Music, amongst other topics

The story of Openwhyd

September 2010. Paris’ startup scene is flourishing. Like many others, I want to “change the world” and “build something cool”. But I got myself trapped into a 3-year PhD thesis, and really want to get it done. So the best I can do is to spend a few evenings and weekends participating to meet-ups related to startups, to hopefully join one when I’m done.

After discovering my profile on the “Startup Weekend Paris” meetup, a guy named “Gilles” sends me an email to propose a coffee meeting. With his co-founder “Jie”, they’re making a startup to help people find places and information based on their emotions. Sounds like a crazy idea, and they seem serious about it, so I join them as their first software engineer, right after being done with my PhD!

We decide that our product will be called “Whyd”, because it would allow users to explore the wide range of information available on the Internet, and beyond!

Then, we start iterating on various (and weird) product ideas:

2010 — “There is always a connection”

Prototype made in December 2010. Do you understand what it’s for, and how to use it? ;-)

Amazed by the growing amount and diversity of structured information that one can find on sites and APIs like Wikipedia, dbpedia, and freebase, we thought that the users’ exploration experience was lacking. So we developed a way to search and navigate from concept to concept, using mostly visual content.

In our first demo, we showed how to navigate from Delacroix’s painting “La Liberté guidant le peuple” to the film “Inception” in less than 6 clicks, and without having to type anything!

It was definitely a good-looking and intriguing product, but in reality nobody cared much about going back to Whyd after its initial “wow” effect.

2011 — “Express yourself about subjects you like”

In order to make users come back to our product, we figured that we would need to make it “social”. By enabling users to add their own content, we could send notifications to others, so they would come back to check it out!

So we made that:

This is how whyd.com’s homepage looked like in March 2011
…and this was the main user experience, after logging in! Do you get it, now? ;-)

Basically, Whyd had become a micro-blogging platform in which users had to specify the topic before posting. You could then follow topics you were interested in, in order to be notified of new posts on those topics.

Yeah, some people found it cool, but most people had no idea what to do with it.

Summer of 2011 — Loïck joins the team as UI designer

Until then, we had had the chance to work with talented designers, but hiring Loïck as part of our team enabled us to integrate UI design at a much deeper level into our development process.

If you’re using Openwhyd today, you may recognize Loïck’s early style:

A Whyd topic page, as of October 2011

At that point, we had figured that, if we wanted to succeed as a “real startup” and raise VC funds, we had to relocate to the Silicon Valley. So we flew to San Francisco, and rented a house for 3 months, with the team.

Our friends at Dotcloud kindly shared their awesome office space in San Francisco with us, for a few days!

We did the whole thing: participated to meet-ups, startup networking events, hackathons, when we were not busy developing the new version of our product.

Despite our efforts — and all the fun we had there, too — during these three months, we realised the hard way that having a nice-looking product that works well was not enough to raise VC money. And we came back to France to launch a trimmed-down version of Whyd.

2012 — New beginnings

Back to Paris, we simplified the user experience of Whyd, trimming its topics down to just four categories: Music, Movies, Art and Books.

New design: more visual, less noisy.

At that point, two unexpected things happened:

  • We realised that our users were sharing mostly music videos from Youtube;
  • and Play’em, one of my side-projects, was discovered and featured on a Peruvian television show!

Play’em was a simple web application that I had made to play the Youtube videos my friends had shared on Facebook, without interruption.

So we thought: what if we allowed Whyd users’ to play their music videos more easily, like a playlist?

Mid-2012 — “All your streaming music in one place”

This was a disruptive use case for us, because it meant that the semantic topic system we had been developing would become useless. But user feedback was leading us towards that exact direction.

So we basically started developing a new web application from scratch:

June 2012: first working prototype of “Whyd Music”

That was also the period when Tony joined our team to boost our external communication, being with users or with the press.

Tony became well known and loved by our users!

