We recently chatted with Bohan Zhang, CEO and founder of Poputar. Poputar is a fast growing Chinese start-up that makes smart guitars and instruments that teach the user how to play via a learning app and by lighting up LED lights on the instrument to guide finger placement. We examine Poputar’s product and business model while also asking Bohan about his views on the impact of technology on entertainment and what it’s like to be a growing start-up within Xiaomi’s ecosystem.
Edited by Jules Qiu, Shaolong Shao, and Yang He
[Editor's note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Images were provided by Poputar. The opinions expressed in this article are Bohan's own and do not reflect the views of Poputar]
The Harbinger: Hi Bohan, what inspired you to start Poputar?
Bohan: Poputar is a combination of the words “popular” and “guitar.” When I was in Europe, I used to play a Chinese version of Guitar Hero obsessively, sometimes from 11pm to 7am. So I started to think, why can't we just play the game on the real guitar? It would allow us to combine the gaming experience with actual guitar practice. That was when I first tried to build a prototype. After nine months, we found the first two partners for the hardware side and a small team for software development. We were a young team, and we built the prototype together. Our first prototype allowed us to raise our first round of capital from ZhenFund. That's how we started the company. The idea originated from a game.
The Harbinger: You mentioned that your first product was is a hardware product, namely the guitar. Can you describe the user experience?
Bohan: In Guitar Hero, the player uses the guitar-shaped game controller and the presses buttons at the right time to match notes on the screen. What we created was different. We want to bring our customers a real experience of playing the guitar and learning the mechanism of playing guitar along the way. Our app connects the smartphone with the smart guitar through Bluetooth, and the LED key lights up based on the music the user selects so they know when and where to press. The app is like a real life Guitar Hero. By following the tutorials, you can pick up your guitar skills step-by-step, just like playing a game. In addition, the guitar still functions without connecting to the app. That was our original intention as well – we wanted to create more than a toy. We wanted to build a real guitar. The LED lights just provides guidance.
Software + Content
The Harbinger: Let's talk more about the software. What content that comes with the package?
Bohan: It is a combination of educational content and gamification. The notes on the screen allow you to see which notes play and when, and LED lights on the guitar light up correspondingly. There is also a built-in recognition function that checks whether you play the notes right and gives instant feedback. A lot of people want to learn music, especially guitar, but they find it hard to seek feedback. We believe scores are a very good form of feedback.
Poputar + App
The Harbinger: Could you share more about the education piece?
Bohan: We want to make the learning experience like a game, but we also want to provide step-by-step coaching and real-life demos to show the right gestures. In the video, the tutor demonstrates step by step, and the app gives you a corresponding score when you practice. The whole learning process is structured as a series of short learning sessions. It's like climbing a wall, if the wall is too high you are not able to climb it. But if there are several steps, you can overcome it step by step. It will be like a friend teaching you how to play.
The Harbinger: Over time, will you have live tutors and teachers that connect to your users through the app? VIPKid employs such a model. It allows Chinese youth to learn English by connecting to a teacher in the US. If you think about the education component, will it develop into something like that?
Bohan: That is definitely something we have considered. For us, guitar training can be classified into 10 levels. Level 0 to level 3 are basic levels that don’t necessarily require the involvement of teachers. They are mostly composed of introductory lessons like "what is a guitar" and how to play Jingle Bells. Level 3 to level 7 is a different stage, where learning should be a combination of tutoring and self-practicing through the app. There might be some hard skills that you could not figure out yourself. The final stage is from level 7 to level 10, and this is the hardest part that we think should be taught by a tutor, to make you into a real guitar player. It is all the same across different industries: if you are already an expert and you want to improve further, you have to talk with different people.
App + Community
The Harbinger: What’s your business model and how you plan to monetize?
Bohan: The first stage will be based purely on Poputar itself, that is, from sales of hardware. We've sold over 100,000 Poputar and Populele (smart ukulele) instruments, and generate a good amount of revenue. In China, if you want to learn guitar, the price for the first 10 classes can amount to 2,000 RMB. For us, we sell Poputar and all the classes at 998 RMB. For Populele it was 499 RMB. We have sold around 150,000 pieces of Poputar and Populele in the past 2 years since we started the company.
The Harbinger: What about in the future, will you add more instruments, or you will be looking into other payment models?
Bohan: We call the second stage Poputar 2.0. We will generate revenue from both software and hardware. For each piece of hardware sold, we acquire around 1.5 users. It is a very sustainable way of acquiring users. Many companies burn a lot of money to attract new users. We have paid to for a wide range of content, and if customers are interested in a particular song, they can purchase the music package for 99 RMB.
The Harbinger: How do you keep your users coming back?
Bohan: We have a subscription system. If you pick up guitar skills very quickly, and you are an energetic person who wants to upload lots of videos to show how you played it, you can upload the videos and start attracting lots of followers. Many newcomers are attracted and inspired by these videos and they themselves will become music lovers and upload their own videos. This virtuous cycle helps in growing and retaining our users. We call it Music Couple because in the future, we want to combine all the users on our platform and make a virtual band. You can play the guitar, and other people can play the ukulele, piano, etc. People from different countries on our platform can come together and play a song they like online.
Bohan: We have a small ecosystem, where the viewers can subscribe to influencers, and the influencers can make money in a few ways. For example, let’s say I have a unique composition for Jingle Bell, then whoever is interested in buying it will be charged $1.99. We also plan to generate revenue through virtual bands, where the musicians can compose and perform songs together, and then make money from their followers.
