Rachel Van Nortwick Of Vinylly: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder
There will be a lot of doors that shut on you so hang onto the good and know that you will work through it.
As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Van Nortwick.
Rachel Van Nortwick is the founder and CEO of Vinylly, a unique dating app based on music compatibility. She created the free app, inspired by her lifelong love of music and experience of watching family and friends struggle on other dating apps. The app takes into account a user’s streaming music data plus their music habits to find matches.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was about 5 or 6 years old, I started listening to my parents’ records which introduced me to a variety of genres at a young age, including folk, rock and more. Eventually, I started buying records of my own and I became really interested in how music is all interconnected and the various influences that different genres, songs and artists all have with each other.
The first concert I ever attended was the progressive rock band, Rush, when I was 15 years old. Since then, I have kept a running record of every show I have ever attended — I’m at well over 500 shows now. For me, I have always had a deep connection with music and it’s gotten me through both hard times and brought me a lot of joy.
I realized that there was an opportunity to create a dating app that aims to connect people on a deeper level with the help of music compatibility. It’s scientifically proven that music can lift our moods and increase dopamine levels — this helps us feel connected to individuals through our shared love for music, especially if we have similar tastes.
Vinylly was created with the intention of using data first to connect users on a more personal and meaningful level which helps to build a solid foundation for lasting relationships, as opposed to utilizing superficial profiles and Q&As.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I am a non-technical founder, so when I first started my journey of creating the Vinylly app, I was working with a team of developers and while I sensed that the constant bugginess of the code and the inability to meet my expectations from a functionality perspective, was a lack of skill on their side–I hadn’t had the experience of writing code myself, to be sure. This needlessly dragged out the project initially before I course-corrected and, unfortunately, this is a challenge that many non-technical founders face. Luckily, I was eventually introduced to my now CTO who recommended a different developer to work with and that made all the difference. They were able to bring my vision to life.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I think there is often a misconception that as long as you have a vision, then you can always pull through. That is not always the case. Sometimes having a vision isn’t enough. There has to be more of a daily intention behind it.
As a founder, you often have to wear many hats and it can be difficult to continue pushing through when your vision becomes cloudy and murky. It’s crucial that you surround yourself with people who continue to motivate and inspire you through those difficult times. Set your intentions daily, weekly and continue to see it through even when your vision gets pushed.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I have been very fortunate to surround myself with some very talented individuals who have really helped to make my vision a reality. On top of that, my career has always been in the marketing arena, so I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty or be scrappy in order to make things happen.
Vinylly has been 100 percent self-funded and we’ve experienced 12,000 percent growth over the last year. Our reach has grown exponentially in major markets across the U.S. and Canada and we have a diverse group of thousands of users. Our users listen to a variety of genres and bands to create this really engaged community of music lovers.
Due to the fact that our users have so much love and appreciation for music, there are countless deep conversations and connections that develop on a daily basis on Vinylly.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We first launched on the Apple App Store in October 2019, right before the pandemic. Any developer will tell you that it’s simpler to launch on iOS because there is only one phone to worry about. However, the Play Store is vastly different because there are many different types of Android phones. So, your app will render differently and the functionality is different.
When we first launched on the Play Store, we definitely took a beating. We saw how vocal our users could be when providing feedback on the app on the Play Store. From there, we learned that we needed to have enough mechanisms on our site for users to leave feedback or ask questions. We didn’t have that in the beginning. A lot of the questions and comments that people were leaving were users asking for help and troubleshooting, so we built those mechanisms into the app and beefed up onboarding as well.
I am proud to say that our app has been really strong on Android since then. We don’t have crashes which is really rare for other apps — we are very stable on both platforms. A lot of the feedback that we have on the Play Store is from right when we launched and we are roughly 12 versions in now, so the Android experience is completely different. However, it was still a valuable learning experience for us.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are music fans who built Vinylly for fellow music fans. I’m a major music lover and serial concert goer and my CTO is a former music cognition researcher. We built this app because we truly believe in the power that music has in connecting people.
