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We are experiencing a bit of “June gloom” in Southern California, but that doesn’t mean we are without our requisite ray of sunshine. Last Friday here in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to visit with Chromatik Founder, Matt Sandler, who is heading-up one of the brightest startups based in Southern California—Chromatik Music—a ray of sunshine indeed. As a matter of fact, Chromatik might just be one of my favorite startups eva’ because Chromatik combines my love for music, education, tech, and yes—a ton of progressive innovation << and all that entails. Least not, one of the most important factors for any startup, the combined RAQ (relationship acquisition intelligence) of the Chromatik team alone makes this startup gleam—they’ve covered their court with cross-platform strategies and any investor interested in courtside seats should get ‘em while they’re hot.
What is Chromatik? In essence, Chromatik is doing for music what the Rosetta Stone did for languages—Chromatik (a word-play on a musical term, as in a chromatic scale) is redefining how students learn music by offering an adaptive learning platform that brings the world’s best music techniques, teachers, and resources to students’ fingertips via mobile and desktop applications. Founder Matt Sandler says,
“Our overarching goal is to blend the best practices of music education with what is possible in technology today. Tons and tons of people are learning music throughout the world, but music education hasn’t changed since Bach and Beethoven. Yes, we’re seeing the ‘gamification’ of music—Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Miso Music—and those are great stepping stones, but the fact remains we don’t have anything that actually helps you learn an instrument and approach music in a pedagogically-appropriate way.”
And in a world where schools are adopting new technology left and right (Kindles, iPad’s), whether state-funded, parent-funded or self-funded, and in a world where kids live, breath, and eat “gadgets and tech”—the melding of Sandler’s concept (education + music + tech) sits beautifully in a steady-state pocket of harmonic overtone perfection coiffing through band hall just moments after a Mozart Quintet releases its last note, um…let’s say the Mozart K452 Quintet in E-flat Major. Yes, that’s it. Sweet!
Twenty-three-year-old Matt Sandler is energetic and perfectly-cast in the role of Founder. Sandler, an East Coast transplant whose father was a Salesman and whose family has roots grounded in music, attended UCLA, has his degree in Saxophone Performance (<< cool!), and has taught woodwinds in Los Angeles Unified and Huntington Beach Unified School Districts. Sandler has also worked A&R at Capital Records in Hollywood (<< the gig I always wanted!), helped program music at the “world famous” KROQ (106.7) here in Los Angeles, (plus attended a couple of “them KROQ Weenie Roasts”); and in the startup world, Sandler curates the Los Angeles Startup Digest and was on the early team of the social media marketing startup CitizenNet.
For a twenty-three-year-old relatively new transplant, I’d say Sandler has transitioned exceptionally well to the Los Angeles lifestyle (currently residing in Santa Monica). When we met he was adorning the “native Angelino uniform,” aka Hollywood Casual, which consists of a great pair of blue jeans and an even greater pair of flip-flops (that all non-natives adopt the minute their ship sets sail, their anchor strikes pay-dirt, and their heart docks somewhere between the worlds 18th largest Port in Long Beach, the 18th hole on Trumps National Golf Course in Palos Verdes, and the 18 bikini-clad ‘girls gone wild’ in Malibu).
Sandler and I, along with a potential investor in Chromatik, talked shop over coffee at the Beverly Hills Hilton (home of the Golden Globes), where Sandler mentioned he was at the front-end of a “three month funding” tour and says,
“To give you a little bit of perspective, we’ve been mostly hush-hush because we are heads down building—we’re less then five months old, and so we’re still building the infrastructure to support the hopeful influx of users.” Hence, Chromatik’s seed funding tour. Sandler says that he is “undertaking an enormous task with Chromatik by tackling a number of sophisticated technology problems within music and education, which are both tough nuts to crack in the first place,” and Sandler hopes to “continue to get the right people involved both on engineering and business development.”
The great news, though, is that currently Sandler heads up a small team of highly skilled techies, i.e. coders and developers, with a combined background roster that would knock your socks off. The Miami Heat may have their Dream Team (King James, ‘Deeeee’ Wade, and Chris Bo’SHH’) [announcer-speak] << please don’t hate me for liking the Heat + especially Mike Miller! >> but Chromatik Music has a Dream Team of their own—an Engineering Dream Team. Both Dream Teams are young, extraordinary, and out to set the world on fire—you ‘ain’t’ seen nothing yet. Get a gander at the Chromatik Dream Team:
Denis Lebel is Chromatik’s Creative Software Engineer and Music Technologist. Lebel was formerly in an audio software engineering role at Digidesign/Avid working on Pro Tools—the worlds leading professional audio and music creation platform. (Kaching!) Lebel has also completed graduate studies in Computer Science and Music Technology from McGill University and has done consulting work helping clients like Imagine Research and Simon Fraser University in R&D. Lebel is an electronic music aficionado.
Rob Ferguson is Chromatik’s Software Architect and was formerly at Cisco’s Flip Video and Avid’s Professional Editors divisions. (Kaching!) Ferguson holds an MA in Music Technology from McGill University and completed a National Science Foundation Grant in Computer Vision at Johns Hopkins. Ferguson is also a concert pianist and has been featured in a variety of ensembles, as well as a proud teacher of piano students across the US.
