Democratizing music with Freedrum

Last week we had another Startup Coffee Meetup at Goto 10 Malmö. The event again featured brilliant ideas. This time we were able to hear from Freedrum CEO George Charkviani. George has a background in mechanical engineering, working at some quite large firms such as Sony, Axis Communications, Tetra Pak to name a few, and then co-founded an agency which basically works to connect engineers and designers at the starting phase of any initiative projects for hardware tech, and then decided to start Freedrum, which was way more specialized on specifically air drumming kit. The idea is to make drumming cheaper and more accessible globally.

Why did you go from this broader design in the agency world to this very specific project (the air drums kit)?

"I don't think it would be because of just one thing. I think it is an evolution of my career. As you said, the agency world was great. You get to work with a bunch of people, there is a lot going on. But, for me, I think it was just time to move on. I really want to build a venture scale company and the agency world is not that scalable, it is very hard to get into venture scale in the agency business model. For me, it doesn't matter whether it was during or before the agency I always wanted to be engineering, designing things with an opinion on, things that I want to use or that I care if other people use. When I had the opportunity to join Freedrum, it didn't take much convincing, since I've played music my entire life. So, it was just this great fusion of design, user experience, a lot of complex engineering in there and just trying to build a business on a venture scale”.

How intuitive is the air drums kit for a beginner?

"I'll start off by saying that learning a musical instrument is challenging, hard. It doesn't matter if it is Freedrum, a guitar, it is just going to take some work. I think for us, specifically the virtual part, it's a question of design. It's something we spend a lot of hours figuring that part out. You know, the screen, whether it's a computer or whether it's a mobile phone is a big part of the experience and I would almost say if you compare us to traditional instruments, we're probably more intuitive because we have that extra assistance to be able to tell you what and when to hit. In a lot of ways, it's probably a lot more intuitive than just dragging a beginner drum kit home and sort of trying to figure it out on yourself. So, I think we actually have the upper leg there”.

With the Freedrum app, you're basically giving people the opportunity to be able to learn on their own at home without actually getting a teacher, but you also have the online facility where they can get access to virtual lessons from teachers anywhere in the world?

"Well, not yet. Peer-to-peer learning is not part of the app yet. However, we're very excited about what we're going to be doing in the future with the community aspect of the app. Peer-to-peer learning is one of those things. What we're also really excited about is giving the opportunity for musicians to collaborate, share their creations, share their ideas. I think the internet provides a lot of opportunity to distribute that kind of stuff, so , for us, peer-to-peer learning absolutely, but right now we're pretty focused on being a digital first, very simplified solution to allow anyone to just get started in music”.

You see it maybe as being the start of an online music revolution where people can have a bit more of a remote access?

“For us and where our opportunity really lies is the fact that, you know, drums are inherently very cumbersome. They're really tricky in that regard, not only is the instrument difficult, but it's so unportable that just trying to get access to lessons is hard. We had a meeting with an US school last week and I think on average they take 65 dollars/hour for a drum lesson and that's pretty restrictive. So, for us it's about what kind of innovative solution can we come up with to allow people to just get into music, low commitment, start/stop as you feel free. I think we're taking the first right step there”.

How intuitive is it when going back and forth between the Freedrum kit and the conventional drum kit?

“That's very much an individual thing for player to player. From what we've seen people move pretty fluently between the two because we've tried to bridge the gap between the two as closely as we can. Something we fight up against a lot particularly from professional drummers such as Roy is that well  it's not a real drum kit or you don't hit something and I think the way we try to explain it is that the majority of drummers even if they've committed to having a drum kit, they're 99% of the time not near the drum kit. So, we're not really competing with a drum kit. We're competing with not playing musical instruments at all. That's the way we see it. So, part of the design process has been to make the experience of Freedrum as close to a traditional kit as we possibly can”.

And this is just giving people access to be able to play in practice whenever they feel like!

