The whole world in his headphones

Last updated 05:00 19/01/2014
 Shazam executive chairman Andrew Fisher
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Booming business: Shazam executive chairman Andrew Fisher found a niche market which has become an advertising platform.

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Andrew Fisher has taken the mobile app from a bit of phone fun to an advertiser's boon. But will it deliver a blockbuster float? writes Simon Duke .

Andrew Fisher chuckles before launching into an anecdote about the jet-black electric guitar hanging on the wall. Emblazoned with the message "Go Shazam!", it was a gift from Al Gore, Bill Clinton's vice-president.

Gore presented the instrument to Fisher in 2011 after becoming an investor in Shazam, the music-recognition app firm led by Fisher for nine years. He also gave a motivational talk to staff, with a question-and-answer session moderated by chairman Fisher.

The prospect filled the unassuming boss with trepidation. "I'd never interviewed anyone in my life, so I read every single book he has ever written," says Fisher, and then adds: "Al has written a lot of books."

In the end, he need not have worried. That night Gore was in motor-mouth mode. Fisher, who looks a good decade younger than his 44 years, says his "biggest challenge was getting him to finish on time".

Even Shazam's slick technology might have struggled to cope with Gore's verbal outpourings. The app identifies pieces of music or sound with impressive accuracy for mobile phone users.

As a business it has been through as many models as Mick Jagger. Well, nearly. It started in 2002 simply as a way of using your mobile phone to identify that catchy tune you heard in a nightclub, while shopping or on television. Then it offered the chance to buy the track.

The launch of the iPhone in 2007 propelled the company into the big time; an astonishing one in 10 music downloads now comes through the app, which has more than 400m users worldwide.

In 2010, Shazam reinvented itself once again. By tapping into the "second screen" trend, where viewers browse the internet while they are watching television, it has become a growing force in the lucrative TV advertising market.

"We're working with almost all the broadcasting industry in America, the whole music industry and a large group of the world's advertisers as well," says Fisher at Shazam's airy headquarters in Hammersmith, west London.

Like many British tech bosses, his intonation is stuck somewhere mid-Atlantic. His accent is English but his sentences sometimes end on a rising lilt, so that they sound like a question even when they're not.

This transatlantic air chimes with his business' mongrel roots. It was founded by four Americans who came to Britain to seek funding. Lauded as one of this country's big tech successes, Shazam has been tipped for a US$1 billion stock market float towards the end of this year or next. NewYork is the likely place, but London remains in the running.

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The investor base also has a cosmopolitan flavour. Gore may be Shazam's best-known supporter but its most powerful backer is Carlos Slim, the world's richest man according to Forbes. Last year the Mexican telecoms tycoon bought a stake of about 10 per cent for $47m.

Other investors include the venerable Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, where Gore is a partner, and Institutional Venture Partners, which backed Twitter.

Slim's investment was a "massive validation" for Shazam, says Fisher. The cash will help fund its assault on the European TV advertising market. Just as important is the side deal struck with Slim's America Movil, Latin America's biggest mobile phone operator. "They'll be putting our service on their phones, which is really exciting with the World Cup coming up in Brazil," says the executive chairman.

Whether Shazam can orchestrate a blockbuster listing will depend on how much ground it makes in its drive into television and advertising.

Its success so far has rested on clever technology, which makes "digital fingerprints" of audio. When a user "tags" a song on his phone, Shazam seeks a match from its database of 35m tunes. Users are then given links to buy the tracks from digital download stores such as iTunes.

Fisher says the technology is so accurate that a song performed by the same artist with identical arrangements but in different studios would produce two unique "fingerprints".

In recent years, the company has become more than about identifying and selling music. In America, users can now go to their smartphones or tablets to access extra content when a Shazam logo appears on their television screens. Companies are said to pay as much as US$100,000 to make their ads work in this way.

Fisher demonstrates a recent TV campaign for the Jaguar F-Type. When users ran the Shazam app during the commercial, they could look around the car by tilting their device, and book a test drive.

All of this increases levels of "consumer engagement" from 30 seconds - the length of a typical ad on TV - to "three minutes" or more, he claims.

You may think that TV viewers crave fewer ads, not more, but Fisher reels off an array of statistics in his favour. During Super Bowl 2012, where airtime cost US$1m a slot, one-third of the ads ran with the Shazam logo. More than 1m Americans "shazammed" at least one ad during the American football final, according to him.

"The fundamental point is that people don't have to get up from their settee and open a web browser to get the insurance quote they have seen on TV," he says.

"We'll measure our success by how many Shazam users come straight to our service, instead of going to a web browser."

Shazam recently launched an "autotagging" feature on Apple devices, which creates a log of every programme and commercial watched. The "big picture", says Fisher, is to harness this virtual data in the real world. "Provided users opt in", he emphasises, they could be shown special offers, based on their viewing history, as they walk down supermarket aisles. "Today, there's no company that can join ad campaigns from TV and radio to in-store promotions. The company that does this will be very valuable," he adds.

It's all very Blade Runner, and Fisher acknowledges that "consumer behaviour often moves more slowly than tech companies would like". Nevertheless, he says that 35 per cent of iPhone users have activated the auto-tagging feature while watching TV.

Fisher's mother was a teacher and his father an RAF officer who later worked at Nato. They "had a profound influence on my life", he says. His father's job meant he attended schools overseas, including in Belgium, before winning a place at Millfield school with a rugby and tennis bursary.

His first job was at Electrocomponents, a gadget distributor. Fisher worked on the management buyout of Thomson Directories before founding TDLI.com, an internet content firm that was sold to America's InfoSpace at the height of the dotcom boom in 2000. He joined Shazam as chief executive in 2005 from InfoSpace.

Since then the "cerebral" Fisher, who read economics at university, has assembled a "world-class team", according to Brent Hoberman, co-founder of lastminute.com and a director of Shazam. "What started out as a niche service is now a big consumer product and advertising platform. Andrew has transformed Shazam into one of Britain's biggest tech exports."

Last year the company hired Rich Riley, a 14-year Yahoo veteran, to be its chief executive. He operates in New York, leaving Fisher to oversee the push into European TV advertising, "delivering results for shareholders and future financing events".

In the year to June 2012, revenues rose 40 per cent to £21.8m, but a £3.3m loss was posted, according to the latest accounts. Turnover is growing at "more than 100 per cent" a year, and Shazam was profitable on an underlying basis last year, according to Fisher.

The European investment could "intentionally" push it back into the red this year, he says. Shazam is hiring 50 staff to add to its 150-strong workforce on this side of the Atlantic. A new office in New York has taken the American headcount to 60.

It looks primed for a bumper stock market float. "Our stated ambition is to go through an IPO [initial public offering] but there's a lot of work to do," says Fisher. "You won't see us going public any time soon.

One of the prime motivations for going public would be to give Shazam a "currency to acquire other tech companies", he says. The Sunday Times, London

- © Fairfax NZ News

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