I find these kind of startup behind-the-scenes articles fascinating (event though the company is a few years old now). Burt Helm at Inc. Magazine followed the turntable.fm founders (well, founder and chair of the board) around SXSW parties and panels, filling us in on the backstory along the way. They are trying to turn a user base that has essentially flatlined back into eager acolytes.
The money-man Seth Goldstein is a digital talent-broker and investor:
Goldstein’s latest read is simple: Coders are the new rock stars. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg built sites that attract crowds of millions, but they don’t completely understand how they did it—and neither does the money backing them. It’s not as if they do market research. So venture funds now bet on hackers the way record labels bet on rising pop stars, hoping that someday soon, they will make something wild, new, and insanely lucrative.
Chasen is Goldstein’s rock star. They met in 2006. Goldstein had read a Wall Street Journal article about a Chasen art project called Swarm, in which users downloaded a piece of software that sent miniature screen shots of each webpage they visited back to a server. As people surfed, it assembled all the little images into a blossoming mosaic—a visual representation of how crowds swarmed around the Internet. Goldstein liked what he saw: Here was a coder who had an artistic bent, who was fascinated by the online crowds in much the same way Goldstein was fascinated by figuring out how to profit from them.
[...] Chasen guards Turntable reflexively. Candidates for developer jobs face meticulous testing, and he rejects nearly all of them. The search for a VP of engineering, whose duties include adding new features, took six months. Not just anybody can touch Turntable code.
Chasen tends to group his Turntable duties into two categories: product development work and distractions. He says he doesn’t mind Goldstein’s efforts to market Turntable through music festivals, celebrity performers, and parties—so long as they don’t interfere with the site or his development budget. When I ask whether he thinks the tactics are effective, he shrugs. “Seth is a business guy,” Chasen says. “He thinks you can throw a level of marketing on something mediocre and make it great.” If crowds aren’t flocking to Turntable, he says, it’s because it needs fixing. If anyone fixes it, it will be Chasen.
A company run by someone so obsessed and so talented creates beautiful products. It also follows inspiration over strategy, falls behind schedule on nearly every project it attempts, and, if it makes money, does so as an afterthought. Goldstein finds all this frustrating. But this is how business works in social Internet, he says: Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook—they all have coder chieftains, and all scored huge counterintuitive successes. Plenty of similar start-ups have failed, too, of course.
There’s a clear indication that the rock star Goldstein is looking for might not be Chasen when it’s apparent he didn’t want to party like one. Unless their userbase grows, we could see this one closed up and everyone move on to another project. That part is saddest for the coder/artist/rock star who cares about the longevity of his craft.