Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Ezra Sandzer-Bell and I’m the founder of AudioCipher Technologies. We’re a music software company that creates innovative tools for producers and composers. Our flagship product, known by the shortened name AudioCipher, is a MIDI plugin that works across a variety of digital audio workstations on both macOS and Windows.
In essence, AudioCipher was designed to help producers overcome songwriter’s block by typing in words and translating them, letter by letter, into a series of music notes.
Despite the seemingly esoteric nature of the app, we’ve sold over 200 copies and earned $3000+ in revenue during our first 10 weeks on the market. We’ve accomplished that on a shoestring marketing budget with no pre-existing mailing list or industry leads.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I grew up in a musical family, so I was writing music and playing in bands at an early age. My interests shifted from performance to music philosophy in my early twenties. In 2007 I discovered a technique used by classical composers to encode words into melodies. The idea of hiding secret messages or “easter eggs” in music appealed to me, plus the concept was underrepresented, so I decided to run with it.
Some of the people suggested we start with a free app to test the waters. But if someone is willing to pull out their credit card and pay for the thing, then you know you have a good idea.
In 2014 and 2015, I had two books published on the subject of musical cryptograms. It was around this time that I took my thoughts into public forums and started speaking at conferences. It became clear that the idea was interesting to people but too difficult for most people to put into practice. So I pivoted to a career in technology. My experience as a technical writer led me to publish a few articles for Google and I landed my first salaried position at a SaaS company in Spring 2018.
By 2020, I decided to go all-in on a software company that would automated the music encryption process, to make it easier for people to use. I partnered with a developer and bootstrapped AudioCipher with a budget of only $7000. This had to cover all of our expenses including website development, content creation, ad spend, and so forth.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The original prototype for AudioCipher was called Astromusik. It was a clumsy series of mobile app designs that I made in Photoshop during the summer of 2016. I had never written a line of code in my life and hoped that I might be able to hire a dev shop to build an MVP. That dream quickly hit a wall when companies quoted me $30-40K just to get started. I realized that I would need to learn how to program if I ever wanted to make this app a reality.
Around that time I signed up for a six-month, full-time code Bootcamp. We had some creative liberty with the projects we worked on and so my capstone was an AudioCipher prototype written in Ruby on Rails. It was a browser application that let users type in words, translate them into melodies, and play them back. You could even store those melodies on a database and retrieve them. But the app was buggy and I knew nobody would be able to use it in any practical way, so I abandoned it.
To make some money on the side, I picked up a job as a private music theory instructor at a San Francisco music production school called Pyramind. It was during that time that I started to understand the prevalence and utility of digital audio workstations in modern music. I later picked up a second teaching job at another music production school in my hometown where I did four-hour music theory lessons for groups of students. Teaching these classes helped me understand how problematic people’s lack of music theory knowledge was.
By 2020 it had become clear that there was a real need for a music app that made it easier to build melodies quickly, without music theory knowledge. I dug deep into the internet and found an American developer my age that understood the project vision and could work at a rate I could afford. We worked together with our girlfriends (who are both designers) to come up with a modern, simplified user interface that worked on macOS and Windows machines.
Describe the process of launching the business.
After roughly nine months of app and website development, we were ready to launch by January 2021. There were several established marketplaces for music plugins, but as the first app of our kind, I had no idea which marketplace would be the most receptive. So we decided to start by selling it on our website, on the Apple app store, and at least one online marketplace.
Having spent about 90% of my allotted budget on development, we had very little left over for marketing. As a B2B content marketing manager, I had some experience building partnerships with other software companies but had zero experience in B2C sales or marketing. So you can imagine the sense of utter uncertainty that we stepped into during January when our website first went live.
I learned a lot of painful lessons quickly. Apple app store was a pain to get into and ended up being a complete bust. To this day we haven’t seen a single organic sale there. We did get listed on an industry marketplacez that specializes in music plugins, and saw seven app sales in the first month. This gave us a false sense of confidence in their platform. After launching a high-visibility ad for one week at $625 (roughly 75% of our remaining budget) we saw a 0.02% CTR on the ad they created for us and only 1% of those page visits bought the app. We lost about $500 with that experiment.
Fortunately, our own website proved to convert very well. We ran a series of very low-cost ads on Facebook early on ($5/day) and found a format that converted with a 4% CTR. Of those targeted site visitors, 95% added the product to the cart and 25% of them made a purchase. None of them requested a refund and we saw a 200-500% ROI depending on the week. We were able to reinvest that money into some Google ads as well, which converted decently but far less predictably than Facebook.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Within our first ten weeks, we’ve sold over 200 copies of our app and earned $3000 in revenue. We owe about 25% of that revenue to Facebook ad traffic. But I’m a strong believer in our grassroots marketing campaigns which have been running since day one. These campaigns include a live chat Discord community that we partnered with, influencer partnerships and app giveaways, and most importantly our ongoing social content creation.
