After five years of bootstrapping, music sharing company Byta secured $1.9M in funding. Co-founder Jen Pomphrey, shared her thoughts on the transition and maintaining a strong culture.
We started Byta way back in 2014
as a team of three. A man with an idea, a developer, and a designer. It sounds like the start of a joke but stick with me.
Marc had been working in the music industry for over 25 years, predominantly in music promotion as a radio plugger, where the idea of Byta first came to him. Marc approached Pete, our backend developer, with his idea: a product that would allow users to simply upload audio and securely share it privately to recipients pre-release (security being the key here).
Straightforward enough, right? Looking at the existing market though, there were few who were successfully tackling this issue in music delivery. In fact, back in 2014 labels were still sending out physical copies of albums when they were looking to get their artists heard. Not only was that painfully inefficient, it was also incredibly costly. Digital audio sharing services that did already exist were hard to use, and more importantly, plagued with security issues. The music industry desperately needed an affordable and secure solution.
Marc and Pete discussed the idea and worked out a plan as to how to get it built and I was brought in to tackle design and frontend soon after. Originally, when we sat there discussing, the project the timeline was 7 weeks — the world's most out-of-scope project, perhaps. We certainly didn’t imagine it turning into a 5-year side-hustle, and entered into the venture agreeing that rather than seeking funding early we would bootstrap. And thus begins our journey, over 5 years of building a fully bootstrapped product, cumulating in over $2m of funding in 2020. It has been an experience that is worth sharing along with some of the lessons that we have learned along the way.
The reality of bootstrapping
The thinking behind bootstrapping was that it would allow us to create a product we believed in; one that had the functionality and structure that made sense to us without being distracted by the needs and goals of investors. It took time. A lot of time. The initial phases (once we realised this was not going to happen in 7 weeks) were mostly around working out what we could realistically manage for our MVP.
Due to the lack of external resources, and because we wanted to make sure as a team we understood our product, the three of us took on roles and responsibilities that were outside of our wheelhouses, but it worked. We undertook market research over lunch meetings, built on Marc’s industry experience, and reached out to as many contacts as we could, really working out what the needs of our vertical were over that first year.
This time was invaluable. We learned A LOT. We launched to the public in 2015 and slowly built up from our MVP, adding new features and taking on customer feedback. Doing this in addition to a full-time job means a fair deal of juggling. Lunch breaks spent dealing with customer queries, nights spent designing new interfaces. There were updates, feature builds, and general improvements that got put on the backburner because resources were scarce and we had to prioritise accordingly.
This stage was slow, we have discussed more recently if we would go through that again, and we agree that in hindsight — seeking funding earlier here would’ve probably helped propel the business forward. But hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Does that mean we wouldn’t have gone down the path of bootstrapping it at all? No, I believe that our original intention behind bootstrapping was right. We were able to stick to our original goal of maintaining ownership of our product — what we built was exactly what we wanted. I would suggest to others who are looking to take a similar path, however, to discuss with your co-founders (or individually) how your timescales and budgets align. It is said often (and I absolutely agree) that what you are building doesn’t need to be perfect. Get it out there, iterate, and make sure you are continuing to check back on your original plans and budgets and make sure you are on track. This is sometimes easier said than done, but making sure you have a plan A, B, and even C for these scenarios will stand you in good stead. Don’t be afraid to approach funding early if you believe your product can benefit from it.
What changes post-funding
In 2019, with a product we now felt was what we had been aiming for, we sought out funding. This process in itself wasn’t straightforward. The music tech industry is notoriously tough when it comes to funding. In 2020, we secured $1.9m from the CMF. This funding was the first new money in the audio sharing space since Soundcloud over 10 years ago.
The big question we now get asked is: how does that then affect a team like ours?
The impact was widespread. The original team was now able to work full time, which in itself was something we had been longing to do. Funding brought about new opportunities for the company, and we could focus more energy on marketing and sales which has been an incredible boost. We were also able to dedicate more time to our not-for-profit education arm HowWeListen, which helps us give back to the music ecosystem that has helped build us.
The biggest benefit of funding though was that it meant we had an opportunity to hire a dev team that had the skills we required, building a team that allows us to more effectively execute our vision. Now we can continue to have team members working on daily maintenance, whilst also splitting team members off to work on any of the deeper problems that need more focus. It has meant that we have been able to build a much more stable and improved app. When we now need to tackle a task that is more efficiently done by bringing in a contractor we can do it. Having that flexibility has meant that we are now all working to our strengths, our developers are confident and happy with their work, and in turn, we are providing a much-improved user experience.
Motivating your team through ownership
As we have expanded there has been a lot of chat about how we build a strong culture with your devs. Everyone approaches products differently, not just out there in the tech world but within a team itself. We realise that we can’t expect our devs to have the same drive as us founders.
It is our job to get across to the development team (and the rest of the team) the motivations behind what we are doing, where we have come from, and ensure that we are all on the same page for our pathway to success. We aim to ensure that our developers feel well supported, have a strong sense of ownership around their work, and ultimately feel proud of the product they are making.
Our recent redesign has been a great example of this. From the start, it was a full team task. Developers, marketing, sales, and design all had opportunities to raise ideas for improvements and feature ideas. They would be encouraged to lead those ideas once they were approved by the whole team. It has meant people feel less like workhorses and more drivers of the finished product. This ownership of ideas, as well as projects, was one of the aspects of our original team that we wanted to carry through to the company as we expanded. Now, although we have refined the roles and responsibilities, we still look back to those original values of taking ownership as a key force behind a team that believes in their product.
Our biggest takeaway from our 7 years of building Byta, and our journey through funding is that even as you expand, everyone needs to be willing to participate in all fields when necessary. Ownership and responsibility are the key to having a successful team and in turn a successful product. This was one of our key values in the early days as a small team and through to our company now as it continues to grow. Without a doubt, funding changes things and when managed correctly your product will grow in leaps and bounds, but keeping those core values at the forefront will help you stay true to what you aimed for in the beginning.