Francisco Martin had a craving for new tunes. During postdoctorate study at Oregon State University in 2003, the Spanish native was looking to broaden his musical horizons, so he invented a way for the Internet community to help. The Web site and company he started, originally called MusicStrands, taps into the power of social networking to help users discover new songs, artists, or even whole genres.
The concept is deceptively simple. MusicStrands—now renamed MyStrands—installs software on the PCs of its members that keeps track of the music they buy and listen to via iTunes or Windows Media Player. Then, that data is compared to the playlists of other members, and when patterns emerge, MyStrands recommends songs members might like. A lover of Coldplay, Keane, and Travis might also like Snow Patrol. Black Eyed Peas aficionados might not.
More than just a clever Web site, MyStrands has proved to be a pioneer in "recommender systems," or algorithms designed to help people find what they want in the vast universe of the Internet. By matching peoples' digital footprints with a database of other users' patterns, it goes well beyond the cruder recommendation technology used on sites such as Amazon.com.
The company, based in Corvallis, Ore., and Barcelona, now holds 16 patents in Europe and the U.S. on its collaborative filtering technology. Martin thinks his next big opportunities lie in helping users cut through all kinds of Internet clutter—not just music—and bringing MyStrands technology to the "wireless Web" via mobile phones.
IMPOSING RIVALS. The intrepid Spaniard started the project with $1 million raised from friends, family, and the company's management team, including his own money. Now, MyStrands is backed with an additional $6 million in funding from two investment firms, Debaeque Venture Capital of Barcelona and GCR Venture Capital of Bilbao.
The privately held company doesn't release sales or profit figures, but it makes money via referral fees from music download services that profit from MyStrands links. It's also hoping to announce licensing agreements soon with one or more mobile phone carriers that aim to offer a mobile version of MyStrands. Bundled with mobile service, it would let users more easily find personalized content—at first, mostly digital music.
MyStrands won't say how many members it has signed up but allows that about half are in the U.S. and half in Europe. Unfortunately for Martin, he wasn’t the only person with a similar idea: MyStrands faces stiff competition from rival sites such as the music recommendations found on Pandora.com and the user-voted news content on Digg.com.
CLUB LIFE. To stay in the race, MyStrands is widening its focus—one reason it changed its name. The company discovered that its members were using the site for more than just music recommendations; in effect, they were using it as a social networking site where common taste in music was the link. Now the site plays up its social networking features and encourages formation of music communities.
The next step: MyStrands has created a service for bars and nightclubs, called PartyStrands, that allows patrons to "influence" what music is played via text messages they send to a screen from their cell phones. The service also feeds the information to a Web site that shows what's happening in real time at the club. Martin has dubbed this technology—which is currently available at clubs in New York, Corvallis, and Gandia, Spain—"social programming."
The rise in alternative social networking sites doesn't faze MyStrands. "We see it as a benefit that will help the market evolve," says Gabriel Aldamiz-Echevarria, vice-president of communications. The more user-generated content and digital media, the better, he says. "With all that content, we're going to need more recommendations from the online community." And that's exactly where MyStrands comes in.