Founder Friday

Brian Fan of Magic Instruments

Welcome to Founder Friday, where we’ll learn a little about the people behind some of the companies doing their thing at Highway1.

Today’s founder is Brian Fan of Magic Instruments.

Who are you?
I’m Brian Fan, CEO of Magic Instruments.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got your company started.
I’ve been a musician since I was a little kid. I started playing piano at 5, and I got into the Juilliard School’s pre-college program when I was 7, which I attended for nine years learning piano, music theory, composition, and ear training. I can pretty much play almost anything on the piano: I can hear a song and tell you what key it’s in, what chords are in it; I’ve been a trained musician my entire life.

I played keyboard in bands, and have always been a bit envious of the guitar players who stand at the front of the stage. As a keyboard player you stand at the back of the stage, rooted in position; when you look at who owns the stage, it’s the guitarist. Plus, the guitar is portable: you can take it to a park, a beach, a camping trip; you can’t take a keyboard or a piano to these places, and you certainly can’t play where you can’t plug them in. I picked up the guitar because I wanted to stand next to my newborn daughter and play songs to help her fall asleep, and you just can’t do that with a keyboard or piano.

I got the company started after I made a software prototype. I took a MIDI guitar controller made by another manufacturer and plugged it into my Mac and wrote 1000 lines of code: the algorithms that essentially created the first prototype of what we do, just to see whether or not the concept actually was feasible.

Once I proved the concept worked, I realized I needed a co-founder who could help engineer the hardware and software.

I went to an SF Hardware Startup Meetup, and was lucky to sit next to Mark Liebman during the pitch sessions. We started talking about what I was working on, and when Mark told me he had over 20 years’ experience building electronic musical hardware and software, I invited him over to check out my prototype.

A couple of days later, Mark came by, tried out the prototype, and was immediately convinced that I was onto something. Soon afterwards, we decided to become co-founders, with Mark as the CTO.

Where’d your programming experience from?
I taught myself; I cut and pasted every single piece of example code I could find into a single document and studied it until I figured out exactly what they were trying to do and how they made it work, and started writing it myself over the span of around three weeks; I pulled somewhere around 8 all-nighters, but I pounded out code that worked!

My first thought was that I’d outsource the software engineering to a developer, but when I started getting into it, I realized that wouldn’t have worked; the problems I was solving weren’t typical programmer problems, and for me to explain them to a non-musician or a programmer would’ve taken me just as much time — even other musicians said they didn’t understand why I was trying to do what I was trying to do. These days, between Google and Github and all the open-sourced code that’s out there, I pretty much was able to figure it out.

Where did the idea for this business come from, and what role did you play?
I picked up the guitar six years ago when my daughter was born. I thought that because I know how to play the piano very well and I know music very well, it would be very easy for me — given practice — to become quite good quite quickly. I downloaded every video lesson I could find, I bought guitars that teach you how to play with lights in the fretboard, I played videogames that were supposed to teach you how to play.

After 500-600 hours, I was nowhere near as good as I thought I was or wanted to be, and it dawned on me that there’s just no substitute for practicing 2000-3000 hours, no matter how good of a musician you are on a different instrument. The idea came out of the realization, almost despair I felt to know that because I have a social life, a job and a family, that I would literally never have the time to get good at the guitar.

How did you find out about Highway1?
As it turns out, [Highway1 VP] Brady Forrest and I have stayed in the same Burning Man camp for the last couple of years, but we didn’t know each other; it was big enough that it had a couple hundred people in it.

I heard from two or three different Burning Man friends, when they found out what I was doing, that I should really talk to Brady. So he called us in for a meeting at Highway1, and we applied, and were fortunate enough to get in.

What’s your biggest surprise or key learning been thus far?
We’ve probably done two or three months’ worth of work in about three weeks’ time.

The biggest surprise is how much having a little bit of external goalsetting and structure really helped us, having people that schedule meetings and say “OK, what are your goals, what are your plans?

When are you gonna deliver this, what are the next steps, who’s gonna do it by when?” We’d do that internally ourselves, but if you set your own goal and you miss it, you’re not accountable to anybody.

There’ve been things they’ve pointed out that haven’t been priorities for us, or were put on the back burner for a long time — things like graphic design and social media development. That, plus all the different office hours and guest speakers and lecturers; we’ve attended every lecture and every office hour and are just trying to absorb as much expertise and knowledge as we can.

What are your goals, both while you’re at Highway1 and beyond?
One goal for while we’re here is to get to a looks like/works like prototype: to have a prototype that looks much like the product we’re going to manufacture, and to have it work with the right components.

Any advice for people looking to start out in hardware?
Talk to everybody you can. Read all the blog posts you can find on hardware development and get out to meetups, go to where the experts who’ve done this before are.

Ask them questions; be bold, don’t be scared or timid, tell them “I have an idea.” Hardware is really, really, really hard; I know it’s a cliché, but there’s a reason it’s a cliché: because it’s true.

“There are people out there who’ve succeeded doing this; talk to them. If you approach people in the right way, everybody’s happy to dispense advice and wisdom to someone who’s up and coming. ”

Brian Fan, CEO - Magic Instruments

Go talk to people about the thing you’re working on and you’ll very quickly find out whether there’s something there or not.

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