By Garrett Ransom ’17, Founder of Ravel Labs
On May 19, 2019 I witnessed history. I sat on the sacred lawn at Morehouse College’s commencement ceremony bantering back and forth with a friend throughout a huge chunk of the opening speeches. Out of nowhere, I heard a wild roar of applause overwhelm the entire campus. At first, I was clueless. Moments later, I realized that Robert F. Smith, an African-American billionaire and successful private-equity entrepreneur, committed to paying off the debt load for the entire Morehouse College Class of 2019. It was a special moment that led to many conversations with college friends and a lot of personal reflection.
At this point in time, I was still working at a distributed cloud storage company called Storj. The job gave me the most financial and professional stability that I’d had since walking across the stage at Mother Morehouse, as many alumni affectionately call my alma mater. The opportunity had also molded me into a data scientist with experience working at a startup creating disruptive technology. A time filled with lots of technical questions to my company mentors and lots of early morning study sessions to learn the rest on my own. But in the midst of the most comfortable moment in my short stint as an adult, when friends asked me about my career, I started to sprinkle in the fact that I was working on a building startup at the intersection of music and artificial intelligence.
The First Steps
Howard Thurman, an esteemed author and civil rights leader, delivered the commencement address for Spelman College in 1980. His core message was to follow “The Sound of the Genuine” within yourself. His words symbolized the importance of following your passion and your truth in all aspects of life, including career. Following the same ethos as Thurman’s speech, I started thinking about how I could combine my love for music and data science in late 2018. I fell across Google’s open source project Magenta and immediately knew that this was the type of work that I wanted to do over the next decade plus of my life. They were creating systems driven by artificial intelligence that were able to generate and transcribe music, and create new sounds. As a guy who grew up making beats on Fruity Loops, playing trumpet in the jazz band, and watching more music videos than movies, starting a company based on democratizing musical creativity felt like the most unadulterated career move that I could make. It was my “sound of the genuine.”
That led to the creation of Ravel Labs. I chose to do the validation challenge Q1 2019. Initially, I wanted to create an app that allowed the average person without a musical background to make music using artificial intelligence. I surveyed all of my friends and spoke to a bunch of folks on the phone to measure the viability of the idea, but by the end of the ValChal, I was unsure of where to go next. It seemed like an interesting idea for most, but I wasn’t convinced that the pain point was strong enough to build a business on.
Not too long afterward, the VFA Accelerator Info Session came around. I contemplated whether it would be worth it to attend the session. Even though I was really early on with Ravel, I figured that I might as well get some details on the program. That session led to me competing with myself to see how much progress I could make on the business before the final application deadline. I wanted to give it my all and see where I landed. Throughout the process, folks like Caroline Hatfield and Barry Conrad were extremely invaluable. I received lots of helpful feedback and began to chisel a wide vision down to something a bit more tangible. Luckily, I got into the program! The experience has been rock solid. “One day at a time” has been something that I tell myself constantly. Starting a business is hard, but focusing on what you can control each and every day makes it a bit less daunting.
Ravel Labs Today
After talking to my friends that record music, I realized that sound engineering was a huge pain point in the process of releasing music. It’s expensive to take a recorded song and turn it into a polished piece of music to be consumed by the masses. That’s where a sound engineer comes in. They rectify all the imperfections in a recording to create the most pleasurable listening experience for listeners. Decent sound engineers charge at least $100-200 per song and it can take years for an artist to learn how to engineer songs themselves. This leaves a lot of artists shelving quality music that could help them connect with their fan base. I wanted to find a way to build a tool that would empower those artists. My initial focus is to make software that allows hip-hop artists to engineer their own music. A platform that allows artists to make quality music at a more affordable price with less hassle. My competitors have already created genre-agnostic technology that provides mixed results; Ravel plans to differentiate by providing the best possible product for the most consumed genre in the world.
Right now, we’re a team of 1 (just me) and developing a minimum viable product (MVP). I’m currently collecting feedback from hip-hop artists on audio that I’ve mixed for them automatically using a set of algorithms I wrote using Python. Later down the road, this tool will turn into a real-time platform that allows artists to iteratively improve their mixes assisted by machine learning in the background.
Ravel’s biggest challenges now are on continuing to find ways to connect with our audience; balancing the zillion tasks of being a founder; and facing the uncertainty that comes along with building out the right founding team to make the road a bit easier.
I have a few thoughts that help me daily. Follow your convictions; they usually lead you in the right direction. Be a doer, even when it hurts. Create stuff. Be self-aware (know thyself). Understand your strengths, weaknesses, what drives you, what you’re passionate about, and all else in between. Your actions should be tightly coupled with who you are as a person. Don’t do things that deviate from your “sound of the genuine”. And regardless of whether you’re at Square 1 or 50, always know and expect that if you put consistent work into your craft that you can become world-class.
But be patient. It won’t happen overnight.