside my general comfort zone. In fact, I quite enjoy expanding my horizons and learning how to see the world in different ways.

But I’m not going to learn to code.

At least, I’m not going to learn to code well enough to build something completely on my own. I’ve done various courses on Codecademy and it was interesting to me to begin to see the possibilities of tech and information in a new light. But that’s not my background and not my wheelhouse. My wheelhouse is broad trends, analysis, synthesis, and communication.

In college, I studied a wide variety of non-tech/coding subjects. And I’m not alone. I studied:

  • Art (as did Brian Chesky)
  • Psych (like Jason Calacanis)
  • Sociology and philosophy (as did Chris Dixon and Stewart Butterfield)
  • English and Poli-Sci (like Jessica Livingston and Morgan DeBaun)
  • And come from a family of lawyers (something I feel Chris Sacca might relate to)

I also studied a ridiculous amount of history. These things—not code—are what help me put the world into a larger context.

First Coming to Tech

When I first got into tech, I felt overwhelmed. And I felt inadequate. It seemed that everyone knew how to code except me, though I resolved to find a way to learn. And I powered through a few Codecademy classes. But it didn’t stick in the way that would allow me to build an app or site myself.

I understood the concepts behind basic design, and had a better understanding of the work it took to make something materialize—but I knew I was never going to be the one to do it. It never got easier, and it’s still challenging for me.

Easy for me is sitting down for a couple hours and drafting, editing, and blasting out a solid, synthesized argument. But in those early moments, that didn’t seem to be on par with knowing how to code in java.

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While in the headspace of “I need to learn to code or I don’t belong,” I seriously underrated what I was good at. And that’s people.

I’m Good at People

I love networking; I never knew there was even a term for it—I just figured it was called talking. I love hearing the stories of others, connecting them to potential partners, and trying to identify mutually beneficial opportunities for both (or all) parties involved.

I’m better at reading people than I am at reading code. People are flexible and creative—code is not. (That is, it’s not to me).

I come from lawyers. I come from the mindset of there is never one right answer;” it all depends on how good your argument is, and how you can continually restructure your thought process. The notion that a line of code doesn’t work because one character is out of place is foreign to me. The same way that lateral thinking—that there might be multiple, arguable right answers—is foreign to others.

Unintended Microaggressions

Whenever I read the sentence “you should learn to code,” my first thought is “you should learn to write (well).” The concept that code is the new literacy is—frankly—bullshit. It’s undeniable that coding is a hyper-important skill in the 21st century—but it’s not the end-all, be-all of literacy. Literacy spans a variety of languages, communication tools, and colloquial, idiomatic trends. There is no “one” magic bullet.

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Treating it as such is short-sighted and arrogant. Arguably, it’s an—albeit unintended—micro-aggression that dissuades non-tech founders and Humanities majors from taking the dive into tech. Similarly, telling me that it’s “easy to learn” is a matter of opinion, not fact. And again, it’s arrogant.

How Good Is Your Writing?

I read staggering amounts of material online. Much of it is posted by super smart founders, investors, and thinkers. And from a writing perspective, a ton of it sucks.

A lot of it rambles, comes off as tone-deaf, is too splayed, and hasunforgivable grammar errors. In fact, some is so grammatically jarring simply because the writers use grammar rules that are ancient, while ignoring new colloquially correct dynamics. This makes the writing unbearably stilted. When writing an article in my world, you make it tight and you make it bullet-proof. I don’t understand writing that isn’t structured like this (creative writing aside, of course).

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Growing Into My Skin as a Non-Tech Founder

I’m not bitter, though. I know I’ll never write code like Mark Zuckerberg, and I’m ok with that. I have amazing team members and connections who can do a better job there than I ever could. So why not let them win where they naturally win?

I’ll continue to refine the coding skills I have as much as I can, but I harbor no delusions of coding grandeur. I’ve now grown more comfortable in my non-tech founder skin. I’ve grown more adept at identifying the real things in code that I need to understand, and the ones that are nice, but superfluous for my skill-set.

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Instead of telling me I “should learn to code,” lend to me a plethora of tools I can use, and articulate to me that I’m not inadequate and no less a founder if it doesn’t come so easily.

In an industry with such a high rate of failure, teamwork, communication, and vision should be prioritized above most everything else. That’s the only way any of us succeed.


 Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

What Artists Can Learn from Startups, Part 2

Who Do You Promote?

Recently, I wrote a post entitled, “What Artists Can Learn from Startups” in which I began looking at a number of strategies which startup companies (mainly tech) use to generate leads and interest in their products and services.

