20 years since the launch of Shazam

20 insights from 20 Years since Shazam launched

I’m Vijay and I joined Shazam back in 2001 as Marketing Director.
Here are 20 lessons for start-ups based on learnings from Shazam and beyond.

  1. Be able to take the punches — resilience is everything
    Shazam cam close to dying so many times before the the sale to Apple in 2018. The business did an incredible job in the early days to stay alive through revenue share partnerships through to third party of licensing of the software. The early leadership teams coached by our CEO & the founders mindset kept us going through some really difficult times.
  2. Learn to chase the money
    Back in 2002, we hired a seasoned CEO (yes, we hired our own CEO), Jerry Roest who explained the importance of survival, of financial modelling and monitoring cashflow. He could see the pain before it arrived and was able to focus the team on taking action before the money ran out.
  3. Get a grip of financial modelling so you can ‘predict’ the future
    You will be surprised how much you can predict even in an early stage start-up. Jerry’s model after just 1 year in business helped us see the opportunities and pitfalls.
  4. Obsess over ‘cause and effect’
    Until Shazam, I’d never worked in a company with immediate attribution. I could run a series of radio ads and see the impact on Shazams immediately. I could run street teams demonstrating the service in bars and measure the results immediately. Running tests in series gave me attribution so I could test & scale different mechanics. This was back in 2002/3
  5. Build a brand
    There’s no question that a key part of our success was the brand. The insights, the story, the manifestation across every touchpoint. Not just the logo, but the ads, the promotions, the tone of voice in PR and even our partnerships always reflected this youthful, edgy brand that stood for music discovery & unity.
  6. Build assets that give you credibility
    Back in 2002, we used early data to create the Shazam Charts. No one believed in the credibility of the charts back then so we bought ad space in Music Week and ran the chart as an ad. Our users didn’t know it was an ad and didn’t care. The Shazam Charts is without doubt one of Shazam’s key assets that has built trust and credibility.
  7. Go global early
    So many VCs and advisors will tell you to go linear but perhaps because of our culture, we went broad early. We also needed the money. Claus Nemhzow did an early deal with Vodafone Germany when we did a white- label deal (‘powered by Shazam’) to get us some upfront revenue and revenue share. Matt McCann and Claus did a deal with Japanese operator NTT Docomo back in 2003. This gave us revenue and gave us early credibility. Always looks good to have global brands in your presentations.
  8. Start with a strong driven team and lead by example
    Whilst the founding team lacked experience they all had super powers, worked tirelessly and always with compassion. Philips was incredible at deals; Dhiraj was a great listener and turned that into practical action; Chris was a force of nature, never understanding the word ‘no’ and never giving up on any initiative. Then Avery who quietly cracked the algorithm and then made it better every year — that is the magic of Shazam.
  9. Hire smart diverse people
    Sounds so obvious but still most people hire mirror images or their mates. We had a crazy bunch like Feisal from Pakistan. Often swearing/smiling, always challenging and yet always solving problems. Mekhala from India who patiently put up with our nonsense and worked magic at many of our early events. Thomas, the highly intelligent & calm engineer who could translate code into English, think 3 steps ahead & placate the more feisty team members.
  10. Work with good partners to help
    We were lucky to find experts to help us take our product to market. Often they were coming from big companies but were looking to go solo or start their own agency. Paul Simpson ran PR for Radio 1 in the UK. His work to connect us with the music industry helped ensure that the brand Shazam was part of the music industry rather than feel like a technology brand. Or the team at MantraPR, a brand new agency who worked tirelessly to ensure every major technology reporter in the UK and USA got to see a Shazam demo.
  11. Test & Learn — yep even in 2002
    We had limited budgets and we ran tests every month in marketing. Every month we would kill ideas and scale ideas. The science wasn’t ever perfect but the data and some judgement helped us evolve the service, experience and acquisition mechanics.
  12. Think about the whole user journey
    We never knew the disciplines of human centred design back in 2002 but we understood that we were solving an important problem/frustration. Not knowing the name of a song you heard in a bar, club or radio was common, whilst the behaviour we were encouraging did not exist. Until 2002, you did not use your phone to identify a song. So no wireframes back then but lots of flipchart diagrams with arrows mapping out the user journey we hoped for. Again, something we reviewed often.
  13. The product never has to be perfect but the vision must be compelling
    Shazam would fail to identify the song sometimes up to 50% in the early days. We might be missing a song or there was too much ambient noise. We would work tirelessly to make sure every business demo was a success and would show the roadmap to success. The combination was enough from partners and investors to be engaged
  14. Have someone on the board truly passionate about the vision
    We had some challenging times with our VCs. One time we missed targets and were simply refused the next tranche of money. Sometimes staff were late getting paid and one time we had to make big cuts to the team. But during my time we had a Chair in Ajay Chowdhury who loved music and saw the potential of Shazam with true belief. He backed many of marketing strategies due to the passion and the vision. That helped us manage other board members to steer the Shazam ship often through choppy waters.
  15. Business modelling is part of the innovation process
    I think most startups do not test & evolve the business model, (ie., how you make money), no where near as much as the product. We started by charging consumers for every Shazam. That got us started but only got us so far because repeat usage was ‘expensive’ for many early adopters. The launch of the iphone in 2007 enabled a step-change in the business model.
  16. B2B vs B2C is a testing journey
    Even in the early days of Shazam, we were clear that we were a consumer experience but within a year we realised we need b2b to make money. The early deals with mobile operators around the world helped to keep Shazam alive.
  17. Consumer obsession is key and beyond the data
    I joined Shazam after Unilever and Global Radio. I had never moderated my own qualitative research groups. Every month and for a period, every week we got consumers into our building and gave them a beer or glass of wine and then ran research. It helped us build our first consumer segmentation. I had lot of fun, sometimes dealt with difficult people and learnt so much. Over time, we started to bring many company members into the research to bring a common picture of the customer into the business.
  18. With research, keep going deep
    Doing the consumer qualitative reseaerch over many months was the key to seeing that our early heavy users were DJs spending 20x more than the average. They were prepared to pay 50c or 50p for every Shazam. They always needed to know the name of artist and song. It led to promotions like a covermount CD on DJ magazine where many of the song names were missing. If you wanted to know you needed to Shazam them. Took us quant and qual to make the discovery.
  19. Do things you love and make you smile
    Shazam was hard. No question. So being part of a team that you could smile and cry and drink with was important. The ability to laugh every day keeps you going. It’s only a start-up, after all. Except this one had true magic. Shazam!

Vijay Solanki is CMO at Sinorbis
He was the launch marketing director for Shazam back in 2002, 20 years ago.
He has experience in marketing & innovation from Unilever, Global Radio, SCA, IPC, Philips, Castrol & BlackBerry. He coaches, advises and invests in startups. He is based in Sydney, Australia. He sometimes consults too.



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