The Harbinger: There are many other competing platforms that have musical influencers, like Toutiao or Douyin. What do you think about, for example, an influencer who plays instruments pretty well shifting to other platforms? Is there a way to retain that value?
Bohan: We would love to have our influencers explore multiple platforms initially. It is not a one-to-one relationship between influencers and platforms anyway – lot of them posts on Kuaishou, Toutiao, Douyin at the same time. Our platform is just one of them, but what we provide is a learning system, a sound recognition system and a hardware system. These systems, for our platform users, is one-to-one. So our users will focus on learning how to play the instrument with our product and platform, and this value is not provided by the big platforms. There are no tutorials, no educational content on their platforms.
What is the Market Opportunity?
The Harbinger: There is definitely a lot of educational values in the platform. However, I want to ask about the marketing side - how large of a market is this? For example, when you get in touch with VCs, they want to be looking at scalable things, more likely asset light software. If you are monetizing primarily via hardware, how do you look at market size and the available growth trajectories?
Bohan: We want to build a music version of Nintendo. I wouldn’t describe it as an education platform, because I started the company from the idea of a game. We want our users to enjoy our product as if they are playing a game, with the additional benefit of learning how to play a music instrument. We want to make the experience fun. Furthermore, we want to unite people all over the world through music. It is another language rather than a tool…. if a Western singer sings “Someone Like You” by Pink, even if I don’t understand English I can still enjoy the music, and if I can play the guitar I can always jump in.
The Harbinger: It seems that your company by nature is trying to scale globally. Can you tell us a little more about that? You guys started as a Chinese company over here, Chinese market is quite large. But besides that what other markets are you looking at and how do you grow?
Bohan: We launched our product on Indiegogo last year, and raised $470,000 in a month. We also launched it on Amazon, Ebay and other ecommerce sites in North America. If our team grows big enough, we will eventually expand to more countries. For a startup like us, we believe that we need to first focus on cultivating a strong base in China and optimizing our supply chain. Since our guitar is mostly hand-made, the manufacturing process can be challenging. We are trying to figure out ways to leverage machines to scale the supply, and after that it will be easier to expand to other markets.
The Harbinger: It seems like your demand side is quite strong, but your supply side is a bottleneck currently. That’s a pretty good problem to have.
Bohan: Right, well the problem is that there is no big company in the guitar manufacturing industry. You see guitars everywhere, but it is hard to name two or three big brands. Even for the very traditional, branded guitar companies, they don’t sell a lot. If in future stage we expand into piano tutorial, we will have to change the whole industry rather than just launching a new product. At first we think we are disrupting the market, we want to introduce a great product. But now we are challenging the industry, and we are looking to build a new manufacturing standard to show that we can be the no.1 music hardware company.
The Harbinger: Part of the process involve Xiaomi as well. Can you tell us more about Xiaomi's role in your company’s growth?
Bohan: Xiaomi is a very friendly investor for all its portfolio companies, especially to us. Xiaomi provides a very good distribution channel for us, and one third of all our orders actually came from Xiaomi. If we develop deeper ties with Xiaomi, we will benefit more, since Xiaomi is expanding their stores fast. If we launch our products through their channels, we will be able to expand very fast. Currently we are the only music hardware company selling through their channels.
The Harbinger: From your perspective as a company in the Xiaomi ecosystem, what was it like when you talked to Lei Jun and the team, getting the money. How much support did you get from them in terms of product design, supply chain, among others?
Bohan: The story starts from Shunwei Capital. Before ZhenFund came in, we had a brief discussion with Shunwei Capital. At that stage, our product and idea was not clear and they didn't invest in us. The following round, Shunwei liked the idea and thought the Populele was a very cool product. It looks like a product from the future and 499RMB is a sexy price. Some people at Shunwei Capital tried the products and they picked up the skills very quickly.
When Shunwei and Xiaomi came to believe that it was a very good product, the whole investing process got easier. It's not a bargaining conversation anymore, and it was a "whether your product is good or not" conversation. When they believed the product is good and they wanted to launch it, they wanted to invest in us. It's their strategy: they wanted to expand their music segment, and decided invest in us. Xiaomi always describe themselves as "half technology and half art.” In the future, we will do more in the “arts” category to help them become a more mature company.
The Harbinger: Most products in Mi Home are smart IoT products. I'm wondering how does your smart guitar fit in there?
Bohan: Mi Home focuses more on the home supplies. In the beginning we worked with Baidu to develop a DuerOS system combined with Music Couple. The scenario is like this: you can say, “ok DuSmart, open Music Couple. Choose a song I want to play.” And the song will be played and shown on the screen of DuSmart. I told Xiaomi about the DuSmart experience, and they found it very interesting. They told me that when they launch a smart speaker with a screen, we can come up with a way to cooperate with each other further.
The Harbinger: In terms of your growth, what do you see Poputar in 3 to 5 years’ time?
Bohan: In 2017, we reached sales of RMB 30M. In 2016 the number was only around 8M. For this year we plan to reach RMB 60M. In the next 5 years we want to reach half a billion RMB, because we will expand into more smart instruments, and we will upgrade our Music Couple to generate more income from the software part. We believe that music hardware industry is quite big, and so we should be able to realize this in a few years’ time.