Stephen Hebson '12 pointed upwards and grew quiet for a moment, calling attention to the alternative track playing over the dings of spoons and hisses of steam at Blue State Coffee.
"Where we are sitting right now in Blue State, they need public performance licenses," he said.
That is where Overhead.fm comes in. The company, founded last spring by Hebson and his partner Parker Wells '12, supplies licensed music to businesses over the Internet. Like Pandora, the company provides playlists that stores, restaurants or coffee shops can play using any phone, computer or tablet they already have with no extra hardware needed.
"There are other providers that license music for stores, but we are the first ones to move it entirely online," Hebson said, adding that this reduces costs and makes the process easier for customers.
"We've taken the idea that the Internet is the future of how we listen to music and implemented that in a new market," Wells said.
Hebson learned about music licensing through an internship with ATO Records and working on the Brown Concert Agency. He said he also knew how much businesses can spend on music from working at a coffee shop in high school. Recognizing the need for a less expensive and more user-friendly option, he decided to pursue the idea of an online music platform for businesses and began coding the site.
He shared the idea with his roommate, Wells, who was eager to work on it.
"What got me early on was the ideology of it," Wells said. "The music industry is not particularly fair to artists, and at the same time, music is really expensive for retailers. It seemed as if both parties that were using this type of service were losing."
After Hebson and Wells came together and solidified their ideas, Adjunct Lecturer in Engineering Steven Petteruti advised them to pitch the idea to the Rhode Island Business Plan Competition last spring.
"We entered it on a whim. Neither of us had any idea how to write a business plan," Hebson said.
But the pair ended up winning the competition, receiving $15,000, press coverage and professional services. They were then accepted to a three-month accelerator program in Los Angeles that provided them with funding, office space and connections.
During their time at the accelerator program, the team obtained the necessary licensing and finished coding the website and apps for Android and iOS. They are now focusing on building their customer base and getting investors to sign on, which will allow for more advertising.
"It's a fun place to be. Now that we are done with the licensing, it's all about figuring out what really moves that dial," Hebson said.
Only a month after its official launch, Overhead.fm is currently used in 11 locations nationwide and may soon be picked up by a few chains.
Wells and Hebson hope that with the specific features of Overhead.fm these numbers will grow, and they will be able to compete with other companies that provide music for businesses. Clients can alternate between the many genre- and business-specific playlists - including indie coffee house, '90s and dive bar - as often as they want.
"If you are in a restaurant, you are going to play music with an up-tempo for higher turnover of tables, whereas if you are in a coffee shop, you want something slower," Wells said.
Hebson and Wells create these playlists and change and update them regularly. Companies can also tailor these playlists using thumbs up and down icons, much like on other music websites such as Pandora.
Right on beat
Hebson and Wells met in their Keeney Quadrangle unit their first year and became roommates three years later. Though he concentrated in history and economics, Hebson works on the coding and construction of the actual product, making sure everything works from a technical standpoint. Wells, who concentrated in mechanical engineering, works on the business side of the operations, including investor relationships and advertising.
A year ago, Hebson said he expected to work at an advertising agency, while Wells thought he would work at Google. But both decided to forgo these more conventional plans to start their own company.
"There is a lot of luck, but it's kind of cool doing something where it is so closely tied to how well you do and how much you're capable of," Hebson said.
"I like the idea of working on startups," Wells said. "I'm kind of working on my own project."
Hebson also attributed his desire to create a startup to Brown's supportive atmosphere.
"You can come out of Brown feeling like you can do anything," he said. "You have to feel like that to start something like this and trust it enough."
Wells likened the startup experience to working on a project for a class.
"You get to choose your team, choose your project, and you work on it on your terms, as long as you're successful," he said. "I'm trying to make a company, but I'm trying to make a company with my friend. ... That's one thing I like about it."
The next act
So far, both Hebson and Wells said things have gone smoothly.
"There haven't been any really rough patches. There have been things we have tried that didn't work," Hebson said. He said the pair originally attempted to license the music in a different way, but ultimately decided to switch methods, which luckily did not present a setback.
"One of the things that is good about us as a team is we tend to make changes really quickly," he added
But both also said they realized they have a long way to go. "It's not like I'm looking back at this and thinking, 'Oh, we've made it n
ow,'" Hebson said.
For the near future, they are focused on raising a financing round, which will allow them to spend more money on advertising and will hopefully get more customers.
Wells also mentioned the possibility of the company growing beyond music.
"We prove that we can sell something, in our case a simple music service ... and then from there you expand and go into all the other areas," he said, citing Google's expansion beyond the search engine as an example.
Wells said he hopes building a strong and trusting customer base through the music site will aid this goal.
For now, the pair is enjoying where they are.
"It's insane. There have been some serious highs and lows along the way," Hebson said. "It's been a crazy, crazy six months."