Pandora: A journey undertaken for love, not money

Wednesday, nearly eleven years after Tim Westergen and his colleagues started Pandora, it began trading on the public markets. I posted a blog post on the news, and suddenly was overcome by emotion, tearing up a little as I thought about Westergen who has been through hell and back as the founder of this company. His story is no different from any entrepreneur who dares to try to capture lightning in a bottle – but it is one with a happy ending.

There are two ways of looking at Pandora. You could look at through the lens of a life-long skeptical reporter who cannot reconcile the valuation of the company with its business reality — and there are many who are doing exactly that. The other extreme view is to look at it from the point of view of a startup founder, one who has been through his or her own ups and downs. I will let the skeptic take the day off for today. To me, Pandora’s story is about hope.

A Savage Beast

I remember meeting the Pandora team days after my former Red Herring colleague Alex Gove, then at Walden VC, introduced me to Larry Marcus (partner at WaldenVC and an investor in Pandora)  and Westergen. The company was at that time called The Savage Beast and was building a music-genome project. Being a reporter who normally focused on the nuts and bolts of the Internet, I didn’t much care for the company, but I liked Westergen.

Over the years, he and I stayed in touch. The boom turned to bust and what was an idealistic quest turned into a journey over burning coals, with constant rejections and a test of faith. He has bobbed, he has weaved, he has pivoted –- and he has survived.

After all these years, and many rounds of funding, Westergen is not making billions of dollars, as many would assume – in fact, he owns a miniscule share of the company: 2.39 percent, which is worth just over $60 million at the closing price of $2.8 billion, a fraction of the money his investors are making. Something isn’t right about that, but that is the way of the world.

Can’t Buy Me Love

I know Westergen and I don’t think he started Savage Beast/Pandora for money anyway. All these years, he has been the same guy. A pair of jeans, a simple t-shirt, plain old sneakers and a bag slung across his shoulders –- and more importantly, an easy smile and willingness to believe that things will get better, if only he could fight for one more day. He did Pandora for one reason: love.

He loved the idea of building a music genome. Eventually the company figured out what the business model would be — and the team there will figure out profits as well. Most startups come from love, not a desire to make pots of money.

These days, it is commonplace to lionize the amount of money a start-up snags from venture-capital investments or billion-dollar valuations some investors place on a company and the insanity of the public markets. Nothing annoys me more than “money” defining one’s convictions. The world unfortunately tends to focus on the destination, not the journey undertaken. And raising money or the public markets are those destinations.

I often joke with my friends that startups are like climbing sheer rock without any support, always slipping a few feet, and then gaining an inch. It is that inch you climb that brings immense joy, even if it is short-lived. The rest is just fighting to stay alive, trying to get ahead and just getting it down.

Rejection shapes us as much as the positive news. Just ask Tim! Or Reid Hoffman! Ask them about how many times venture capitalists rejected their quest for investment dollars. Just because twenty investors reject the idea of a social network for professionals doesn’t mean that it is a bad idea or it is wrong -– it is just an idea that the world doesn’t quite understand yet.

Being a real entrepreneur is a long, lonely road as Tim’s journey tells us. Creating something that is lasting — something you love — takes time. Often a very long time! But in the end, the journey is worth it.