Hello. My name is Alan McKinney and I’m the founder of ZapSplat. We are online royalty-free sound effects and music library licensing our content to creatives of all kinds exclusively online via our website.
What makes us different is we operate a freemium business model and there are very few other companies out there in our industry doing the same thing. Most of our content is free with several upsells that allow us to monetize the business. When I launched the website back in 2015, it was a hobby designed to share around 6,000 of my sounds to help out students and creatives on a budget. It wasn’t my intention to try and make a profit from it. However, since emigrating to Australia in 2017, I have focused full-time on it which has led to our service now being used by everyone from students right through to high-end production companies and we’ve started licensing third-party content too. I often hear my sounds on TV, radio, in games, and in movies, something I never imagined could happen. It’s grown and grown beyond what I ever thought possible and my users tell me daily how integral ZapSplat has become to their workflow. It’s this that gets me out of bed in the morning to continue to grow the library.
Since 2017, we have grown from around 10,000 sound effects and 5,000 members to almost 100,000 pounds and 1.7 million members. Around 20,000 people download our sounds and music each day from our website.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
From a young age, I was always fascinated with sound and music and I always dreamed of working as a DJ or in some kind of creative role with audio. My parents were always self-employed, something I believe has driven me to also follow in their footsteps.
Consider if this business is something you can do day in, day out, persevere when things get tough, and keep pushing forward when things feel impossible.
My first experience in the business came somewhat by accident and rather spontaneously in 1997. I grew up in Brighton, UK, a city known for its nightlife and culture. Aged 17, I was walking past one of the biggest nightclubs during the day with 2 friends and we decided to ring the bell and ask if we could hire it. Thinking back now, it seems such a weird and random thing to do, considering we had not even contemplated trying to put on an event before and this nightclub had a 3,000 capacity. I think we did it as a laugh and didn’t expect the door to be answered. But it was and we were invited in. We blurted out we wanted to put on an under 18s event (an idea we quickly concocted on the stairs leading up to the office) and were told the conditions, the deposit required and off we went.
To cut a long story short, we borrowed £500 from my dad as a deposit, got some flyers printed up, negotiated a deal with the local council to sell tickets for us and we were in business. We ended up getting around 2,000 kids into the event 3 months later and made a profit. A local rival saw our success and quickly put us out of business so we never managed a follow-up event.
I floated for a few years before deciding to go to college and study music production in 2001. It was here I learned the skills to be able to produce music and record sound. One of the modules on the course was to find work experience and I managed to persuade a ProTools studio in London to take me in. My role was to engineer voice-over recording sessions and after my time was up, was offered more work which I gratefully accepted.
I continued my studies while commuting to London to work a few sessions a month. In the final year of my degree, I realized my goals had shifted. I had no desire to work for someone else, being told what to do - that just isn’t me. Also, I likened working in a studio to that of a kitchen as a chef (another job I had done to make ends meet), quite monotonous. I also had experience in using the online sound libraries of the time (2004) during my time at the studio and the idea I could earn money being creative and recording sounds out on location was very appealing. It was then I sourced a local student web developer to build me a basic but functioning website and I started working on my first library.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
The early days were really hard and I had no real idea what I was doing. I had 2 young children and had to work in a local supermarket to fund the development of the website. It’s funny to be taking sneaky toilet breaks at work to negotiate licensing deals with Hollywood sound libraries and blagging my way through it.
With no budget (we could barely afford to pay our bills at this stage) and limited time, I would work until 3 am on the business, then be up early to take the children to baby groups.
Eventually, due to a lack of funds, my web developer and I became business partners, with him continuing to develop the website and me using my time to source sound effects and promote the website. Looking back now I realize how inexperienced I was and how I lacked the confidence to just pick up the phone and talk to people. I have learned that in business the old phrase it’s not what you know, but who you know is true. It took me a few years to gain that confidence and to build a solid network of people to call on when you need them.
Due to a lack of traffic and pretty dismal search engine rankings, I created a separate very basic website using a template and started giving away a few free sounds with the idea to get attention. It worked and quickly this small library gained around 10,000 daily visitors. We would then push those visitors to our main website in the hope to convert them into customers. However it didn’t work and in 2011 my business partner left to pursue other things and we closed down the main website, leaving me with the free sound website. Again, due to a lack of experience and not planning how I could monetize the website, I struggled to make even £30 a day in Google Adsense revenue. Pushing on for 2 more years took its toll and I felt at an all-time low. How can anyone make money online? This was a question that I asked myself every day and I just felt at this stage it wasn’t something for me anymore.
