Welcome to Trep Talk! Trep Talk features some of our city’s compelling entrepreneurs who are boldly building what is uniquely Memphis. The spotlight series is curated by Elizabeth Lemmonds, Director of Talent Programs for the EPIcenter.
A few weeks ago I posted about the groundbreaking Summer of Acceleration, where eighteen of the best and brightest startup companies from around the world have converged in downtown Memphis for a sprint towards business legendry. I focused on the newness of the collaborative accelerator program, where EPIcenter, Start Co. and ZeroTo510 have joined forces to run fifteen intense weeks of business building curriculum, mentors and seed investment. This time I want to focus on another exciting new business accelerator component, called Start MMT – backed by David Porter and The Consortium MMT – that focuses on music technology.
Soundways was one of two teams chosen and backed by Start MMT, and one that I’ve had the privilege of getting to know over the past month. I am excited that Memphis, with our rich musical heritage, is leveraging our strengths with an accelerator focused on music innovation! But I’m also highly impressed with the founding team of Gebre Waddell and Connor Reviere. They are each audio engineers and software developers, so they have the utterly unique position of working in their field while developing their own software.
They’re also two of the nicest, most accomplished and passionate people you could meet! While the Q&A below is with CEO Gebre Waddell, Connor studied music recording at CUNY in New York City, Middle Tennessee State University and University of Memphis. The two met when Gebre spoke to one of Connor’s classes and tossed around the possibility of working together; a year – and intensive C++ learning – later, the two started programming together and are now co-founders of an exciting and extremely promising new Memphis startup company! Next up: global domination. At least of the music industry. And with no further ado…
Give us your elevator pitch! Imagine giving an audio engineer a plug-in that changes their work forever. That’s what we are doing, by solving problems that are costing millions of audio engineers their time, income, and reputation every day in cities around the world. For example, a recording that sounds amazing in the studio may not translate well to car stereos and mobile devices. Our audio zoom technology allows users to eliminate translation issues by hearing their audio in more detail allowing them to make better adjustments.
Even basic AB testing in studios today is terribly flawed, so our comparison technology allows objective testing that improves every decision an audio engineer makes. These are a couple of the many common problems we solve. But that’s not all, our underlying tech is being done in a way that can be deployed in listening systems like TVs and automobiles, allowing us to improve the full pipeline of music from its creation, through to the listener’s ears.
Gebre, what – or who – was your inspiration? My inspiration was my family – my Father the starving artist, my mother serving as a social worker for 35 years, and my sister who set the bar high by becoming a doctor. In our home in Memphis, it was all about creativity and being faithful to your natural gifts. My father was a sculptor, who dedicated years of his life to creating civil-rights era sculptures, with over 12 years spent developing two amazing sculptures of Martin Luther King, Jr. My father passed away in 1998, never having experienced true success from his work – a loss to both to him and society. I’m in music rather than sculpture, however I see the struggle for all artists is the same. My Father’s story makes it important to me to create tools that help artists reach their potential, whether they’re trying to make it, or they have already made it and are working to maintain success.
Another motivation is my family’s close ties to Memphis – a city with music at its center. My family on my Father’s side has been in Memphis for as long as anyone knows. My mother, a social worker, served the neglected, abused and abandoned children of our city. This made the concern for Memphis’ well-being a central theme in our home. The audio tech we are creating combines the cultural heritage of our city with the advantages of modern-day technology, in a powerful way that will benefit our community as well as be profitable for years to come.
Did you always know you were destined for entrepreneurship? If not, what lured you in? Even as a child, I was an entrepreneur. I remember at age 8, together with a friend, we developed a comic book character. With no prompting from school or parents, I typed a letter on our home typewriter to Marvel Comics headquarters in New York to try and sell the character. I received a letter in return saying they were filing our character for consideration. You must understand, to an 8-year-old, that was life-changing. I was hooked as an entrepreneur from that day on.
