Meet William White, the co-founder of Fluence - a service where your music actually gets heard by people that matterPublished on July 9th, 2015
For our next interview we wanted to get someone who is tackling a problem that many artists face: getting through to influencers. William White of Fluence is one of the people who is on a mission to fix this problem.
Tell us a bit about yourself - who are you and where do you come from?
I’m the Co-Founder and CTO of Fluence. I’ve spent the past 15 years creating web apps and content recommendation services for startups and companies like Yahoo! and AOL. I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, studied computer science and music technology at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec and have spent most of my working life in California with a couple years in London and Paris in between. I’m currently living in Hawaii which is a nice change from the SF Bay area rat race, although it does get pretty hot and humid here!
Tell us what Fluence is.
Fluence makes it easy for musicians, artists, or anyone with a product or idea to get feedback and promotional help from experts and people with an existing audience or online presence. All you need to do is submit your YouTube, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Kickstarter or Vimeo URL to Fluence, tell us a little bit about yourself, and we’ll recommend who you should send it to. We have a variety of different people who can help and the list is constantly growing.
Fluence is essentially a peer-to-peer advertising solution where you can choose the specific person who will receive your promotion and get their direct feedback, with lots of detail about how they engaged with your work and a unique opportunity to develop a personal relationship with them.
How did the idea of Fluence come about? When did you get started?
My Co-Founder and the CEO of Fluence, Shamal Ranasinghe reached out to me in 2012 with an idea to help influencers like Sean Adams solve their overflowing inbox problem. Sean runs a popular music blog, which receives hundreds of music PR emails every day, but there is simply not enough time in the day for him to read all those emails much less listen to all the music attached to them. We built some tools to help him organize and manage the inbound flow, but in the end it still felt like a bunch of work (even for us).
We were analyzing all these emails he’d receive and could see all the effort people were putting into the emails in hope that he might actually read them. Clearly this was a real pain point for folks, but it was also a pain point for Sean as his inbox was overflowing and it was difficult to separate the relevant submissions from the spam.
We started to reach out to other music bloggers to better understand how they sourced the material they wrote about and the problems they were having. A common complaint was that people would send them stuff that was completely irrelevant - like a hip hop track for someone who blogged solely about indie rock. We kept iterating on solutions to solve these problems and eventually we converged on the notion that the most important piece for people trying to promote their work was simply getting a foot in the door. If there was some way you could just get 5 minutes of someone like Sean’s attention, then he would either genuinely like your stuff or not, but either way you’d know and could move on.
"Fluence is a mechanism to democratize access to people who you don't have any existing connection to..."
On the flipside, we found that having to pay even a small amount was a very effective way to eliminate spammy submissions. From all of this learning emerged the version of Fluence you see today and even though our roots were in solving this music promotion problem - it was clear to us from the very beginning that this solution could be used by anyone trying to promote any idea or product on the web.
How did you and Shamal meet?
We met in 2006 while we were both working at Yahoo! Music in Santa Monica. Shamal was running a data team focused on hit prediction and music playlist optimization, and I was the young, intrepid data hacker trying to understand what shapes people’s musical taste. We shared a common passion for music, analytics and using data to inform product decisions. I was super impressed by his creativity and integrity and sad to see him go when he left to start Topspin Media.
We met up again in 2012 and started talking about how we could help artists find new fans by connecting them to like minded influencers. I was inspired by the problem space and excited to start something new.
You launched in October 2014. What has happened since then?
We now have a fully automated system up and running which is growing every day. It’s really fun to watch new people join and start sharing their work and helping each other. We’ve had artists get signed to record deals, get their music played on radio stations and develop relationships with influential people who’ve inspired them to create more amazing content. It’s really satisfying to see and we’ve also been really impressed with the level of quality we’re seeing in the submissions on the system. It's not always easy to explain what we’re doing and I think the concept of paying for a slice of someone's attention is a little new for many folks. But this is something that we feel really passionate about it.
