Phil Amalong: Confessions of a Piano-Playing, Mountain-Biking Serial EntrepreneurBlake Harris 08.24.2016
Growing up, Phil Amalong dreamed about a career in music.
Like most of us, Phil Amalong has many interests. But what makes Amalong different is that he has a habit of turning those interests into businesses. It started back in the 80s—when his lifelong passion for the piano led to the founding of his first company—and continues to this day. Not only with companies he founded but his entrepreneurial spirit and marketing expertise have also led him to several interesting places along the way. Like Freedom, the popular digital distraction solution (which we wrote about a few weeks back), where he currently serves as the Director of Marketing.
Needless to say, Phil Amalong has had many adventures in his career. And he was kind enough to share some with us, as well as insights from what he learned along the way, in an interview earlier this week. Check out the conversation below…
Blake J. Harris: Phil, thank you so much for speaking with us. I almost don’t know where to begin; you have such an interesting and eclectic background. But given all those great photos of you behind a piano that I came across while preparing for this interview, I’m especially interested to hear more about your music career. Was that always been a passion of yours?
Phil Amalong: Yeah, absolutely. It’s something I’ve done my whole life. I started playing piano when I was around four. Went to school for that. I grew up in Philadelphia, which had a great classical music scene. Then I went to the Conservatory in Cincinnati. Studied piano for both undergrad and master’s degree.
Blake J. Harris: After you graduated from the Conservatory, what did you do next?
Phil Amalong: [laughs] Well, I didn’t go the usual path. Typically, a Conservatory pianist will go on to do competitions and work on a concert career and a career in academia. I caught the business bug and I was interested in marketing and advertising. Actually, while I was still in school, another guy and I started our first company. It was called Prime Time. We wrote original music for radio and television commercials. Corporate videos and film scores as well. Just about anything. That was back in the 90s. It was kind of the tail of the heyday of broadcast advertising. Did that for quite a number of years. Got to work with some great people, musicians, voiceover artists, creatives from top ad agencies across the country.
Blake J. Harris: When did your entrepreneurial spirit segue into the tech sector?
Phil Amalong: Probably in the late 90s, I would say. I got really into web stuff and started a number of web properties. I learned about e-commerce and SEO. I ended up consolidating all these business and selling at one point.
Blake J. Harris: Amazing! What was the SEO landscape like back then? I mean, this was a time when the average person didn’t even know what SEO was, no?
Phil Amalong: Yeah, I mean it was crazy. It was kind of like the Wild West. Now, everything is so much driven by Google Search. But this was the pre-Google days. You would buy your ranking in search engines to some extent. It was really just about submitting to all the search engines and trying to optimize for them. Places like Yahoo, Alta Vista, and all these others.
Blake J. Harris: I remember some of those “others.” Dogpile. Excite. Lycos.
Phil Amalong: Absolutely! We had written a couple of scripts that automated the process. It was pretty crazy, man.
Blake J. Harris: I’m sure! Going back to Prime Time, your first company. What were some of the most important lessons you learned about running a business?
Phil Amalong: Oh, man. Really everything about running a business. I mean, we were young and naïve…and pretty arrogant as well. That had its upside in that we thought we were brilliant and invincible which drove some pretty creative output, but it also set us up for some hard lessons!
Blake J. Harris: [laughter]
Phil Amalong: The biggest lesson, after learning that we weren’t really all that brilliant or invincible, was how to understand our clients and what they need. And that translated over the years—as I got into web businesses—into understanding the needs of customers. Really, it’s all about digging real deep to understand who is there and what are they looking for and what problems can we solve for them?
Blake J. Harris: Tell me a little about The ZOEN?
Phil Amalong: So I came to North Carolina to join a startup called Zenph. I was recruited by the founder who had heard some of my recordings. He said he was looking for people who were both musicians and technologists. Very exciting business. It was a process and software to, essentially, code-ify what musicians do when they play. Our first proof of concept was to take old recordings—seminal performances by legendary pianists like Glenn Gould, Rachmaninoff, Oscar Peterson, and Art Tatum—and go into them, into the recordings, and create code that expressed exactly what those musicians did that day they played and be able to recreate that performance on an essentially robotic acoustic grand piano in real-time.
Phil Amalong: The big dream was to develop the “music DNA” profile of artists, so that entire libraries of say, Sony, could be rendered in code and performers could be mixed and collaborate in new ways that they never did while alive. One exciting example was that George Gershwin (1898-1937) played with the Dallas Wind Symphony in 2012. We did a “re-performance” of his 1924 recording of Rhapsody in Blue and it was brought to life on stage in front of an audience of 3500. Steinway & Sons acquired the technology & process and is currently using it to build out the historic library for the Spirio piano.
Blake J. Harris: Interesting…
Phil Amalong: Out of that company, a couple other guys and I came up with a new idea and we started The ZOEN, which is a marketplace and platform for online music lessons. We saw that there was a fairly large community of music teachers across the country who were doing music lessons over Skype. But nobody had really put together a comprehensive way to solve all the problems they had. Whether that be scheduling, payment, messaging, quality videochat etc. And the value proposition to a student was that you could have any teacher, anywhere.
Blake J. Harris: That’s a pretty compelling value proposition.
Phil Amalong: Yeah. This way you can find someone who is the perfect fit. So that’s still ongoing. It was also bought by Steinway.
Blake J. Harris: Oh, I didn’t realize. That’s great. What about Freedom? How did you get involved with that and tell me a bit about the challenges and triumphs on the marketing side?
Phil Amalong: Oh, it’s been an incredible experience and a real eye opener about distraction, productivity and learning how people do their best work. What happened was Fred [Stutzman], the founder, and I met through a mutual friend. I came in and the first thing I said when I started looking at it was: do people really need this? Are you serious?
Blake J. Harris: Ha!
Phil Amalong: He said, “Yup.” Then I started looking closer at the business and really looking at the problem. And how big of a problem it is. Distraction is devastating the workforce. So I just realized what a great solution Fred had created while working on his PhD dissertation. I don’t know if you’ve seen our video where Fred talks about the origins of Freedom?
Blake J. Harris: No I haven’t.
Phil Amalong: I’ll shoot that over to you after our call
Phil Amalong: Like I said, it’s been an incredible experience. We have a terrific team, have had extraordinary growth and have a lot of innovative developments coming in the product. Very exciting!
Blake J. Harris: Sounds like it!
Phil Amalong: It’s all going to be an integrated platform at some point. I mean, the dream-big picture is a completely intuitive part of your workflow; something that knows when and what you’re working on and just automatically helps you focus.
Blake J. Harris: One final question. Do you have any big interests that have not led to a business?
Phil Amalong: One of my passions is cycling; mountain, cyclocross and road. I was on an active 24 hour mountain bike racing team from 1998-2001 shredding nasty trails in some epic events of the time. Now I mostly ride with my 13 year old son who’s a passionate junior cyclocross and road racer and can already leave me in the dust.
Blake J. Harris: Ha! Thanks so much for your time, Phil. Have a great day!
Phil Amalong: You as well, Blake!
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