Two years later in 2013, I sold the free sound library to a company allowing me to clear most of the debt I had built up and I carried on working in the supermarket. We were still struggling financially but I had no energy left for business. I felt confused and overwhelmed at the idea of carrying on.
In 2015 after a two-year break I decided maybe it was time to try again. I’d had a lot of time to think about the mistakes I had made and how I had been focusing on the wrong things. I was trying too hard to make money and not thinking about the user. With 6,000 sound effects sitting on my hard drive, I decided to hire a freelance web developer to build me a new website, but this time to make sure all the elements were there for a great user experience and a resource that solved a problem that no one else was at the time. Back in 2015 there were plenty of sound libraries selling sound effects, but they were all focused on the professional, so students and hobby creatives had very few places to get their hands on professionally recorded sounds for free or on a tight budget.
I’d love to have stories of investment and stressful meetings with executives to grow the business, but in truth that never happened as it hasn’t been required. I have never spent a single penny on advertising as the business has grown entirely from word of mouth, brand awareness, backlinks, and good search engine rankings.
I believe the reason the library has been successful is due to a few simple things.
- I add fresh content (sound effects) every day and I try to split them into 4 daily updates. So I’ll record around 150 new sounds every day and upload them in 4 batches. This is good for SEO and it keeps our users coming back for more as they know they’ll always find new content when they do.
- Our offering is very generous. We are the second largest free sound library in the world and the majority of our sounds can only be found in our library.
- All our sounds are professional quality.
- Our customer service is fast and I believe our support is second to none. While it can be exhausting, I try to answer every email within an hour (it isn’t always possible) and even if I am asleep, the user has to wait no longer than 6 hours for a reply.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Things are going great and growth hasn’t slowed down. We are managing to double our turnover each year which is mostly reinvested back into buying the rights to distribute third-party content and further develop our website. So our premium upgraded members are investing back into our service by paying a subscription.
I have always tried to keep things lean within the business and keep our overheads low. I like to operate with as many fixed costs as possible so I can keep track of the finances and budget accordingly. Our yearly spending has doubled since 2015 mainly because we outgrew our servers and we had to invest in more reliable backup systems. Also, my web development budget has grown a lot in that time. Development alone is costing over $30,000 a year but our increased revenue covers that.
Being a one-man-band is draining, especially with 4 young children who demand a lot of my time, so this year I took on a freelancer who helps me answer emails, runs our Trustpilot account, and manages our Discord server which we use to engage with our community of users. While he is only part-time, I plan to increase his hours this year and potentially take him on as a member of staff next year.
We have had a traffic drop with Google rankings with the June and July 2021 core updates and traffic has taken a hit because of this, but we are hoping to see our rankings improve since working to fix a few issues. This happened in 2019 too and we recovered, but as a webmaster, it can be a worrying time. I have learned to not panic and remember we are offering a fantastic service and product.
The main plan going forward is to continue to grow our premium offering and try to increase our conversion rate. Currently, it sits at around 0.1% which is very low. I’m still learning and developing my business skills and trying to wear my business hat while still running what is essentially my hobby. I will not sacrifice what we have built, a service that ultimately helps students and creatives on a budget, but finding the balance between that and increasing revenue to a point that we can grow to maybe 400,000 sound effects is one I am keen on keep pursuing.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Where do I start? The journey has been an adventure so far and I have learned so much. ZapSplat is my third attempt at an online sound library and is a culmination of a lot of mistakes from the first two.
I know now that when starting a business, you have to have a solid plan from the start. Some things you can (and definitely will) work out on the fly, but spend the time from day one to understand your audience and who they are, the problem you’re trying to solve, what competition there is, and what your USP is. I didn’t do my research and planning on the first two websites, so when I set up ZapSplat, I spent a lot of time in forums, social media, and analyzing the competition before I even had a basic design of the website drawn up.
I have had to learn a lot of new skills in the last 6 years too, from basic HTML and CSS coding through to managing servers and online cloud platforms. I could pay someone to do all these for me, but to keep my spending under control and to fix issues in an emergency, just having a basic knowledge of these things I feel is a must for anyone getting involved in an online business.
Back when I started, I was wary of competition and didn’t make much effort to engage with them. But these days if I can build a relationship with my competitors, I will. My industry is quite close-knit and while many of us are directly competing with each other in one way or another, I have found it advantageous to have a good relationship with them. There are many benefits to this, from referring users to another service if we can’t help or don’t have what they need, to piggybacking off each other’s marketing campaigns.