Fluence is a mechanism to democratize access to people who you don't have any existing connection to, who would otherwise ignore your message. It’s also providing a revenue stream for talented folks who can help others, which can help them pay their rent / mortgage. We're really excited about where it's going.
Have you faced a lot of competition in this market?
There are some similar adtech and influencer marketing plays as well as platforms for getting expert feedback, but really we see ourselves as something different - more akin to an attention marketplace. We’re creating a new business model with Fluence and that’s always difficult, but we’re up for the challenge.
What would you say to an aspiring artist who’s not yet on Fluence? Why should they sign up?
Fluence is a great opportunity for someone who’s up and coming to get their work in front of people who can really help them, who might otherwise not take the time to check out their work. When you compare us to traditional media PR or online social media advertising tools like Facebook, Google and Twitter - we provide a more cost effective, transparent PR investment with a better ROI. Give us a shot and let us know what happens. We will work with you to help you find the right audience for your creation.
How do you attract well-known music industry professionals to Fluence?
Most of the reviewers on Fluence right now have been invited by other members. You need to be invited to join as a reviewer by another reviewer or the Fluence team. It may take longer for us to grow using this approach, but it ensures the quality and integrity of what we’re trying to accomplish.
"...we encourage folks to be honest, helpful, constructive and to reward stuff they really like by sharing it with their social network followers..."
Is there any group of professionals that you would like to see more of on Fluence?
We’re really interested in broadening our base beyond music and entertainment. Our solution doesn’t need to be limited to music or video producers. In the future we’d like to see people from a wide array of backgrounds and industries on Fluence. The key criteria is that they have some expertise or an audience and they’re willing to help others and want to see them succeed.
How are the curator prices determined?
People set their own rates. We encourage them to set it to whatever makes it interesting for them. Some people feel a little strange about setting a price for their attention and will set it to $0 or $15/hour but we’ve found that people who set their rate to > $150/hour generally respond much faster and leave more thoughtful reviews.
What is the stack behind Fluence? What tools and services do you use to run the service?
We use a variety of tools but the core app is written in Python and runs in the cloud on Tornado with a MongoDB backend. We have a lot asynchronous tasks managed using Celery (backed by Redis). We also merge social account profiles (Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Gmail, etc) and map the relationships into a graph which we use Neo4j to query in order to recommend users for submissions or submissions for users. On the front end we use JQuery, Backbone and Bootstrap.
We also use Google Analytics, Intercom and Mixpanel to better understand our users, Pivotal Tracker for project tracking and Slack to communicate on a day to day basis across our distributed team.
Do you have any standards for critique, or can curators say whatever they want?
We have Guidelines for giving feedback where we encourage folks to be honest, helpful, constructive and to reward stuff they really like by sharing it with their social network followers.
Can curators get removed from the service if they don’t follow the critique guidelines? How do you assure feedback quality?
We monitor every review and reach out to curators/reviewers who are not meeting our expectations. Sometimes they don’t understand what they’re supposed to do initially but usually you just need to point them to some great examples like Brian Hazard’s profile - https://fluence.io/colortheory.
Have you considered a more extensive two-way feedback system like something seen on Airbnb?
Users can rate the reviews they receive and you can see a curator’s average rating when you’re creating a submission. But not everyone is really psyched to hear negative feedback, even if it’s constructive so that can be a bit of a challenge. In the future, we’re considering taking a more community oriented approach where we allow lots of different users to review the reviews without knowing who wrote it and the curator only gets paid if the majority of people think it was a helpful review.
Besides text feedback, have you considered any other means of providing feedback to musicians?
There are other platforms that provide different mediums for the feedback (video recordings, phone call, etc..) but we like the form factor of our simple reviews. It’s really important to us that the app is fun, easy to use and not onerous for our reviewers.
Do you have any plans for organizing events? Such as live feedback sessions or something of that nature?
Absolutely! We’ve already had a couple Fluence gatherings in LA which have been really great. It’s amazing for us to be able to connect in person with people who are using our platform and learn more about their experiences and the connections they’ve made. That is the stuff that we live for - to see how our app is helping to improve people’s lives and how excited and enthusiastic our users are about it.
