How I bootstrapped my startup to 200,000 users and got acquired
When the pandemic hit in 2020, I started building a product to help music educators and musicians play together virtually.
I co-founded a music tech startup, Upbeat Music App, with my good friend Sudarshan Muralidhar.
Upbeat is a music collaboration platform that lets musicians practice and perform together virtually in real-time. It's like Zoom, but it's built specifically for musicians and has no latency.
Just two years after launch, Upbeat Music App grew to 200,000 users with:
- 6-figure monthly profit
- No paid marketing or ads
- No funding, 100% bootstrapped
- Acquisition by MakeMusic, Inc in 2022
I’m sharing our entire playbook with you here so you can learn from us.
Here are 5 things we did right:
1. Obsessing over our customers
It's so important to understand your customers and their problems on a deep level to build the right product for them.
I had Zoom calls every day with music educators to understand their problems and get feedback on our product.
We identified "power users" who were using Upbeat 4+ hours a day. One of these users was Jonathan Glawe, a nationally recognized orchestra director from Michigan. We decided to hire him as an educational consultant to give us more feedback and grow faster.
Every month, we also hosted a public Zoom call where we shared product updates and answered questions for customers. We consistently had 100+ people on these calls and built a wonderful community to help musicians succeed.
On the product side, we put a giant “Send Feedback” button in the toolbar. I personally read and responded to every single email. This took me upwards of 6-8 hours a day during peak seasons, but it helped me form great relationships and make our product better.
Lastly, we made the bold decision to post a public product roadmap to let users add new feature requests and vote on ideas. This helped us decide what to build next.
2. Strong background of founders
Sudarshan and I were the dream team with solid experience in music, tech, and education.
I've been playing saxophone for 18 years and sold my last music tech startup, Crescendo, to Ultimate Guitar in 2019. Then, I led product design at Musescore and got connected to lots of music educators and programs.
In addition, I've built 40+ apps and have started two previous companies. I'm great at product design, frontend development, UX design, and UX research. This was super important to make the product easy for anyone to use.
Sudarshan has been playing flute for 18 years and previously built a scalable backend system for a database startup in Seattle. He's a coding wizard and started programming in high school. He's great at architecture design and building fast. Sudarshan is also terrific at debugging code and troubleshooting with users, which came in handy with our customers.
3. Great timing & luck
The pandemic just hit, and musicians were missing playing music together. If you've ever sung "Happy Birthday" with family over Zoom, you know that the latency makes it nearly impossible to stay in sync.
On the educational front, schools were heading back to school virtually in fall 2020. Educators were in desperate need of help. They needed a solution for music rehearsals and performances, and they needed it now. It usually takes many months to sell software to schools. But for us it took just days.
We were also super lucky that our former high school orchestra director, Mr. Young Kim, believed in our product and connected us with top-tier educators.
Our product quickly spread across the country via word of mouth.
4. Didn’t take any investments or funding
We made the decision to stay 100% bootstrapped and maintain ownership of the entire company ourselves.
There were many investors who wanted to invest and offered us term sheets, but we didn't want to give away any equity in our company.
Because of this, we were able to exit early and still have a solid win.
We also didn't have competing incentives and goals with investors. Most venture capital funds rely on 1 out of 10 startups they invest in to provide a return for their whole fund. They would want us to grow fast at all costs and dominate the world.
I had no desire to build a $1 billion company. We just wanted to help musicians and educators get through tough times.
5. Passionate about the problem
Music is a huge part of our lives, and we are infinitely grateful for our past music educators and band directors. This was a way for us to give back.
Our friends are music educators and needed help. We felt a strong purpose and responsibility to help them get through Covid while teaching.
We believe playing music together is a beautiful thing and personally experienced the problem ourselves.
On top of that, we originally built a product to help us solve our own problems and found out lots of other people needed the product, too.
Upbeat Music App was a rewarding product to build and grow. If you're building your own product or startup, get started by launching an MVP first.
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