The more I think about it, the more certain strategies really stick out as things that artists should be considering and implementing. One in particular is something which holds my attention.

In tech (startups, at least), there isn’t the same reticence to publicize and promote someone else’s product or service as there seems to be in music. Among artists, there seems to be this gospel-like belief that if you promote an artist or song you don’t love with all your soul, then you’re somehow being disingenuous. In all forms of art, and music especially, the concept of reputation is taken extremely seriously. Sometimes to a fault.

Whereas I see founders from all over the startup world promoting one another, I see more resignation in the music community to follow suit, and truthfully for no good reason.

I have no qualms about promoting a product or service that I don’t use, or don’t use regularly. Before you come down on me for having a hidden agenda, though, take a moment to think about all the things you can promote someone for that have little to nothing to do with their service or product.

So often, I find myself tweeting and posting about the people behind the product, either because they’re so magnetic, so innovative in their thought process, or so willing to help others. It has so much more to do with their character than anything else. And this is something artists could so easily cash in on and make their own.

When someone helps you set up a show, helps promote your band or music online, or introduces you to someone new, tweeting out a “thank you” and promoting them isn’t being disingenuous at all. Quiet the opposite. It actually solidifies you as someone who returns favors and good karma, and thus builds your own reputation, even if it’s in the service of others (for the moment).

Positive service of others is service to ourselves, if only indirectly. Artists would do well to begin to reexamine their practices in how they promote others, from the decision process to the execution. Starting to have more fluid strategies here could greatly expand their networks in relatively short amounts of time.

More to come on this soon.

Why Silicon Valley Is Rebuffing the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Andreessen Horowitz’ Piece

Marc Andreessen (left) and Ben Horowitz (right); image courtesy of Forbes

Marc Andreessen (left) and Ben Horowitz (right); image courtesy of Forbes

First Serve

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz (hereafter, ‘a16z’). The piece took a look at the firm’s raise-rounds and returns, and was critical of a16z’s placement among other “venture-capital elite” like Sequoia, Benchmark, and Founders Fund.

While the article is quick to throw around numbers and buzzwords like “elite” and “blockbuster [investments],” the main premise is that a16z hasn’t yet earned the “premier reputation” that it has amongst those in the tech community.

Second Serve — Response

The response from the tech world basically ate up the rest of yesterday afternoon and night.

It started with a response blog post from a16z managing partner Scott Kupor, which was posted not long after the original piece went up: When Is a “Mark” Not a Mark?

One thing Kupor points out immediately is that “marks” and “returns are two very different things in the realm of venture capital. Further, “[c]ash or stock actually realized and distributed to LPs is the only real, non-manipulable measure of a firm’s interim success.”

Kupor is articulating that the data which the WSJ published is somewhat misleading because it chose the metric of unrealized returns to match the title of the article. He further fleshed out this argument as the post went on.

Then the flood began.

Mark Suster wrote a great response of his own here: What to Make of Andreessen Horowitz’s Returns?

One of Suster’s most intriguing points is when he plots the line of thinking lot of VC’s have had about a16z over time, from “ ‘We love Ben and Marc’ and ‘they raised how much’ to ‘…they sure are hiring a ton of staff…’ and ‘How can we hire more staff to keep up with the services they offer?’. ”

More importantly, though, Suster puts into context a reason why a16z might already have the reputation that it does — that most entrepreneurs perceive it as a place of great connections and services, and that he himself has had positive experiences with the firm when they’ve done deals with Upfront Ventures (oh which Suster is a part).

Twitter Thoughts

All the while, I was intrigued to see the flow of responses over Twitter:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why the WSJ’s Focus on a16z’s “Rivals” Is Misplaced

Part of what I find so intriguing is the direct aversion to a dynamic that is perpetuated in the original piece. Whereas the WSJ article paints a broad picture of a16z in relation to its “top rivals,” here are numerous responses from VC’s who run other funds seemingly going to bat for Andreessen Horowitz. In my opinion, this is something exceedingly important which the article skates over.

Yes, these different funds and investors compete for the best deals and the best founders/companies to work with. But most don’t do in a way that makes it easy to label them as rivals.

The term “rival” has a finality to it, as if it’s a forgone conclusion that those two parties will always be on opposite sides of the table. Yet inasmuch as everyone in this business wants to “win” at deals, the metaphor I see is more of a music one than a sports one. In the latter, there’s one winner, one champion. The former, however, creates a paradigm where multiple winners can exist, and where there is a fluidity regarding partnerships and mutual benefits.

Funnily enough, the WSJ added this little blurb to the original article not long after, though really without restructuring its initial argument to account for Kupor’s points:

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So what’s the takeaway in all of this?

