Ada Lovelace Day: An Interview with Michelle You of Songkick

Ada Lovelace Day was on March 24th. I didn’t blog about a woman in tech that day, as I pledged to do, but I’m doing it now. After all, better late than never, right?

As someone who loves music and really enjoys going to gigs, I was very happy when Songkick launched last year. It was as if they’d sensed this gap that I was feeling and stepped right in to feel it. Songkick is a site that enables anyone to log all the concerts they go to. It has social features like sharing the gigs you go to on Twitter and Facebook, the ability to post reviews, photos and videos, and of course buy tickets. The site recently got a new look, and I’m sure there’s lots more in the pipeline.

Songkick was launched by Ian Hogarth, Michelle You and Pete Smith, three young entrepreneurs with an aim to make going to concerts as ‘simple as going to the movies’, as you’ll read below. I got in touch with Michelle to ask if she’d like to be interviewed, she was very enthusiastic about it, and so here I present my interview with her as part of Ada Lovelace Day 2010.

Michelle You Picture

1. Prior to co-founding Songkick with Ian and Pete, you were the Managing Editor of Theme magazine in the UK. Tell me more about your experience there: what were your days like, how long were you there, and what do you think you learnt that you didn’t know before?

Theme is a tiny arts & culture quarterly. I started out as an intern and ended up being their first full-time staff. I was only there one year, but learned so much there. The magazine was founded by an extraordinary couple who had design backgrounds. They quit their stable jobs to start Theme, so it was my first close encounter with entrepreneurs. My days were filled with everything to do with producing a magazine: researching future stories, interviewing, writing, managing freelance writers and photographers, editing articles, managing the print schedule, and contributing my opinion to layout and art direction.

I honed my editorial eye there. Being in charge of product has a lot in common with being an editor. You learn how to identify what’s really important and cut out everything extraneous. You learn how to communicate with people

2. How did your experience at Theme lead to co-founding Songkick (or was there no relation?!)

There was no relation at all. Ian wanted to start a company of some sort. I knew him from studying Chinese in Beijing back in 2005. Initially I helped with the concept of Songkick and all the design work from the beginning, while still working full-time at Theme. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do Songkick full-time, but the more involved I got, the more invested I was in Songkick’s success.

3. As a fan and regular user of Songkick, I’ve filled in your feedback questionnaire. One of the questions I saw there is something I’d like to ask you: who do you feel are Songkick’s competitors?

Thanks for filling out our survey. 🙂

This is a tough question. Ultimately, we want Songkick to be the home for live music online. We want to make sure you never miss a great concert, ever. And afterwards, we want to be the place where you share those experiences. There are plenty of websites that do pieces of this, but there’s no single strong online presence that really lives up to why live music is so incredible, that really captures what’s so great about seeing your favorite bands live. The brand most people associate with live music is Ticketmaster, so that’s who we want to be bigger than.

4. How is Songkick funded and what is your revenue model?

We raised a series A round of funding last year, which has allowed us to build the team we need to build the product we want. Right now, we make money from ticket affiliates, meaning every time you buy a ticket through Songkick, the vendor sends us a tiny affiliates fee. There are plenty more plans for revenue in the pipeline.

5. This interview is part of Ada Lovelace Day. Do you think women have enough representation in technology? As an entrepreneur, what are the challenges for women in the UK Tech industry?

Of course women don’t have enough representation in technology. Women struggle for equality across all industries, but in technology our absence seems especially pronounced. This problem so thorny and myriad, any 200-word statement won’t do it justice, but it’s something I care deeply about. The most intelligent writing on this subject I’ve come across is Eric Ries’s blog post, “Why Diversity Matters”.

I can’t speak on behalf of women in the UK tech industry, especially because I’m not British and Songkick is my first real experience with the UK tech industry. I wish it were as simple as straight-up, explicit sexism (which I have encountered), but unfortunately the challenges are far more subtle than that. It starts with the expectations around us as young girls, the way we’re taught in schools, the representation we have in the media, attitudes towards maternity, all the way to the lack of strong female role models in technology. It’s a social problem, an institutional problem.

That said, I think the best way to have more women in technology is to have more women in technology, normalizing the idea of women with a technical background so that it’s no longer viewed as exceptional. The tautological nature of that statement points to how difficult it will be to achieve that.

6. You graduated from Columbia and went on to do a Master’s at Cambridge in the UK. Where are you originally from, and how did that shape the kind of person you’ve become?

I grew up in the Silicon Valley and both my parents were programmers. My mom used to work for Appleback in the 80s. Despite this or maybe because of this, I never considered programming as an attractive career option, but I was exposed to computers and the Internet from a very early age–it was always a part of our family. I’ve always been fascinated by the power of the web, especially in the way it spreads information and connects people. I remember logging into chatrooms obsessively and researching my favorite anime characters.

At Columbia I majored in English and Philosophy, and at Cambridge I got a master’s in cultural criticism. I guess if you want to tell a coherent story, you could say that I’m very interested in the way the Internet changes our culture.

7. Do you think start-ups in the US have it easier than the UK? Why or why not?

You know what? I have no idea. Ian and Pete always tell me that doing a start-up isn’t encouraged in the UK, and I’m sure having that support system in the US–where doing a start-up is seen as a valid career option–can help. But on the flipside, being in the echo-chamber of the Valley must also hold people back, you can mire yourself in keeping tabs on what other start-ups are doing or lose all grounding sense of how normal people use the web because all you hear day-in-day out is the hoopla around the next tech trend du jour.

I think doing a start-up is hard full-stop, no matter where you do it. And the difficulty of doing a start-up at all outweighs any hypothetical benefits a start-up might gain by being in the US or the UK.

8. At SXSW recently, Daniel Ek of Spotify made a very interesting comment about how he wants to make music ‘as accessible as water’. What is Songkick’s philosophy of music and gigs in particular?

I guess the pithy quote would be that we want to make going to concerts as easy as going to the movies. Everyone at Songkick is a huge gig-goer and we all really value seeing our favorite artists live. We have experienced that life-changing gig and want to help more people have that experience. It’s way too hard to go to concerts right now, it’s too much work to find out about the ones you want to go to, where to buy tickets, find out whether they’re on sale yet, sold out, etc. For all of these reasons, it’s really hard to concerts. According to a recent Mintel survey, 60% of the adult population in the UK didn’t go to concert in the last year. There should be no reason for that!

9. Describe a typical day for you at Songkick. What do you like and dislike about it?

The biggest part of my job is in understanding what our users want and translating that into the stuff we make. In a typical day, I can be doing anything from wireframing mock-ups to writing specs for upcoming features to surveying our users to digging into our analytics to understand what people are doing on the site to making more long-terms plans about where Songkick should go next and why.

Another important aspect of my job, and one that I constantly strive to improve, is to make sure everyone in the team is communicating well and understanding the shared goals we have, whether it’s specific to the feature that’s being built or more long-term.

I wish I had more time to step away from the day to day to really think about Songkick in a longterm way, where I think we should be in five years. I love the fact that I’m making something that directly improves peoples’ lives.

10. Where next for Songkick? Tell me more!

We’re most focused on delivering on the promise that, if you use Songkick, you will never miss a concert again. That means making sure we have all the upcoming concerts for all the artists in the entire world, which is a huge, huge task.

Thanks very much for your considered and insightful answers, Michelle. I’ll be watching with interest as Songkick continues to make going to gigs a social thing that people can always look back on and remember. Hopefully I’ll see you at a gig some day soon!

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