Anthony Volodkin: Why Steep Learning Curves Are Worth It

by Sarah Rapp
In 2005, back when music blogs were still a relatively new phenomenon, Hype Machine creator Anthony Volodkin imagined a website that would aggregate those diverse critical voices to answer an age-old question: “What should I listen to?” A 19-year-old college student with an IT side job, Volodkin had little time, little money, and little experience working on the web. But rather than getting discouraged by an incredibly steep learning curve, he took it as a sign that he was onto something.Today, Hype Machine pulls content from over 1,000 music blogs to paint a «trend map» of what songs people are talking about, and allows users to stream all of them. In essence, it takes the musical chatter from across the web and distills it into one clarion voice that tells you what’s hot right now.

So how did the now 23-year-old Volodkin get from here to there? We caught up with him four years in to talk about the stuff that doesn’t get a lot of hype: why things take four times longer than you think they will, how not to miss the 5% of your emails that matter, and how to know if you’re solving the right problem.

You started Hype Machine when you were 19. How did you get it off the ground, and what gave you the inspiration to start?
At the time, I was in school, and working as an IT consultant on the side. That was all fine, until the learning curve caught up, and I knew how to fix most problems. Over a time, I felt like the social energy that it takes to work at a place like that could be better invested in something else.

At the same time as this was happening, I noticed that I wasn’t finding new music, I was listening to the same stuff I already knew. I thought, this is not right. There must be new things I don’t know about, or old things I don’t know about. But I didn’t know how to find it.

At this time, the concept of “music blogs” was very new – most people hadn’t heard of them. But I ran into a few music blogs, and I was like, “People just post music that they like?” That was radical, it just blew my mind.

It was amazing because a few years before, the whole Napster thing went down, and pretty much nobody did anything online after that – it was just kind of dead. I started feeling like there must be some way for me to have a better look at what was going on there.

You built Hype Machine with little experience in web programming. What was the process like?
At the time, I felt that my options were kind of limited in terms of how to make something like this happen. I didn’t have a bunch of money that I could pay someone [to build the website], and I didn’t actually know any developers whose work I liked. So I was just like, “OK, what do I have to do?” And I thought, “OK, I’ll learn that. Done.”

I knew how to program somewhat, but not as well for web. The learning part is what’s hard because of the time commitment. It basically means that anything that I was adding to the site took about four times as long as it should have taken.

To add a simple thing, I had to figure out, “OK, how do I do any of this?” But that’s a really good reason for learning something, because I thought, “Well, I really want this thing, and nobody’s made this thing, so I’m going to make this thing.” It was a pretty tough learning curve. But you do it anyway, because you have to.

Beyond creating a space to find new music, what excited  you about the concept?
I really value original thinking. The way I kind of try to parse many web projects, is, they’re either original, or significantly improve on something that already exists. So, they don’t have to be original, but if they do something really well, it’s beautiful. So in this case, what got me excited was that nobody is doing this. The only example of something kind of similar was, which is a basic text aggregator of a pile of blogs. Super simple. I was excited that I could do something that no one else was doing.

Web projects don’t have to be original, but if they do something really well, it’s beautiful.

Hype Machine pulls content from music blogs and doesn’t necessarily distinguish between good and bad music – it just displays what is being talked about. How does this affect your content?
We did definitely build the site around positive connotations, but more than positivity, it’s really about what is currently interesting. Lady Gaga is currently interesting. You don’t have to like it, but she’s this kind of brilliantly masterminded manufactured thing. I don’t like her music too much, but I really like the approach that they’ve taken, where, they’re like, “OK, here are the things that it will take to make a celebrity. We’ll do all of them.” And this is what happens.

What’s your daily routine?
Emailing always takes a noticeable amount of time. I’ve tried a number of the 4-hour work-week-style, don’t-check-your-email-too-much methods. And I’ve found that 95% of the time, it works, and you don’t really miss any important emails. You can check it once a day even. The problem really is with that other 5%, when people will email me things, where, if I get back to them quickly, it can dramatically improve the thing that you ask for. That gets me really frustrated, because it ruins the system – those 5% are actually super-important.

One interesting way I started dealing with this is that I don’t have email open on my computer, but I keep my iPhone on my desk, and I’ll glance at the phone to see what kind of emails I have.  Because it’s a phone, your brain processes it in a different way, so, for whatever reason, it’s not as distracting. I’ll pick up the phone to make sure that it doesn’t have any of those 5% ones.

Have you found that Hype Machine is consistently growing and improving, or have there been moments of doubt about its performance?
Generally, the traffic has been growing gradually. Sometimes when the number of unique [visits] slows down, other metrics grow. But, the question about doubt is actually very persistent, because you’re always wondering if you’re doing the right thing. Or if you’re working on the right thing. Or if you’re working on the right problem. Are you solving too specific of a problem, or too general of a problem?

There are all these adjustments I’m thinking about. I think this is really key to “getting it done,” because some people work on something that’s far too broad or far too specific, and that doesn’t really work. But I think there’s this interesting middle where it works. I’m always kind of figuring out where we are in that and if we’re in the right spot. I typically watch to see if I am constantly learning something or if there is some other notable progress.

Do you have any advice for other young entrepreneurs or creatives?
Find a way to work on what you really want to see in the world.  Your time matters and if you spend it wisely, the world will respond appropriately.  Will you make an ad network that tries to deceive people into paying for weight loss supplements (while giving you some profits from a small margin at large volume) or a powerful way to help people fund new creative endeavors?

Your time matters and if you spend it wisely, the world will respond appropriately.

I had an inspiring exchange some time ago with James Miao, the founder of The Sixty One, a very interesting music discovery community.  We were discussing the technical complexity of the seamless playback on their site (when you switch pages, the music doesn’t stop, also a feature on the Hype Machine) and I was asking James how they took the plunge to implement it all.  James said that he didn’t want to build another crappy music site, and that was motivation enough.

Seeing people taking their work so seriously and standing by it proudly, makes me hopeful about what else we can see in this world.

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