Part III in a Three Part Series on the Post-ac Transition in Creative Fields, by TPII Post-ac coach, Dr. Ricky Graham. Be sure and read parts I and II also!
I am a guitarist, music producer and former academic from Northern Ireland. I received my PhD from Ulster University in 2012 and I am now the CEO of audio technology company, Delta Sound Labs, in the United States. My work in the music industry spans guitar and computer music performance, production, composing for TV, film and video games and education. My company focuses on the development of hardware and software for creatives, with a specific interest in modular synthesis and audio effects plugins and has recently engaged in projects at the Technicolor Experience Center in Los Angeles and Stax Music Academy in Memphis. I maintain a personal website for personal music projects and research at http://rickygraham.com and my company website is located at http://deltasoundlabs.com.
Starting a business has been one of the most challenging yet rewarding ventures of my life.
It has been incredibly satisfying to develop product ideas with a group of talented people that I consider trusted colleagues and friends in equal measure, a group of people that are smart enough to know the difference when it comes to day-to-day business objectives. Initially, I was concerned about how compatible my academic career experience would be in the music industry. To be frank, I’m kicking myself that I ever worried about it as my experience as a professor is entirely mappable to my industry. It takes a person of ability to fulfill the role of a professor. It’s just a matter of casting your knowledge and skills using slightly modified language. My goal for this final installment is to offer an insight into what it looks like one year into starting my own business post-academy, highlight lessons learned along the way and identify experiences from academia that have helped me in starting my own business.
Building Your Team and Nurturing Relationships From Prior Academic Experiences
I’ve learned over the past year that your team, regardless of where you land on the Small-Medium Enterprise spectrum, is where a lot of your valuation will be determined by potential investors and eventually your customers. A team is necessary to execute your product ideas, big or small. This is what investors want to see just as much as a viable product idea. Luckily for me, it was pretty easy to put together a team for Delta Sound Labs. Academe certainly helped a lot in this regard. The relationships formed during my time as an active researcher helped pave the way for fairly obvious product collaborations. Delta Sound Labs’ co-CTO, John Harding, has been a continuous collaborator throughout my academic career. Prior collaborations with John helped form the basis of our current professional relationship and the scope of a lot of our hardware products. We are aware of one another’s strengths and weaknesses and we both know how to motivate one another to produce our best work. I’ve also since continued a few collaborations with companies where first contact occurred through academic channels. Delta Sound Labs is currently working on a few software and hardware projects with Matthias Grob’s Paradis Guitars and Mathons companies.
My relationship with Delta Sound Labs co-CTO, Edwin Park, stemmed from a relationship outside of academia. Edwin is a highly talented technologist that I was fortunate enough to meet through social circles while I was an Assistant Professor in Hoboken, New Jersey. I think it’s very easy to ignore outside industry opportunities while you’re in the ivory tower. It’s very easy to blow off advances from industry personnel because of its seeming irrelevance to your academic cause. Simply put, don’t do it. Investing in a community outside of academia while I was an academic has paid dividends in terms of my new business ventures. It might even be worthwhile to consider your current academic colleagues as future business partners. They may be thinking the same thing.
Learning On The Job
I think it’s fair to say I did a lot of learning on the job as an academic. During my first year on the tenure-track, I was thrown in at the deep end with a heavy teaching load and service commitments, including serving as a committee member on a job search. Trial by fire, so I was told. Generally, a professorship prepares you adequately for any kind of executive role in the corporate world.
Not much has changed and I guess I’m better prepared this time around. I quickly had to learn the ropes in terms of managing bill of materials for product manufacturing, dealing with manufacturers in Shenzhen and developing relationships with vendors in the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and a number of European countries. Academia helped prepare me for a lot of these newly acquired responsibilities through advising, research, project management and the usual academic service commitments. Oral research paper presentations prepared me for the multitude of public speaking engagements I’ve completed in the capacity of company principal. My time at an engineering school, specifically, teaching engineers to communicate technical ideas more clearly, helped with my own technical writing and proposals for our company products. Serving on academic search committees taught me how to acquire the right team, to identify key qualities in future team members and potential for project collaborations. Academic search committees also encouraged me to consider the kinds of interpersonal dynamics that would result from a hire and how unhealthy or destructive interpersonal relationships could be avoided.
Another point that I think is worth mentioning is that I was never assigned a mentor when joining the tenure-track ranks. This forced me into a position of having to ask advice of as many senior faculty members on a whole series of topics including tenure and promotion and teaching load and service. This turned out to be a blessing, in a way. I had to get pretty comfortable, quickly, asking for help from others in the know. I have found that this translates very well in the music technology industry. In my experience, thus far, folks respect you more if you’re upfront about what you don’t know and when you ask great questions in order to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.
Leveraging Your Academic Network in an Industry
In my previous post, I made clear the importance of building community around your service or product. This holds true for any business model. How can academia help with this? Just because you leave academia, doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice your network. I’ve now been in several scenarios where academia led to industry opportunities later down the line. For example, an academic paper presentation at the Audio Engineering Convention led to an artist residency for Delta Sound Labs at the Technicolor Experience Center in Los Angeles. This was an excellent opportunity for us to tease out product ideas and to conduct customer discovery research in both the film and music industries. Another example of a sustained relationship from academia to industry involved an artist lecture I gave at Nokia Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, which has resulted in an ongoing collaboration with Bell research scientist, Dr. Ian Davis, as part of the Experiments in Arts and Technology Program. We’ve taken our collaborative research project between Bell and Delta to the exclusive music festival, Moogfest, in North Carolina and a smaller but vibrant experimental arts festival, Memphis Concrete, in Memphis, Tennessee. This has helped us build brand awareness and brand confidence.
A Small Business and the Big Product Idea
I think one of my earliest defining moments during the first year of starting a company was when I sat in front of a business accelerator CEO for feedback on our initial company products and general company structure. His interpretation was that what I was presenting to him was “a nice, small business” as if it was something I needed to address. He looked at my team and saw a waste of talent. To my mind, we wanted to start our company by building our own small products and then build out onto larger product ideas with complete autonomy over the company’s business model. But he had a point. A lean company utilizes the talents of its team to the fullest extent. And so, I sat down with our team and we teased out what the sum of our parts might yield and what a proof of concept might look like for a patentable product. The result is still a work in progress but we now have a functioning small business that is earning money, a clearer business model and a larger product idea that we’re in the process of prototyping. In sum, this feedback early on helped me to partition the company into two separate but related head spaces:
1. A small business that allows us to test our product ideas and make small amounts of money to fund larger product ideas while building brand awareness and brand confidence. A platform that allows our team to engage with customers at festivals, conferences and conventions to build community around our products.
2. The bigger product idea. For us, this is a larger product that stems from a variety of smaller products tested within the purview of the smaller business. This is the product with patent potential, with a pitch deck attached to it. This is a product that we think solves a problem in our industry. In our pitch deck, we include a clear outline of our business model and how much equity we’re willing to give up weighted against our required or requested investment capital to grow the business.
These two paths could, and in my opinion, should be developed concurrently. As a former academic, you should be no stranger to partitioning and multitasking. The majority of academics, for better or worse, have to learn how to multitask given the many responsibilities imposed on all three buckets: teaching, service and research. Test out smaller products first, conduct customer discovery events such as festivals, conferences and conventions. Once you find your niche, gauge how well that market will respond to your wares before you proceed. Build out a pitch deck to help tease out all the important facets of your company.
Will you succeed at starting a business? The plainly obvious answer is that you won’t know until you try. So, go for it.