Apps

Shazam music app co-founder warns budding entrepreneurs to ‘not do ridiculous things like we did’

  • The music-identification app was born out of a trip to a London pub. Apple bought the app for US$400 million
  • Co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee says friendship and foresight made their crazy idea become a reality
PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 November, 2018, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2018, 7:39pm

It might come as a surprise to hear that Dhiraj Mukherjee, co-founder of the hugely successful song-identification app Shazam, is not technical nor does he have a background in music. He simply got caught up in the internet wave of the late 1990s with an idea that came during a brainstorming session in a London pub.

Mukherjee had just graduated from Stanford University with a business degree in 1997, the early days of the internet. “It was boom time back then, full of dreamers and new ideas … anything was possible,” recalls the US-born Mukherjee, who was recently in Hong Kong for the Born To Be Boss conference for start-ups.

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“I sort of got caught up in that wave, not just the internet wave, but the desire to be an entrepreneur – a ‘want-trepreneur’ was the term we used.”

Mukherjee did become an entrepreneur – and a successful one, too. Last month, Apple completed the acquisition of the London-based company for US$400 million. One of the new features added since the deal allows users to identify songs and immediately post the results to Instagram Stories, a growing trend among apps.

“There were no tears shed,” says Mukherjee about the deal. “The analogy I use is Shazam is a grown-up daughter and it was time to go. After 18 years, it was time to leave the house.”

Mukherjee says the Apple acquisition made sense. “Apple knows its music and I’ve heard it will make Shazam ad-free, so that’s only good news for users,” he says.

At the launch in 2000, Shazam had an impressive one million songs, and it would take 15 seconds to identify a piece of music. Today, it has 30 million songs, and it takes just two seconds to identify a track.

Numbers speak volumes about Shazam’s rise to be one of the world’s most popular apps.

In October 2016, it announced its mobile app had been downloaded more than one billion times, and that users had performed more than 30 billion “Shazams” since its launch.

The light-bulb moment for Shazam came about just as you might think. Mukherjee and his business partner and friend Chris Barton were at a London bar drinking beers and throwing around ideas that, Mukherjee says, got worse as the night went on.

How Avery Wang managed to get the app to pick up the music with all the background noise was such a huge technological achievement. He pulled a rabbit out of a hat.
Dhiraj Mukherjee

But one stuck. “Chris could never work out what song he was listening to. He was like, ‘What if we could use a mobile phone to identify any song?’” Mukherjee recalls.

That was 1999, the year Mukherjee quit his job (he was head of banking innovation at Virgin Money). “The timing was spectacularly bad [to quit my job] – it was just when the internet bubble burst,” he says.

With an idea in their head, the next vital step was finding someone smart enough to create the technology.

That person was Avery Wang, who would become the company’s fourth business partner and brains of Shazam’s recognition algorithms. They chose well. According to professors at Stanford, Wang was the best doctoral student they had seen in 25 years.

“He was a certified genius, which was great. I mean, at least we had one smart guy in the team,” Mukherjee says.

Wang was given a three-month deadline to invent the technology. “Poor Avery was stuck in his basement trying to invent, while Chris and Philip [Inghelbrecht, the other partner] and I were running around writing business plans and talking to investors – basically pretending that we had invented this thing already. It was far from being invented,” he recalls.

“How Avery managed to get the app to pick up the music with all the background noise – mobile microphones back then were terrible, and there was a lot of distortion from poor networks – was such a huge technological achievement. He pulled a rabbit out of a hat.”

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Mukherjee says he has one simple piece of advice for budding entrepreneurs: don’t do what we did.

“Come up with a crazy idea, find a really smart person to create the technology and you’re good to go. Don’t do ridiculous things like we did … we got lucky,” he says.

Mukherjee says while the idea was simple, it was devilishly complicated from a technical perspective.

Shazam’s technology can find an exact match – as long as the song is in database. It’s so precise, he explains, if you have two different versions of, say, Boléro (the orchestral piece by French composer Maurice Ravel) performed by two orchestras, “to the human ear it would sound the same, but Shazam would say, ‘No that’s different because it’s off by a tenth of a second’. It’s fussy.”