“Pivot” is sometimes viewed as a dirty word in the tech world, but for Billy Chasen, the willingness to switch from one project to the next has proven to be key to his success.
Chasen, the co-founder and CEO of Turntable.fm, learned to shift gears and abandon projects when necessary. In 2008, he unveiled an app called Firefly that let users live chat with one another and see the cursors of those looking at the same webpage. The app got some buzz, but didn’t gain the kind of traction Chasen wanted, so he decided to take the web data he gathered with the tool and turn it into an analytics company called Chartbeat, which is still used by many organizations today.
Then, in 2010, Chasen launched Stickybits, an app that let users scan the barcodes of physical objects and attach digital messages to them. It was a novel idea at the time, and one that also received a seven-figure funding deal and a good amount of attention in the media, but according to Chasen, the technology just wasn’t there to support it. So, he and his co-founder Seth Goldstein made the decision to pivot to a new company, Turntable.fm, a music discovery service where users can stream songs and hang out in virtual chat rooms.
He even pivoted back in college, originally planning to major in astronomy at the University of Michigan before choosing computer science instead.
Finding new ideas to work on has never been Chasen’s problem. He has a broad range of interests — just consider that he paints and does glass blowing on the side while running his music startup — and keeps a list of hundreds of ideas for things he wants to build. Still, he admits that “it’s incredibly stressful” to pivot from one project or company to another. The trick, he says, is being scientific about the decision.
“What I’ve always tried to do at every point along the way is be as objective as possible and look at the pros and cons and see where I am,” Chasen said in an interview with Mashable. “I try not to make decisions based on the amount of work I’ve put into something or the amount of love I’ve put into something, and instead pull myself back and look at the usage and make the best decision going forward on how to evolve.”
We chatted with Chasen about his thoughts on pivoting, some of his earliest business ideas, whether we’ll ever see Stickybits 2.0 and what he’d like to work on after Turntable.fm.
Did you always dream of starting your own company one day, or had you not planned on doing it?
It’s never been that I’ve been interested in startups as much as I’ve always been interested in building and creating things, and it just so happened that that’s one of the main aspects of startups. I’ve always just enjoyed building things, whether it be artistic things or websites. It’s always been this need or desire. I’ve been building things ever since I was a kid.
You first made a splash in the tech world in 2006 with Swarmthe.com, a site that let users see which websites others were browsing in real time. Were there any projects you tried to get off the ground before this?
After graduating college [in 2003], I was working with a group of friends trying to create a photo hosting service before there were any mature hosting services, but it didn’t really go anywhere. During college, there were all types of ideas for websites. It was just as social networks were starting. I had a few ideas with some friends about how we could potentially leverage the people you know to do some utility-based things. One of the things we were talking about at one point in college was trying to have a network of people connected to each other who could really post anything, like a work of art or writing, and have people critique it.
One of the more cutting edge projects you’ve been involved with is Stickybits, which gave users a way to overlay digital information on the physical world. Why did you decide to abandon Stickybits for Turntable, and will we ever see a Stickybits 2.0?
It just felt like [Stickybits] got to a place where usage wasn’t there, but people loved the idea, and that wasn’t enough. The decision was, do we bunker down, do we love it so much that we will hold until the technology is there to support the idea, or do we work on something else because we are talented and there are other ideas?
I don’t know if I’ll necessarily be in the position to start it up again, but it will be in some form or fashion started. If Apple decides to put Near Field Communication on all of their phones, and all of the sudden all these brands decide to become NFC-aware, and you are just able to get information from them, there will be startups built entirely in that space. Or maybe there is some successor to NFC that is even more interesting and better to differentiate objects. It’s my belief that it is going to come. I don’t know if I will be leading the charge on that — probably not, because I tried it a little earlier and I have another company to run.
You’ve clearly pivoted multiple times in your career. What is your thought process when weighing whether to pivot from one project to another?
It’s incredibly stressful. It’s easy to look in hindsight and see they were the right decisions at the time. If we did the pivot from Firefly to Chartbeat and Chartbeat failed in six months, it would be a different hindsight. You make the best decision you can. What I’ve always tried to do at every point along the way is be as objective as possible and look at the pros and cons and see where I am. I try not to make decisions based on the amount of work I’ve put into something or the amount of love I’ve put into something and instead pull myself back and look at the usage and make the best decision going forward on how to evolve.
No startup that I’ve ever started or been a part of has ever been a perfectly direct path. It’s always pulled in certain directions, and the better you are at reading those directions, the more successful you will be.
So when you originally brainstormed the idea for Turntable.fm, what was the problem you were hoping to solve?
The problem was that music used to be social. Music is social in an offline context: when you go to concerts, when you hang out with people. Music is a very social thing. We have drum circles. We hang out together. We trade music with each other. That’s been music history for a long time. And nothing online feels like a digital representation of what we do in the real world. I wanted to create this digital space where you can listen to music real-time with people.
Your company recently launched a new app called Piki, which essentially transforms the Turntable experience into more of a traditional radio app. What is the goal with this app compared to Turntable?
Piki is continuing to fill the void of how I discover new music. There is a big void right now. [Music] services — whether it’s Spotify playlists or Rdio — are not designed to pick up the tastemakers that I enjoy and let the music come to me. Piki is trying to angle towards that.
What project do you see yourself working on next?
Even though it’s such a dense space, I still feel there’s lots of issues with the way photo-sharing is done, and I think it could be done better. I have some thoughts on that and also, social interactions between people and what’s the best way to do that. I like the idea of App.net, where they basically say, “You pay us a subscription, our commitment is to you and not our advertisers.” It’s another area that can be worked on quite a bit.
Clearly, you have plenty of ideas that you’d still like to work on. Any chance you’ll go the route of Jack Dorsey or Elon Musk and try running multiple companies at once?
I would love to be the type that could juggle multiple companies at the same time, but it’s hard for me to do because I dive so deeply into the product that I am on at the time. If I was more a laid-back CEO who made sure I had all the right people at the company and then basically delegate most of the daily operations, I could do something like that, but it hasn’t been the way that I’ve generally been operating. The only thing that takes me from a full-time project to another full-time project is something happens, for better or worse.
Images courtesy of Billy Chasen and Turntable.fm