Etude on the iPad—A Young Boston Developer Follows the Music to San Francisco

6/23/10Follow @wroush

Dan Grover has seen a lot. He’s taken courses through the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and studied at Northeastern University in Boston. He’s had his own independent application development company since 2004. He’s been a staff developer at Boston-based uLocate (now Where) and Palo Alto, CA-based Tapulous. The Mac desktop program he built, ShoveBox, does well enough to pay the rent, and now he’s looking for a buyer for Etude, a popular sheet-music app that he built for the iPhone and the iPad.

So, how old would you say this grizzled software veteran is? Just barely old enough, it turns out, to hang out in bars with the other hotshot programmers he used to read about in blogs.

Grover is the indie programmer behind Wonder Warp, maker of ShoveBox, Etude, and a couple of other Mac and iPhone applications. He took a break from Northeastern in January 2009 to move to San Francisco, where it seemed that the real action was going on. “When I was in Boston, I would spend all this time reading Y Combinator Hacker News and all of these sites talking about the cool stuff going on 3,000 miles away,” the 21-year-old says. “I still read that stuff, but now I’m in the middle of it. It’s cool to run into people in a bar whose blog you’ve been reading for years, and to be around people who are sacrificing a lot to be the best in their field.”

Etude is a nifty app that draws a visual connection between the notes on sheet music, the keys on a piano, and the actual sound of the music. If you pick a tune from the app’s sheet music library—say, “The Entertainer”—a blue cursor will move across the bars of music, while a built-in MIDI synthesizer plays the notes. At the same time, the appropriate keys will light up on a simulated piano keyboard.

It may or may not be an efficient way to learn to play the piano, but it’s definitely fun to watch, especially if you have a soft spot in your heart for old-fashioned player pianos. Grover released an iPhone version of Etude in March, and when I heard that he’d added a iPad version, I called him up to find out how the music-app business, and San Francisco, have been treating him. Not bad so far—he says he’s sold 16,000 copies of the app, for $4.99 a pop. (Subtract Apple’s 30 percent cut, and that would mean Grover has earned $56,000 on the app in under four months.)

Dan GroverBut the bottom line is that for all his prior experience, Grover is getting a crash course in startup strategy. He’s moving at San Francisco speed, working to make the app better—primarily by trying to license more sheet music for it—while at the same time he’s thinking about finding someone to take the whole thing off his hands.

Grover’s first job in California was at Tapulous, maker of the blockbuster Tap Tap Revenge series of iPhone apps. He didn’t like it. In fact, he says he complained about it so much that eventually his roommates, who were all participating in the Y Combinator startup bootcamp program, left a note on his door saying “Quit your f—ing job.” ShoveBox, a highly rated, $24.99 Macintosh program that Grover had written on his own to help people organize notes, Web addresses, and other digital odds and ends, was already doing well enough to pay his rent. So he decided to take his roommates’ advice and strike out on his own.

(One insight for other young Boston programmers considering emigrating to San Francisco, by the way. Grover says he was immediately struck by the cost-of-living differences. “I’ve lived in Somerville and Cambridge and all of those places where the rent goes down quite a lot, but … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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