Chris Barton, MBA 00

Name that Tune

Alumnus silences naysayers to co-create music-identification app

Chris Barton, MBA 00

Founder and Board Director, Shazam
San Francisco

During the height of the dot-com boom, anything seemed possible for a young entrepreneur with an interesting concept. So when Chris Barton tried to sell others on his idea for an algorithm that would identify music instantly, the last thing he expected was a cold shoulder and critics saying he was only chasing a fantasy.

“But the more I got rejected, the more motivated I became to prove them wrong,” Barton says. He stuck with the idea and ultimately helped usher in one of the most popular apps in the world.

The app, Shazam, grew from a simple frustration: not being able to figure out the names of particular songs Barton liked so he could add them to a personal playlist.

While a Haas student, Barton and his three future co-founders—Dhiraj Mukherjee, Philip Inghelbrecht, MBA 00, and Avery Wang— brainstormed startup ideas. They ultimately settled on trying to develop a service that could identify any song within earshot in seconds, using only a cellphone.

Given the limitations of mobile devices at the time, Shazam was a brazen idea. This was a year before the debut of iTunes, seven years before the iPhone, and eight years before Apple’s App Store. What’s more, Barton was a relative novice in Silicon Valley. Prior to matriculating at Haas, he had worked in strategy consulting. Now he was trying to modernize an entirely different industry.

Still, he says, the lessons learned inside—and outside—the Haas classroom left him convinced the idea behind Shazam was going to work.

“One of the great inspirations of being at Haas is that you are actually seeing people around you who are doing amazing things. I remember one day meeting Scott Kucirek, MBA 99, who went on to found ZipRealty. He told me he was starting a company. When I asked what he did before business school, he said he had been an Air Force pilot. An Air Force pilot! That was incredibly inspiring,” Barton says.

“To me, it said that the world can be your oyster if you have the desire to pursue a dream. It didn’t matter what you did before. At Haas, anything was possible,” he says. “I probably would not have taken the risks that I did and started a company had I not gone to Haas.”

Shazam solved the technical challenge of identifying songs and in 2002 unveiled an algorithm that featured a way to create a unique acoustic fingerprint for each music track. The app has since been downloaded more than a billion times and is used by more than a hundred million monthly active users. Shazam has continued to evolve, and advertisers now pay to use the company’s image-recognition, augmented-reality, and sound-recognition technologies.

These days, Barton enjoys advising new entrepreneurs and sits on advisory boards for health tech startups Eko Devices and Ava and media tech company FEM Inc. His advice to all would-be entrepreneurs? “When you set your mind on something, believe in yourself.” —Charles Cooper

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“I probably would not have taken the risks that I did and started a company had I not gone to Haas,” says Chris Barton, MBA 00. His idea for the Shazam music-identification app was considered a pipe dream at first.