SoundSmith's advice for early-stage startups

October 28, 2022
SoundSmith founders Mike McSweeney, David Hartley and Gajan Nagaraj
SoundSmith founders Mike McSweeney, David Hartley and Gajan Nagaraj

When you think of a career in the music industry, you might see an equation a bit like this:

Creative passion + being discovered = industry success.

But what it actually looks like is more:

Creative passion + gigging anywhere and everywhere + sharing your talent across every platform + meeting the right people and growing your network = a side hustle that slowly grows into a viable livelihood (some of the time).

Wait a minute that sounds almost like… startup life? Indeed, the effort-to-reward ratio for musicians has traditionally been pretty unbalanced. 

But what if musicians could offer their music and skills to other creators, and they could collaborate to distribute content together? 

Enter SoundSmith, the brainchild of David Hartley, Mike McSweeney and Gajan Nagaraj.

These three friends took their passion for music and used it to bring to life a product to help musicians make a living doing what they love. An online marketplace connecting musicians and influencers to promote music, SoundSmith is making promotion and distribution for artists affordable, accessible and manageable.

But how did they do it? 

For anyone considering how they too can turn their passion into a product, the trio have some advice.

1. You don’t need all the business pieces to get started, passion is enough

David and Mike bonded over their love of music at high school, before David met Gajan, the final member of their trio, while studying overseas at UCLA.

“We wanted to make something together. We didn’t really know what to start, but we had a similar passion to help musicians make a living,” David tells me.

“For me, it started with some music business subjects at UCLA — then an industry internship at Repost Network really sparked the desire to help artists succeed and to build something to facilitate that.

“It started with a shared passion, and evolved into this desire to want to impact the industry and artists, giving them the power to drive their careers with technology. 

“We noticed that TikTok was starting to explode as a platform for artists to promote themselves and SoundSmith came from realising there was a gap in terms of self-service platforms for musicians to market music.”

SoundSmith really is a story of bringing something you love to life. You don’t need a concrete business plan or interested investors before you’re ‘allowed’ to start building your project. If you have an idea driven by a personal passion, it’s time to do something about it.

2. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes

Sure, you can create a product based on something you love, but you gotta know people will want it. 

How do you know what the people want? Be the people. Or in SoundSmith’s case, be the musicians. With all three founders actively involved and engaged in the music industry, and Mike a budding musician himself, living the life of the people they were building a product for helped them to identify pain-points and solve for audience-centred solutions. 

And of course, testing with your audience goes a long way too.

“We knew the best way to see if this could have an impact was to test with real musicians and their campaigns, so in the middle of Melbourne lockdown, myself and Dave started hitting up artists to run TikTok campaigns for free,” reflects Mike.

“Our first campaign was actually after we connected with Untitled Group in Melbourne. We ran a campaign for the duo Big Words and it went really well. We were able to see our idea pay off and see the platform as scaleable.” 

We all know the best version of something rarely comes from the first try. Testing and refining is the glue of startup life, and that certainly holds true for the journey of SoundSmith.

“The idea started as a sort of scaleable marketplace for musicians, connecting creators with musicians who can contribute to projects — but since then, we’ve really grown to want to help artists have more agency in how they can grow their careers,” says Mike. 

“We’re looking to provide more marketing tools, more ways to connect with creators, and really grow the community that has started from the launch of SoundSmith.”

3. Avoid shiny object syndrome

As an idea evolves and grows, infrastructure is built and you start seeing your vision come to life, people will start to notice what you’re doing, and maybe, they’ll want a piece of that action. 

Exciting, right? Yes, but it’s easy to get distracted chasing every opportunity as they arise, and learning to balance your existing business initiatives with potential opportunities can be a steep learning curve.

“Early on, we had three companies try to acquire us. We were pretty surprised,” Gajan says.

“We worked really hard trying to navigate the contracts and come to agreements we were happy with, but it wasn’t to be at that time. By the end, we came away feeling burnt out and empty. We’d been distracted from developing the platform, so felt behind on our planned business track. 

“We learnt a lot and it made us better professionals but it was a challenging lesson.”

4. Take time to celebrate every success

Rejection and failure are a big part of the learning rollercoaster that is startup life. It can be tempting, especially in the early days, to simply be grateful for the successes that let you move forward, and to dwell on the things that don’t pan out. 

Since inception, SoundSmith has connected with 58 creative agencies, onboarded 790 creators and over 200 artists. These are successful numbers by any measure, but if the team were to do one thing differently, it would be to take time to celebrate the little, progressive wins along the way.

“We were pretty hard on ourselves in the beginning, and sometimes we still are,” says Gajan. 

“In hindsight, I wish we had taken more time to celebrate our wins as we had them. It’s been a big journey to get here, and we’re all pretty proud of what we’ve achieved in terms of industry impact potential. Taking the time to recognise the smaller accomplishment milestones could have had a really positive impact.”

For a business that’s still in its early days, David, Mike and Gajan have set up SoundSmith to lead the way in allowing artists to be the agents of their own success. 

“For us, success looks like musicians succeeding. We’ll know we’ve done what we came to do when SoundSmith is the platform breaking an artist or helping them chart. We want to see our audience turning their talent into meaningful revenue.”

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Written by
Written by
Araminta McLennanAraminta McLennan
Araminta is a content marketer, Startmate Women Fellow and creative strategist.

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