  • First and foremost, understand the numbers, terms, and dynamics you’re working with and writing about. That seems to be a point of disconnect between the original article and the response pieces.
  • Second, things are rarely ever as simple as they appear to be.
  • Third, there is a way to write hard-hitting journalism without [publically] making enemies; if you don’t know how to do this, you should alter your writing strategy.

While I wouldn’t call the response to the initial article “biblical” by any sense, it nonetheless provides a good window into the dynamics of venture capital thought and strategy. If nothing else, founders have now been given a good variety of response posts to read and understand, particularly with regard to VC fund calculation and long-term plays.

I know what I’ll be doing this weekend.


If you enjoyed this, find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Takeaways from AngelList Radio’s Podcast with Tyler Willis and Jason Calacanis

Yesterday I listened to Tyler Willis have Jason Calacanis on the AngelList Radio podcast. Despite the fact that the episode was recorded a couple of months ago, I couldn’t stop listening to it. In fact, I was about halfway through it the second time when it occurred to me that I should take a few notes on it to summarize the incredible amount of information that Tyler and Jason discussed (it is an hour and a half long, after all).

Jason Calacanis; image courtesy of the AngelList Radio podcast

Jason Calacanis; image courtesy of the AngelList Radio podcast

The sheer amount of important information covered makes summarizing all of it challenging, but I’ll give it a try. I should note, though, before delving in, that some of the most poignant things covered were in the form of life stories and philosophies from Jason, a summarized transcription of which does not do them justice. To really soak up the underlying meaning of what’s listed below, you really need to listen to it for yourself. Possibly multiple times.

Moving along though. The points which Tyler and Jason hit can most aptly be placed within a number of areas of thought and consideration.  

These are:

  • People
  • Mentalities
  • Entrepreneurs and Founders
  • (Angel) Investing
  • Democratization

I’ll do my best to tackle each one of these, but keep in mind that these are just a few of the points which struck me as the most powerful. I will discuss some in more depth than others, as a number of them are self-explanatory.

People

Jason’s view of people in my mind basically splits into three main veins: human calculation, relationships, and arguably the most important one, empathy.

Human Calculation

This goes to “Jason’s Law of Angel Investing,” which according to Jason is: “I don’t need to know if the idea’s going to win, I [just] need to know if the person’s a winner.”

Jason looks for and reads the things that other people might miss: body language, personality, and interactive cues. As he mentions, he will talk about the [founder’s] idea through the lens of trying to figure out if [s/he’s] a winner or not. This sort of human calculation sets Jason up for the long game, something which he discusses as being a part of his overall strategy.

Relationships

Jason is extremely bullish on his relationships, wanting to be the first call a founder makes when things are going wrong, when the situation looks dire, or just when founders are having a hard time. He discusses understanding that being a founder is lonely, and sometimes all one needs is an ear to vent to; someone to “shoot the shit” with. Perhaps this goes back to Jason’s major in psychology; certainly his ability to read people and situations benefits from such a thought process. 

Life is relationships, pure and simple. Everything else is secondary, and Jason aspires to (almost obsessively) cultivate his relationships. (That’s a good thing, by the way).

This however, leads into what I consider to be one of the central theses of the discussion: empathy.

Empathy

Startups are hard. Actually, that’s a lie; startups are fucking hard. And sometimes the best thing is when someone will just sit and listen while you vent and fume for a little while. Loneliness kills, and having a friendly ear can make all the difference on those tough nights.

One quote seems to capture what Jason’s mentality would be during those nights on the phone with a founder having a hard time: “When I invested in you, I knew the odds were against you, and I still believed in you.” That pretty much sums up all that needs to be said.

Jason’s philosophy of accomplishing close relationships simply by being a nice human being—“buying [the founder] a cup of coffee, buying them dinner, or just saying ‘I believe in you’”—is exactly how I see the world as well. Cultivating relationships means doing what you can for other people because you can do it, not because you see some reward at the end of the tunnel. In the long run, good relationships do tend to reward people in often unexpected ways, but that should never be the crux of the relationships. Relationships are empathy and positivity. It’s about being magnetic.

Mentalities

Within the context of mentalities, Jason hits on a number of notions, though the one that sticks out to me the most is his focus on the “journalistic mentality.” Clearly a holdover from his time as a journalist, Jason discusses how he looks for people who exhibit great journalistic skills: an inquisitive mind, good communication skills, and being able to read situations well. In many ways, this connects with a lot of his poker metaphors. (There are lots of poker metaphors).

