The Story of How Pandora Radio Almost Died

I love the Pandora Radio app on my iphone.  I listen to music most of the day – in my room or around the house, in my car, outside walking around – and this is possible only because of internet connected mobile devices.  Pandora Radio just recently went public on the NYSE and looks to have a strong future.  It wasn’t always so bright, this is a story of persistence and hanging on by a thread.   MG Siegler of Techcrunch had a great write-up on Pandora the day of their IPO, I think it’s so I will re-post it below.  I like it because you get a sense these founders would not give up on their vision and persevered through much trial and tribulation.

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Pandora was founded in 2000, but it wasn’t known as “Pandora” at the time. Instead, the company was focused on their Music Genome Project, which aimed to extract the DNA from music, as it were, and find commonalities to perfect recommendations. When Conrad joined in 2004, the company was known as Savage Beast — yes, a truly awful name that invokes Savage Garden. In fact, here’s an early blog post from Conrad about Savage Beast that he probably won’t be pleased with me sharing.

When Conrad came on board, the company had just taken its first real venture capital investment (from Walden Ventures) and Joe Kennedy had just been hired as CEO. The idea was to transform the Music Genome Project from a cool piece of technology that was licensed out to the likes of Best Buy, and (our parent) AOL, among others, to a consumer-facing product. That effort began in December 2004, with design work leading up to that. By the late summer of 2005, the product was ready to go.

And here’s where things get really interesting.

“TechCrunch is a part of this,” Conrad says. “We launched, and the first Barcamp was the following Saturday. I got out of bed that morning and almost didn’t go. But at the last minute, I threw my laptop in the car and drove to Palo Alto,” he says. “By luck, Mike was in the room.”

He means, of course, Mike Arrington.

“He got up when it was over, went to a Starbucks, I think, and wrote a post about Pandora. That was the starter pistol for our early growth,” Conrad says. And thanks to the magic of the Internet, you too can see that post from August 20, 2005 right here (note the part where Arrington tries to give out invites from his personal email address, then gives up due to massive interest).

Conrad notes that TechCrunch itself was “about 45 days old” at that point. And he fondly remembers Arrington being annoyed with him that the Pandora launch wasn’t given to him as an exclusive. “At that point, he was just some blogger to me,” Conrad says with a laugh.

But that didn’t stop Conrad from showing up at Arrington’s house over the next several months for the BBQs Arrington used to host in his backyard. Conrad recalls that Pandora music streaming from his laptop would often be the musical entertainment for the evening “while we stood around his little campfire”.

From that point on, Pandora “grew at a pace that exceeded my expectations,” Conrad says noting that millions of users were coming on in just the opening years.

But then the CRB decided the royalties for this new form of radio, Internet radio, needed to be set. Conrad notes that after Pandora was live for about a year and a half, those rates were revealed — and they weren’t good. “It was economically unsound,” he says. “And it wasn’t just us that was affected; Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, and a lot of smaller guys too.” At that point, Pandora entered into a two-year-long process of negotiating with the record labels over royalties that led to the situation described at the beginning of this post. “This was a complicated period for us,” Conrad says.

But there was also a ray of hope that emerged during this time. The App Store.

Conrad notes that when the iPhone OS 3 (remember, it wasn’t “iOS” at the time) launched in the summer of 2008 and brought the third-party-friendly App Store for the first time, everything changed. “Broadly, the smartphone category accelerated everything for us,” he says, noting that the App Store was the catalyst.

“What we’re really trying to do is re-invent radio. It was consumed everywhere, but least of all at work, and the web browser changed that,” Conrad says. “But the mobile devices took it out of the browser and out into the world,” he continues. Now over half of Pandora’s usage comes on smartphone devices, he says. And that’s incredible since Pandora had been on feature phones for about a year prior to the App Store, but it wasn’t going anywhere. With the iPhone, “the consumer expectation of what they could do with their phone changed drastically,” he says.

Conrad also points out that Nielsen had a recent study which put Pandora in the top five apps in terms of usage on major devices — iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry. He believes they’re the only company in the top five on each of those devices.

So the App Store helped Pandora’s mood in an otherwise bleak time. “The timelines do overlap in an interesting way,” Conrad says. But at the same time, he says that he was never too concerned for Pandora having to completely shut down. “The [royalty] rates were so irrational that we were very confident through the period that we would come to a compromise with the rights’ holders,” he says. At the same time, he credits the “incredible outpouring of support from our listeners” as the thing that really motivated Congress to start looking into the situation.

