Saturday, December 15, 2007

SkinnySongs Success Story

A chocolate chip cookie changed Heidi Roizen's life.

Roizen, 49, is one of Silicon Valley's best-known venture capitalists. She has been a pivotal player in the valley for years, and counts both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among her friends. In the 1980s, Roizen co-founded a software company with her brother, and then came up with the idea of selling clip art--mini pictures in software. Clipart made money for her firm--and eventually became a staple of the Internet.

In the mid-1990s, Roizen joined Apple to try to rekindle enthusiasm among software developers for writing for the Mac platform. Roizen did it with flair, marching onto the stage at a developers' conference clutching a briefcase stuffed with cash to show how much Apple wanted to support developers. She helped orchestrate one of Microsoft's biggest acquisitions, the $1.1 billion purchase of Great Plains software.

But in May, Roizen scored a much more intimate big number. She climbed on the bathroom scale and watched as the numbers hit their highest value ever. Although she tried working out and dieting, the campaigns had fizzled. Worse, she was on her way to a board meeting at a startup company located next to a chocolate chip cookie factory. The meeting would feature delightful, fresh-baked cookies. It always did.

"Can't touch those cookies," she thought grimly, as she drove to the board meeting, flipping through the music choices in her car's system to find something to cheer her on. In past years, as she headed into difficult board meetings, she'd treat herself to a blast of defiant music, such as Pink's "18 Wheeler." But on this particular day, nothing suited her mood.

"I need that kind of music to lose weight," she thought. "I need chick empowerment music. I'm going to fit into my skinny jeans. And I wanted the music to be really cool!"

That's when the entrepreneur in Roizen kicked in. Another person might have just made due with, say, the theme song from the movie Flash Dance. But that wouldn't do for Roizen.

Over the next few months, Roizen, who majored in creative writing at Stanford University, scribbled lyrics for a handful of songs, naming the first "Skinny Jeans." Her words were laced with country music-style irony:

From the moment that I saw you, hangin' out at the mall
I had to own you, your rhinestones and all…
For years we were together, every Saturday night,
we'd go out dancin', you'd hold me in tight,
but you were unforgiving and you wouldn't let me grow
Now I can't put you on--but I can't let you go…."

Friends liked them, but electronic musician Thomas Dolby sat her down and asked her if she was just playing, or if she was serious. "He said: 'Is your goal 15 minutes of fame on YouTube?'" Roizen recalled.

Along with penning lyrics, Roizen started researching the business of weight loss. She encountered another set of big numbers: The Food and Drug Administration reports that about 50 million Americans typically say they're on a diet at any given time. About 76% of Americans say they'd like to lose weight.

Doctors told her the biggest challenge for dieters was finding a community that encourages and supports them. But music specially geared at helping people lose weight tended to be meditative or reflective--or worse, simply depressing about how rotten life is on a diet.

All this suggested to Roizen that her mission wasn't to get on the radio--but to develop a new market. "The niche is women who'd like to lose weight and who listen to music," she says. "It's a big, honking niche on the Venn diagram."

A recording goes "platinum" when it sells a million copies. But Roizen realized there are entire collections of recordings that churn out platinum-level sales without ever airing on the radio, namely boxed music sets for children. Roizen didn't want to be a pop star. She wanted to create a successful business. "I've done the math," she says. "I figured that if I was the publisher and lyricist and I owned the 'record label,' I can make the economics work."

Even so, Roizen recognized that the operation was a big gamble--and so decided to fund it entirely herself.

As soon as she realized she wanted to build a business, she started to hire professional help. With guidance from professional music producers, she zeroed in on well-known Nashville music producer and writer David Malloy. Malloy has had 40 songs picked as "No. 1" by various music tracking groups, like Billboard, including, "I Love A Rainy Night." He has worked with singers such as Tanya Tucker and Billy Gilman.

But write music for songs about losing weight? "At first, I thought it was crazy," Malloy admits.

Malloy's friend, recording industry veteran George Daly, "said a lady he had met approached him about some idea of writing song lyrics about losing weight and would I be interested in anything like that," Malloy recalls. "I said, 'I don't want to write songs about losing weight! That's not what I do!'"

Daly persuaded Malloy to give Roizen's lyrics a look.

Malloy read them and was charmed. "I thought the lyrics were really well-written. I could imagine putting some music behind them," he says.

Over the summer, Malloy and Roizen launched into a spirited collaboration: He wrote the music, she honed the verses. They had artistic tussles--she tried to slip the word "liposuction" into one song; Malloy refused.

"Some words just don't sing well," he points out. "'Liposuction! Liposuction!' Come on, I'm already tired of it."

Roizen nixed the liposuction.

Malloy put in "ear candy," including a background chorus singing something about: "I want to wear something sexy, something that barely fits me…."

Roizen objected. "I don't think my target demographic wants to wear something that 'barely fits me,'" she complained.

"Why is it always about your 'target demographic'?" Malloy shot back.

"Because that's what the album is about," Roizen retorted.

By autumn, Roizen and Malloy had put together a collection of 10 songs with musical styles that varied from country-western and pop to rap. Malloy signed up-and-coming musicians. At first, they hesitated about the idea of singing about weight loss, but the music and lyrics won them over.

"There were no strings attached to this project--no radio format. The only criteria I had was: Did the music make me feel good? Did I have fun with it? Was it the kind of music I wanted to play again?" Malloy says. It was, he says, the most artistic freedom he had had in years.

Roizen kept a tight hold on the business side. "There's a big piece of this that's exactly like any other business," she says, ticking off her to-do list: Get incorporated. Invent a catchy name. Hire the specialists. Work on the economics. Push the contributors to make their deadlines. Roizen created a Web site to sell the music (and in the future, possibly other merchandise, such as T-shirts). She got the music registered on iTunes.

By the end of the year, Roizen will have put "several hundred thousand dollars" into creating the Skinny Songs recording. She resigned from Mobius Venture Capital. Her husband even wound up writing this year's family holiday letter, because Roizen was too busy getting the CD ready to ship.

What remains to be seen is if her bet was a smart one--businesswise. Skinny Songs is just going on sale now, first on her website, then on iTunes. Roizen is also deep into plans for partnerships and promotions, particularly with health clubs.

Would she have funded someone else if they came to her, the venture capitalist, and pitched the idea of starting a music company that would produce music that inspired people to lose weight? "I don't know," Roizen concedes. "I see a lot of women my age, waking up and saying, 'I want to do something personally meaningful to me.' I say to them: 'Is this about personal gratification? Or is it a real business?"

Whatever the outcome of Skinny Songs, the entrepreneur in Roizen has no regrets. "I woke up and said, 'This is what I have to do--even if it fails.'" she says. "This idea is just too compelling for me to let it slip by."

And unlike the usual startup experience of late nights and pizza that pack on the pounds, this time, the entrepreneur lost weight. Roizen says she's down a full 30 pounds since that day in May.

Malloy admits he lost weight, too. "Don't you think I had to?" he asks. "You can't work on songs like this and not lose weight!"

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