Alex White – Co-Founder, Next Big Sound

Alex White co-founded Next Big Sound with David Hoffman and Samir Rayani in 2008, while in his last semester at Northwestern University. Next Big Sound raised $7.4 million dollars across two venture financing rounds (2009 and 2012) from Foundry Group, IA Ventures, SoftTech VC and other notable angel investors.

On July 1, 2015, Pandora Media (NYSE: P) acquired Next Big Sound, Inc and White is now the Head of Music Recommendations and Curation Programming at Pandora.

White and his co-founders have been featured in Fast Company (#1 most innovative company in the music industry, 2015), Forbes (30 under 30) in the music category three times, Billboard (10 best music companies), Bloomberg BusinessWeek (25 under 25), Entrepreneur Magazine’s 30 under 30 list and in the New York Times, CNN, Fox Business, Washington Post, TechCrunch and many other publications. White is an adjunct professor at NYU, sits on the NY Board of Little Kids Rock and enjoys playing soccer, reading, skiing, and traveling for work and pleasure. He lives in New York City.

How did the concept for Next Big Sound come about?
I’ve been fascinated with collective intelligence since I read The Wisdom of Crowds in college. The idea that we can see emergent behavior by tracking the listening of millions of consumers around the world to understand music trends has always been alluring. I knew from my time in the music industry that there was a big lack of “data literacy,” and that if we could take all this data and make it actually useful to artists and their teams, that there was a big opportunity.

How was the first year in business?
Like everything, the beginning is always the most fragile. We were living in a six-bedroom house with the first three people we hired so there was zero work/life balance. That was fine since we were in our early 20’s and couldn’t think of anything we’d rather be doing, but definitely was not sustainable long-term!

What was your marketing strategy?
We launched nextbigsound.com on August 6, 2009 and let anyone sign up for free weekly email reports on the artists that they cared about. The first sites we tracked, which gives you a sense of the time period and what people cared about, were MySpace, Last.fm, iLike, and iMeem. These free email reports became the best way for us to build our distribution and gain the trust of the industry since we were in their inbox every week with numbers that they had previously been collecting by hand or not at all.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
In the first few years, we grew from three co-founders to nine people and $1 million a year in revenue. We raised $860,000 in 2009 and a $6.5 million Series A in 2012.

How do you define success?
Success is the journey and not a destination. I think many people get wrapped up with “if only” – if only we are able to get into Techstars or YC, if only we are able to close this seed round, if only we land this one client, then we will be successful. Success to me is being able to define work that is meaningful to you and being able to pursue that to your best ability.

Rather than thinking about success like a degree, I now think about it much more like fitness. Unlike a degree, where once issued it cannot be taken away from you, success is not a permanent state of being but a constant, fragile struggle requiring ongoing effort.

What is the key to success?
I think the key to success is to focus on the inputs and not get wrapped up in the outcome. Bad things happen to good people and good things can happen out of the blue. Both of these are largely out of your control. All you can do is show up, fully present, and work on what you think is most impactful.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The secret to life is running, reading, and coffee. Now you know.

The first two I stole from the great modern-day philosopher, Will Smith.

Allow me to explain. The reason why running is one of the secrets to life is because it’s hard. Every second on a treadmill there is a little voice inside your head telling you to slow the speed down, lower the incline, or run a shorter distance than you were planning on running. A big part of life is overcoming that voice in your head and pressing on to completion of your goals. Studying when you want to be watching TV. Finishing a project when you want to be drinking with your friends. Or saving money when you want to go shopping.

The reason why reading is one of the secrets of life is because you aren’t the first human being to ever live. A lot of human wisdom has been collected, consolidated, and bound into books over the last hundred years. Learning at the speed of life is too slow and reading is one of the best ways to accelerate that learning curve.

Finally, coffee. The reason why coffee is the third and final secret of life is not for its obvious caffeinated properties but rather the way a 30-60 minute chat over coffee can forge a new relationship, change your perspective, or connect you to a life-changing opportunity. In the same way that reading about the journeys of other human beings can accelerate your learning, nothing important in this world happens without other people. Whether you drink tea, water, or a delicious cortado, meeting people over a beverage to listen to their experience and get their advice is invaluable.

Together with the advice and relationships built over coffee, the knowledge from reading, and the drive to see things through to completion, that’s all you really need to live life to your full potential.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Days should be rigorously planned and nights left open to chance.”

“Confidence and composure in the face of complexity and uncertainty.”

What are some of your favorite books?
I love history books. SPQR, Mayflower, and The Island at the Center of the World are some recent ones I’ve read. The Wisdom of Crowds, Shoe Dog, The Black Swan, Hit Makers, and The Obstacle is the Way are some that I find myself coming back to repeatedly.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
So many tough days. I always had heard the analogy of startups being like a rollercoaster with big ups and downs. I didn’t find that to be accurate for me. It was more like a six-dimensional rollercoaster where every day or week there were lots of good things happening (new clients signing on, top candidates accepting their job offers, new products being shipped) and lots of bad things happening (needing to force a board member’s resignation, employee performance issues, clients threatening cancellation, etc). It made it impossible to say how things were going. They were going great in some ways and horrible in other ways!

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Staying focused on the bigger picture. The purpose of what you are doing, the “why” needs to be so compelling to you personally that it carries you through all the adversity. I see people chasing the latest trend or starting a company since it is “cool” – these folks are destined to stop pushing forward when the going gets tough, which it always does.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs? 
I wrote about this on my blog recently. You can read my post here.

1. Find an area of the world that you are instinctively excited and curious about. Even better if it is a unique intersection of interests that you and your team share. Music analytics was not something people were asking about or searching for several years ago, we were creating a new market.

Each day at Next Big Sound, rather than getting more routine, it gets more interesting as we go down the rabbit hole gathering more data, signing on more customers, understanding their questions better, and providing answers which lead to more questions. This is only possible because of our innate curiosity and excitement about finding the Truth in this arena.

2. Start talking with as many other people as you possibly can about your idea and the part of the world you are most interested in. You never know who has a cousin/friend/classmate who shares a similar fascination and you want to expose yourself to as much serendipity as humanly possible. The famous saying is “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I don’t think that’s entirely right. I think it’s more about who knows you. If you are the guy or gal always talking about bitcoin ten years before it’s all over Techcrunch or the person obsessed with photography five years before Instagram’s sale makes headlines, opportunities will find you.

3. Once you’ve found the sector and others who share your enthusiasm, it is time to run as fast as you possibly can. This means real validated learning with customers and users. In the early days, don’t be too obsessed with A/B testing (since you have no users, this will take weeks to run and provide questionable data) – build product, put it in front of people, get their feedback, rinse and repeat. At Next Big Sound, we are twenty-five people and still trying to speed these cycles up no matter the cost. We moved the entire company from Boulder to New York City to be able to put new product in front of end customers in the music industry in half the time from when we were in Boulder. These cycles can never be fast enough.

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.