Chris Barton: A Story of Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Discovery
Have you ever heard a song while you’re in a bar, at a restaurant, out shopping, or watching tv and wondered, “What is the name of that song!” That happened to Chris Barton all the time. As a huge music fan, he was determined to find a way to identify songs in the world around him. And so, he created Shazam, the revolutionary app that uses technology to bring the magic of music discovery to your fingertips.
Imagining the idea was the easy part. But Chris's journey as an entrepreneur and inventor was to accomplish what everyone told him was impossible. He accomplished his goal – but it was three years before iTunes, seven years before the iPhone, and eight years before the App Store. Until then, Chris’s creation was an idea before its time.
The story of Shazam is Chris’s story. It’s one of resilience, creativity, and the belief that obstacles can be overcome to create magic. In his speeches, Chris’s story and storytelling completely captivate audiences. He inspires people to make big things happen in their organizations – to create magic in defiance of the obstacles.
In this interview, Chris shares valuable insights into his journey as the founder of Shazam and some of the lessons he has learned along the way.
Before we dive into your Shazam story, let’s talk a little about your background. Did you always have this belief inside of you that says, “I can do things that people say are impossible”?
I had my own challenges of just getting through basic academics. Growing up, similar to my son, I have undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD. And so you have to cope, and come up with your own coping strategies, and define your own ways.
CHRIS BARTON: HIS DYSLEXIA BECOMES A SUPERPOWER
How did you manage school?
I remember I was an undergraduate at Berkeley and when I arrived, the first thing I did is went and got the syllabus for each class. And I thought, now which classes can I take that has the least reading involved? And so, I just kept pivoting towards majors, and focused on areas that had the least reading because it’s such a challenge.
Incredible – do you think your dyslexia and ADHD made you more creative?
Yes, and I teach my son this too. I've read about dyslexia and ADHD, and what's interesting about both of them is that while they make traditional academics a challenge and they make it hard to get good grades, it has nothing to do with a person’s aptitude... people like Charles Schwab and Richard Branson are dyslexic. I really believe it gives you superpowers. In fact, the thinking of dyslexics, they call it big picture thinking. An ability to see orders of magnitude and more variables at the same time, and have clarity about what's going to happen.
It's really neat how you take what everybody else tries to make a limitation, and you see it as your superpower, and you find its benefit. So, when you went to college, what was your major? Were you always entrepreneurial?
No, initially, I started at Berkeley as an engineering major. Switched out of that to economics and business. And I did a traditional route. I did management consulting in my first years out of college. And it wasn't really on my radar to start a company at that point. It was only when I was doing my MBA... I went back to Berkeley to do my MBA, still not realizing that I wanted to start a company.
And it was actually in the first week of my MBA program, I was in the computer lab. And next to me was a guy that was one year ahead of me in the second year of the MBA. And I said, "Oh, what did you do before the MBA program here at Berkeley?" And he said, "Oh, I was an Air Force pilot. I'm starting a real estate internet company." And I thought, wow, an Air Force pilot is suddenly starting a company. And I thought, now, I have no excuse. Because that's about as far as you can get in terms of skill set. I'm sure he's great at flying planes. And so, it was very inspiring for me. And I thought, wow. You can really just define your own path, and if you just want to do it, you just do it. And I thought, I'm going to start a company as well.
Wow! So tell us how you got the breakthrough idea for Shazam.
So the breakthrough idea actually with Shazam was not, "Hey, wouldn't it be great if you could identify a song with a mobile phone?" That was not the breakthrough idea. Because actually, there were about six companies doing that. They all embarked on trying to identify songs with a mobile phone using the current radio technology available at the time.
I was taking a class at London Business School called Strategic Innovation taught by Costas Markides. And it was really encouraging you to think outside the box about everything, question everything.
And I was thinking about if I created a business where I would track what's going on in all these radio stations, and it would be similar to these other startups, what could someone do that would leapfrog me, that would just leave me behind in the dust? That's the strategic innovation.