I believe strongly in the importance of community support for musicians. People create songs because they want to express their inner feelings and feel validated. As a company that aspires to give people a tool that aids in creativity, we feel it’s equally important to empower those individuals with a place to share their stories. Part of the value proposition on our website is a bonus community where they can do just that.
We work closely with a few creatives who generate content at an affordable price. As fellow musicians, we’re bonding as friends and creative partners. For this reason, our content feels authentic and lacks the “salesy” feel that many of our competitors do.
Internet entrepreneurs often speak to the importance of delivering constant value to your audience. We have links to our website on the Instagram page and people who watch enough of our content may eventually want to try it out themselves. That seems to be the case, as about 50% of our website sales come from direct traffic and organic search. As a brand new website with few ranking SEO keywords, I suspect that people are simply googling our company name to reach our website.
Our most lucrative social campaign to date was with ProducerGrind, a social influencer group with an audience of 200K on Instagram, 50K+ on Youtube, and presence on a variety of other platforms as well. They saw a piece of content we published on Instagram, reached out to us about featuring AudioCipher in a Youtube review, and drove about $600 of revenue in a single weekend, with another $200+ the following week. This was achieved with an app giveaway campaign.
Other influencers have quoted $1000 for a similar Youtube + social campaign. This means we not only earned revenue but saved substantially on advertising costs. This is a testament to the value of paying it forward with our social content.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
As mentioned earlier, my upfront investment was roughly $7000 to get this company started. This included everything from business registration costs to app and website development. Our total earnings across all platforms have come to roughly $3000, so we’re about halfway to recoup the initial investment.
We do pay our content creators a modest amount for each video and pay $200/month in a Wix Facebook ad campaign. Our total costs per month are roughly $500. If our growth plateaus, we can still expect to break even on the investment within roughly 6-10 months once you factor in the cost of income tax. On the other hand, if the public interest in the app grows and influencers continue to advocate for our software, we may hit our goals sooner than that.
Roughly 92% of our online sales come from our own website. The app is priced at $15 currently, marked down from MSRP of $22. We would like to keep the barrier to entry low for the time being and don’t anticipate raising the cost until we add new features. Feature development is affordable thanks to our developer (we love you!) and we have solicited feedback from over 20 users. This helps us to measure customer satisfaction and learn more about the features they would like to see in the future.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the more challenging decisions as a business owner is knowing when to make a high-risk investment in advertisement. As a small company with a tight budget, losing $500 to the app marketplace ad was unpleasant. But at the end of the day, we needed to take that risk in order to evaluate the platform.
We are fortunate to be in a field where there’s a pre-existing ethos of collaboration, creativity, and media output. I don’t think it would have been possible to make the strides that we have in industries that lack built-in incentives for content creation.
Moving forward, we hope to continue partnering with industry influencers. We have a unique product that stands out in the market, so this works to our advantage. People like to showcase our app on their platform because it’s unique and adds value to their own brand as well.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Right now we rely largely on the Wix Facebook campaign, which has built-in pixel retargeting and consistently delivers 200%+ ROI. The ad is updated once a week while retaining the core marketing message to ensure we don’t veer away from a proven source of conversions.
Wix automates our file delivery upon purchase and we use Zapier to integrate Stripe payments with Mailchimp. This allows us to send out a secondary welcome email shortly after a customer purchases the app. We include instructions on how to join our private community in that email along with some general information on the app.
Instagram is our primary marketing platform for social content. That’s large because digital audio workstations are landscape views and our videos tend to include screen captures of producers working live. That being said, we’ve run some experiments on TikTok and were impressed by the view and like metrics. They were roughly 8X better than what we see on Instagram.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Some books that I'm reading right now are "Why Startups Fail" by Tom Eisenmann, "Think like Amazon" by John Rossman, "The Startup Playbook" by David Kidder, and "$100 Startup" by Chris Guillereau.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Build something you love, with people who feel the same way. This way your passion for the product will carry you through the major investment of time (and money) that it requires of you. And if it doesn't work out, at least you had fun.
Also, don't be afraid to charge a small fee for your MVP. As long as it works and delivers value, then charging for it will really let you know whether people think it's a good enough idea to invest in.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re always open to collaborating. Whether you're a musician or have some ideas on the business side of things, we’d love to hear from you!
Where can we go to learn more?
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