Entrepreneurs: Find Your Yes

Remembering the Radio Revolution

“Sorry, this isn’t a match.”

“No, I like radio just as it is.”

“I’m not a believer in streaming audio.”

“I’m a pass.”

This was what we heard, in one form or another, 43 times by the spring of 1997 after attempting to raise funding for TheDJ, the first Internet radio service.

But first let’s go back in time, and to the real reason for me publishing my first Medium post on April 5th, 2016:

Twenty years ago today, on April 5th, 1996, TheDJ.com received the Cool Site of the Day award (Josh Felser joined as a co-founder and President in 1997; TheDJ would relaunch in 1998 as Spinner and go on to acquisition by AOL in 1999). TheDJ had launched just a few days earlier, yet winning the CSotD really put us on the map. Back then, it was like being featured on CNN.com less than a week after launch.

Revolutionizing Radio

TheDJ’s tagline was “Revolutionizing Radio on the Internet,” and we did this in numerous ways, doing many things that we all take for granted today when we listen to Pandora Internet radio. TheDJ was the first to:

Display artist and song titles so you always knew what you were listening to. At that time, when you heard music, you had no way of knowing what it was.

Offer a breadth of music categories for channels. We launched with six channels of audio-commercial-free channels. The day we announced our acquisition, we had over 150.

Allow listeners to perform the revolutionary act of buying what they were listening to, through a “Buy Now” button on the player that clicked through to CDNow (not Amazon, because Amazon was still Earth’s Biggest Bookstore).

Experiment with the now white noise concept of targeted advertising. We ran different ads for Heavy Metal listeners than for Oldies listeners. Radical!

Allow our listeners to rate the songs — and those ratings drove the composition of the music played on the different channels.

The Wild Wild West

Let me tell you about the unrecognizable digital environment of 1996, when we started going out for funding. Netscape had gone public just a year before. Most sites were either search engines, university websites or porn. Excite and Yahoo were neck-and-neck, AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy were still going strong, and The WELL was in the top 10. There were only 100,000 websites, and the search engines had editorial teams which wrote reviews for many of them. Ten million American adults had Internet access and the average time spent online was 30 minutes a month.

This Wild Wild West had no rules, no norms, no laws — we had the freedom to make it up as we went along (for instance, we didn’t even know about performing rights organizations BMI and ASCAP when we launched). As opposed to the inconceivable-twenty-years-ago vast and deep digital landscape we live in today, web sites were miles-apart outposts dotting a mostly barren landscape. We were blazing the trail, clearing the rocks and stumps, in a Wild Wild West conveniently devoid of bad guys to slow us down. But in the uncharted territory of the Internet world of 1996, the vision we were trying to sell was simply too new, too radical, and too difficult for all but one potential investor to see as being a viable and potentially profitable endeavor.

By the time TheDJ received the CSotD feature, I had been in Silicon Valley just over a year, having graduated from MIT in ’94 and moved here for exactly one reason: to start a company. My first and only job out of college was working for Oracle, but I didn’t last long. I bought myself a cutting-edge technology Dell PC for Christmas ’95, which included the following: Pentium 90MHz, 8 megs RAM, 28.8K modem and the Sound Blaster Pro sound card (which didn’t come standard on PCs back then). With the addition of RealAudio’s alpha software and our custom ripping software, SlicCD, it was enough to give us the tools we needed. Everyone thought I was crazy: my parents, my boss, myself. But I left Oracle and along with co-founders Steve Levis and Bryant Levin, we launched TheDJ on Mar 29 with six channels: Awesome80s, Classic Rock, Modern Mix, Oldies, Smooth and 70’s. The day after the CSotD award, a whopping 671 people had listened to 3,380 songs.

The Yes

Fundraising was a very different animal twenty years ago. Our “pitch” was more of a fully fleshed out business plan, and no one was investing in ideas. To be honest, I can’t remember who we pitched first, let alone all of the 43 who said No. There were times when I was discouraged, but giving up was out of the question. We had raised some startup capital — Ron Posner’s $75,000 in angel money turned into $5 million — yet the Yes didn’t come until July ‘97. Chris Anderson, who now curates and runs TED, said Yes and put in $750,000. Chris was able to see the future as we saw it. His investment turned into $20 million.

So, April 5th: launch of TheDJ, 1996; first Medium post, 2016. Looking back to my disc-jockey days with Sounds Unlimited (a mobile DJ company I started in 6th grade), I realize that all I really wanted was to make sure the party was a party. I went on to be social chair of my fraternity, and at its core, TheDJ was ultimately just another way for me to show people — a lot of people — a good time.

Yet what I want most, and my purpose here, is to show entrepreneurs that revolutionary ideas can’t be seen by everyone. If they could, they wouldn’t be unique, or revolutionary! We heard this statement from a potential investor: “Why would anybody want to listen to music on their computer?” But I knew why, we never doubted my vision, and despite discouragement, we pressed on. You will encounter many roadblocks and Nos. Keep at it until you hear Yes.

Enjoy the Music,

Dave

With thanks to co-author Susan Becker, TheDJ’s ninth hire and creator of The Story of Spinner, as well as The Story of Grouper, which documented my second company.