Invest all these years building this business, what would just leave me in the dust and just make the business irrelevant. And then, that was the breakthrough. Because then I thought, what if you could just identify the song from the air? Not from the radio stations. Literally, in the air. And then, you wouldn't have to enter the radio station. And not only that, but it wouldn't just work for radio play. You'd use it in cafes, bars, clubs, movie theaters, everywhere you go. Anywhere you hear a song, because it's not just radio out there.
CHRIS BARTON: Business Model Innovation
As you were working on this idea, you faced a number of challenges, such as developing new technology, assembling a team, and creating a database for storing digital music. Was there a specific moment or obstacle that you faced that particularly motivated you to keep going and see the project through to completion?
Yeah, one of my favorite highlights. I won't name the VC, but it was a big VC. But we showed him the demo. And at that point, we had an actual demo. Identified a song, and a text message came to the phone. And he said, "I don't see why anyone would ever use that." And that just motivated me so much.
Did you think Shazam was going to just explode? What actually happened?
We thought, once we launch this thing, it's just going to take off like wildfire. But the reality is, we had to have a business model at the time. And there was no advertising. There wasn't even a graphical user interface. So our model was much like calling 4-1-1, which was, each time you used it, you paid a small fee, $0.50, 50 pence. And so, that was a bit of a problem, bit of a hurdle to usage. But ultimately, we learned that just getting the word out is such a difficult thing. And it doesn't matter how great of an idea or great of a product you have, sometimes just getting the word out is so much harder than you realize. I worked at Dropbox, and it was the same kind of thing. They had this amazing product, but getting the word out was just so difficult.
Plus, you were so far ahead of the time in terms of technology. You thought it would take off, but obviously it didn't at the level you'd hoped. Were you able to make money at that?
We were really struggling. We had a marketing budget. That was part of the seven and a half million dollars. And we made web banner ads, radio ads... We even hired people to walk into bars and just tell people about Shazam. So, we were doing everything you can.
Our first market was the UK. And when we launched, we were usable by anyone with a mobile phone. Because it was just, all you needed, a phone that could make a phone call and get a text message, which was all phones. So you didn't need some advanced phone to use Shazam. But we learned that just the amount you spend on marketing to drive awareness to someone was just more than the little bit of money that we made every time someone Shazam-ed. And so we struggled. We barely survived. We actually had two rounds of layoffs. We probably were near bankruptcy for the entire six-year period between launching in 2002 and the app store coming out in 2008.
Wow, amazing. So share with us about the name Shazam, where does it come from? I heard a lot of people wanted to talk you out of it, too. Tell us about that.
Yeah. So basically, when I came up with the idea for Shazam, I thought, people are going to hold their phone up in the air, and then they're going to know the name of the song. And that felt like magic. It really felt like magic. And so, Shazam actually, it's a comic series. It's originally, I think, Arabic folklore, it comes from. And actually means, to conjure magic.
And so one of my co-founders... This is one of the things you learn. For everyone here who has co-founders, you're not always going to agree on everything in life and everything in your business. And that's going to be one of the struggles.
And so, one of my co-founders, he's an amazing guy. I always like to say, he has the productivity of 10 super humans. But he just said, "Oh, that name is terrible." He's like, "That's a terrible name. We've got to get rid of that." And it wasn't just him, by the way. I had VCs as well. We'd pitch to them, and they have the gold. And they would say, "Oh, but you got to change that name. Can't you call it something like Identify Song or something like that?"
I was very nervous. Because at one point after raising the venture money, we hired this big marketing guy who had run all of marketing for Capital Radio Group, which is the largest radio group in the UK. And he said, "Okay, now we're going to hire an agency. And we're going to evaluate what name to use for launch." And I thought, “oh no... Don't give up on Shazam!” I just felt so just emotionally attached to it. And luckily, he concluded, we made enough traction with the name so far, even before launching with partners, we're going to stick with it. And I was like, “thank goodness!”
When did you know it was going to work? Was it iTunes? When did the breakthrough happen for you? And then how did you get tied up with Apple?
Yeah, so the day the app store launched was definitely the day... And from that day forward.
