This interview is with Stephanie Lai, marketer at Smule, the music technology startup, who also moonlights as a professional cellist.
- Harvard undergrad
- Royal Northern College of Music
- James Irvine Foundation
- David and Lucile Packard Foundation
- Berkeley Symphony
- Berkeley Haas MBA
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. Sure, I’m 28. I have a B.A. in social studies and music from Harvard, as well as a Master’s in cello performance from the Royal Northern College of Music, a conservatory in Manchester, England. I then moved to the Bay Area, where I worked for five years in philanthropy before transitioning into my current role as a marketing specialist at Smule, a startup that creates social music-making mobile phone apps. I am also a student in UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business Evening and Weekend MBA program. In my spare time, I play cello professionally in the Berkeley Symphony, weddings, and wine bars.
Q. How has your career path taken you to your current role?
A. After college, I traveled abroad in Europe to explore the birthplace of Mozart on a scholarship and to explore a career in music. While studying for my Master’s in England, I played with the BBC Philharmonic, where other cellists cautioned me, “It’s not too late to change your career.” My mentor called the orchestra a “musical prison.”
Because I didn’t want my love for music to be stifled after turning it into a job, I decided to keep cello as a hobby when I returned to the United States. I also wanted to make a bigger impact in the world beyond the concert hall. The elitist nature of classical music was troubling to me, and I wanted to democratize music-making somehow.
Philanthropy seemed like an ideal way to achieve this mission and contribute to society in different ways by funding the arts, civic engagement, conservation, education, and things like that.
But after spending a few years in philanthropy, I realized that funding others to make a difference was a step removed from the action. And I wanted to make a difference firsthand. The fast-paced startup world seemed like a better match for my working style, and so I started looking for a transition opportunity into a startup that merged my passions for music and social good.
And Smule fit perfectly. Its mission is to connect people through music, using the technology to liberate the inner musician in everyone, regardless of training or experience.
Q. What specific things did you do to transition into technology marketing given that you didn’t have either a tech or marketing background?
A. I made my career transition through networking and the Haas Evening and Weekend MBA program at UC Berkeley. The first year core curriculum gave me a great foundation in terms of business knowledge on which to make a transition into the startup world.
My career counselor at Haas also advised me to ask my friends about music-related startups. And it turned out that one of my college friends knows the CEO of Smule, and he kindly agreed to meet with me even though I didn’t have direct work experience in technology or marketing.
Then, I prepared for my interviews by doing research on Smule and speaking with other professionals with experience in marketing, product management, and startups.
Q. What do you do day-to-day in your current role at Smule?
A. It’s fun and invigorating! Our rituals revolve around food, music, and games. We often eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, and we throw jam sessions by playing Smulean apps and other instruments. Our San Francisco office has a grand piano, guitars, recording equipment, and a ping-pong table.
Our co-founder, Dr. Ge Wang, loves playing Starcraft, and each new employee is given the game on his or her first day. Every year, we have a company holiday where we all come to work and play Starcraft.
The best illustration of our Smulean culture is this YouTube video cover of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”, which we performed on Smule-struments on iPhones and iPads.
Day-to-day, the kind of things I do include pitching journalists, preparing for product launches, researching pop culture trends to determine what makes videos viral, tweeting to celebrities, managing our Google+ page, and speaking with community organizations interested in using Smule apps.
Q. What do you find most exciting about your current role?
A. I think what’s most exciting is the creative possibilities of the job. I feel like I have a blank canvas to paint on, because marketing strategy at Smule is constantly evolving.
I’ve also witnessed the power of music to change lives — to provoke dialogue, to inspire hope, to entertain, to educate. For example, Smule apps are promoting learning in the classroom — including math! And one of our users on YouTube, who is a user and fan of Magic Piano, wrote a comment on the page that said: “Thank you! Dreamed of playing someday, but my dyslexia makes it too difficult. I LOVE THIS APP!”
Comments like these make my job a lot more fulfilling.
Q. What do you most wish you could change?
A. I wish I was more knowledgeable about the industry. There is still so much to learn. But I’m learning every day, and I’ve arranged one-on-one’s with different people at Smule to learn more about what they do.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the future, and how do you think what you’re doing today will help you toward that goal?
A. After earning my MBA in 2014, I hope to be an innovative marketing manager. And in the long-term, I see myself doing something entrepreneurial to make music-making more accessible. Smule is completely aligned with my life mission to connect people through music.
Q. What advice do you have for other people who might be interested in transitioning into a marketing role?
A. I would advise asking yourself the basic question, “Who am I?” Deepen your self-awareness to really think about what career is best for you. Dare to think outside the box. I mean, you know, my current role at Smule wasn’t listed on the company’s jobs website. The CMO created the position after I interviewed with her.
I would also ask your peers for help — and be willing to give back in return. Everyone has valuable experiences you can learn from. And use sites like LinkedIn to identify key connections.
And finally, think of yourself as an actor. You can completely re-invent yourself during a career transition. Don’t be confined to who you were in the past or what others expect of you.
I’m reminded of a quote from Thoreau that I think captures it best: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”