What You Can Learn From Pandora’s Near-Death Experience

Great ideas don’t always make it to market. Here’s what it took Tim Westergren to finally get a crucial round of funding for Pandora–on his 348th pitch.

What You Can Learn From Pandora’s Near-Death Experience

It was a long road for Pandora founder Tim Westergren: political science at Stanford, nanny, pianist, and then touring musician. He had some local success and saw something saddening: The artists around them poured themselves into their work, but for lack of proper promotion, ended up eking out a meager living until they finally called it quits.


He did too, making a switch to scoring for indie movies. Another creative hustle.

“When you’re a film composer,” Westergren says, “your principal job is to figure out what a director wants for their movie.”

His methodology? Bringing a stack of CDs to meet a director. Play songs, get their thumbs-up-or-down feedback. These weren’t musicological critiques, but by gathering data on their taste, Westergren could go back to the studio and make a tailored soundtrack.

“What I was doing at that time was an informal genome in my head of musical taste,” he told the audience at Chicago Ideas Week. “I was running these people through the equivalent of a musical Myers-Briggs test.”

Then, a realization: If he could codify the taste-taxonomic process, it could be a product. He pitched the idea to an entrepreneur friend–and soon they launched the Music Genome Project–a human-centric taste-linking that demands wonk-level knowledge of music.

They recruited 50-some musicians to sort through thousands of songs–it took about 10 months to build their gigantic genomic music database. For two years, the company built their core technology and licensed it out to businesses. They found themselves parched of funds, forcing them to defer employees’ salaries. Then, on his 348th pitch, Walden Venture Capital invested. With the dough they could pay their employees and launch a new product: this customer-facing thing called Pandora, which would change the way we listened to music.


Between the nannying, database-building, and elevator pitching, it didn’t come easy. Westergren notes that the companies that you see at a conference (or in the pages of a magazine) represent just a part of the long-suffering iceberg. The only thing that held the company together was the “unshakeable belief” that their idea–the Music Genome Project–was a worthy one. And like Paul Graham says, a startup founder is an economic research scientist–so finding where that idea fits takes a lot of investigation.

“Most (good) ideas are definitely crazy,” Westergren says, “because if they’re a new idea, they’re not part of the existing intellectual structure.”

There are a ton of factors affecting whether an idea can turn into a successful business. The Music Genome Product, a visionary idea, was B2B before it found crucial funding and launched the consumer-delighting Pandora–the right product at the right time.

Bottom Line: Have the determination to discover just where your idea fits into the business landscape–even if the destination is not what you imagined.

Watch the original video here.

[Image: Flickr user Ivan Zuber]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.