Brandon Magsamen likes to joke that the genesis of CrowdTunes came during his teenage days serving up burgers and milkshakes at Johnny Rocket's.
As a server, he gave out nickels that let diners control the jukebox from their tables.
Fast forward to today, and it only made sense that patrons of a bar or restaurant should have that kind of control over a venue's music from the Internet-enabled smartphones in their pockets. Magsamen came up with the idea in August 2012 in economics class during business school at Duke University—he thought about piano bars and the cash you had to throw down to move your song choice to the top of the list. He convinced classmates Joe Bartell and Lee Kornfield to help him figure out how to build that kind of market into a digital jukebox service.
The three men participated in the Program for Entrepreneurs course at Duke's Fuqua College of Business. Magsamen says they got laughed at—people thought the idea was silly. But they also received a lot of helpful mentorship. They recruited developer and fourth co-founder Davis Gossage to build the application. A grant from Duke funded his work last summer. They also brought on a pair of serial entrepreneurs, Rob Witman and Phil Jacobsen, as equity co-founders, a selling point for NC IDEA, says investor-judge John Cambier.
Three months ago, the team started a test with Alivia's bar and restaurant in Durham. Patrons download the CrowdTunes app when they enter the bar. They can purchase credits in the app and use them to bid on songs. The song with the most bids is played next in the bar. Friends can bid on each other's songs to move them up on the playlist.
The service is free for venues, and typically replaces their previous jukeboxes or sound systems. They receive an iPad from CrowdTunes to manage the process and select playlists.
CrowdTunes is working to corner the market in the Triangle before entering a new city. Devine's, The Social and Fullsteam Brewery in Durham and The Library in Chapel Hill are also offering the service.
"We are intentionally staying geographically-focused because that's a good way to get a beechhead and create something that people can really use," Magsamen says.
The NC IDEA funds will be used primarily for sales and marketing. They're already readying a product update at the end of June, but future plans include developing an Android app.
Another round of funding is likely to help that happen—last night, Magsamen pitched the business at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley, before a crowd of dozens of Duke graduates and potential investors.
"We are right in the middle of a raise, as we speak," says Magsamen.
(PHOTO: The team members, in clockwise order from back row left, are Rob Witman, Brandon Magsamen, Davis Gossage, Phil Jacobsen, Joe Bartell, Lee Kornfeld)