The Skinny On Building A Rocking Startup

The Skinny On Building A Rocking Startup


Elizabeth Corcoran / Forbes
12.11.07, 4:00 PM ET

 

 A chocolate chip cookie changed Heidi Roizen’s life.

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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
(nasdaq:
AAPL

news


people
)
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
(nasdaq:
MSFT

news


people
) 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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