"Absolutely!! If you don't have your drum kit, the best alternative out there is a practice pad which is literally a small piece of rubber that you just tap or the back of a bucket or something. I think we've created a much nicer bridge there”.

And have you got any visions for other instruments that you can apply this technology or a similar technology to?

"We go back and forth on that a lot. I think for now we're pretty dedicated to the drumming vertical. That's really where we want to be. We think there's a lot of space for us to grow here. Right now we're a direct to consumer solution. So, we have a relationship with individuals out there. The next step for us will be schools. So, what does Freedrum look like in a school environment that is a different piece of hardware and software. But for the coming years, it's definitely going to be the drumming vertical. What I've learned throughout my career is that being a startup you have to be just as good at selecting which ideas you're going to pursue as to which ones you're going to ignore. You know, we would love to do singing, guitar and everything, but we would like to get really, really good within the drumming space for the time being”.

Can this be integrated as another option in that experience for different game software?

"I think technically it could be. That's very much like a gaming experience and it's great! I love it! We're trying to be a music instrument company first as opposed to a gaming company first. We're borrowing from the gaming industry. We're trying to learn how they managed to get people to look at a screen for six hours a day, but whereas that is very much a game and entertainment thing, this actually does have a lot of theory behind it. For example, I think a lot of Roy's knowledge as to how you teach people is actually baked into the software. So, we're trying to digitize that”.

So, the software comes from a pedagogical approach?

“Absolutely! Basically, if you've decided to learn drumming and you would go to a drum teacher, all the steps you'd go through for the first two years we've tried to digitize that and scale it and distribute it by the internet pretty much”.

With tech companies you have both software tech and hardware tech. Software tech is often easier to fund because there's lower capital entry than hardware. So, how have you found that aspect in terms of starting the hardware part and getting that actual funding?

“Good question! Hardware companies are definitely not in vogue with investors at the moment, they're really not. Specifically with Freedrum we originally started with our own capital, so we just put in our own funds and then we managed to leverage crowdfunding to show the first demand. I think generally even though hardware is not sort of the favorite space for investors at the moment, if you have a good business idea and you've shown that you've got product market fit as they tend to say you will get funded. That's what we experienced. But for us the first steps were just our cash to be honest”.

In terms of the technology that you have, do you have any patents which have helped getting funding/securing your position in the space?

"Two parts of that: we do have a patent. We've applied for a US patent. It is in the process. Fingers crossed it gets approved! That was done maybe a year after we raised our funds. So, the original version of Freedrum didn't have a patent and I think at the time the co-founders just decided we can go down a lengthy patent process or we can just rush this product to market and see if there's actually demand for the idea and try to build the brand. That's what happened. The downside of course is that within everything from a couple of weeks to a couple of years a bunch of competitors popped out that literally did the same technical solution. I think this one is going to be much harder to copy, but I think if I circle back patents are great, but I'd say focus on product market fit, show that demand and then funding will be much easier”.

Some of the competitors that you have use cameras to visualize where the movements are, but you don't have that. So, how would you say yours is advantageous or disadvantageous compared to the competitors?

"You know, the company is called Freedrum, so we can drum anywhere. So, the big thing with cameras is that you can't, for example, use it outside. You need very specific lighting conditions. You're also very stationary because you have to set that up. There's a lot of cables and things like that. Also, the majority of our competitors are using an accelerometer which is what our first product was based on and it gets you a pretty nice preliminary virtual drumming experience. I think what we've done here is very different. We use ultrasonic. We are actually measuring where the sticks are in 3D space”.

Once again we would like to thank George, together with his team, for dedicating part of their day to introduce us to Freedrum and talk about how their drum kit aims to increase the number of instrument players. We'd also like to thank the following viewers for their participation: Sofia Bohman, Cynthia Coulombe, Daniel Schneider, Clara Marie Lund, Ally Iversen, Seyran Dalipouski and Philip Robertson. This is the key point of George's vision: not to compete with the drum kit industry, but rather with the “not playing instruments at all” industry, which we find particularly brilliant and inclusive.