(Subsistence) Living Classical

Last week I talked a little bit about the sad decline in classical sales and Lelio’s mission to reinvigorate the sector by building a new model for online shopping.  In today’s post I’m going to discuss our strategy for how we’re going to do this with no money.

Lelio is a startup, which is a nice way of saying we have no customers and no revenues.  Our coding, design work, business development, marketing, data entry and so on has all had to come out of our own pockets.  Ten or so people have contributed directly to the project over the last 18 months, some of them putting in hundreds of hours of work, and all have foregone payment in lieu of a slice of the business we hope to build together.

The whole “no money” thing does have some advantages, though.  It forces a business like ours to be highly strategic – to really pick and choose which objectives are most important to our success, and try to achieve those objectives as cheaply and as efficiently as possible.

We decided early on in the Lelio project that the key to making classical music easier to buy was to make it easier to find.  So building an effective search engine had to be our first priority.

We’re so lean we could only afford one copy of this book

The question is, how do you build a search engine from scratch with no money?  For this, we defer to the wisdom of Eric Ries’s excellent and highly influential book The Lean Startup.  Ries argues that startups, rather than trying to perfect their product before launching it, should focus on building what he calls a “minimum viable product” (MVP) and aim to get that in front of customers as quickly as possible.  The rationale for this is that no entrepreneur wants to be working in secret for two years on a product and only find out at the end that nobody actually wants it.  Furthermore, no amount of beta testing or focus grouping will tell you whether or not your product is desirable better than your customers will.

So we set ourselves a very minimal goal in order to test our thesis: could we create a search engine for symphonies only?

We chose to focus on symphonies for a number of reasons:

  • According to our market research, the symphony is the most popular form amongst classical listeners;
  • There is a fairly small group of symphonies in the standard repertory;
  • And most importantly, symphonies have abstract titles such as Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, which would really test our search engine’s mettle.

So that’s why if you visit the Lelio prototype website today, you will our search engine only finds results for about 120 symphonies and a couple of dozen composers.  What it does do, though, is prove to us that our search works: if you type in “beethoven’s third symphony” or “eroica symphony” or “lvb sym 3″ or “beethoven op 55″ you will get the same set of results for Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony every time.  That’s already a pretty big improvement over what iTunes and Amazon can do.

Still, we know the site is still of pretty minimal use to customers.  Amazon and iTunes carry over a hundred thousand classical recordings, against which our selection of just under 200 seems pretty paltry.  Don’t worry, we know.  Nor do we imagine for a moment that classical customers are suddenly going to lose all interest in chamber music, piano music, instrumental music, song or opera and just stick to the symphonic repertoire from now on.

But as I say, we have to be strategic.  Our next release – which we expect in the next month or so – will substantially broaden the scope of the search engine.  We will have ten times as many recordings, and several thousand searchable works in the database – although still excluding vocal music and opera at this stage (sorry!).

Our hope is that this is enough to at least get a few people using the site.  That’s something we can build on, a minimum viable product.  Our next step is to seek an early stage investor to come on board and fund the next round of development.  With a little extra money (i.e. some) we can focus on building the next set of features, including:

  • A fully “clickable” journey through to our composers and artists (rather than requiring you to type something in the search box);
  • The ability for customers to write reviews and rate recordings;
  • The introduction of custom Collections (more on this in another post);
  • Many more searchable works, artists and composers.

We have plans beyond these features, of course, but I have to hold something back for another blog post.  But one thing you may have noticed is that not once have I mentioned how we will actually sell stuff on our sales platform.

There’s a reason for that.  The mechanics of shopping baskets, checkouts, payment gateways and delivery services are already tried and tested.  We aren’t planning to improve that technology, and investing in even a ‘me too’ is expensive and time consuming.  That’s why we currently use Amazon (and soon, iTunes) to handle the actual transactions.  We get only a very small cut of those sales, but at this stage all we are trying to prove is that people prefer shopping for classical music using a website that speaks their language.

We hope we are making progress on that front, and would welcome any feedback you have about the search as it stands.  Failing that, the best way you can help Lelio at this stage is to tell others what we’re working on!  There is a whole suite of sharing options at the top of this post, any one of which will help Lelio on its journey towards making the online world a better place for classical customers to buy music.