Finally, I have learned to ALWAYS put the customer/user first. It’s a cliche, but so so true. I’ll go out of my way to solve a customer’s problem, jump on a video call if they’re struggling with our service, follow up emails after a couple of days if the customer hasn’t replied, etc. I love to turn a user’s negative experience into a good one which often results in the best form of free marketing there is.
I think one thing we have managed to do well turns a number of our customers into ambassadors for our brand. By offering a service seen by many as cool, unique, and ultra helpful, and by having a Discord community that has great engagement, those users want to be associated with ZapSplat and are almost always logged into our Discord server, post about us on social media a lot and generally help promote us.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
In the last year, I have found a need to incorporate several services into the business to help with productivity and ease my workflow. Some I use daily include:
We ask our users to give us an honest review on Trustpilot as it not only helps other people decide if they can trust our service but also provides valuable feedback on how we are doing. With over 500 reviews and an excellent rating, it helps install confidence in our users that we are honest and offer an excellent product and service. I highly recommend all businesses have reviews on a platform like this.
Our user demographic is quite young (18 to 45) so when we decided to engage with our users in a community environment, Discord was a great fit. The feedback suggests our users feel a connection with our brand and it’s a great way to build relationships with your users beyond what you can through email.
A boring one really, but if you are dealing with a lot of contracts and documents, this is a no-brainer.
We use Mailgun as a mail server for all our transactional emails. We got caught out early on by not using a service like this and the consequences could have been devastating. ZapSplat sends out over 150,000 emails a month for things like welcome emails, password change requests, and other system notifications. Using a trusted platform with good quality IP addresses minimizes the risk of your domain name being seen as spammy and getting blacklisted. It’s only a small link in that chain, but a good place to start.
We use Google Workspace mostly for handling various email users within the business. I have a support email, one for all our financials and one for our freelancer. It helps keep things organized and Gmail’s spam filters are pretty good at keeping our inboxes uncluttered.
For in-depth analysis of our website performance, backlinks, search engine ranking, etc I have a friend who checks Semrush for me for free because he has an account. However, I also started to use Dibb.com recently myself. This service isn’t free, but it’s very reasonable at just a few dollars a month and it gives you some quick and easy-to-understand stats on how your website is performing in the search engines, performance issue reports, and advice on fixes. It’s not the most advanced tool, but for the price, it is great to get a snapshot of where your online business is doing well and not so well.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Early on I read Duncan Bannantyne’s Wake up and change your life many times. I am sure there are better books out there, but I love his no-nonsense approach to business and changing your outlook on life.
Another book I would recommend is The Magic of Thinking Big by David J Schwartz. This book helped me open my mind not only on a professional level but also a personal one which both feed into each other.
A great forum I often dip in and out of is Flying Solo. There are thousands of threads here that cover almost any question you’ll likely ask in your business life, especially early on, and cover everything from marketing, finance, legal issues, and more!
If you’re running an eCommerce business or other web-based service, I recommend staying up-to-date with SEO best practices and Google algorithm news. For these I regularly check:
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Are you passionate about your business?
First and foremost, consider if this business is something you can do day in, day out, persevere when things get tough, and keep pushing forward when things feel impossible. If you’re not passionate about your product or service and are only in it for the money, you might run the risk of burning out very quickly. I’ve been extremely lucky to have turned a hobby into a business but I firmly believe that’s the reason I have stuck it out. I often ask myself the question, would I still do this if I won the lottery? Yes is the answer. If you don’t at least enjoy working on your business, then question if you’ve chosen the right idea, or if there are things you need to change so you too live and breathe your business.
Launch with a minimum viable product (MVP)
It’s all too easy to get overly enthusiastic about your idea and go steaming into development and launch, but consider what the basic and most essential features of your business are that you can launch with. When I launched ZapSplat, I knew all I needed to get started as a front-end that users could register and login to, listen to a preview of each sound effect, and then download them, simple as that. For the back-end, I had to be able to manage the users, upload and remove sound files, create pages and edit text. Here is an image of the very first version of ZapSplat we launched with. As you can see it’s very basic:
If you compare that to now, the look is very different had we have a ton of features:
Once you’ve launched with your MVP, you can get feedback from your users, beta test new features, ideas, and products, and launch them as demand grows. Not only will this save you from mistakes, but it’ll save you a lot of time and money.
Find a good web developer and stick with them
If you’re running an online business, or even if you just have a basic website for your service, take time to find a suitable (preferably local) web developer and stay with them. In the early days of ZapSplat I used probably 4 or 5 different developers mostly due to cost. While they did a good job, each time I had to switch to a new developer, they had to take the time to learn how the website works and the tech before starting work. I now use the same (local) developer who knows the website inside out and gets the job done efficiently every time.
Where can we go to learn more?
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