Co-founder Philip Inghelbrecht on the start and impact of Shazam

Pictures by Fille Roelants


We bet not many people know this incredibly popular music identification app was co-founded by a guy from Belgium - a guy from Zedelgem to be precise.

Imagine this: it’s Friday night and you’re having fun in a bar, but then the DJ plays a track that just completely mesmerizes you. You need to find out who the artist is, right now. As you know, there’s an app for that! Can you imagine the days before Shazam? Meet co-founder Philip Inghelbrecht, an enthusiastic entrepreneur who’s always on the lookout for a great idea. We were lucky to catch the man on the phone while he had a few minutes’ spare time in a taxi on his way to the San Francisco airport. Ever since he left to study at Berkeley University, he never came back home. After starting a small company with co-founders Chris Barton, Avery Wang and Dhiraj Mukherjee, Inghelbrecht could never have imagined how big the impact of their ingenious idea on the music industry would be.

How does a man from Zedelgem end up at the prestigious Berkeley University?

"When I finished my studies in Leuven in 1993, I knew I didn't want to get a job straight away. Maybe this has become more common now, but at the time, this was really not done. First, I wanted to travel around the U.S., so started at the West Coast. As soon as I touched down in San Francisco, I fell in love. I just knew I had to come back there someday. I was in the middle of a big dilemma: travelling the world for a year or start an MBA. Before long, I got accepted at the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, which was (and still is) a highly regarded institution for business. I decided to turn down the offer in favour of backpacking, but then Berkeley sent me a letter in which they told me I got accepted there. So yeah, that was that! I went on to study there for two years, and I moved to San Francisco afterwards."

This was before Silicon Valley made a name for itself, right?

"I didn't even know Silicon Valley was a short drive away! I had never even heard of it. Keep in mind I came from a financial background. So it was a completely new life for me. I had to start my career from scratch, and getting an MBA at Berkeley is quite a fine start."

Did you and the other co-founders at Shazam already have the idea of such a service in mind? Or did this concept only come to mind later on, when you were already working together?

"It was both. I met Barton in Berkeley, and we became good friends. We knew we wanted to start our own company eventually, but we had no idea what it was going to be about. I think we tossed around thousands of ideas before we decided on what would, later on, become the idea for Shazam. Add Dhiraj and Avery, and the founding team of four was complete."

You can come up with ideas all you want, but to act upon them is a different matter.

From other interviews, it was your friend Barton that had the big 'aha moment'. What was your first reaction when he shared the idea with you?

"I knew there was a big potential in there somewhere, but we had an obvious problem: technology was just not advanced enough at the time. It was one of the many ideas we discussed, and for months, we didn't pay much attention to it. To give you some context about that time: 20 years ago, I used Mapquest to schedule my drive to a meeting. Yet, I still arrive an hour late because of traffic, even though GPS-technology was already on point. So I figured there had to be some application that could show you realtime information about your trip… I now regret I never took a patent on that (laughs)! All this is to show you my point: an idea on itself is cheap. You can come up with ideas all you want, but to act upon them is a different matter."

Like you said, the technology just wasn't there yet to support a service like Shazam. This was 1999, three years before the launch of iTunes, seven years before the launch of iPhone and eight years before the launch of the App Store. Wasn't it frustrating to know you had a golden idea that would only work when the technology would catch up at some point eventually?

"On the one hand, you want to be present on the market already by the time this happens to solidify your position - we predicted that cellphones would become smartphones with internet eventually. But on the other hand, we had absolutely no clue they would become so powerful. Stuff like touchscreens, apps and whatnot, we couldn't possibly predict that part. Nobody could. If somebody ever tells you they could predict the impact of the iPhone, they only wish they had such foresight! So when it was released in 2007, it exceeded our wildest expectations, we were ready to take full advantage."

We predicted the rise of smartphones. So when the iPhone was released in 2007, we were ready to take full advantage.

But Shazam was already in operation as an SMS service long before that, from 2002 to be precise. How did this work exactly?

"Well, you had to call the number 2580, after which you were automatically redirected to an answering machine. While it was recording the sound, you had to put your phone close to the source of music. After you hung up, the music was matched with the music in the database – and not much later you would receive a text with the track info. The hard part about this is the actual telephone number. We knew people wouldn't actually memorize a number, so we decided on 2580, which is always the middle of your phone's digits, no matter where the phone comes from."

With the launch of the app in the early days of the App Store in 2008, we resolved what you guys called 'the moment': that instance of time in which you recognize a piece of music, but you can't remember who made it. In effect, you offered a solution to one of the world's most notorious petty problems. The impact of Shazam on the way people consume music has henceforth been incredible. Did you ever predict the possible ways this could change the industry?

"To be honest, I don't know. I know that radio stations and record labels use Shazam to see what's popular with their target audiences. I know that bands use our data to see where they have to plan their gigs. I even heard Jimmy Fallon say he uses the app four times every day to see which artists he wants to book in his show. That shows how big the impact Shazam has been. In short, we never even dreamed of such a situation. Quite frankly, to have done so would have been arrogant! It still exceeds our wildest expectations. That, for me, is more important than financial success. We have made a cultural impact, which is way more satisfying."

Your days at the company are long over. Do you still use Shazam regularly? Are you still in the loop with internal developments in the company?

"As co-founders, we're still in the board of directors, so I'm still very much up to date with current affairs. As for the personal use of Shazam: I still use it almost every day! If there's a certain issue, I'm the first to let the team of developers know. Whenever I think the app might not recognize a particular song (when I'm in a country like Japan or in a nightclub for example), I'll try it out to see if it's in the database. I still see it as a challenge to be the very first person who Shazams a particular song. I'll give you an insight: if you ever find yourself at a live concert and you're able to Shazam a track, chances are it's not really a live show (laughs)."

I still see it as a challenge to be the very first person who Shazams a particular song

After Shazam, you worked at Google for a while, before starting a new, successful company again: Tatari - which aims to measure and optimize TV advertisements. Can you compare this phase of the new company with the same period during your Shazam days?

"Yes, I can. It's the most exciting phase in the development of a company. It's a new product and a new team, and you're going through many ups and downs together. That's a lot more exciting to me. Of course, back in those days, I was a little more naïve. I'm a lot more efficient and experienced nowadays."

Do you believe Tatari can ever have the same impact Shazam had?

"That's difficult to say. Like I've said before: financially, Shazam wasn't a great success story, but emotionally and culturally it was. It just depends on how you measure your success. Tatari may not have the same cultural impact, but there may be more financial potential here. Success is relative."

In contrast to conventional business wisdom, your Shazam team has always said that starting a business with your best friends is a good idea. Now that we are 20 years down the line and all of you are doing different things, do you still stand by that piece of advice?

"Absolutely! We're still great friends, and we see each other regularly! But yeah, I see your point. The most important thing is that you respect each other's opinions without taking it personally. Friendship has to be more important than business. Chris and I used to have a lot of discussions – and we wouldn't have been able to talk these out if we weren't best friends, you see?"