For most college students, March Madness means basketball.
For USC students Vincent Fong and Thomas Honeyman, it means business.
USC Dornsife undergraduate Honeyman and Fong, an undergraduate at the USC Marshall School of Business, co-founded FindMySong.com, a startup composed of USC students and alumni that helps musicians connect in person or online to create music together. The company has been selected for this year’s “Student Startup Madness,” a kind of entrepreneurship tournament held at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas this month.
The competition gives student startups the chance to pitch their ideas to investors, make connections and learn more about evolving technologies.
SXSW, as it’s better known, has always been an accelerator for tech as well as music. That makes it the ideal launching pad for FindMySong, designed to be a kind of Match.com for musicians. You can set up and search out profiles based on skills and experience; after finding your new drummer or trying out a new singer, you can upload music samples to the site and work on new songs together. Musicians keep the rights to their music protected by creating digital copyright split sheets.
The “Student Madness” competition pits enterprising college students against one another for the chance to pitch their idea to investors. Whether they win or not, Fong said it’ll be a crucial opportunity to network.
“South by Southwest is a really unique opportunity because the music and film part of it is really up our alley,” said Fong, a student at the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. “So we’re not just going to this competition, we’re going to the whole event.”
Fong is CEO of FindMySong; Honeyman serves as chief operating officer, overseeing much of the day-to-day management of the startup’s work. Both said SXSW can be essential for meeting new investors — and in terms of major musical artists — hopefully partners. It’s also a chance to find out how technology is changing long before consumers know about it.
“If you read about what’s happening online, you’re kind of trailing what’s going on,” Honeyman said. “Here, you see what’s really coming out so you can capitalize on the trends.”
Fong originated the idea for the company in his freshman year, initially conceptualizing a site that was essentially a crowdsourced “name that tune” for music fans. It was a hit among his friends, but proved to be an essential learning experience: How do you convince investors that your idea will make money?
The skepticism they faced forced Fong, Honeyman and his collaborators back to the drawing board. Both Fong and Honeyman are musicians. Fong is a violinist and fan of electronic music; Honeyman was formerly a popular music student at the USC Thornton School of Music before switching to cognitive science at the USC Dornsife.
They noticed a unique problem for L.A. musicians: There were swarms of artists to connect with in the city, including on campus. But many bands struggled to find players of the same skill or with the same musical interests. Craigslist is one go-to solution — Fong used it to try and find a producer for an electronic music project, but discovered it was a crapshoot.
“We wanted a platform for people to find other musicians, but took it a step further,” Fong said.
Like a LinkedIn for musicians, FindMySong’s profiles can include a range of skills. As a result, you can find a drummer who’s also a keyboardist or a singer with some experience working with headlining artists. You can find open projects to join and contribute to and manage ongoing projects.
Fong and Honeyman said that USC is especially attuned to entrepreneurship, and the support they’ve received from the university has been invaluable.
“USC is unique in how open students are to networking and making connections,” Honeyman said. Entertainment is all about connections, and we’re right in the heart of L.A.”
For members of their team, the startup process has been a learning experience like no other. Besides figuring out how to conceptualize a great business idea, pitch it to investors and test a live website, they had to figure out how to deal with a unique problem among startups: how to work with each other throughout most of a day, seven days a week.
“When you get someone on your team, you’re seeing them more than your girlfriend,” Fong said. Part of making sure the team can work together for so long requires making sure the personalities all fit. It also takes planning out monthly social events and regular dinners — ones where no one talks about work.
Another valuable lesson involved setting up a focus group.
Neither Fong nor Honeyman had any experience doing this prior to FindMySong, but realized they needed such a group to gather more information on who would use their site and how. The suggestion came from Waylan Wong ’12, the team’s lead developer, who offers important data-based perspectives to balance the business team’s assumptions. They bought a book on how to run a focus group and designed a test to fine-tune the site based on its analytics.
An ad on Craigslist brought musicians out of L.A.’s woodwork — a blur of ages, haircuts and piercings.
“We learned how diverse our audience really was,” Honeyman said. “I work in music, and I have a stereotypical image of what a musician is — me or a USC pop music student. And then we realized there were so many people that were going to potentially use this site.”