Shazam - “A wizard is never late”

Tue 06 October 2015 Written by Evi

A Wizard is Never Late 


Written by Evi


Shazam: The story of how to make magic happen


Shazam, the onomatopoeic expression, elicits wizardly, magical ideas. It’s also the name of an app millions of people use to identify songs they’re listening to. Soon it will be “a way for people to explore and connect with the world around them”, as CEO Rich Riley stated last August before the company unveiled the latest feature that has taken brands by storm: visual recognition.

The company’s numbers are impressive: over 100 million monthly users, 500 million downloads, recent investment of $30 million and a valuation in excess of $1 billion. However, the original founders did not cry ‘Shazam’ and conjure a magical, overnight success. In fact, they went through years of toil before finding their hockey stick.

Here we’ve put together the seven challenges Chris Barton, Dhiraj Mukherjee, Philip Inghelbrecht and Avery Wang overcame before turning Shazam into the global success we know today - their relentless spirit should inspire you not to give up on your ideas! With the right team, a thought-through plan and large doses of irrational persistence, everything can be possible, including your app.

Challenge #1: Have an idea ahead of its time

For years, Shazam founder Chris Barton kept a playlist of good music he encountered. “The music moment”, as he calls it, arrived in the car, the shower, at a restaurant, the middle of a party and all he could do was scribble a verse or two to later trace the words to their source. It was only during one of the many blue sky sessions he held while studying at the London Business School he envisaged creating a business that would help him find these songs faster. That ‘something’ was Shazam, although 1999 was not yet blessed with the sound recognition technology Chris needed to realize his vision.

Challenge #2: Be told you’re mad by Tech Geniuses

Once Chris, Dhiraj and Philip had diligently mapped their idea, they set out to headhunt the audio signal processing genius they so clearly needed in their team. The three met with great minds working at Stanford and MIT only to discover that one expert after the other thought their idea impossible. Pattern recognition amongst background noise against database scale was ‘a problem too hard to solve’. That, of course, was before they met Avis, who also believed finding the right algorithm was incredibly difficult, however, like all pioneers, he tried, tried and succeeded.


Challenge #3: Crack the code and find yourself working with a Nokia 3610

So Avis cracked the code. He invented the algorithm that could convert wave samples into audio fingerprints and match those to similar items in databases no matter the quality or ambient conditions. Absolute genius! Now the team simply had to put this new technology into mobile phones so users could have their truly satisfying “music moment”. The problem? It was the early 2000s and the coolest phone on the market was the Nokia 3210…


Challenge #4: Win over mobile operators

Of course this little technical challenge didn’t stop the team. They set up an Interactive Voice Response System which users could dial, hold the phone towards the music and after just 15 seconds expect an SMS with the name of the song and artist. The number had to be simple enough for users to remember, thus “2580” was chosen. Why? It’s the only four digit number that’s s straight line on the keypad. Bravo once more! However, will all UK mobile operators come on board? Surely you know the answer by now.


Challenge #5: Make your own digital database and cloud system

Keep in mind that Shazam was out there before the App Store had been invented, before smartphones were in the shops, before streaming was possible, before iTunes was a reality. There were no digital databases of available songs and no Amazon cloud storage. Still, these guys built the software capable of fingerprinting every song they wished, plus they also managed to make their own rudimentary but functional cloud system. When they launched Shazam in 2002, they had 1.7 million songs available and the whole kaboodle worked! Shazam!


Challenge #6: Change users’ behaviors

Once the technology was ready, the team just needed users. Easy? Yeah right. Particularly tricky when customers are unaccustomed to dialing a strange number and parting with 50 pence for the privilege. Again, building a consumer base was an uphill struggle but with the right marketing and a couple of graceful press reviews the team once more achieved the impossible.


Challenge #7: Find investment

So it was the early 2000s, the internet bubble had just burst and venture capitalists were not investing in consumer focused businesses. Our story of Shazam proves to us clearly that anyone willing to persevere will succeed. Finally, with the advent of Apple’s App Store, the trials of Shazam brought untold success. 


So, the question remains, how will you pull the rabbit from your hat?


Shazam by the numbers:

  • It’s been around for more than 10 years
  • It crossed 100 million monthly active mobile users in 2014
  • A new 14 million join them each month
  • More than 500 million people have Shazam on their phones
  • This huge user base Shazams more than 20 million times per day
  • Shazam’s technology has been used to identify 15 billion songs to this day
  • Over 400,000 digital song are sold each day via Shazam. That’s approximately 7% of all downloaded music on a global basis
  • On the last investment round, Shazam raised $30 million
  • The company has been valuated at over $1 billion
  • Headquartered in London, the company has offices in 7 other cities including New York, Sydney and Detroit