Open Labs – Cliff Mountain [CEO]

Open Labs is a Texas-based company responsible for the relatively new DAW called Stagelight, which was recently demoed at a Dell/Intel event in New York that I attended. Prior to the demo, I had the chance to sit down and chat with Open Labs CEO, Cliff Mountain, about his company and it’s flagship software product.

Hi Cliff. Was there any trepidation when moving into the DAW market, seeing as it’s so saturated with competition?

We don’t view Stagelight as just a DAW; that’s a limited concept. There are a lot of DAWs out there similar features, yet none of them seem concerned with taking their users through the stages of being a beginner, semi-pro and professional. A lot of them start out with a professional product, and then in order to cater to users 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 and working upwards. They’re starting from the top, and working downwards. When I look at those DAWs, they look like the cockpit of a Boeing 747 to me. You boot them up, and if you’re a hobbyist musician, it’s overwhelming from the first screen. If you learn how it works, it’s because you’re dedicated, and not because the program is helping you grow as an artist. wW wanted to compete in that space.

We’re not trying to replace Pro Tools. Obviously, that’s not the pricing scheme that we’re using. 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 those kinds of users.

In the 2000s, Open Labs became popular for its successful hardware synths, like the NeKo and Miko, so some people may find your shift in focus to be strange. Why this move from hardware to software?

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

One of the key elements behind deciding to launch Stagelight was that its software had gone through five 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 Super Bowl 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 Stagelight the “GarageBand for PCs“, as I think we’re quite different from GarageBand. 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, I think we’ll be real happy with what our business becomes.

Open Labs

(Above: Cliff Mountain)

In what way can users expect Stagelight to be different from other DAWs in the market?

There are two major challenges that face today’s hobbyist musicians: on one hand, making music is hard, and on the other hand, it’s expensive. When I say “hard”, I’m referring to the fact that some people have to take two-semester courses at music school: one that teaches them how to use Ableton Live, and another one that teaches Pro Tools. Typically, these aren’t things everybody can learn easily, which acts as a barrier of entry. One of the things that makes Open Labs different from many other DAWs is that we’ve really focused on making our user interface easy to use. We spent a lot of money and did a lot of testing to ensure that people are comfortable learning how to make music on Stagelight.

Secondly, DAWs like Ableton Live 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 really helpful for just putting ideas down. What if Stagelight could offer half of what other DAWs do, but for $9.99? That’s a big difference from paying $400.

Also, you’ll find 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 announcement coming up for a sound pack that will be dropping soon.

How is it possible sell a DAW for only $9.99? If other companies are charging hundreds of dollars for similar software, albeit with more features, how are you able to sell yours for only $9.99?

There are different answers to that. This may be a bit cheeky, but I think you should be asking those companies why they charge so much (laughs). But jokes aside, 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.

How do you think piracy will negatively affect StageLight’s chances for success?

Piracy is a big problem, and a growing one. But there are a lot of software companies out there, like Ableton and Image Line, who have been around for many years and they’re doing pretty well in spite of piracy. Hopefully, what Open Labs is trying to do 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 known worldwide for the ease of use of its products, yet people abandon GarageBand at an unacceptable rate because Apple haven’t paid attention to their user interface. We’ve done side-by-side tests with GarageBand, and discovered that people have problems getting started with it. With StageLight, you can produce a sound with just two clicks, whilst it could take twenty clicks with other DAWs, so we’re trying to provide positive reinforcement, and make music-creation easy, fun and inexpensive.

As a hobbyist musician goes in search of more sophistication and features for his DAW, we want to be there for that person as well. There could be a slight charge to add more features in Stagelight, but we think it’s a much better approach than demanding $400 out of the gate.

As you mentioned, people will eventually develop their music skills and will want a more in-depth DAW. Is there any concern that Stagelight will hit a ceiling in terms of the tools that it offers?

As people develop an interest in taking their music-making further, we’re going to be able to provide them with a means for that – that’s the history of this company. Open Labs has been around for eight years, and we’ve been dealing with very high-end systems on the biggest of stages, like the Super Bowl Halftime shows and artists with stadium concerts.

If you look at Ableton and Pro Tools, they do a great job in terms of functionality and the amount of tools they provide, but they do a poor job of thinking through their user interfaces, so as 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 your biggest challenges in getting Stagelight off the ground? Or has it been smooth sailing throughout?

Anybody who tells you that their business is only smooth sailing is just lying (laughs). I’ve been really fortunate though. When I bought Open Labs, I also received 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 hire 50 new people with different personalities. There was already a working team in place 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 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 were 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.

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

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, Intel, AcerMicrosoft 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.

Have you received any user responses that indicated Open Labs was on the right path with Stagelight?

Yes, we have. The two 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, from hobbyist to professional and 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 just using Stagelight in a casual way. There’s a significant 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?

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, as well as Microsoft. I think the music industry is great, but it has the tendency to talk to itself, rather than talk about the broader universe of its consumers. So we’ve been biding our time by working within the consumer market, before we expand into talking to websites like yourself.

Ableton has  built up a brand of being suitable for electronic musicians, 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 or audiences?

We’ve been overwhelmed by the success that we’ve had in 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. We’ve got some relationships that you’ll see within the next six months with EDM artists who feel like we’ve got a product and platform for them.

I have four kids, and I 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 that we need to capitalize on, since people seem to like it. You’ll see a lot of work around it in the next six months.

Sounds great. Thanks for chatting with me Cliff. What’s next for you?

I think the next big thing is to see what this interview looks like on Speakhertz (laughs)