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Top MBA Startups: Best Of The Rest

Drew Silverstein is a Hollywood composer, entrepreneur, and graduate of Columbia Business School’s full-time MBA program. Photo courtesy of Columbia Business School

FROM HOLLYWOOD COMPOSER TO COLUMBIA BUSINESS SCHOOL

Building fundamentals for a startup with significant potential is exactly why Drew Silverstein enrolled at Columbia Business School in 2014. Months before starting his MBA at Columbia, Silverstein launched Amper Music with co-founders Michael Hobe and Sam Estes. Silverstein might be the most extreme poet-and-quant Poets&Quants has come across. The Atlanta native graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee with degrees in music composition and theory and Italian. Upon graduation, Silverstein, who says he was either going to be a fighter pilot or a Hollywood composer, bolted for the West Coast, where he landed a job as a music composer and project manager for Sonic Fuel Studios in Los Angeles.

Before long, Silverstein worked his way up and was helping compose soundtracks for big studio movies like Horrible Bosses, Ride Along, and Identity Thief. He also worked on the TV shows Supernatural and Revolution. Silverstein says in the three years he was at Sonic Fuel, his work “ran the gamut” from TV shows to movies to video games, as well as many things “no one really knew about but were artistically gratifying.”

The work also put Silverstein in consistent contact with award-winning directors and producers. Through those conversations, he learned some important tidbits that would eventually lead to Amper Music.

“When we focus on music as a core artistic part of what we’re doing, where we value the collaborative and creative process around music, there is nothing better than working for weeks and months with composers,” Silverstein explains on a phone call with Poets&Quants. “But for a lot of other content, where the value is much more on the music’s functional purpose, and much less on the creative and collaborative part, the typical options were stock music or licensed music and things like that. And there tends to be a general slight unhappiness with that side of the business. There are a lot of shortcomings to the business model.”

CREATING AN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE SOFTWARE TO TRANSLATE HUMAN EMOTION

Finding stock or licensed music can be a real drag, Silverstein explains. There is the searching process, potential copyright infringements, financial barriers — and to top it off, the music is usually not unique. Silverstein knew between himself, Hobe, and Estes, they had the skill set needed to create a solution to the problem. After all, Silverstein says, they are all experts in translating human emotion into music.

In his spare time Silverstein also launched an algorithmic options trading company that raised some angel investments and earned a Series 56 Security License. So he, Hobe, and Estes started asking around about their idea.

“We asked, ‘If we could build a creative artificial intelligence that could offer the same collaborative experience as working with a composer, but within the time and economic framework of pre-licensed music, would you be interested in it?'” Silverstein recalls. The answer was overwhelmingly yes. “That was great,” Silverstein continues, “but it didn’t exist and we had no idea how to create it.”

‘THE FUTURE OF MUSIC WILL BE COLLABORATION BETWEEN AI AND HUMANS’

That is, until Silverstein built it himself, first using Microsoft Excel.

“The future of music will be collaboration between AI and humans,” Silverstein maintains. “What we do is designed to propel that creative process forward in a collaborative way and in an enhancing way between machines and humans.”

Dubbed “commodity music,” virtually anyone can use Amper Music’s software to create any sort of soundtrack they are looking for by searching description terms like “gloomy” or “upbeat hip-hop.”

AN MBA TO BUILD NETWORK AND ‘SHORE UP’ BUSINESS SKILLS

Even with a plausible business in place, Silverstein felt he might not have the strongest network. Also, there were some things he wanted to “shore up” on the business side, he says. So he decided to look at MBA programs. And Columbia’s prestige, geographical placement, and relationships with media companies made it a top choice for Silverstein.

“My focus going into business school was to really hunker down and efficiently gain the skill set, knowledge, and relationships I thought would be essential to success when the inevitable next opportunity came around,” Silverstein says, adding that Columbia is “one of the most underrated entrepreneurship programs across the country.”

In particular, he says, being able to listen to evening on-campus talks with CEOs and heads of industry was particularly helpful.

“If you can learn how many of these people think — how they view the world and how they problem solve — that’s a tool set and life skill that can’t be bought or read in a book, but can be majorly impactful to your career and life,” Silverstein says.

B-SCHOOL WON’T TEACH YOU COURAGE OR RISK-AVERSION 

Silverstein and his co-founders bootstrapped the company for the first year and a half to prove their “thesis” and product from a business and technological perspective. Once they got to a point where they de-risked the venture enough and saw an advantage to moving quickly, they made moves for their first Seed round. “With the motivation to move quickly, we went to raise our first round,” Silverstein says. “And we said, ‘Look, we’re going to do this regardless. But we can do it much more quickly and be successful more quickly if we make this funding happen.'” And they did.

For future B-school entrepreneurs, Silverstein has this advice: Have a plan.

“You’ve got to go in knowing what you want to get out of it,” he insists. “It’s too short of time to figure everything out. You can figure some things out, but you better have a plan. We had a plan and New York was such a big part of it, it was a no-brainer.

“You’re not going to learn courage,” Silverstein continues. “You’re not going to learn how to take risks at business school. People who think they are going to go to business school and grow the risk tolerance or lose the fear to start a business are not going to get that.”

Please see the following pages for the Poets&Quants Best of the Rest Startups of 2017.