“It was frustrating that it went on for so long, but we thought rationality would prevail,” Conrad says. And even after “RIP, Good Times”, hit in late 2008, he wasn’t too worried because “we focused on the monetization of the product from the beginning.” “Other companies were behind the eight ball, but we were starting to see the rewards from that attention to revenue,” he says.

And then in the middle of 2009, the clouds broke. Pandora (and other Internet radio services) reached an agreement that would lower royalties to the point where the business could work. “Pandora is finally on safe ground with a long-term agreement for survivable royalty rates,” Conrad told us at the time.

“A real period of growth started then.” And today, Pandora has over 94 million registered users.

Story courtesy of Techcrunch

Dear Advertiser: Please Do Better

This post was originally published on BusinessInsider.com.

 

Dear Advertiser,

We haven’t formally met but we have had an ongoing relationship for quite some time.  I am a consumer; you are an advertiser trying to sell me something.  Our Love/Hate relationship goes something like this: I love to use my internet but hate to be interrupted by you.  I know you are the one I should actually thank for my ‘free’ usage of all the websites and applications on the web, but deep down in my heart I am finding it hard to thank you.  You see, I just want to go about my day and easily use the mobile apps I enjoy, listen to my favorite music on Pandora, search on the topics I need to know about and read interesting articles.

But here is what I don’t think you fully understand.  You make my life worse.  You interrupt me in every possible way you can think of and believe just because you “got  in front of my eyeballs”, I will make a purchase.  The thing is, I cannot easily use my mobile apps, since you jump right in as I load it up and steal another 5 or 10 seconds of my time.  I hate this!  When I listen to Pandora, between every 2 or 3 songs you shout something I don’t ever pay attention to, so you are wasting your money.  I bet you didn’t know that as I listen to Pandora when drive I turn the radio off or the volume down for about 10 to 15 seconds so I don’t have to hear you freaking annoying voice for the 10th time this hour.  You are just an annoyance and I despise you more and more as this goes on.  When I search on Google, there you are… trying your hardest to sell me something I don’t want.  Even though when I search I type in a keyword, most of the time I am looking to be informed on a topic not buy it.  And what makes me the most frustrated is when you cover the screen the instant I hit a website like Forbes, basically witholding me from my very intent.

Do you realize how rude this is?  I don’t walk up to your desk as you are working and put my hand right in front of your screen, and hold it there for 15 seconds – smiling like I am doing something nice for you.  If I did, you would probably hit me.

I understand it is you who underwrites our “free” access to information so I am not blindly telling you to go away.  All I ask is please make my life better, not worse.

Know my preferences.  Better yet, let me tell you what I like and what I don’t like. 

All the spying, cookies and social data mining in the world will not come nearly as close to knowing me as good as I know myself.  Please allow me to tell you what I like and what I don’t like so when you do step in to talk to me I am actually interested in what you are saying.  (Would someone out there build a platform where I can input my 15 category interest and allow only those advertisers to reach me on every interactive media in the world?  Come to think of it, I just might.  If you are interested in helping, give me a shout.)

Know when I want to interact.  Never interrupt me.

Interrupting is one of the rudest forms of communication in the human race.  Maybe this is your problem: since you are not human you don’t realize you are committing one of the biggest faux pas out there.  If you were to start your strategic alignment with more of a human perspective you would better position yourself for me to receive your message.

Make my life better.  Add value to me and my life

Hindering my internet viewing, making me wait to watch a video or jumping in the middle of a conversation does no make my life better.  It only creates frustration.  Correct me if I am wrong, but I assume you want to create value for the brand or company you are representing?  Okay, if that is the case… I will value any company who makes my life better.  And since we naturally associate the Brand of the company with the mode of advertising … any Brand who rudely interrupts me is instantly placed in the LAME bucket.  Sorry, that is the truth.  On the contrary, any Brand who slides naturally into a position to add value to me and make my life better -  pure GOLD.  Loyal.  They got me for life.

Look, I know this is going to be a life long marriage so can you please start to see things from my side of the bed for once?  If you do, I guarantee you will get more than you ever imagined.