Interviews

Shazam's Dhiraj Mukherjee on internet bubbles and creating the app before the iPhone

7 min read

12 April 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

Shazam's Dhiraj Mukherjee explains how they beat the effects of the .com bubble and raised millions of pounds worth of funding at the same time. There must have been something special (and innovative) about the business – right?

What happens when you put four entrepreneurs with an insatiable appetite for success in a room at the dawn of the digital era? The answer? You’ll come out with one of the most iconic apps of the twenty-first century. In case you’re unsure, we’re talking about Shazam, the app that tells you the name of the song that was playing in the bar last night.

Co-founder, Dhiraj Mukherjee takes us back to the early days of Shazam, including how they raised 5.3 million dollars in funds by 2001 despite the burst of the dot.com bubble.

“Shazam was started in 1999, at the time there was a wave of entrepreneurship because of new technology and the possibilities of the internet,” says Mukherjee. “My business partners and I were desperate to become entrepreneurs, it was the perfect time to come up with new ideas for a business.”

An early stumbling block

“The funny thing was that none of us knew much about music – and that’s how the idea for Shazam came about. Chris, my business partner would hear songs all the time and had no idea who was playing. That’s where the idea for Shazam was born.”

Mukherjee and co were building the business right, (it wouldn’t be an app until 2008), at the forefront of a new digital era, “very few people believed the business was even feasible,” says Mukherjee.

“We had to invent the technology and create a massive library of fingerprints to be able to identify music,” says Mukherjee.

Life before smartphones

“There was also a lot of leg work to do when it came to partnering up with mobile operators in the pre-smartphone age,” he adds. “We partnered with all the mobile operators in the UK to provide a single four-digit code to dial from mobiles to use the service, which was no mean feat.”

“It took 10 years before we recorded the first billion users of Shazam,” says Mukherjee. “Once the iPhone was introduced in 2007 and the app was launched in 2008, that’s when the business really took off – when it became an easily accessible app.”

“From that point on, the next billion took one year and the next billion after that took two months. So there was a real exponential growth of users and we were very fortunate that Shazam ended up being a household name,” he says.

Beating the internet bubble

“We had started the company in October of 2000 and shortly afterward the internet bubble burst,” says Mukherjee. “There was literally no funding available for early-stage projects, so just the fact that we managed to pull it off and get funding was a major high point for us,” he says. “We managed to raise about £5.3 million – which gave us the capital we needed to get the business off the ground.”

Working as a team of co-founders

“One of the core principles was always that we, (Chris Barton, Philip Inghelbrecht, Avery Wang) were all equal partners in the Shazam project,” says Mukherjee. “We all had 25% of the business at the beginning. Even though Chris played the role of CEO it was very much a team effort and we each brought our experience and own instincts to the company.”

“We didn’t have a rule book to tie break or overcome disagreements. We talked, thrashed through issues, and made joint decisions. I think ultimately that was really beneficial to the business, certainly in the early days.”

Shazam and the Apple buyout

shazam-internet-bubble-burst

Shazam and Apple have an established and long-running relationship. Source: Techcrunch

Although Shazam was acquired by Apple last year for 400 million dollars, it wasn’t out of the blue for Mukherjee and his co-founders, in fact, it was the conclusion of a decade long relationship between the two brands…

“Last year’s acquisition by Apple started almost 10 years ago when the iPhone first launched.” – Dhiraj Mukherjee

“Shazam was one of the first apps available on the app store,” says Mukherjee. “From that time on Apple and Shazam have had a close relationship and in fact, a lot of Shazam’s growth came from the popularity of the iPhone and the app.”

Lessons in starting and scaling up a business

“One of the lessons I learned from my Shazam journey is to never give up, and to push on even in the face of people saying ‘no, it’s not possible’, or ‘no, it can’t be done’ or ‘it’s never been done this way before’,” says Mukherjee.

“I think at the early stages it’s about having a dream, a great team around you who can support each other, and try to make the impossible real.”

“You need to understand what it takes to enable people to grow and develop and for the business to become more grown up – like a bigger company is, but more agile and more flexible,” he says.

– “Those are the two things I would recommend to entrepreneurs, – resilience and to always think about what it takes to scale.”

Well, if you’re going to take anyone’s advice seriously, it might as well be the co-founder of one of the world’s most successful apps…

Dhiraj Mukherjee is the co-author of Fast Forward Files: Opening Up, published by Molden Verlag, which is available now