As he points out: “What happens when you interview [people] for a long time is you start to understand when they’re full of shit and you start to tell…who’s full of greatness…” Bluntly put, this is very true. I experienced it a lot during my time as a music journalist, speaking with artists and other industry professionals. Being a journalist is one of the best ways you can get to know the industry you want to be in.

“[A journalist] equals an inquisitive person who can communicate well.”

Entrepreneurs and Founders

Jason spends a lot of time talking about how he identifies great founders and what anyone should be doing and/or thinking about if they want to be an entrepreneur.

Know “Why”

First and foremost, know “why.” Why are you doing this, what is the underlying reason?

For Jason, answers like “the market seems open” or “I wanted to try being a founder” don’t cut it. It speaks to the authenticity if a founder is doing it for a larger reason than just trying to take advantage of a particular market situation. There needs to be a certain inevitability to what they’re doing, and how they see the world (something which Chris Sacca has also touched on).

As Jason sees it, there needs to be a real sense of purpose in the founder(s), a mission: “The world needs to evolve in this way, and we have the solution, and we NEED to implement our solution to change the way the world works.”

Jason: “Really talented people tell you where the world is going, and then you get to be part of it. And then you get to help them launch the rocket.”

Don’t Screw Your Supporters

They need to have the integrity not to screw the people who supported them early on. This is exactly in line with a well-known adage in the music industry which I always quote: “For those who forget us on the way up, we’ll see you on the way down.” Don’t forget the people who made your rise possible.

Be a Punk

Founders need to be punks.

Ok so Jason didn’t actually use this word, but as I explained in my post here, that’s really the type of mentality he is describing when he articulates what he looks for in people.

Additionally founders need:

  • To have an armor; a relentless drive, and be relentlessly resourceful
  • Have maniacal execution skills
  • Unstoppable determination

(Angel) Investing

Jason relayed a lot of information about investing and investment strategy. He discussed a lot of his personal strategy as well as how new investors can get in the game and start to learn the ropes.

For the sake of time (and because a lot of this is fairly self-explanatory), here’s a rundown of what he discussed:

  • Tips (for Angel Investing)
    • Spread your bets
    • Start by making investments slowly over a year
    • Even if you lose money, you’ll learn something
    • Always try to learn before diving in head first
    • Join syndicates
    • Get in the game and start
    • Double and triple down on your best bets
    • Meet with founders as much as you possibly can
    • Play the cars of the best investor at the table if you’re new to investing
    • Do the work, be proactive
    • Play the long game
    • Be patient and learn
    • Financial performance will come; focus on a portfolio strategy
    • Investing is a fight/struggle
    • Don’t ever discount anybody
    • Make a 5-year plan
    • Pro-rata rights
    • You want the “difficult” people; these people “mix it up”
    • Focus on being the most valuable and helpful person to the founder
  • Need to Have
    • A comfort losing a lot of your money (which you invested)
    • A comfort with the “shitshow” realities of investing
  • Don’t Be an Investor If
    • You’re annoying
    • You’re a control freak/obsessive person
    • You can’t remain cool and calm
    • You can’t remain classy in the face of defeat
    • You can’t deal with bad news
    • You can’t be a mensch

As Jason articulated: “I have to be the most valuable [person] to the founders. [I ask myself,] ‘Am I doing the most for that person?’”

How did Jason get to this thought process? When he started investing he made a list of all the things he could do for founders to provide value to them. Then he did them.

Democratization

The last major point which Jason discusses is democratization. In this case, he’s referring to the democratization of knowledge and power, and how dynamics have totally shifted in the last 10 years, allowing for entrance into entrepreneurship for tons of people who previously had very little recourse.

Interestingly enough, as he’s discussing the democratization of knowledge which can be used for growth, development of new skills sets, and other such things, I’m just reminded of an article I wrote a few months ago on the democratization of music. True, Jason is describing a different type of democratization process, but the parallel works. In the same way that scarcity has become an obsolete mentality for music, so too has scarcity of startup and entrepreneurial knowledge become obsolete in the worlds of business and tech.

I said it once and I’ll say it again: scarcity is obsolete; democratization wins.

“[Entrepreneurship is] stumbling around in the dark room, fumbling around, until your hand hits the wall, and flicks on the light switch.” – Jason 

Jason also briefly touched on the differences he sees between his LAUNCH incubator and Y Combinator, but that’s a whole other discussion for another time.

All in all, the podcast was intriguing enough for me to listen to it twice all the way through, and then take notes on it for a post. I give it up to Tyler Willis for conducting a great interview, and look forward to a hopeful follow-up with Jason again.


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