How Running A Startup Is Like Surfing

And other thoughts from Steve Jang, avid surfer and co-creator of the social music app SoundTracking. “You get that timing, you pop up, you find your balance, and you ride that wave–and you have to do that over and over.”

How Running A Startup Is Like Surfing


Steve Jang is the cofounder and CEO of Schematic Labs, whose social music app SoundTracking just hit its one-year anniversary. The app is steadily approaching 2 million users, and its ranks include the likes of Snoop Dogg. Collectively, they’ve shared 3 billion of what SoundTracking calls “music moments.” I caught up with Steve Jang to talk about why SoundTracking is like the New Yorker cartoon caption contest, why running a startup is like surfing, and why my life is boring.

What is SoundTracking?

It’s a social music application that works on iOS and Android. It allows you to share whatever you’re listening to at the moment with friends and followers on SoundTracking, as well as through Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare. If they like the music, they can download and purchase it. We wanted to create something really focused around being able to share favorite songs and music moments with each other.

What’s a “music moment”?

When you identify and share a song, you’re actually sharing it with several elements all combined into one view. You identify a song, and then you can attach a photo and a location. The location can be a venue, a neighborhood, or the larger city area. You can also write your own caption. So it creates a sort of musical postcard. We tried to create something that makes it easy and fun to share the sountrack of your life.

For my life to have a soundtrack would seem to suggest that it’s a movie, and if so, it’s a really boring one.


For me and my cofounders, we always wanted to have an app where people could express themselves through music. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, we felt a song was worth an entire story.

Then again, I guess some movies are mostly worthwhile for their soundtracks anyway, like 9 to 5 or Tron: Legacy.

Hopefully you’ll feel like your life is not boring, if you’re able to show more emotion through the app. One unexpected thing that happened with the app: We felt people would only share whatever music happened to be playing at the moment. But we found a lot of people started sharing songs that weren’t what was playing, but what expressed what they were feeling at the time. Say it’s raining outside, suddenly a lot of people would post songs with the word “rain” in the title. During the U.K. riots, we saw people posting a lot of songs by The Clash. When Whitney Houston passed away, we saw a lot of fans play songs in tribute. It’s not so much that they were listening to this right now, but they wanted to express or say something through the lens or the vessel of the song.

So instead of treating what they happen to be listening to as the soundtrack of their life, users treat reality as a movie that they are choosing the soundtrack for.

Yes. We see people using it for social expression, in a deeper way than we had envisioned. It’s been fun to watch creative behavior evolve out of the SoundTracking experience. For instance, there’s interesting behavior around users picking the same photo and posting different songs around it.

Sort of like the New Yorker cartoon caption contest, but with music?


It’s very similar to that. There’s a gameplay dynamic that has emerged. That’s one reason you start a company: to watch the vision for the product evolve and grow as real people take hold of it and make it their own.

How does the app make money?

The iOS app is integrated with iTunes. On Android, we integrated with Rdio and Spotify. So when users buy a song on iTunes, or sign up for subscriptions on a service like RDIO, we get a percentage of that transaction. We’re frankly less concerned about the revenue aspects right now. When we look at a possible revenue model for the future, we’re thinking premium subscriptions to unlock additional features and content, or some contemplation of doing online ads through mobile. But we’re not there yet. We’re still growing a community and building an experience.

You have more than 150 stitches and 20 staples in your body. Are any of those wounds from founding a startup?

No, those were from surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding. But there are a lot of similarities, especially between surfing and startups. Obviously there’s the cliché notion of catching a wave, but beyond that, there’s conditioning, timing, and watching. You have to be watchful, but have to act. You have to be very mindful of what’s working and what isn’t. It’s a constant process of failing, then redirecting and pursuing areas that are working. Surfing isn’t just about getting in front of a wave and riding it in. It’s about balance, how you’re standing on the board. It’s about being able to understand how the currents are moving, where the waves are breaking, and then positioning yourself to get to that spot at the right time. You get that timing, you pop up, you find your balance, and you ride that wave–and you have to do that over and over.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.