When Gabriel Jacobs first began coding back in the 3G days of 2008, the ninth grader at New York City’s Dalton School didn’t tell his friends. He was too embarrassed.
Staying up late teaching oneself how to code from YouTube videos was the opposite of cool. After all, Apple’s iTunes App Store had just launched and celebritystatus billionaires like Instagram’s Kevin Systrom and Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel didn’t yet exist.
But within a year Jacobs had created the ultimate cool app for a 14-year-old boy. His Fart for Free blew up among teenagers across the country, hitting No. 1 in the iTunes App Store for a hot minute and ultimately generating over 4 million downloads. Even before he could tell classmates it was his, they were already using the mobile whoopee cushion—with some 16 different fart sounds—to prank their friends.
Fast-forward seven years and Jacobs, 21, is on the cusp of cool again. His latest creation, called Cymbal, fills a strategic gap in the digital music business, which has yet to create a truly social experience for music lovers. The app, developed with fellow Tufts University students Amadou Crookes and Mario Gomez-Hall and launched just before their graduation in May, describes itself as “music discovery powered by friends, not algorithms”.
Think of Cymbal as an Instagram for music. The app adopts a simple interface embracing a “less is more” vibe, allowing users to post just one song, illustrated by colourful album art. Like Instagram, Cymbal involves a home feed, personal profile, followers, likes, comments, hashtags and tags. Your Cymbal is your song of the moment—that throwback you’d jam to in your basement in high school, that song your friend’s band just released on SoundCloud. Your home feed, then, becomes an updated playlist curated by your friends, your profile: The soundtrack to your life.
In just a few months the app has been downloaded at least 17,000 times, spreading from the Medford, Massachusetts campus to colleges and high schools as far away as Los Angeles. The trio just landed $1.1 million in seed financing led by New York’s Vaizra Investments and Cambridge’s General Catalyst, valuing the freshly minted startup at $6.1 million.
“It was straight-up finals week,” recalls Jacobs. “We weren’t telling anyone because it’d be crazy when all our friends are studying for finals to be like ‘Yeah, we just got $600,000’.”
The founders of Cymbal are part of a gold rush in mobile app development raging on campuses across the country. Ever since Angry Birds went viral and Twitter and Snapchat produced billionaires, enterprising undergraduates have seized upon the fact that the quickest path to riches is literally at their finger tips. Learning how to create an app for an iPhone or Android device is as easy as downloading free software from Apple or Google and slogging through a tutorial. Says Aaron Hillegass of Big Nerd Ranch, a firm that specialises in boot camps for developers, “It doesn’t take a whole lot of money to develop an app, it takes a lot of energy and creativity.”
Energy and creativity are in abundance among the three budding entrepreneurs who created Cymbal. All told, the trio have so far created 34 apps. Crookes’ iJumbo app, for example, is used by nearly all Tufts undergrads on campus to find out everything from when the next shuttle bus is coming to what is being served at the dining halls.
One hook for Cymbal’s moneyed backers may be the fact that the app doesn’t threaten other music services but instead complements them. In the same way you’d upload an album of vacation photos to Facebook and the best one to Instagram, you create a whole playlist on Spotify and set the best one as your Cymbal. Indeed, the app synchronises with Spotify and SoundCloud. If you discover a song you love, you can add it to your Spotify library and like it on SoundCloud directly through the app.
Who pays artist royalties when Cymbal users listen to songs? Not Cymbal, which is free. It merely streams the music from host libraries and piggybacks on the deals they have.
The idea for Cymbal evolved from a music blog Jacobs created as a sophomore in high school called Lower Frequencies. The blog had a simple mission: Review one great song a day. Four years and a thousand songs later, Jacobs was bored. He wanted music to be a conversation.
In 2012 he met Crookes in Tufts’ most notorious computer science class, Comp40: Machine Structure & Assembly-Language Programming. The pair bonded pulling all-nighters over homework projects. Meanwhile, Gomez-Hall, a human factors engineering major, was doing the same. The three coders developed a friendly rivalry, competing for spots on Tufts students’ home screens. Gomez-Hall’s apps consistently won on the front end; Jacobs and Crookes’ won on the back end.
Last December the three united to transform Jacobs’ blog concept into a social network for song sharing. When they launched in beta in March, everyone wanted to be on it. “Every time we added someone to the beta, we got five or ten texts saying ‘Dude, add me too’,” Gomez-Hall recalls. “Cymbal was blowing up.”
Gomez-Hall and Crookes ditched their job offers at Microsoft and Google, and the coffee shop became their informal office. Afterhours they met in the student centre. “Sometimes we couldn’t book a room in the campus centre, so we’d have to take a call outside,” Crookes says. “It was freaking cold.”
On May 1, Cymbal went live on Apple’s App Store. Within two weeks, the app was on nearly all Tufts iPhones and has since travelled rapidly around the nation.
“I downloaded it four days ago, and I’ve been like freakishly telling people about it because I think it’s really cool,” says Kellie Mardula, a rising junior at Boston University who is also a DJ at the university’s WTBU Radio. Mardula recently discovered indie band Parquet Courts. “One of my friends ‘Cymbaled’ them, and now I love that band.”
Meanwhile, the trio haven’t had much time to bask in the glow of their graduation. Embracing their nerdy side, a recent update added a Venn diagram feature that represents users who have set the same Cymbal so you can discover users with shared musical tastes. They’re hiring developers, and in the fall will move to Brooklyn. An Android version will soon be released in beta, and a campus ambassador marketing programme is in the works.
Even if Cymbal fails to gain Instagram-like success, its 15 minutes of fame will produce long-term dividends for Tufts, which now counts computer science as its most popular major.
Computer science professor Ben Hescott is already beaming. “Either someone’s going to buy it, like Apple, or people are going to be talking about it because it’s something they’re using.”
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(This story appears in the 04 September, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)