A lot of hopes have been put on local music app-maker JammAround to lead the next wave of New Orleans tech startups. The 3-year-old company is developing software to help musicians, producers, promoters and others collaborate when making tracks.
Led by CEO Brent Craige and founding partners Donovan William and Marlon Butler, JammAround was last year’s winner of the top $400,000 prize at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. They also made it through to the final round of hip hop impresario Pharrell Williams’ $1 million Black Ambition startup competition.
Now, the company has reached a whole different level in the startup world. Silicon Valley legends Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz — who together sold Netscape and Loudcloud for over $1 billion each before starting their venture capital firm — invested $100,000 in JammAround through their firm, a16z, and brought the company into their Talent x Opportunity Initiative mentorship program.
Here, Craige talks about preparing for the company’s first “seed round” of major investment, the hurdles they’ve overcome in developing their business and the promise he sees in New Orleans’ music scene.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The investment from Andreessen Horowitz is a big deal beyond just the money. Can you talk a bit about what it means to make that connection?
They are really taking us seriously. I mean VILLAGEx (the Idea Village accelerator program in New Orleans) took us seriously, too, but this is just on a whole other level. We met with Ben Horowitz and he’s a super music fanatic, like rapping Jay-Z lyrics and stuff while he’s giving a speech.
We met the whole a16z team, went to their headquarters in Menlo Park and the one in San Francisco and met pretty much everybody we had to meet if you want to get investment with them. We get access to all of their portfolio companies.
So, like Steve Stoute from UnitedMasters, we get access to him. (a16z last year led a $50 million “series C” fund-raising for Stoute’s company, which is developing a music distribution platform, valuing the company at $550 million.)
What happens next in the a16z program?
We’re gearing up for our “seed round,” which is starting in April, and that’s what we’re going to be honing in on with this program. So, like getting ourselves ready for due diligence, making sure that we have the right validation, make sure that we have the right story approach, so that we can go out and raise this round. That’s pretty much our biggest hurdle at this point.
How do they help with the process?
There is a 16-week program and they’re really embedding us in their ecosystem. The a16z leaders want to make sure that they know who we are so that they’re able to help us in ways that are most impactful. There are classes and they’ll be helping us develop our plans, with term sheets and pitches, and with making the connections we need. That’s pretty much what the business is like: a relationship business. And they’re taking us in April on a retreat to Maui.
Maui, in Hawaii?
Yes! It’s just kind of surreal.
How did you first get on their radar?
Julian Herbert, our mentor at VILLAGEx, was reached out to by Kofi Ampadu, who is over talent recruitment at a16z. Kofi was asking him if he knew any companies in New Orleans that were interesting and he threw our hat in. It just happened organically. We were overlooked by a lot of these other programs, but a lot are reaching out to us now.
I guess that’s the luck element, and shows the importance of being part of these so-called ecosystems, huh?
Yeah, there is so much talent here and it is so under-looked because of the reputation we have in the South: we’re the dumb, country, slow-moving … those types of things.
But we really have so much culture and the issue is we just need the education. It’s important to put us in these kinds of positions to raise money at the level they’re talking about on the West Coast. New Orleans and the South has the reputation for not being technologically savvy but they love coming to us to extract our culture. So, if we just learn to get tech savvy it will be easier for us to leverage our own talent.
How has the process over the last year-and-a-half made you change your approach and even your business model?
We realized we had a “cold start” issue in that we started off as more of a networking tool, putting people together to collaborate. But you have to have people there in the first place to network so it was kind of a chicken-and-egg situation.
So, we pivoted to develop more as a provider of productivity tools. You can write your music yourself, you can use our rhyming dictionary tools, our cloud storage tools, and so on, to cut your writing time in half. You then have the collaboration tools if you want to work with someone and track your ownership.
Did you have to re-write your programs?
We actually scrapped our entire app that we had before because we also ran into some engineering trouble. We tried to hire some local engineers but they couldn’t accomplish what we needed them to accomplish. That forced us to go oversees, to India, where they were able to crank it out for like a third of what we are able to crank it out, for like a third of the price in a third of the time. But it was good.
For us, this just reinforced the concept of the terms associated with that $400,000 (NOEW prize money, which paid out only when certain milestones were met). Because if we would have gotten access to all of that money back then we would have spent all of it by now. It was set up in our best interest.
You said you’re already working on some collaborations in the local music scene?
We’ve been working with glbl wrmng (pronounced “global warming”), a collective of artists in New Orleans which was started by (local rapper) Pell.
It’s a collective of about 30 artists and we’ve been working with them closely because it’s such a diverse range of talent. We had a music camp and a huge jam around to create music with them and get some really powerful feedback.