My freshman year in college I started an audio mastering studio that was eventually called Stonebridge Mastering. Before long I had worked with artists like Ministry, Public Enemy, John Tesh, George Clinton, Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross and many others. I wrote a book about my field, titled Complete Audio Mastering, and it was published by McGraw-Hill in 2013. It made me one of the youngest McGraw-Hill engineering authors. The book was picked up by universities around the world and was endorsed by New York University. After its publishing, I designed and programmed some audio software based on ideas I had while researching for the book, and licensed the software to two audio giants, Universal Audio and Brainworx. That software became a best seller, and set me on a new path. Shortly after, I was selected as an advisor to the Grammy Board of Governors, and this year, I was elected to the board.
Today, our corporation, Soundways is pleased to have established a partnership with the University of London, and the legendary Masterdisk Studios in New York. We have a suite of audio software products we are soon to launch internationally. It all ties back to the motivations I’ve had, even as a child.
What are the most rewarding parts of owning this business? Any unexpected benefits? I’d have to say the biggest benefit so far is in hearing the stories of customers we have engaged during the customer discovery phase. Having ideas for products is one thing. Confirming that those ideas will solve widespread pain, is something completely different. We are interviewing 100 audio engineers, and without leading them we ask, “What is the worst problem you face? What keeps you up at night?”. We are lucky enough to have them respond, in the vast majority, with things we have already built. That is a bit of magic, and a bit of relief. We have done a number of tweaks according to responses, however we know with certainty we will solve painful issues out there, and that feels deeply rewarding.
What is your best piece of advice for those considering taking the entrepreneurial plunge? I would advise to do it now, at whatever scale you can do it, start learning and engage immediately with customers. Get a terrible version going tonight, even if it’s not functional, with simply pen and paper if you must. Then, get a better version done tomorrow. Failure and embarrassment are the most powerful teachers, and getting something done is admittance to the class – enough lessons and you’re sure to graduate to the next level.
Which local resources helped you the most when converting your bold idea into a solid business model? The StartCo & Start MMT accelerator program has been our single most powerful resource in getting from the small- to mid-size business mindset, to the investment-grade corporation mindset. The program is valuable for business professionals at all levels of experience, as they rigorously test your team, and improve your business. Mara, Eric and Andre have curated the most applicable best practices and are there to guide you through. Memphis is a city very grounded in reality and authenticity, and I think this aspect gives the StartCo accelerators a global advantage, especially in our climate of increasingly risk-averse investment.
What additional resource/s would you like to see developed in Memphis, to help smooth the path for future entrepreneurs? Many of the StartCo teams need software development and graphic design support. Our team is fortunate, as we are developers ourselves, and I am skilled with graphic design. StartCo has a new association with the Memphis College of Art, through EPICenter, which provides graphic design support. This is something extremely valuable for the teams. If this could be expanded to software development, that would be a tremendous help to teams of the future.
What are your favorite ways to unwind? During the StartCo accelerator, I think unwinding means sleeping for more than 5 hours! Normally, I enjoy myself by traveling and planning new experiences. Earlier this year, we skied the Continental Divide at Monarch, and the bowls of Breckenridge, after a few months of planning. Last year, it was skiing Aspen and the glacier at Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. There’s something magical about the mountains, and I love to make the best of every moment.
What should be on every entrepreneur’s bookshelf? Oh, this is supposed to be a fun question, however I have to put a challenge in the answer. With the tremendous growth of the IT sector, I’d recommend a book on the programming language most relevant to your area of business. For audio people, I would say that would be “Thinking in C++”.
Who’s on your playlist right now? Beck, Prince, John Coltrane, Eric Gales, Sly and the Family Stone, Allen Toussaint.
Got any guilty pleasures you’re willing to share? Bass fishing, Huey’s Burgers and spontaneous trips to New Orleans.
What are some of your own favorite local businesses and organizations?
* The Consortium MMT – David Porter and George Monger are adding tremendously to the future of Memphis, through musical talent development and a deep understanding of our community.
* Royal Studios – The soul of Memphis Soul still lives in the house of Willie Mitchell, Boo Mitchell and Al Green, giving rise to modern hits like Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk.
* Tactical Magic – The world-class branding genius and burning creativity of Trace Hallowell and his amazing crew is transformative and something to behold.
* Pearl’s Oyster House – Oysters coming right up from the gulf. Pearl’s has everything I like about seafood figured out.