Any new technology that you’re particularly stoked about right now?
I’m really interested in the new generation of reactive web apps which allow for a more engaging and dynamic, realtime user experience. We’ve been playing with Meteor and are interested in rolling out a new and improved version of Fluence in the near future which will alert you in real-time when someone is reviewing your submission or tweeting about it.
We occasionally will send out one of our own promotional videos to all of our curators and it’s pretty thrilling to submit the order and see your inbox fill up with notifications about who reviewed your work, what comments they left and what tweets or Facebook shares they made. How cool would it be if we enabled that experience in real time within the app itself, synchronized and updated across all of your devices at once? I think it would be pretty amazing.
"We’re also really interested in making Fluence more of a community project [...] re-architecting the app as a decentralized autonomous organization..."
What do you think about Bitcoin?
Bitcoin is really interesting. We provide support for it on Fluence and have also written about how adopting bitcoin could help us. I’ve personally gone through all the stages of understanding Bitcoin as described in The Age of Cryptocurrency - disdain, skepticism, curiosity, crystallization and finally acceptance. It was terribly overhyped for all the wrong reasons in late 2013 and the subsequent crash was necessary, if not sufficient.
I really like the way Andreas Antonopoulos, author of Mastering Bitcoin talks about it. He’s really grounded and focused on solving practical issues like providing financial system access to the 4.5 billion people in the world who don’t have it or reducing fraud in government and corporations. Of course at Fluence we’re also super interested in using Bitcoin to lower transaction fees and make micropayments - something the current banking system does not allow us to do.
While there is great potential in Bitcoin and the blockchain concept is inspiring, I still worry about some critical unsolved issues - like why do we need to burn real world scarce natural resources that contribute to climate change in order to validate our fantasy world virtual currency? Surely we can come up with a better solution! This environmental issue makes the current implementation of Bitcoin completely unscalable as far as I’m concerned. Also, our world runs on credit and history clearly shows that we need to be able to inject credit into the system from time to time to avoid having it collapse on itself. If Bitcoin is deflationary by nature, why would anyone lend it to anyone else? You’d be better off just hording your BTC and waiting for it to appreciate.
So how do you expand the economy if there is no credit to lend? Antonopoulos’s approach seems to be that yes these are all really significant problems, but the current global banking system is so corrupt and unfair that we need to do something to disrupt it and Bitcoin, flawed as it is may be is the vehicle to get that party started. I’m sympathetic to this idea and hopeful that with sidechains and altcoins or something else that comes along, we can find a solution to these problems and change things for the better - but neither Bitcoin or the blockchain is a magical panacea. Not yet at least.
What plans do you have for the future, say a year from now?
We'll be rolling out a "Submit any Link" feature soon which will allow you to send PDFs, powerpoint, docs, blog pages, resumes, etc. to folks rather than just audio or video assets. We think this will be a significant change which will really open up our potential audience and let people see the big picture of what we're trying to accomplish. Looking further out, we want Fluence to allow anyone to be both a curator/reviewer and a promoter. We think this is the future of online advertising - promoting peer to peer directly via the people that matter most.
Lastly, is there anything you would like to say about your product? Here’s your chance to advertise.
The final point I’d like to emphasize is that every person who has ever worked on Fluence, including all of our advisors, early users and investors are doing this because we all genuinely believe in the mission. We see the potential here and want to help talented people succeed and be rewarded for all of their hard work. All of us are creative people ourselves and recognize that it’s not always the most talented people that succeed in this world. A lot of the time the people with the right connections or the best timing and luck reap the greatest rewards. We think it doesn’t need to be this way - that we can develop a solution to help people get noticed and connect with the right people who can really help them achieve their dreams.
We’re also really interested in making Fluence more of a community project, even going so far as to put the entire source code on Github and re-architecting the app as a decentralized autonomous organization that is bigger than any one of us. If this sounds interesting to you, we’d love you to get involved. Please feel free to contact me directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we can start working on it together.