From day one, Shazam was an app. In fact, Apple wanted to showcase amazing things that would show off their new phone. Remember, the iPhone had been out a year. So during that year, they reached out to various companies, a small set of companies. Some of them gaming companies, for example. And they thought, what are great showcase apps that we can co-develop actually? They provided guidance on what it could look like and so on.
And so Shazam was right out the gate... At the opening of the app store, there was Shazam. And they immediately had this concept of ranking apps based on popularity. And then the app store just grew, and grew, and grew, and grew, and grew with more and more apps, and more and more people, and more and more phones. And there's Shazam, just stayed there in that top 20 or even top 100. It would vary by country and time, but it just always remained one of the most popular apps.
CHRIS BARTON: Separating Good Ideas From Bad
What did you experience when you sold the company? Was there excitement? Was there any sense of loss because you built it? Was it a dream fulfilled? And did it change your life in any way?
Yeah, I think, first of all, it was such a wonderful outcome as an entrepreneur because it is your baby. And I was so obsessed with it.
Especially when everybody told you it was impossible.
Yes, yes. I know. It was so satisfying to see, this is now out there, and people use it, and the awareness is incredible. I remember going into a grocery store and then suddenly, right in front of me in line, a person says, "What's that song?" And the person behind the counter is like, "Get out Shazam." And this whole interaction is going on right in front of me. And those moments are just so satisfying.
And ultimately, when you care so deeply about this baby that you're so obsessed with, where it ends up matters. And the fact that it ended up with Apple made me so happy. The first thing they did is remove all the advertising. We needed advertising. That was the last of the business models that we got to, and it ended up becoming our primary revenue stream because we had to survive. But Apple didn't need the advertising revenue. So they just removed that, and then the app became even cleaner, and faster, and more beautiful. And it just fit so well with Apple, the company. So I was delighted from day one that, that's where it ended up.
I know a lot of entrepreneurs, they got to start the next thing. And then I know with some entrepreneurs, it's like, "No, I'm just going to enjoy my life for a while." What's your life like right now? And what are you doing with your life? What's fulfilling for you?
Yeah, so I would say I'm a little bit of a hybrid of those two things. So it was nice to have a financial outcome, and it was a good one. And so, that gives you the financial freedom to choose what you want to do. I love to spend a lot of time with my son, who like me, has dyslexia and ADHD. So I just try to teach him. I try to give him the learnings, and it's really working, of these are your superpowers. And just like Richard Branson and Charles Schwab, you can get bad grades in high school and still be a superstar. And maybe one day, you'll be an entrepreneur. So I love putting a lot of time into that.
And I am working on a startup. I wanted to start a new company, but I wanted this one to not be nearly as high pressure, but still have meaningful impact. So this is an impact-driven startup. . And basically, my goal is to see if I can prevent drowning in swimming pools using cameras and computer vision [artificial intelligence].
So the best way to think of it is, think of it like a smoke alarm, except it sits in a swimming pool. And then the way you compare it to a smoke alarm is that, you don't ever think about your smoke alarm. You don't come home and turn it on, say, "Is the smoke alarm on?" It's just always on, always there in case a fire starts. And sadly, drownings are something that occur every year in swimming pools. I think it's the number one cause of accidental deaths for children under the age of five in the United States, even exceeding car accidents, gunshots, poisonings.
So basically, this startup is called Guard. And the goal is to... Think in a similar way of, how can we think in a disruptive technology way, but also create a very simple experience? And that's key, very simple.
CHRIS BARTON: Guard – Chris Barton's New Venture
That's very cool. I love that your drive is always to do something that lifts lives. Your product gives so much joy to people. What gives you the most joy?
Gosh. I love being in the outdoors, and I love hanging out with my friends, the people that I love, my family and friends. You just realize that the basics in life, the things that are free, are the best things.
*Full Interview with Chris Barton and Tony Robbins, conducted on 9.30.22. (Video). Retrieved
About Melissa Murphy
Melissa Murphy is Manager of Client Services & Special Projects at D’Amelio Network. An experienced speaking industry professional, she’s found that working with experts whose ideas have the potential to create positive change suits her passion for learning and boundless curiosity. Melissa enjoys getting creative with marketing initiatives, building relationships with industry partners, and being a resource for event professionals.