Mendelson, MIMS and Thomas previously worked together on an app called URemix, but when the expenses became too costly, the businessmen revised their blueprint to create RecordGram. The trio’s forward-thinking app was recently crowned champion at TechCrunch Disrupt’s 2017 Startup Battlefield competition, besting 19 other startup companies and walking away with $50,000 cash prize. One month later, the app developers received a $1 million investment from Silicon Valley funders.
RecordGram founders recently appeared on Apple TV's new show Planet of the Apps, where app developers pitch their concepts to a panel of advisors that include multi-faceted entertainer will.i.am, actresses turned entrepreneurs Jessica Alba and Gwyneth Paltrow and serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk. In the latest episode, DJ Blackout and Erik Mendelson secured a mentorship with will.i.am, who helped the app creators pitch their product to Lightspeed Venture Partners, ultimately earning a $650,000 investment.
Below, Billboard caught up with Shawn Mims and Erik Mendelson to discuss RecordGram’s development process, Mims transition from artist to entrepreneur and the pair’s long-standing business relationship.
What's your earliest memory of technology?
MIMS: My mother raised me. I didn’t know about my father and didn’t know what he really did, so I was curious to know what did for a living’ and who he was. I remember when I was young trying to figure out what my father does for a living and I used to think that he was an electrician.
So what I used to do, I used to take radios apart just to see what was inside of them and I would put them back together. I would be the one in the house at the age of 7, 8 years old trying to put together a stereo system and speaker wires and really learning what it was that made these things work and that’s how I got introduced to music. I found out my father DJ’d at some point in time and that’s how my mom purchased me a turntable system when I was young. So I was always interested in technical aspects of electronics and breaking them down and building them back together.
Have you always been interested in technology or is it something you just developed over time?
Erik Mendelson: You know what’s crazy? MIMS is actually a self-described tech geek; he’s always been into technology. We had a deal with Microsoft when "This Is Why I’m Hot" was popping back in the day, and he’s always been the one telling me all the technological things that are happening. Frankly, six years ago, technology scared the heck out of me. I had a BlackBerry when everybody had an iPhone, I use to let people introduce new technologies to me after they determined it was cool, or after they went through the process of testing it out.
MIMS: Let me say this: I’ve been a tech leader for innovation in our team. Just to give an example, Erik actually purchased a Redbox maybe like four months ago, and I had to tell him that Redbox is not going to be around much longer. Erik is obviously great at being a leader, but the tech side and the love for the tech side come from my passion for it and me always being involved in it.
What piqued your interest in technology?
EM: About five or six years ago, we realized the direction that the music business was going in and that record companies, management companies, publishing companies were slowing down on innovation. We realized that the music business was starting to become stagnant and that there was a need for technology to solve some of the pain points that musicians, producers, songwriters were facing and we sought to solve it through technology.
How did you guys develop the idea for it? What sparked the idea?
MIMS: I guess it goes back to another app that we were creating called URemix, that Erik and I collaborated on maybe four, five years ago. We were getting to a good point in it, but found out the idea that we were introducing was very expensive because it would require a lot of licensing fees and a lot of money out of pocket up front.
I kind of sparked the idea of RecordGram coming to life and got together with Blackout and Erik and said, "Can we do this? What are the ramifications of it? Is it going to cost us the same amount of money as URemix?" And we all kind of put our heads together and said this is a great idea and it’s brilliant. Let’s make it happen.
Why did you both decide to go the music route and create RecordGram?
MIMS: I can probably answer that best. Much of this app is based on my own trials and tribulations in the music industry, the things that I like and the things that I didn’t like about it. As I mentioned before, the expense I had to pay after "This Is Why I’m Hot" took off and the money that I had to maintain to be an artist, I realized that if it wasn’t for the money that I was able to make or have around me from business partners like Erik and other people I’ve worked with, I wouldn’t have survived. I had to pay for production, pay for the studio time, pay to be on the road to market and promote, pay for A&R’s to listen.
What we decided to do was create an environment where we solicit the music professionals to listen to these up-and-coming artists and we solicit the producer to being on the platform, so that they can give their beats out and possibly create a career for someone. Our main goal right now is to discover talent on the platform.
EM: Myself, MIMS, and Blackout have been in the music industry our entire lives. That’s all we know. So we realized that there was a hole in the marketplace and a problem to solve and we wanted to be the ones to solve that problem. We grew up in the music industry and know it like the back of our hand. So that’s the real reason we decided to get into the music technology space versus some other space. This is what we know and that’s where our relationships lie.
Quite frankly, our biggest competitive advantage is that nobody knows artists like we do. Nobody knows producers like we do – I have a Grammy award-winning producer on my team. Nobody knows the CEOs of record labels and the way that licensing works and the music industry works better than us. That’s our competitive advantage. You have other companies out there that are cool companies, but they're run by technologists, not by music guys; we’re real music guys trying to solve a problem for an industry that we know.
Walk me through the development process, from inception to the final product.
EM: Myself, MIMS and Blackout, none of us know how to code. So five years ago when MIMS started coming up with these tech ideas, we jumped right in and I started going to every tech meet up going on in Miami and I would go there to learn the vernacular and try to understand the business a lot more. What many of us learned early on was that there’s a lot of coders in the world, and that there’s not a lot of ideas in the world, and good ideas that people can execute on and actually create a business from.
So the three of us sought to make sure that we were creating a business, an idea that could be a legitimate business. So the first step in the development process was vetting our idea, doing a lot of research, making sure that nothing like us existed in the market place, figuring out what our competitive advantages and how our product was going to differentiate itself. Once we came up with how we were going to be different, we went out and basically hired an overseas development team to develop MIMS’ thoughts and ideas.
