MUSIC TECH STARTUPS: Going back to "physical" with Qleek

After everything got digitalized, from movies to music, there seems to be a new interest in physical products. Vinyls are making a comeback, while at the same time streaming services like Spotify allow users to listen to music they do not even need to download.

Startup Qleek positions itself right inbetween these two worlds. Their products are called Qleeks, small hexagons that are linked to a specific playlist on a streaming service. They can be played on a special player or just by taking a shot of their QR code. For anyone who made a mixed tape in the 80s or 90s, the allure is easy to see.

«We used to make cds for birthdays and then when cds disappeared it started to be really hard to offer music because you don’t know if people have a record player, it’s kind of a niche thing. Music has disappeared as a gift while it’s such a personal one, you can put together a playlist for a person with 9 dollars, you could also put a picture of yourself and the person».

Are tech startups more equal in terms of gender?

It depends, I think that technology is still male dominated but here in the US they make a huge effort and launch lots of events like Girls on tech, especially for women engineers or women in that area.  I like going to these events where there are tons of women, we are in the same area. We work in a coworking space, there are still more males.

How does the system work?

«Each Qleek corresponds to one playlist on Spotify, Deezer or Soundcloud, basically it works with any streaming service. You can make or choose a playlist and copy the link. Then, if you go on our website you’ll have a list with the different covers of the Qleeks you bought; just paste the link on the Qleek you’d like to associate it with. The player can be used to skip a song, go back etc, but we just launched the possibility of playing the Qleeks without the player, which might be too pricey for the new generations.

Having the player is more of an experience, you can just go home, put a Qleek in the player and you don’t need to watch a screen and use your phone for it, but the Qleek in itself is a very nice gift for people who don’t want to spend the money on the player».

You also sell a gadget called the Hive. How does that work?

«The Hive doesn’t have any technological use, it’s just a way to display the Qleeks. We wanted an object that could easily go into an apartment, doesn't take too much space and lets people easily show the Qleeks. When you get into someone’s home and you see the bookshelf or the record collection, you get the feeling of the person. Now everything is hidden inside a computer and we wanted to bring that feeling back».

Do you think that now people are going back to want to have something tangible again?

«Yes, we really believe in that. Having everything digitalized is very convenient, you have Spotify, a library with millions of songs but you’re losing something cause you don’t have a feeling anymore, sometimes you go home and you want to play something but if you don’t have a physical feedback it’s hard to know what you’re in the mood for. If you have a collection of 20 Qleeks you have a visual feedback to understand if you’re in the mood for some jazz or else. During an evening with friends it’s much easier to change the music than if you have to take someone’s phone.

Also, design changes. We worked together with a designer and we made ten different pack covers, that’s really just graphic style, if you like it more abstract, you could say one is for the happy mood, one is a party Qleek. You also have the option to personalize your Qleeks uploading images, pictures, drawings you made and print them on the Qleeks».

Would it be possible to have an infinite playlist on a Qleek?

«As long as it’s streaming you could put a playlist that lasts three days. Spotify even has a service called Discover Weekly with playlists that change once a week. In that case don’t have to do anything, the content changes by itself».

What kind of response have you had?

«A very good one, we did a campaign on Indiegogo three years ago, we delivered 300 players and people were enthusiastic. We communicate a lot with our users, find out what is missing and what they would like us to change. The feedback has been very good. At Christmas we had our first retail experience at a department store. That went much better than expected, at first they didn’t want us because they thought it was hard to sell, they would have considered a success selling one Qleek per day. We sold out the ten Qleeks we had brought in the first three hours, then we delivered again. People from all ages understand the product, adults who enjoy not having to use their phone and being in front of a screen but also teens who are always connected and can keep using it and keep texting or speaking. It was funny to see that they were happy to have a different device for their music. Old people liked it because it’s much easier, Spotify might be a bit too complicated for them but their kids can set up a Qleek and they just drop it and start playing».

What was the response from Spotify and other streaming services?

«Since the services are huge they know about us and tolerate us, if we get much bigger I think we might have to make a special contract with them. It’s good for them, too, because users need to have a premium account anyway, sometimes people who don’t have one go that way. Plus, we found that we increase the music listening, it’s so easy, and that’s something that services are looking for. Soundcloud is for free, you only need wifi, it doesn’t have any country limit at all».

The Internet of things requires more funds. What was the most difficult thing with being a startup, for you?

«Making hardware is much more difficult than software, basically we started in France and went into this programme for startups but everyone else there was software and we found that didn’t help us enough, so we were searching a bit for accelerators and we found one in Boston. They have a great staff of engineers who can help you with all phases, that was really useful. I studied industrial design but I started Qleek right out of school, so I never could do anything industrially and I didn’t know how to design on a large scale. It was a huge help to work with their engineers who had 20 years of experience on very well known products.

The funding of course is a big problem because you need more money to finance, especially the first round of production when you need to make molds: it’s very expensive so you need to raise  a lot more money. That’s troublesome, everything takes a lot more time because you need to evaluate everything».

What are your next steps?

«We’re starting a collaboration with musicians, labels, radios, for Qleeks with already made content and covers defined by an artist. If a radio station wants to make a Qleek they’ll design the logo for the cover, that Qleek will play only that content so users won’t be able to change the playlist.  Nowadays there are tons of people out there who make very nice playlists, like djs, but they have no way to sell them. Artists have a hard time selling merchandising. When they make a new song they could put it on there, it’s a way to communicate between fans and artists.

It works for festivals, too. You could buy the Qleek before with the music for the event, after the festival you could have some live cuts of what happened on the festival.

We also want to expand our retail, maybe for next Christmas to 25-30 shops, for that we have to do a larger production round, it will be much bigger. For the first one we did a lot ourselves, we did the assembles ourselves with different parts. The wood came from France, the electronics from the US, the plastic from China and now we’re trying to do everything in one space and to optimize.

In a larger scale, long term, we want to add photos and videos. That’s not the near future, but for example if you go on vacation to Thailand and come back, then you have tons of nice pictures but they are somewhere hidden in your computer and no one will ever see them, but if you have a Qleek for them you can put it on the player and start showing them. Videos it could work with Netflix or another video streaming service».

Do you think that startups are helping the economy get out of the crisis?

«I hope so, we’re trying to create jobs and help the economy. For now we’re having trouble being here in the US since we’re European. It’s difficult to obtain visas and that’s something I don’t understand, we raise money, we spend money in the US, we are going to hire people here».

How lively is the world of startups?

«The startup scene is very lively, especially where we are there are a lot, also because we’re based in this accelerator. Even if we have very different companies, we are next to a company that works on propane, anyway we all have the same problems about production, about raising funds, with logistics. Everyone is in the same boat and we’re helping each other out, it’s a really nice environment to be in».

Was there something you weren’t expecting, when you started?

«I wasn’t really expecting how difficult it is to make a product or that it takes so long, the problemsyou stumble upon you didn’t expect when you started. You learn so much everyday, we’re all trained but we do many different jobs for the company, a bit of marketing, production, sales. I didn’t expect the job to be so versatile and to change everyday».


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