collabraLast night, Collabra launched a new vision for its music collaboration Internet application.

They officially handed the product over to Leona Nosko, vocal and piano instructor at Jeffersonville’s MOM’S Music, and signed up their first paying student.

Nosko has 54 other students where that one came from.

So while Collabra’s summertime pivot toward an educational model while being part of the Velocity accelerator program may have been relatively well known in the startup community, it certainly hasn’t been widely covered. Even though the company was named as one of EnterpriseCORP’s “Hot Dozen” companies this fall.

hot dozenWhy? “We’ve been in the startup bubble,” says Ryan Michaels, Collabra’s marketing director.

That means too busy developing and doing customer discovery to do any PR.

This summer, while performing customer discovery for Collabra, the company kept discovering the same issue over and over. Everyone thought the original idea of Collabra was a good one.

Back in February we described that idea:

This cross-platform application will allow musicians to collaborate and contribute tracks via the Internet. You can upload a guitar and vocal track of your new song to Collabra, and musicians from around the world can listen to it and add their own tracks for your song. So a trombone player from New Orleans might lay down a track and two drummers from Cincinnati and London must upload their own beats. Then you – and anyone else, actually – can mix and match tracks. Pick the tracks you want and use Collabra’s easy-to-use online software to mix the song and then download for a small fee.

That way musicians who’ve never even met– let alone never shared a studio space – can collaborate together on the creative process.

The problem Michaels and the team discovered was, as Michaels puts so musically: “No one wanted to really be Billy Joel and ‘Start the Fire’ with this thing.”

In other words, no one wanted to be the first to begin a move toward collaboration.

collabrascreen1But one day this summer, they were at MOM’S Music talking to the sales clerk about Collabra. They went on a little long and noticed a line of moms and kids waiting for music lessons was piling up.

Michaels apologized to a mom for holding her up. She asked what he was talking about. He briefly described Collabra, and she asked if her kid could use it with his music instructor.

“And could I see how he’s doing with his instructor?” she asked. Michaels considered this and said yes.

“Where can I buy it?” asked the mom.

Thus the pivot — that moment in Lean Startup customer discovery when you realize your company has to change your company to meet your customers’ needs — was born.

That mother’s question helped solve a problem that had been around for a while. Back in February we wrote:

Creative differences about what Collabra needs to be has kept them from accepting several offers of funding. Specifically, it’s important the application not cost money to use; a paid application, says CEO Ron Karroll, would decrease Collabra’s potential cultural impact.

But here was a revenue model Collabra could get behind.

The team started talking to parents and quickly discovered that getting a kid to stick with music lessons and keep up with his or her practicing at home was a definite pain point for parents.

One dad said he’d spent $600 on a drum set for his son and signed him up for six months of lessons for $100 a month. And at the end of sixth months the kid quit. He wasn’t having fun, and he was lousy at the drums. That’s a $1,200 outlay for a kid to have a bad time. $1,200 basically flushed down the drain if the kid gives up.

Michaels understands this.

He became the company guinea pig and signed up to take guitar lessons to see how Collabra could work for music students and educators. He says, “It’s really painful to play alone when you play bad music. It’s lonely.”

He understands students who are reluctant to pick up their instrument to practice between lessons; he’s one of those students.

But these same students will noodle around and practice and take risks when they could do so socially.

Michaels calls it the “School of Rock” model. “Students can learn music faster in environments where they are learning — painfully — together,” says Michaels.

This doesn’t change the one-on-one music lesson model, though. Students using Collabra as a learning tool will take their usual lesson. The instructor will record it — and eventually video it — to Collabra.

Then the instructor can break the lesson down into little chunks that the student should practice and can even set those little lessons into a calendar for the student to follow. Instructors can also upload music notations or comments into the student’s file.

Weekly practice calendar
Weekly practice calendar

Then students record their progress throughout the week on Collabra and both instructor and parents can follow along.

Finally, the instructor can match up students to practice — or compete (for some reason drummers really like to compete, says Michaels) or form little bands — with each other online.

The backbone of Collabra still exists — the idea of collaborating with musicians around the world for free. But this education model, which has required a ton of additional programming, is the new revenue model.

It’s a subscription model, and they’re still playing around with the price point. But Michaels thinks it will be cheap enough for now to give a few months as a “stocking stuffer” to your favorite budding musician.

Within 150 miles of New Albany, In., says Michaels, there are 527 music stores (not all of whom offer lessons, of course) and 50 fine arts schools. MOM’s Music alone has a roster of anywhere from 800 to 1,100 students at any given time.

The Collabra team has found many music schools don’t do much to enhance their student retention. If Collabra can help parents and instructors track their students’ practicing, and if it can actually encourage students to practice, this program could help shrink the drop-out rate at music schools.

Instructors have an incentive to proactively use Collabra — they’re given a cut of their students’ subscription fees.

There’s a lovely side story to all of this:

Michaels was brought on the Collabra team when they were accepted into Velocity. His best friend is founder Ron Karroll’s cousin. Michaels, who was living in Palm Springs, Ca. at the time, agreed to come to the Louisville area for the summer but told the team, “There’s nothing you can offer me in Kentucky that would keep me there.”

As Collabra has fundraised, Karroll’s commitment to keeping the company in the Louisville area has remained firm. But occasionally the team gets financial nibbles from out of town … potential offers that might require relocation.

And Michaels, whose background is in grassroots fundraising and who helped run the 2008 presidential campaign of Dennis Kucinich, has told his teammates: “I won’t leave.”

“I’m not even a local, and I don’t want to leave,” says Michaels. “There is nothing that California can offer me to make me move back.”