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

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, butyou still have pretty easy access to the city,” he says. “But San Francisco is surrounded on three sides by water and you have mountains below. If you’re going to live anywhere else you kind of need to have a car. And there’s a huge difference between driving into San Francisco from Oakland or Daly City and driving into Boston from Cambridge or Somerville.”)

Etude had gotten its start back in Boston one night in 2008 when Grover was taking a break from ShoveBox and started to write a MIDI synthesizer for the iPhone. But he didn’t get far, and left the code sitting on his hard drive. After leaving Tapulous in April 2009, he decided to revive the project. “I’d seen some of the apps that people were getting excited about with music on the iPhone, and I started thinking, ‘What if there were some fun, engaging music apps that actually taught you something about music?'”

For a few months, Grover also worked on a customer relationship management tool for the Mac, but found Etude taking up more and more of his thoughts. “I got hooked on working on it, and it was pretty much my full-time project from September to March.” The iPad version followed this month.

There are more than 100 piano-related apps for the iPad, and untold hundreds for the iPhone. Most are purely for fun, such as Smule’s Magic Piano; Etude is one of the only apps that aspires mainly to be a sheet music reader. The idea is to let piano students (or advanced musicians, for that matter) download tunes from the in-app store. They can then set their iPads on their pianos, and play along as the app plays through a score.

So far, all of the songs in the Etude store are free, public-domain works. Grover says getting traditional sheet-music publishers to open up their archives of more modern music has been a slow process. Part of the problem is that digital sheet music has never been a lucrative business, so the publishers don’t see much of a percentage in sharing their copyrighted works with Grover. In other words, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation.

Etude on the iPadBut the iPad is such a perfect device for reading music, Grover believes, that he expects to gain some momentum on this front soon. “Part of the bet that I’m making with Etude is that I can deliver a significantly more compelling experience that will make it easier to buy and easier to access and more fun to engage with than what is out there,” he says. “The bet is if I do that, the revenues will go up compared with what’s out there.”

But for Grover, as for so many of his peers in the Bay Area developer community, building a revenue-producing app isn’t necessarily the end goal. After all, in-app sales of new sheet music isn’t likely to be a source of vast returns, even if Grover does engineer the most compelling sheet-music experience around.

“When you’re doing normal iPhone apps, you are just hoping to sell enough copies directly to customers to support the continued development,” Grover says. “And that is kind of where Etude is now. But once we get in with the publishers, this becomes more ambitious, and starts to look like the Silicon Valley thing where you are trying to get an exit. I used to think that was a crazy proposition—you’re building something that is not inherently profitable so you can get an exit. But it actually turns out to be a reasonable way to do business out here.”

Given that Etude was “supposed to be a kind of sideline,” Grover says the best option “would be to have this be acquired by a larger company that has the resources to make it go where I want it.” He says he’s seen quite a few of his friends go this route. “There are two- or three-person teams where they will develop a project that is likely to be acquired by Facebook, and then Facebook acquires it, and those guys get to work at Facebook.”

Grover says he’s talking with a number of potential suitors about acquiring Etude. And while he continues that search, Grover is also working to add more features to Etude, including an interactive keyboard. (Because there isn’t room on the iPad’s screen to play with two hands, he says the software will probably be set up for duets, with the user’s hand playing one part and the software handling the rest.)

And all of that means he’s working pretty much around the clock—just like everyone else he knows in San Francisco. “There is a progressive attitude of wanting to change the world,” he says. “But it gets pretty draining. People are just really busy around here. Nobody has time to waste time and hang out. They go to bars, but even then they’re networking.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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