Stories in Entrepreneurship

Alex Santarelli

CEO / Co-Founder NoiseHub

Alex Santerelli (1).jpg

Alex Santerelli is the founder and CEO of NoiseHub, the social network for music. NoiseHub allows you to choose any song from your Apple Music or Spotify library and post any 20 seconds of that to your network with a message. You can listen to your friends’ posts or geolocate them using a feature called Jukebox to hear what people around you are listening to. This allows us to highlight local, indie artists that you might not hear about otherwise. 

How did you become an entrepreneur? 

It's kind of funny. I had a weird start. My dad passed away when I was six so there wasn't a lot of money in the house and I wanted a Mac, an iPod, and other gadgets. I was really into retro video games; that's what I was passionate about at the time, so I would go out to yard sales and buy retro video games; people didn't know what they were worth on eBay or Craigslist. Then I'd sell them to make a profit. I just kept buying and reselling and buying and reselling until I was able to afford a Mac. It was cool because once that I did that with video games, I thought ‘Oh, I can do this with Mac computers’ so I paid $30 for a Power Mac G3, which is an old 1999 Apple desktop. I repeated the same process until I was able to buy a brand new Macbook. From there I started to teach myself programming and I thought ‘Oh, this would be cool to make an app.’ Then when I started to write code for the iPhone I thought ‘Oh my goodness, this is really powerful, being able to write something and then see it run in real time in your hands.’ I thought that was really cool that I could build something and that just got the wheels turning in the back of my head about what I could do. I wasn't very good at coding at the time so I did need a little more help on that end. So, I went to a summer camp at MIT for iOS development and then I started building apps for other people. The most successful one was probably the MySchool app. 

Tell me about the MySchool app.

Alex: My high school is called a one-to-world community so every student in the district gets an iPad. This program started the year I started ninth grade. What everybody noticed was that while they gave us an iPad, they didn't have anything that was mobile optimized. The resources were all over the place. You had to log in 20 times in 20 different places and it took a lot of time to do tasks that teachers and students alike just wanted to do quickly. It just made more sense to me to be able to quickly access information. So, two other students and I said to ourselves, ‘why don't we build an app for this?’ So, we went along down that line and built the app. The second year the app was up was pretty crazy. We had 3,700 downloads. To put that in perspective, there are only about 2,000 students at my high school. So, that was pretty cool to have exceeded the student base. Parents were even using it for push notifications. This project was really cool because I was able to actually build something and see it scale to a lot of people in a community. I learned a lot from that. 

What were some of the things that you learned that surprised you?

Before we started, we knew we didn't want MySchool to be like every other education software. At my high school, the education software was chosen by administrators for the students. The students didn't like it because it was bulky or the administrators thought that this is what the students need, but it's not actually what the students need. They only talk to about three students and it's the kids who are going to say yes to them no matter what. So, you end up with products that students don't like to use. Especially in the digital age, I think it’s important to create something that students find easy and enjoyable to use so they want to do the work. So, we really focused on our target market which was the students. Once we decided on features of the app such as the menu, we would show it to the students and ask questions like, ‘do you guys like this?’, is this easy?’, ‘what else would you like to see in it?’ I was focusing on the feedback but also discerning when we should and shouldn't listen to the feedback. So, the lesson is knowing when to listen to your users and incorporate this feedback into your product or service. 

User research is a skill I'm going to be working on for a while, but I definitely improved it a lot on that project. The other lesson is the importance of simplicity in products and services. For our MySchool app, it took you less than three steps to get through the entire app. So, it was really simple for students to use. This is part of why the students love the user experience so much. I hadn’t really thought about it much before, but I think the user experience is what separates good from great, especially for apps. We did happen to make an awesome user experience and that's when I realized how important the way a product makes you feel is. 

User experience has been a huge focus for us at NoiseHub. So what surprised me is how important talking to users and creating a good experience for them is. You need to focus on those things that you miss in between the lines or you don't think is that important and then you realize that it does play a crucial role. 

What’s your vision for the future of your company?

My vision is that NoiseHub will become the social network for music. We want to integrate with indie artists in local areas as well more popular artists and do a little bit with concerts. We really want to kind of try to change the music industry as it's set in its ways. I'm really intrigued that Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat all focus only on photos, short videos, and text and that nobody has come after music. It's one of those things where I think it's a very missed opportunity. 

At the core of what we do, we're focused on the connection that people have with music because that's a connection that I think is often overlooked. We don't actually realize the connection we share with our music. One of my favorite quotes is, "If you look into someone's iPod, you're looking into their soul." Music's kind of like a pure form of expression. While you can look like you're having a fun time or happy in a photo, it's harder to hide that in the music and in the lyrics because there's just a deeper meaning to music. So, right now that comes with sharing the posts but later on, it'll be integration with artists, local areas, and then even curation for your music. 

Since we're going to have a lot of data on what music you’ve posted, we're going to look at why you're posting it in a couple of different ways. We're going to be able to recommend songs based on your current situation. So, if you're having a bad day you'll be able to say ‘I'm having a bad day’ or ‘I went through a breakup, what are some songs to help me through it?’ and we can push from what other people have posted based on their situations and share some of those songs. It's curating music by focusing on the connection and helping you to find connections with other songs. So, there are a lot of things we see ourselves doing in the future, but the one thing that we will continue to focus on is the connection people have with their music. 

If you were to share a song today, what song would you share?

