(Part 2 of 2) This is the second part of an interview with Brenden Mulligan, the founder of ArtistData. The interview is part of a series about the founders of internet & music startups. The basic idea is that people who have an idea about building a project around music and internet are driven by a strong passion about their project, much the same as musicians are passionate about their music.
Artists should get a picture about the difficulties of running a startup and should be able to recognize their own situation in the story of the startup founder, because in a way they are running their own startup: their musical career.
ArtistData, a service that helps more than 25,000 artists to update their social network profiles in a more efficient way. Last June, ArtistData was acquired by Sonicbids.
What would you consider as the biggest mistake you made in the history of your startup?
Although I can’t pick one specific mistake as the biggest, I can say that one lesson I learned was not to overreact to competition or outside events and let it blur your focus. There were many times that I felt that I needed to react immediately to something happening with other companies, the market, etc… There were certain moments where that was necessary, but the majority of the time I spent worrying about competition I should have spent focused on making my project the best it could be.
What do you consider as your major achievement?
Completing the cycle. Building a company from scratch that developed a product that added value to people’s lives, which they cared about and enjoyed using. Growing the product and user-base over time in a natural and meaningful way. And then selling the company to an industry leader.
How did your original plan change during the actual evolution of your startup? Which were the major issues?
ArtistData was originally going to be a dashboard where managers would keep track of all the data that was relevant to their artists. Once we started building it out, we realized it’d be a lot more useful to open it up to all artists to use themselves. That was probably the single biggest decision we ever made.
We were always challenged by a lack of resources. Where artists (used to) try to get funding from record labels, startups try to get funding from venture capitalists. When getting funding in either instance, you gain a ton of experience from the funding party, but you also lose a lot of control. We ultimately decided when presented with the funding opportunity, because of the size of the market and historical exit potential for music startups, it’d be better to continue to bootstrap rather than take on outside investment. But that meant our development was slower than we’d of liked and we didn’t have money for marketing. But in the end that decision paid off.
How do you think artists can benefit from your experiences of developing and marketing a startup? Are there similarities between marketing an artist and marketing a startup?
What I found is that if the product is great, it markets itself. If you find yourself struggling with marketing, reexamine the product.
ArtistData added a lot of value, didn’t cost anything, and was easy to use. Artists found that compelling and told each other about it. Our user-base grew 100% because of word of mouth marketing. Then, when we layered some social networking components on top (auto posts to Twitter, ArtistData branded landing pages), we saw a boost. But it was only a boost because people were using it. We never did any real advertising or marketing.
I think artists have a similar dynamic. Most great, talented, and appealing bands find an audience. That audience could be with a small loyal following or people around the world. It could mean a record label is involved or the artist handles everything themselves. But if the band is truly talented, and if they know who their audience is, their music will find ears.
At the same time, bands without the right talent or appeal will face a similar fate to a startup with a bad product: their friends and family will be fans, but it'll be harder to convince everyone else it's worth their time.
Recently you got acquired. How did you feel about that? Does it change the way you look towards your business? Do you think that a comparison can be made with an artist signing a record deal with a major label?
I think the more analogous situation would be more what I described above regarding investors. In that case, most of these questions are more relevant. Suddenly, there are a lot more people to answer to and more interests to align. At the same time, there are many more resources at your disposal and larger opportunities seem to come more often. In that case, I think it’s very similar to getting a record deal.
Getting acquired is a bit different and I’m not sure there’s an analogous situation for bands in the music industry. Sonicbids, the company that acquired ArtistData, saw value in what we had built and knew that coupled with its existing industry-leading product, it could bring a lot more value to its users. This would be more like a record label acquiring a smaller record label. The smaller record label has an amazing catalog and artist roster, but the larger label can bring years of experience to the table, not to mention stronger distribution and promotion. Because the smaller label joins the larger label, all the artists on the label have access to more resources and more experience. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
What is your biggest dream for the future?
I want to keep working on inspiring products that create value for users and improve their lives.