James Wicker is a software engineer presently helping Chromatik revolutionize music learning across the globe, and formerly co-founded Navisware, which was acquired by Adobe in 2005. (Kaching!) After four years as a Lead Computer Scientist at Adobe, Wicker moved on to co-found and lead development at Cleanbit, a mobile application company geared towards helping individuals blend conservation efforts into their daily lives. Their first product, JouleBug, launched at SXSW and was profiled by GigOm and the NY Times.
With all three of these guys, I say formerly (as in their previous lives before Chromatik) because not too long ago Sandler persuaded his team members to quit their day gig and join Chromatik full-time—Sandler had saved up just enough money to get by for a few months, post some initial developments, and decided to go full-steam, or rather full-team ahead, executing his vision one piece at a time. Wow—very cool. Initially one might think, “That’s crazy, quit your day gig while still living in L.A. AND eat?” But truth is, after listening to Sandler talk (actually, he makes music when he speaks), there is no doubt in my mind that Sandler has been envisioning this concept for years, combine that with his extensive background in all facets of music, education, and music technology, and Sandler intends to build the symphony, one measure at a time. Yes, I think they made the right decision.
With a background in music myself, from classical piano to marching band, who almost majored in Piano Performance, and from working in the corporate music structure at a major label, then going the indie-artist route, along with friends whose kids take from Guild teachers around the Los Angeles area, plus some experience with LAUSD, I can’t help but to know that Sandler is taking on one heck of a mighty task—a task filled with lots of red-tape and potentially loaded with antiquated bureaucracy. That said, somebody has to take on the role of cutting through the tape and leading the way with progressive thought, new tactics, and a fresh perspective—plus you have to admire Sandler’s genuine hutzpah for wanting to do so. In other music arenas, I am consistently floored by the lack of vision within the record industry alone, with zero innovation and creativity in business models within our digital age—ironically, in a creative business—its no surprise that iCloud “owns the industry.”
Does Chromatik have some competition? Sure, some, but there’s a piece of innovative technology that Chromatik has developed which is just so flippin’ cool—it helps teachers and parents assess a students practice activity by being able to detect audible sounds from the students’ instrument while engaged in face-time with Chromatik. In addition, every teacher will tell you that listening to yourself play is the best lesson, so Chromatik provides lightweight recording and controls to give you that ability, easily and without any additional equipment.
In many respects, Chromatik is setting out to revolutionize music education—an institution. It will not be an easy task, but their RAQ is very high.
Sandler says, “We’ve done trials with students at Juilliard, UCLA, USC, and six other universities and schools, so students have used the platform effectively already. And on the flip side, we have contributing teachers from those schools as well.”
Chromatik has really sealed the deals with their relationships—that’s like being a fashion designer and landing celebrity endorsements, plus the Neiman Marcus chain, and maybe your own manufacturing facility in Bali, too—i.e. you’re in! In the investor world of recent-not, the mere mention of an anything-music-related startup sends a “hush” over the loudspeaker (attention investors: DUCK AND RUN! Music startup in ‘da house…) [yes, more announcer-speak], or advice on branding out—unless of course, you have hit on something truly special, which Chromatik is. Chromatik hits at the core, it’s the root note in every chord, and it’s solid because it helps users in their formative years and creates brand recognition early on—potentially creating the ultra-super fan and opening the door for future product and campaigns offered by Chromatik.
Sandler and his team are looking to raise $500K to 1 million, and they would be happy with a nice ballpark figure of $750K. Sandler mentions their funding round is going very well, saying,
“We’ll be closing out our round this summer, and ramping up in conjunction with our involvement in Apple Education’s first school-wide iPad pilot program.” When I asked Sandler if they have only used Angellist, or if they have taken any traditional funding routes as well, he says, “It’s a mix. Nobody I know has raised their round solely through Angellist, but Angellist definitely broadens your network and gives you access to people you otherwise might not have access to. The Founder of Angellist, Naval Ravakant, is one of the most brilliant guys who understands the process and helps people like myself who are young and learning the ropes of a first-time startup—Angellist helps navigate the waters.”
Chromatik is staying quiet about their current investors, but have secured a large part of their round already. And Sandler tells a story of “hounding” one particular popular Angel, well technically a Super Angel, who upon contacting Sandler, in good-humor said, “Okay, you can back off the dogs—I get it—how can I help you?” Sandler also mentions that Chromatik will be privately rolling out their iPad application this summer, and are gearing up for an official launch in early 2012. Exciting? You betcha.
So, in my humble estimation Chromatik is making all the right plays and is well on their way to building a highly successful business—er, winning that NBA title. Having gone through a startup myself several years ago, if I had any advice for Sandler and his team—as with any new startup—it would be to remember their own words—to keep “heads down building,” combine that with staying sharply focused on game tactics and an eye on the prize. As well, to also remember that scaling a business is much like writing a killer pre-chorus in any power pop song—if Katy Perry had not “gone all the way tonight,” she would never have had her “Teenage Dream,” i.e. most of the business build is in that pre-chorus, and without a killer pre-chorus, the punch-line can fall flat. Happy writing! Champagne and caviar, beer and nuts, or pop rocks and cream soda, whatever your fancy—those will come, I promise. Chromatik Music is a slam dunk for any early stage investor. Swoosh.