Interview: Open Labs CEO – Cliff Mountain

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Open LabsAt the recent DellVenue event, the Texas based music product manufacturers, Open Labs, and made their new sequencer available for public use, in partnership with Dell, Music Unites and Intel. Though I attended and found that it defied all expectations, I had prior to that had a chance to talk with Open Labs CEO, Cliff Mountain, about his company and it's flagship software product, StageLight, were I learned that the company is all about it's business, with a clear vision of its future, and what it's try to do.

Was there any trepidation when moving into the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) market, seeing as it's so saturated with competition like Ableton, Pro Tool, etc?

Well, we don't view what we have as just a DAW, because we think that's a limiting concept. Like you said, it's a saturated market. There are a lot of DAWs out there, with a lot of the same features, and none of them seem to work on taking their users through the stages of beginner, semi-pro and professional. A lot of them start out with a professional product, and then in order to cater to people with less experience, they strip away features, and put artificial limits on what the program can do. They're not really starting from the ground, working upwards; they're starting from the top, and working downwards. When I look at those DAWs, they look like the cockpit of a 747 to me. You boot them up, and if you're relatively new, or a hobbyist, it's overwhelming from the first screen, throughout the entire program. If you learn how it works, it's because you're dedicated, and not because the program is helping you grow as an artist. So we don't think that we wanted to compete in that space.

We're not trying to replace Pro Tools. Rather, our goal is compete in the same space as Garageband. There's a percentage of people that start out by using musical toy apps, and later want to move into something that's a little bit more robust. We want to be there for them. So I never thought that we would be like Pro Tools, or try to replace Ableton. Obviously, that's not the pricing scheme that we've dispatched.

For those who know about Open Labs' history as a maker of hardware synthesizers, and find this focus on software to be strange, can you tell me why the company decided to shift it's focus from hardware to software? You seemed to be quite successful with your line of synthesizers, NeKo and Miko.

Well, I bought Open Labs 2 years ago, and though the hardware products that we had were very good products, it was a unfortunately a boutique business that wasn't really making money. To be able to scale a hardware business, you need to have the ability to sell your products in large volumes. Given the price point of our hardware products at the time, the ability to generate volume was questionable to me. So we've done some things to reduce cost, and reduced our price line.

One of the key elements of being able to launch StageLight was that the software had 5 years of development on Windows touch-screen interfaces. It had 150,000 lines of code, and had been tested in very robust environments like the Oscars, Emmys, and Superbowl Halftime Show. So my thought process was, "Why can't we take the core of something that's very powerful and put a different user interface on it?".

Initially, I didn't like it when Wired magazine called us the "Garageband for Windows", as I think we're quite different from Garagebend. But I came to like it, since everybody understands what Garageband is, and it has a very big market. If we can have some of the success that Apple has had, using a very different business model, but focusing more on user ease, I think we'll be real happy with what our business becomes.

A lot of new users of StageLight will be looking for the software be different than other programs they may have used in the past. After all, if StageLight only offers the same tools as the other DAWs out there, people who are already ardent users of their preferred platforms will see no reason to switch. How do you think your program will address that?

Well, there are 2 of the major items associated with hobbyist musicians today: making music today is hard and expensive. When I say hard, I'm referring to things like there being a 2 semester course at the University Of Texas that teaches you how to use Ableton, and another one that teaches you how to Pro Tools. Typically, that's not something that you can learn easily, and that has been a major barrier of entry for many people. One of the things that makes us different from many other DAWs is that we've really focused on our user interface and ease-of-use. We spent a lot of money and done a lot of testing to make sure that people are comfortable learning how to make music on StageLight.

Secondly, DAWs like Ableton and Pro Tools are expensive. Our baseline price is $9.99. We've found that many professionals use our product as a sketch pad to get an initial idea down, because opening up multiple windows in another program isn't something that you really want to do when just want to get an idea out of your head.