I remember when the Music Genome Project was released that took the “genes” of various genres of music to understand how music is all connected on a fundamental level. I was so fascinated by that project and the concept helped inspire Vinylly and our algorithm.
We find the common threads behind users’ music and habits that would cause them to overlap beyond the obvious matches, such as having the exact same taste in music, songs, artists and genres. We are so connected through music and it often doesn’t matter that you have the exact same taste in music as long as you are open to the music that someone else is into. That shows a willingness and a lot of compatibility.
Our app is able to establish connections between people in a way that is really deep and backed by science. In the end, we are just really excited to have created a community of people using the app that are so passionate about it.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Burnout is a very real thing. I see a lot of announcements of startups getting funded and hitting certain benchmarks all the time. As a founder, it can be very easy to compare yourself to other entrepreneurs but comparison is truly the thief of joy. You have to remind yourself that there is enough room on the planet for whatever your product or service is — people are interested in having a diverse set of choices. All you need to do is focus on making your product the best that it can be.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I wouldn’t be where I am today without the developers that helped me to create Vinylly. They were able to execute my vision but were also able to suggest additional optimizations and functionalities that have made the product even better.
I also take customer feedback very seriously so our users have really helped us to mold Vinylly into what it is today. When I think about the opinions that matter the most to me, it’s our users who are using the app. Their feedback is incredibly valuable.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We had a partnership with a nonprofit who would bring healing through music, this was done primarily through bringing artists into hospitals to provide music to patients undergoing treatment. They would also provide headphones and other ways to bring music to patients because it’s proven that music has a positive impact on individuals’ overall health and mood.
As our membership expanded, we donated a portion back to this nonprofit to help them continue to do the important work that they do.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Just start — Start working on something. When I was first building out my idea for Vinylly, I would talk to some people who were super supportive and others who thought my dream was really risky. However, I knew that there was an opportunity here and I did a lot of research behind the dating app market before diving in. I drive by this one sign everyday that says “To begin, begin.” It’s really as simple as that. Do your research and then get something going.
- Reach out to people and partners — Even when it seems like an opportunity might cost too much, you never know until you try. When you start a dialogue with someone and are open to brainstorming or being flexible, you would be surprised with the kind of opportunities that will open up. Don’t be self-limiting. Plus, networking leads to other opportunities as well — consider yourself in the ring.
- Have realistic expectations — Don’t expect success overnight. It’s a grind and it can take years for startups to develop a product, period. On top of that, it can take a lot of time to develop traction in the market — all products are different as to how long it can take. Aim for progress not perfection.
- Don’t let one bad day consume you — Instead of dwelling in the negative, turn it into a learning opportunity. What is it that bothered you the most about that experience? Can you change it? If so, put a plan in place. However, don’t waste time worrying about the things that you cannot change.
- Be yourself — When you are having conversations with investors, media or friends, just be yourself. Be passionate. Geek out about your idea. Wear your “why” out on your sleeve and don’t try to fit into a mold. People invest in you, whether it is with time or money, because they can see how passionate you are about the concept and that is what makes your idea attractive. When I am in meetings with VCs, I will wear a band t-shirt because that is who I am. No one wants to invest in a robot, so be you.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
It is really tough, so you need to hold onto those positive moments that come your way. You can write those positive experiences and thoughts down on a Post-It note to serve as a reminder to help you get through the challenging times. There will be a lot of doors that shut on you so hang onto the good and know that you will work through it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I could start a movement it would be to continue to bring people together through music. We launched Vinylly a few months prior to COVID-19 becoming widespread in the U.S. and one of our value propositions is to find and purchase tickets to live concerts through the app, but due to the pandemic, we had to create entirely new tech to support a livestream API, which we’ve kept for users to choose in addition to live concerts.
We want to bring a community of music fans together and bring music to them. However, some people cannot afford to go to see their favorite bands, especially with the rising cost of tickets. With Vinylly, we want to continue to create partnerships with venues and promoters in order to provide discounted opportunities to our users so they can have those experiences and build those lasting memories and relationships.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!