It took us two years of that process -- somewhat of a backward process -- to actually come to where we are today. Looking back at it, we could’ve saved a lot of time and money road mapping it the way traditional startups and apps operate, but at the time, we didn’t know that was a traditional way of doing it. So we went about it the only way we knew how to do it. If you’re not embarrassed by your first product, then you’ve done something wrong. We wanted to make sure that when RecordGram comes out, that it has almost everything that we could possibly envision in an app and that we’ve out-innovated so much that we're so ahead of what everybody else is doing that it’s going to take them years to catch up to us.
Although RecordGram is easily accessible and convenient for up-and-coming producers, as well as established ones, it essentially removes the physicality of the production process. What kind of effect do you think this has on the artist-producer chemistry?
EM: Well, rock music is typically created in a studio with several sessions of musicians creating songs together whereas hip-hop and pop are usually loaded or emailed to one another and sometimes the producer and artist are never in studio together. Production still has to happen outside of the app. The beat-making process takes place in a professional or home recording studio, then that producer then uploads the beat to our platform.
In terms of the process, outside of the producer and the artist being in the studio with one another and talking to each other, we’re doing everything else except that and if the producer wants to take it to the level of bringing an artist to the studio to record a song, we can facilitate that. [RecordGram] gives the artist the opportunity to try out a track before they actually buy it exclusively.
It also gives the producer the ability to create passive income on all their beats that could be potentially collecting dust. They could be making money from thousands of artists from the same beat time over again. Certainly, that producer doesn’t want to be in the studio with a thousand artists, but they can pick who they want to go into the studio with.
TechCrunch is one of the biggest conferences in the world and out of 19 finalists, RecordGram took first place. What was the TechCrunch Disrupt 2017 Startup Battlefield Competition experience like?
EM: For me, personally, that was one of my top five biggest accomplishments in my life -- outside of the birth of my son. I’m constantly pitching and getting our product out there to as many people as possible. So TechCrunch came to Miami to do a meetup for the first time and it was a pitch competition. We were one of the five companies selected to that pitch competition and we won it. In winning that competition, it gave us two tickets and a table for one day at TechCrunch and from there we were picked on the first day to be one of the companies in the battlefield to compete against 20 other companies.
We were just happy to be a part of the event, and had no clue we were going to win the battlefield let alone win the whole competition, which is the first time its ever happened from a wild card position. I also think we're the only minority-based music technology company to ever win TechCrunch.
MIMS, did you find it challenging to make that transition from artist to entrepreneur?
MIMS: Absolutely. [It was] a lot more challenging because every time I speak in an interview, I’m reminded of what people feel is my highest accomplishment, which is "This Is Why I’m Hot." Most people pigeonhole me for what they feel I’ve accomplished. They fail to see everything that I’ve done and I feel like this transition for me now that these doors are opening and we’re having serious meetings within the tech world, I can sit there with my chest out a little bit to say we’ve gone through the ringer. We understand what we’re doing and what we’re bringing. It gives me a lot more confidence.
Now you both have worked together since the start of MIMS' career. How have you both managed to remain so tight-knit as business partners and friends?
EM: I always felt like if I was going to work with an artist and I was going to invest my own money and time into the artist, it had to be mutually beneficial. There had to be trust, respect and how do I say this politely... I don’t wanna work with dumb artists [Laughs]. MIMS is far from a dumb artist. I learn from him, he learns from me and that’s what makes us great business partners. I look for people with drive and ambition and people that I would actually hang out with. Can you fight with that person – MIMS and I fight all the time – and then come to some happy medium and be able to progress your business?
What I saw I in MIMS early on was that we got along. There was a strong connection, and we can have a pretty fruitful business partnership. Every morning since 2009 I think, MIMS wakes up and calls me with an idea and says, "What do you think about this?" and I’m shooting him down. Then one day, we came up with the idea of URemix and that led to his idea for RecordGram. He may come to me with a bunch of ideas, but it’s my job to comb through them and figure out which one makes sense and that’s why we work great together.
MIMS: All my ideas make sense. [Laughs].
EM: About one percent of them.
What would you say is the most challenging aspect of launching your own app?
EM: Number one for any startup is getting users and market validation. We were able to successfully raise funds. We had a lot of lucky breaks (winning TechCrunch and being on Apple's Planet of the Apps). We were able to accomplish things most startups don’t accomplish. At the end of the day, we’re still in the same boat as everybody else; we need artists. We need producers. We need music fans to download our app and use it the way any other app needs users. That’s the biggest challenge.
What other business endeavors do you see yourselves venturing into?
How do you feel about music today?
MIMS: I was born in 1981 and we only had a few publications that got the word out about music. One of the things that I like about now is that it’s an open field for anyone to become the next successful artist and you see a lot of artists coming in and out. I like the direction it’s going and we’re going to assist in the process of making it easier for these artists to get discovered.
Does your love for technology trump your desire to create music?
MIMS: Well creating RecordGram definitely sparked my interest in getting back into music because I feel like my story is still untold and now that I'm traveling over to the entrepreneurial side, I have an even bigger story to tell.
Do you think more hip-hop artists should use their power and influence to play larger roles in the tech game?
MIMS: I think the biggest issue about being an artist is the number of people you have involved in your career making decisions for you. 90% of the artists that I’ve been around make everything about a check and sometimes I have to explain to them that I understand what a check means, but do you understand what equity is? Do you understand the power of your voice when you perform in front of crowds? I believe a lot of these artists lose out on opportunities because they help build and market these companies that they are not involved in. I would rather be the check-cutter than the check-receiver, and I think a lot of artists should have that same mentality.