Also, you'll certainly see functionality and sounds in StageLight that you can't get anywhere else. For example, we're the only place that you can get Linkin Park sounds. We have another big announcement coming up for a sound pack that will be dropping soon.

There's no doubt in my mind that every one from beginners to pros think that StageLight is easy to operate, is very intuitive, and our price point is radically disruptive. What if you can only do half of what you could do in another DAW, but it's for $9.99? That's a big difference from $400.

(Jump to 2:12 to hear about StageLight)

Speaking of price point, how on earth is it possible sell a DAW for only $9.99? I would assume that there's a certain amount of effort and resources that goes into having people do software coding and other tasks, which drives the cost of such a product to a certain point, aside from having to also make profit on the final sale of it. If other companies are charging hundreds of dollars for software that has many similar features of StageLight, how are you able to sell it for only $9.99?

There are different answers to that. The first may be a bit smart-alecky, but I think you should be asking those companies why they charge so much, haha.

But on a more firm basis, we've got a different business model, which is to engage a much wider universe than someone like Ableton probably aims at. They have a certain number of users which they multiply by a certain price, and that equals the revenue or profitability for that company. We have the same model, but our user-base is exponentially larger than theirs, which allows us to have a much lower price. I'm sure their strategy works well for them, but we want to do something different, which is proving to be more disruptive in the market than we thought it was.

We think that over time, those another vendors will pay more attention to what we're doing, though there will be challenges for us.

How do you think piracy will affect StageLight? This generation of youth are so accustomed to not paying for software and music that they might just go pirate it for free, which is still cheaper than the affordable price of $9.99.

Piracy is a big problem, and a growing one. But there are a lot of software companies out there like Ableton and Image Line, which have been around for many years, and despite piracy, they're doing pretty fantastic.

Hopefully, what we're trying to will reduce that motivation. Everyone can afford $10. It doesn't matter who you are. $10 is the price of coffee at Starbucks. Also, we're trying to democratize the opportunity for people to create music.

Apple is worldwide known for the ease of use of it's products, and we've done side-by-side tests with Garageband. But people abandon Garageband at an unacceptable rate, because Apple haven't paid attention to their user interface. It's difficult to get going with it. What you'll notice with StageLight is that you got sound out of it after just 2 clicks. With other DAWs, it can take 20 clicks. So we're trying to provide positive reinforcement, and make music creation easy, fun and inexpensive.

As you're looking for more sophistication and features, we want to be there for you to. There could be a slight charge to add more features, but we think it's a much better approach than demanding $400 out of the gate, when you're not sure how much you're going to use.

Is there a concern at Open Labs that as people develop their music making skills, they'll want a more in-depth DAW, and that StageLight will hit a ceiling in terms of the tools that it offers?

From a business perspective, we're releasing updates on a regular basis, and have an aggressive road map for the next year, with a number of incremental steps along the way. We think that as people are interested taking their music-making further, we're going to be able to provide them with a means for that, simply because that's the history of this company. Open Labs has been around for 8 years, and we've been dealing with very high-end systems during that time, for the ultimate professionals, like the Superbowl Halftime shows and artists with stadium concerts.

If you look at Ableton and Pro Tools, etc, it's not that they don't do a good job with functionality. We think they do a great job in terms of the amount of tools they provide you with. Where they're lacking is that they do a poor job of thinking through the user interface to make it easy and fun to create music. We don't think easy and fun is on their road-map; power and functionality is. But you shouldn't have to be a sound engineer to create music. That doesn't resonate with us.

What have been some of the biggest challenges in getting StageLight off the ground? Or has it been smooth sailing through-out, since you guys are in such a unique market space?

Haha, anybody who tells you that their business is only smooth sailing is just lying. I've been really fortunate. I bought Open Labs, and got was a team that had been around for a while, who had written every line of code in the application and who all knew what they were doing. I was the business guy coming in with money and a different strategy. So it was really a good match. We didn't have to go hire 50 knew people, and get their personalities to all work together. There was a team that was already working, who just needed a better strategy to be successful.

