Alex White, co-founder and CEO of Next Big Sound, a website that tracks how people interact with music across social networking sites, chronicled his path to success as part of the School of Business’ Visiting Entrepreneurs Series in Textor 103. Students constituted most of the audience of about 50 spectators, but some faculty, staff and community members also attended.
White, a 2004 graduate of Ithaca High School, was named one of the 30 “power players” in the music industry under the age of 30 by Billboard Magazine in 2010. That same year, Billboard ranked Next Big Sound as the seventh best digital startup in the music industry.
White said he first conceptualized Next Big Sound while he was interning at Universal Motown Records in New York City during the summer of 2005. Next Big Sound’s initial framework would allow subscribers to create their own fantasy record label, to which they could sign 10 musical artists and bands as a sign of support. But despite high aspirations for the company, White said he was hesitant to spread the word.
“For three years, I thought it was the best idea that had ever been thought of by anyone in the world, and if I told anyone, that they were going to steal it,” he said. “So for three years, I didn’t say a word about this idea. I would just check the Internet every day terrified that someone was going to have launched a similar sort of thing, and they would go on to be rich and famous and change the music industry.”
This all changed during his senior year at Northwestern University when, working with co-founders David Hoffman and Samir Rayani, White began to develop Next Big Sound for an entrepreneurship class assignment. The group then pitched the idea to venture capitalists and received $25,000 in investment money by June 2, 2008. From there, the group decided to drop summer plans and devote to the business, launching a website in August.
Heather Lane, lecturer in the School of Business and founder of the Visiting Entrepreneurs Series, said White serves as an inspiration to students because they’re not as far away from entrepreneurial success as they may think.
“This is great just to see how you can start when you’re in college and make practical use of theory and education,” Lane said. “You’re not just sitting in a classroom, but you can turn it around and make it something that’s yours.”
The group was almost ready to give up on the business in 2009 because of a lack of investments, but in a last ditch effort, secured an arrangement with TechStars, a mentorship-oriented investment fund, in Boulder, Colo. As the three lived with White’s aunt in Boulder, they altered White’s initial concept.
Looking for new ideas, they tracked fan interaction with Akon’s Myspace page overnight, White said. Stunned by the astronomical interaction numbers, White started tracking data for dozens of bands and musicians and sent weekly reports to their managers, he said. With a team effort, White said the idea blossomed into today’s version of Next Big Sound.
“When we started, no one was really good at what they were supposed to be good at — tech, design or fundraising,” White said. “But we’ve grown into these great complimentary, overlapping roles.”
After the group pitched in front of venture capitalists, Next Big Sound raised million in investments, White said. Today, the company tracks online interaction data for hundreds of thousands of bands and musicians, he said, and demand has pushed the staff to eight, with more new employees on the way.
“We’re not the first people to think it’d be great to have all your data in one place, beautifully visualized, that you can use to make decisions,” he said. “We’re just the first people to actually do it.”
Senior Samantha Kaufman, a business administration major, said she hopes to pursue her own entrepreneurial career, and White’s story, specifically his three years of not openly discussing his business idea, inspired her to be less fearful of exchanging ideas.
“I’ve always been afraid that if I have one of those changing-the-world ideas, somebody else would take it,” she said. “That’s just not the case. Everything needs to be developed, and you can bounce ideas off each other.”
Lane, who also co-owns Purity Ice Cream, said she started the Visiting Entrepreneurs Series this spring as part of the mini-course she teaches — Entrepreneurial Spirit: Starting Your Own Business. She said she brings in an entrepreneur each week to speak to her class, and the goal of the lectures is to encourage students to pursue their entrepreneurial ideas.
“That’s what drives me to have the entrepreneurs come in and talk — to give the students something that’s completely real and possible [and] that they too could do this,” she said.
At the tail end of his lecture, a student asked White for one piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and he didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Get started,” he said. “The biggest advice is to get started with something, with anything.”