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Shazam Co-founder Advocates Entrepreneurship Education, the Power of the Pivot

Philip Inghelbrecht shares lessons learned in the trenches of Silicon Valley.

Philip Inghelbrecht

July 9, 2014

“I love getting things done.” 

This is the headline Philip Inghelbrecht chose for his LinkedIn profile. In person, the Shazam co-founder and serial entrepreneur lives up to the marquee. When he talks, it’s best to check your ego and listen up. He is witty. He knows how to command a conversation. With a twist of the tongue, he’ll turn a declaration into a question. He’ll laugh. Then he’ll keep going. Always forward. 

Inghelbrecht worked at YouTube. He started some companies. He sold some, too. He turned Shazam, a mobile music recognition solution, into one of the most successful smartphone applications of all time.  The common thread has always been knowledge. As in “what did I learn from this?”

Back in March, Inghelbrecht shared some advice with the Close School during its trip to Silicon Valley. Recently, we had a chance to catch up. We even asked him for some advice of our own. 

Shazam started in 1999? Most people don’t realize that it took a while to gel …

The first day I sat down to start work on Shazam — and I can still remember that day — was December 17, 1999.

Shazam, for a long time, was trying to find its business model. In the early days, you would pay per song recognition. Then there were subscriptions and a whole bunch of other things. A little bit of a revenue yo-yo. The one piece that people don’t realize about Shazam was that in the early 2000s, when consumer services was dwindling, I realized that our technology could be shrink-wrapped and licensed to other companies like Clear Channel and BMI and they would use it to monitor radio and television play so royalties to publishers could be paid out correctly. Those were multi-million dollar contracts. And if you add them to the mix you can say, “Well, Shazam was definitely profitable much earlier.” But consumer services did take a little longer.

What is Shazam’s special sauce?

Well, we solved a true consumer pain. Ever since music existed, people have wondered, “What is that song?” We were the first true, scalable technology solution to answer that question. Second, there was simplicity. Press a button and hold up your phone.  That’s it. No more. Right? 

We’ve continued to build on this core idea. We look for ways to connect you to the world around you in a way that is effortless.  We can now do this for TV shows, movies, commercials and retail stores.  We’ve extended the magic of Shazaming something into more verticals.  

So, you weren’t thinking about corporate audiences back on December 17, 1999?

It is undeniable that once you start a company and learn about your industry and your product evolves, inevitably, you will stumble into other markets. Some of them potentially significant. And I think Shazam was a great example of that, moving into many markets adjacent to music, including TV shows, advertising and even movie theaters. A couple of months ago, National Cinemedia chose Shazam as its U.S. partner to make elements of a moviegoer’s experience Shazamable, giving users the ability to identify, explore, purchase and share that content. There are many ways the technology could be applied for a number of different sectors. I’m excited to see how the team continues to evolve the applications. 

What about people who suffer from Founderitis? Those folks who cling to an idea and smother it. Any advice for the afflicted?

I think it’s good to have focus. To believe your idea and to push it. It’s kind of the Steve Jobs approach: Saying, “I know what the consumer wants.” That’s a good approach, right? But not everybody is Steve Jobs and they have to change a little bit.

Today there is this fancy word called pivot. And I think pivoting – two years ago – was quite an ugly word. But now it’s quite sexy. To say: “I pivoted a few times.”

If there is one thing that stands out to me it’s that it’s good to have focus and start with something. But that might not necessarily be the end game.

What’s the most important pearl you learned from Shazam?

It comes down to people. People in the closest sense. Don’t start a company by yourself. Have one or two partners. Start it with people who have different skills. But more importantly, start it with friends who are with you through thick and thin. We had four co-founders. None of us had overlapping skills. We’d have our quarrels. Our fights. But it was always for the good of the business.  Because underneath it all was a level of personal understanding, integrity and friendship that always prevailed and held us together, and the company on track.

You have a very refined look. What did you look like back in college? Did you have a grunge period?

Ha! No. But it’s funny you asked that, because back in, I think, 2000, at Shazam, I thought it would be fun to bleach my hair. So I had it bleached for a while. And then I dyed it red. And blue. And green. And then many people in the music business thought it was funny. But what it became was … every time we celebrated a major milestone at the company, others would dye their hair, too.

There are pictures of half the office sitting there with their hair dyed. It was hilarious.  

In your Twitter profile picture, you’re driving in a car with the top down, past a palm tree.  What would you be listening to on a day like that?

Ha! I actually remember this!  This was years ago in Florida. It was when Justin Timberlake had just released Sexy Back. And I had it blasting in the car. 

Your Twitter profile says: “Dad of two girls. Husband of one.” How important has family been in your life?

My wife was the first employee at Shazam. So she’s seen it from the early days. She wasn’t my girlfriend then. But she was someone I deeply respected in every possible way to the point that we became boyfriend and girlfriend and now we’re married. So, it’s pretty important. Because when *bleep* hits the fan, you will share it with the person closest with you. 

And with kids your priorities shift. I enjoy spending time with my girls. What’s funny is that, in many ways, being a father makes you much more efficient. I’ve seen this in colleagues and employees. Having kids doesn’t necessarily detract from your work quality or commitment.

In fact, when people say this stereotype that pregnant women or mothers aren’t as productive as others, I just completely disagree. They are infinitely more productive.

What was your impression of the Drexel student entrepreneurs you met in San Francisco?

It ran twofold. One: I felt that they were all very informed. If you don’t live in Silicon Valley and you’re not living it every day, it’s hard to keep your finger on the pulse. So what stood out was that everybody knew their stuff. They knew the companies. They knew the systems. You could talk about operating systems and they’d get it. I did not expect that. That takes some real dedication, right?

The other part that stood out was that they were confident and straight up. Not afraid to walk up to me and ask questions. I thought that was pretty cool. Actually, it was quite enjoyable.

Our programs at the Close School are new. We’re the only shop in town, so to speak. Detractors might say that entrepreneurship cannot be taught. What do you think?

Of course it can. Entrepreneurship isn’t just about having an appetite for risk. I think that might be a little bit harder to teach. But it’s as much about execution. In many cases it comes down to execution only.

I think it can absolutely be taught. Your programs, like the paid internship, they are great. It should be mandatory to either start your own company or work at a company with no more than five employees.

We agree with you. We’re a higher education startup. So, what’s your advice for us to scale?

OK. Well, if you’re in education, you have one card you can really play hard.  All the peripheral stuff around starting a company? Outsource it. I would almost create an ecosystem where you deal with one or two law firms who commit to taking on any student who comes out of the program. And they’ll waive the first $5,000. It’s their link in. If one out of 100 people succeed, well, that’s pretty damn historic for them to be part of that.

The same for accounting, another of those necessary evils of creating a startup. Go to Amazon cloud computing. They might have deals for storage for students.  It’s almost like a starter kit for entrepreneurs. Line up all of those things: Legal, finance, a PR agency. They’ll do it part pro bono, so to speak, but also because it’s smart to associate with someone who might become a winner in the future.

That’s what I would invest in heavily. You come to the program and you get $30,000 in service out the gate. No questions asked. That’s pretty sexy, right?

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

I have a kite boarding addiction. Right now I’m torn because it’s sunny and windy in sand Francisco and I might just disappear for two hours and nobody will know where I am. Because I’m out kite boarding. And then I’ll resurface and do my work.