Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Three years ago, I got a phone call — Pandora was about to die.
Things were not going well for the Internet radio service at that point. The economy was collapsing, Sequoia would soon give its infamous “RIP, Good Times” presentation, and most importantly for Pandora, it was starting to look like the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) may not lower their rates. This led founder Tim Westergren to suggest that they may have to shut the service down. And we wrote that sadly, it was looking like Pandora may have to be a “sacrificial lamb“.
That’s what makes today so fascinating — and perhaps the feel-good tech story for this generation of web startups. Pandora IPO’d this morning, listing itself on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “P”. While the orignal IPO share price had been set at $7 to $9, the company revised that to $10 to $12, and then set it yesterday at $16. The stock opened today north of $20 a share, where it remains. The market cap is now over $3 billion. Again, this was a company that was going to die.
I got the chance to speak with Pandora head of product and CTO Tom Conrad about the big day — as well as the amazing backstory of the company.
“It’s a beautiful day in New York,” Conrad says with a laugh. When I tell him that’s on the record, he laughs again. “It rained yesterday, but not a cloud in the sky today.” He’s in a good mood, obviously. And he should be. He got to take the company that he has poured his life into for the past seven years public today. He says he’s speaking to me from either “deep in the basement or way up up in a tower” at the NYSE.
“It’s a really exciting time for Pandora. We’re growing really fast. And we’re excited about the opportunity for all the new listeners we have,” Conrad kicks things off by saying. I ask him to back up and start at the beginning.
Pandora was founded in 2000, but it wasn’t known as “Pandora” at the time. Instead, the company was focused on their Music Genome Project, which aimed to extract the DNA from music, as it were, and find commonalities to perfect recommendations. When Conrad joined in 2004, the company was known as Savage Beast — yes, a truly awful name that invokes Savage Garden. In fact, here’s an early blog post form Conrad about Savage Beast that he probably won’t be please with me sharing.
When Conrad came on board, the company had just taken its first real venture capital investment (from Walden Ventures) and Joe Kennedy had just been hired as CEO. The idea was to transform the Music Genome Project from a cool piece of technology that was licensed out to the likes of Best Buy, and (our parent) AOL, among others, to a consumer-facing product. That effort began in December 2004, with design work leading up to that. By the late summer of 2005, the product was ready to go.
And here’s where things get really interesting.
“TechCrunch is a part of this,” Conrad says. “We launched, and the first Barcamp was the following Saturday. I got out of bed that morning and almost didn’t go. But at the last minute, I threw my laptop in the car and drove to Palo Alto,” he says. “By luck, Mike was in the room.”

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