Justin Jarvinen Lets the Music Play

A conversation with Justin Jarvinen, founder and CEO of VerveLife.
By Alice Bumgarner
Say you want to reward customers who buy one of your products, by allowing them to download or stream a song through your web site.

Five years ago, that sort of promotion might have broken the bank.

As Justin Jarvinen puts it, "The standard licensing models in the industry weren't aligned with a client's budget."

Photo of Justin JarvinenBut as the Internet and portable devices began to make music widely (and cheaply) available, Jarvinen saw room for change. He saw a way for his agency, through proprietary technology, to bring brands and talent together in an easy, cost-efficient way. And in doing so, he helped deliver millions of songs to consumers worldwide.

This year, VerveLife will manage digital entertainment campaigns that reach over 300 million consumers.

Alice Bumgarner: What is the role of innovation within your business?

Justin Jarvinen: We consider ourselves trailblazers. It used to be that song formats were protected; they would only play on certain devices. We said to the record companies, "If we want a music download for a major brand, why would we restrict them? We need to shift to a different, open model."

We had to fight that battle for three years, and we were the first ones to sign an MP3 – which is still proprietary, but not protected – with a major record label. Now everyone is starting to drop the protected format.

We went from pulling our hair out five years ago, when no one got it, to now, when we can't pick up the phone without having an awesome conversation with a label that wants to work with one of our clients.

AB: What does innovation look like day-to-day at your workplace?

Justin Jarvinen: Within our office, we have programs in place that cater to innovation. Each person is allowed to have a pet project. Once a quarter, the directors get together to decide which ones we'll roll out as a company. A pet project has to meet one of a few goals: It has to improve company's top or bottom line, create efficiencies, or have client value.

AB: What is the most exciting innovation you've been involved in developing?

Justin Jarvinen: For the last couple of years, we've been moving into branded entertainment.

That's beneficial for a couple of reasons. First, everyone wants something exclusive, to get behind the velvet rope and peek at bands and celebrities.

The second reason is, it strips some power from the old-school powerhouses in the music label business. If an artist agrees to go into the studio and record a jam session, we could produce something exclusive – and the labels can't stop us.

AB: As you've moved through this process of building a new business model, has anything surprised you?

Justin Jarvinen: I was surprised at how slow things move, and then how quickly things can change.

On the brand side, you had old-school marketing people who were set in their ways, and who had their toolbox of six things that always worked. At the record labels and movie studios, you had people saying, "This is our model, and if you want to work with us, this is how you have to do it."

Then overnight, after doing the same things for a long time, half of them lost their jobs. New people came in, and that's when the smart companies started innovating. Suddenly everyone wanted social communication, mobile delivery, and the technology we offer.

AB: When teams are working on a problem or developing a product, and they hit a barrier, what do you recommend?

Justin Jarvinen: If we encounter a roadblock, it's usually as easy as getting people together and brainstorming solutions. A lot of times we'll find that one particular challenge is causing problems elsewhere, so it helps to get everyone collaborating.

AB: What are some of the obstacles that prevent teams from creating innovative products?

Justin Jarvinen: Typically they are external roadblocks. We might find a technical workaround that makes a process easier on our end. But you don't know if it's going to fit with a third party, cannibalize their business or take 20 people to manage. You can't foresee those things. Some of those roadblocks have killed projects.

AB: What, if any, problem solving, creativity tools or innovation software do you use or are you familiar with?

Justin Jarvinen: We always carry a Flip HD camera around the office, so we can video-record all our brainstorming sessions. We have an internal repository that's marked by date, client, and topic. It allows our creative team to go back and see the origin of an idea.

AB: Do your innovations come from inside the company or outside sources?

Justin Jarvinen: We innovate internally, because we're a small company, and we want to be recognized for innovation.

On large development projects, though, we will outsource to a partner of ours. What we've learned is that when you go to an external resource to develop something, you can't leave anything to the imagination, or you're not going to get back what you want.

AB: Are you familiar with virtual collaborative innovation communities and networks (such as IdeaConnection.com) that bring together experts, facilitators, and product developers for confidential collaborative creation?

Justin Jarvinen: I'm familiar with those platforms, but I've never worked with them.

AB: What blogs or other media on the topic of innovation do you read?

Justin Jarvinen: I read a ton of stuff – Fast Company, Wired, lots of blogs and newspapers. Ideas and inspiration -- you never know where they're going to come from.

AB: Any other thoughts you'd like to share about innovation?

Justin Jarvinen: The timing of this series is perfect. Right now times are tough and they'll probably get tougher. Companies who peel back the onion and figure out what they can fix and do differently will come out a lot stronger. That's innovation.

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