I'd probably share Imagine Dragons' “Rise up” from their new album Evolve. I really loved them from when I started out and they kind of carried through with me to this point. I love that song because the one line is “I've been seeking higher elevations.” It’s about seeking something else and seeking something different or challenging, and I think that's definitely where I'm at right now. 

The second part of the earlier question about your vision for your company is also your vision for the community. How do you see that your business transcends the product?

One thing that wasn't really apparent it to us at the start was when we released, we did a couple of betas before we had Apple music that we sent it out to people and people loved it! It was really based on that connection that people had with their music because we would target our friends who are posting lyrics on Facebook or on Twitter and we'd say ‘We’re trying some things out and we know it’s not perfect, but we’d like your opinion on it. Can you give this a try for us?’ They all loved it. 

It was so cool because the power of allowing people to express themselves through music is it can lead to greater connections. With NoiseHub, the way we actually structure posts is that you listen to the twenty-second portion in order to like it or comment on it. This means you can't just like it because it's your friends and not care about the content, you have to actually listen to it in order to like it. I think it's one of those things where it's not a social network that you can just go to and ignore people's posts. If you take an interest in a post and you listen to the 20-second track, even if you don't like the track, there's some meaning and there some significance in it to the person. Just based on the melody or lyrics, you could listen to it and say, ‘Oh, I didn't know that before. I didn't think that was going on behind the scenes or that that’s how that person felt.’

The problem with posting lyrics on Facebook is it could sound happy, and then, in reality, you listen to the song and you realize that it’s actually not a happy song. I think this feature of NoiseHub is what will allow us to share a deeper connection with each other. 

To impact the community and impact others who aren’t using the app itself, we're going to integrate with iMessage so in iMessage, you'll be able to choose a song and send that 20-second portion to another person. I think this will be a nice way to celebrate special occasions or even just everyday occurrences. For example, with my mom, if I hear a song on the radio I can send her that twenty-second clip. It’s just something that has real power to bring back memories and not just bring back memories but make new ones. It allows us to share a greater connection with music, and a greater connection with others through music. Sharing music enables us to see others interests and feelings and actually see what's going on in their lives.

What advice would you give an earlier version of yourself? 

There are a couple things. First, I would probably say ask for help more often rather than be stubborn and go at it yourself. I'd say also perseverance is key. You might think, ‘Oh, I'll get to this point and then it'll let up and it'll be easy from this point on,’ but it's realizing that easy is never a destination. Finished is also never a destination. You gotta keep going even when it seems impossible. You just gotta keep pushing through. That really is the key, I think, just being able to push through. There are always points where other people will say ‘that's it for me.’ But if you keep going and you keep pushing through, you can get to something really meaningful.

What was the biggest surprise or lesson learned as an entrepreneur? Is it the same as your advice or is it different? 

I thought being an entrepreneur was just an upward trajectory of success and then I started reading the biographies of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk and I started doing it myself. I realized that you only get to see about 20 percent of what actually happens and that other 80 percent is all of the obstacles and setbacks that they experienced to get to where they are. I thought it was funny because it's really glamorized. It's like, ‘Oh, it was really easy to get here and it's like they have it so easy and they have so much money.’ But it really wasn't like that the entire time. It wasn't just an overnight success. They had to work really hard in a really vast amount of time. It wasn't easy. I think entrepreneurship looks easy to a lot of people and then you go and try it and you say ‘Whoa, this is not what I thought it would be.’ There are a lot of high highs and there are a lot of low lows. I think that’s the biggest surprise.

What has been the biggest challenge?

I think it's learning to separate work from my personal life. I'm not very good at that. I often let my work bleed through so it affects others around me and I wish I could change that. It's also just learning to calm down because it's one of those things where I just want to keep going without a break. Sometimes you just need to take a step back, relax a little, and enjoy life. And not just work so hard or focus on what you're doing. You can't let your years go by without realizing you're having fun. Otherwise, you're just taking advantage of them. 

What question should I have asked you?

I think what I'm passionate about. I think the entrepreneurs who are interesting or push in a certain direction are very passionate and I think that drive comes from their passion. I think that the entrepreneurs who aren't passionate can only go so far until they realize what they're actually passionate about and then finally they're like ‘Oh, that's why I do that.’ I first heard this idea from a TED talk that one of my teachers showed it to us in high school and it was something that really kind of wowed me. It’s about the "why" people do something. Is it so easy to tell people what and how you do it, but when you get to the "why" and underlying reasons and message that somebody is trying to send, it's harder to articulate that than anything else. Some of the answers that people give for this “why” are really interesting.

I have one more question that wasn't on the list. But one of the things that comes up over and over again as I talk with entrepreneurs is the word, "failure," or "difficulty." What do you think the role of failure has been in creating your drive, passion, and business?

I actually think failure is important. Failure is one of those things where you can do something successful yesterday and then today, you're back to square one. I think that the cool part about failure is if you use it right it can be humbling and the best learning experience ever. I do think to some degree that in order to learn you have to fail. It's one of those things where when you fail, it sucks, there's no doubt about it, but it gives you a chance to sit back and look at the situation and really learn from it. You can say ‘well, I could have done this, this, and this instead, and now I know for next time.’ I think failure is also one of those things that let you know you're onto something. You might not have gotten to it and you might not have hit it the right way, but down the road, you will and failure's that thing that will get you to that point later on. You don't know how that dot's going to connect in the future, but it will. You can only see how they connect looking backward, you can't see it looking forward. 


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