I was also fortunate that both Timbaland and Linkin Park were Open Lab customers. When we sat down with them and explained what we were doing, they were incredibly supportive. How many new start-ups are able to partner with a band like Linkin Park, that have 57 million fans on Facebook? That was a very fortunate for us. We also had good relationship with a bunch of technology companies. But to be honest, the main reason we was able to leverage StageLight to those companies was that Windows 8 had just come out, and 65% of it's features are touch-screen. So being at the right place at the right time is very important, an that was the case with the team, partners, and projects.

Although StageLight is bound to resonate with beginning producers, have you been able to get any professionals to use it for their music-making?

Yes. Both Linkin Park and Timbaland are users of it. Our surveys show that the StageLight user base spreads itself all over various skill levels, from hobbyist to professional. So what we have in place seems to address a lot of the needs that are out there. But we're constantly looking to expand, and we have a pretty good place to expand from.

StageLight seems to have a lot of users spread across different counties. How did you go about achieving such a widespread base of customers?

We have users in 117 countries. StageLight has only been out since November of last year, but we've got relationships with companies like Dell, Acer, Intel, Microsoft, and Lenovo which has helped spread awareness about us.

We have a larger user base than many would suspect, and it's going to get larger going forward.

What kind of consumer reactions to StageLight have you guys been receiving? Was there anything that people said that hammered home that the company was on the right path?

Yeah. The 2 things people say a lot are "I can't believe how easy it is" and "I can't believe how inexpensive it is." That's across different levels of skills; hobbyist, professional, semi-professional.

If you're looking for a statistic, one of the most amazing stats is that the average session  length for our users is 56 minutes. So people aren't using this in just a casual way, and we would say that there must be a tremendous amount of passion surrounding the product, since its being used for such a tremendous amount of time.

How are you guys going to move forward with marketing StageLight, and making the public more aware of it's existence? You don't seem to taking up a lot ad space online, or being featured in Guitar Center promos.

We've taken a very different approach than a lot of other companies, and I think that this contributes to the success that we've had. Part of it originates from my tech background. We've had our banners up on Lenovo's website for example, and if you look at Dell website, their bundling Stagelight with a number of their PCs. Intel is talking about it, and as well as Microsoft. I think the music industry is great, but it has the tendency to talk to itself, than the broader universe of all possible consumers. So we've been biding our time, by working within the consumer market, before we expand into talking to blogs like you.

You mentioned how Open Labs would be bundling StageLight with Dell computers. Might you ever aim to permanently attach StageLight to Microsoft Windows, like Garageband does with Mac?

Great minds think alike, haha. That's certainly something to speculate on.

Ableton has achieved a brand of being suitable for the electronic music producer that wants to think outside the box, whilst Pro Tools remains the industry standard for professional studio recordings. Do you guys have any strategies for your branding, in terms of associating StageLight with certain genres and audiences?

We've been overwhelmed by the success that we had with Western Europe, which has historically been the breeding ground for electronic music. It appears that our approach has resonated well with people in that genre.

Secondly, Linkin Park's new track is with Steve Aoki, and we've got some relationships that you'll be seeing within the next 6 months with EDM artists that really feel like we've got a product and platform for them.

I have 4 kids, and made them all take piano lessons, which I've found is relatively rare.  A lot of kids want to make music, and they've never taken any music classes. They look at the EDM format, and think of the music in terms of loops, samples and formats that are consistent with StageLight structure. So I think we've got something good, which we need to capitalize on it, since people seem to like it. You'll see a lot of work around it in the next 6 months.

What's the next big thing for you?

I think the next big thing is to see what this interview looks like on The Frontliner, haha!

For sure! I look forward to seeing how our readers react to StageLight, and what you guys do in the future. I encourage everyone to download a free demo of StageLight on the Open Labs website, and give it a shot, as well as learn more about the company through their Facebook and Twitter pages. Also, keep an eye out for the new StageLight 1.2 update which will be arriving very soon!

SamInterview: Open Labs CEO – Cliff Mountain

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