We started organising events with our best users (who became good friends), and getting cool Parisian places, artists, and brands to use Whyd (e.g. Glazart, 20syl, Tracks/Arte…)

As we incrementally integrated more streaming sources (i.e. soundcloud, vimeo, dailymotion, deezer…) into Whyd, we saw our user retention and usage analytics increase dramatically, finally!

Good user retention stats!

Finally, we had built something that solved a common problem: creating playlists of tracks from various platforms.

2013 — Growing and hustling

At that point, we were confident about the relevance of our product for our users, but we had to prove that it would scale towards hundreds of thousands of users.

The first thing we did was to make Whyd be nice-looking and usable again:

Spring of 2013: a well-needed re-design.

…and got covered by quality webzines, including Lifehacker:

On the software side, we experimented ways to create connections betweens users, through similarity of their musical taste. This was a complicated task, as most of the content that was curated on Whyd did not provide any structured metadata.

Meaning that it’s hard for a computer program to know exactly what’s the title, artist, and genre of a Youtube music video, so it makes it hard to evaluate the musical compatibility between two user profiles based on the Youtube music videos they posted on Whyd.

After a few difficult months — financially speaking — we raised a round of $800k in private funding.

2014 — Damien, and Whyd on the iPhone

In early 2014, we hired Damien to develop our iPhone app. He was still based in San Francisco, whereas our team was in Paris, so we had to start to work remotely together.

We wanted to launch our mobile app before April, so we had to hurry!

Fortunately, Loïck had prepared the wireframes for most of the screens of our future app:

Our walls were full of Loïcks’ sketches!

Despite having Damien working remotely, we got a first iPhone app working by April! 👏

Later that year, times had become tough again, as we realised that Whyd’s user base was not growing as expected, and we had no alternative business model in sight…

We started talking about making a hardware product, as it was a more straightforward way to create revenue in a complicated music market.

This is how whyd.com (now openwhyd.org) looked before pivot.

Late 2014 — A change of focus

In October 2014, My girlfriend and I had decided to travel to South America for one month. As cliché as it may sound, this experience helped me take a step back and reflect on what I really wanted to do next.

When we came back, it had become clear — at least internally — that the Whyd company would soon pivot into a hardware company. It took me three months to be absolutely sure that I was not happy about working on a hardware product, and to realise that it was the right time for me to leave the company.

I was sad to leave this awesome team, and to leave my baby: the Whyd platform, but I was eager to work on different projects, as a freelancer, and also develop a few product ideas of mine.

There was one thing I asked Gilles and Jie:

If you ever consider shutting down whyd.com, please call!

By the spring of 2015, I was out. And the Whyd team was focusing on developing their new product, a smart speaker:

Whyd’s new focus: a smart — and awesomely designed — speaker.

The following months, I kept being frustrated to see awesome startup products being shut down, one after the other (e.g. Springpad, Refresh, Sunrise…), whereas rare ones were saved by volunteers or given back to their users as open-source projects (e.g. hackpad).

So I wrote a rant and a pledge about it:

Mid-2016 — Giving the keys back to the community

Realising that maintaining the whyd.com curation platform had become more of a burden than an asset, Gilles called me. He asked me if I would be interested to keep the curation platform alive, given that the Whyd company would open its source-code, buy a separate domain name for it and agree to pay the hosting fees.

As I was still a user of whyd.com, and had convinced many of my friends who were still using it too, I was extremely happy to be given this opportunity! Even though I knew that open-sourcing a startup product is no easy task — nor is it quick, — I gladly took some time off to help the transition from whyd.com to openwhyd.org.

One could say that I should have let it go, but I am still convinced that open-sourcing our curation platform was the right thing to do. In the name of free music sharing, and also — I must admit it — for a more selfish reason: to keep alive the software I had written with love during all those years.

Want to get involved?

Since the transition to Openwhyd, anyone can get involved at various levels:

Three of our open-sources projects, on GitHub

If you want to offer your help in a different way (e.g. blog or organise events for Openwhyd), I’ll be happy to reply to your comments!

If you love Openwhyd, or if you love this story, please let the world know about it → click ❤ !