TEC Alumni Series: The 411 on Adam Steele

TEC News Stories

8/29/2011 4:39:00 PM

Story Highlights

By: Lyndsey Taylor

In hopes to expose his startup business, merge.fm, to the West Coast music industry, entrepreneur and University of Illinois alum, Adam Steele, recently moved to Glendale, Calif.

Merge.fm is a site geared toward “die hard” music fans to get a first-listen experience to songs by their favorite artists and give feedback during the creation of a new album.

Steele said merge.fm carries the same mentality of music that used to hold with CDs and is reminiscent of the former process of music buying. Since MP3s have become the primary source of music, the buying process has lost a lot of its meaning for music lovers, Steele said.

“We came to realize that the way music is now, it's not nearly using the technology that it could be,” he said. “We wanted it to be like it used to be. For fans that are really into music.”

Steele came up with the idea for the site when taking Brian Lilly's senior startup design course three years ago. Prior to Lilly's course, Steele was a music lover and band member in undergraduate school at Pennsylvania State. It was there that he began to play with the idea of a Wikpedia-like music web site.

Lilly's class finessed the idea into what is now the current version of merge.fm

“The point of the class was to learn by doing,” Steele said. “My favorite thing about the class was to just go for it. Brian's advice was 'just start.'”

Steele said the class inspired him to start his business while at Illinois. “I always said, 'I'll start a company someday.' But Brian really inspired me to go for it now.” Steele graduated in May 2008 from Illinois with a master's degree in Aerospace Engineering.

Steele and his team, August Knecht and Will Leinweber, competed in the Cozad New Venture Competition in 2009 and won first place. He and his team won $25,000 to start merge.fm, and $2,500 in Adobe software products. The team was also entered into the iVentures10 program with IllinoisVENTURES.

“I couldn't believe it,” Steele said of the win. “I had never won anything like that in my life.”

In addition to the startup funding and Adobe products, Steele won incubator space at EnterpriseWorks in the Research Park.

“We would've never made it as far as we have if it weren't for the incubator space,” he said. Having a central office where they could meet with potential customers was “huge” for him and the team.

“TEC was the shining light for me at Illinois. TEC and EnterpriseWorks were the reason merge.fm happened to begin with. I can almost guarantee that it wouldn’t have happened without them.”

Since graduating from the University, Steele finished his Ph.D at the University of Virginia in the spring of 2011.

In order to help the current University of Virginia graduate students with the transition, Steele is currently working with his past adviser on consulting in addition to working on merge.fm.

Steele's goal for the music venture is for more music artists to utilize merge.fm. Steele also aspires to be a part of the developmental side of merge.fm.

Some local bands that currently use merge.fm include Elsinore, Withershins, and The Curses.

Non-local bands include The Gemtones from Oregon, Kikai from Germany and Althea Sessions from Ohio.

“As for bands we hope to get, there aren't any specifically that we are going after,” Steele said. “In general, we are looking for national artists who are up for trying something new with their fans and willing to take a risk.”

Steele said it's been rewarding to see progress in his venture, even in small increments. Watching ideas come to fruition such as the logo and web site have been some of the bigger rewards for Steel.

Like many startup businesses, Steele said he has faced difficulties as well. “It’s kind of give-and-take with a software related to music,” he said. “It’s a really hard industry to make money in. It’s a declining industry.”

Steele and his team battle the decline by attempting to “wow” those in the music biz with their ideas—something Steele said “happens all the time” when pitching to people.

Among the many resources it has taken Steele to get where he is today is successful entrepreneur Steve Blank. Steele said his work is “by far the best resource” he has found thus far for entrepreneurs and recommended for students to make use of books and web tools.

“My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to just start,” Steele said. “It was the hardest part for me, but it's amazing how fast things come together as soon as you pull the trigger and get after it.”

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