Category Archives: Ann Chao

Product Launch Day

At Sonation we’ve been working all summer toward product launch day, and the day has finally come!

Last week I went to Michigan with my cofounder Paul to demo the app at Interlochen, one of the premier summer arts camps in the US. Of all the things entrepreneurs do, user testing is definitely my favorite! The night before demo day, though, we got an email from Apple saying the app was rejected. So we had to fix a bunch of issues as we got ready for the students, and exchanged a flurry of emails within the team to find the quickest solution. Then we waited.

At 8 AM we set up a concerto station at a central location on campus where we thought a lot of students would pass by. We even set up a green screen on the wall behind us with a bunch of bright green posterboard so students could take pictures of themselves playing at Carnegie Hall. But a few hours passed and it was apparent we were in the wrong location. We were next to the piano and percussion building, and unfortunately those instruments aren’t available on Cadenza yet, so all the students we were meeting ended up walking away with sighs of resignation (and free candy). Cardinal rule of business – always go to where your users are!

We moved our station to main camp, an open area near the performance stages and the coffee stand. The coffee stand alone should have been enough to justify our move – there were always people there! Pretty soon a violin student and his friends dropped by and tried a concerto. The open space around us was filled with the sound of his playing combined with the orchestra coming out of the speakers, and we started attracting an audience.

Throughout the day we saw a lot of fun reactions. One of the best parts of user testing is when people surprise you, thinking up inventive ways to use your product that you hadn’t imagined before.

  • Four violinists tackling the Bach double violin concerto simultaneously.
  • Interpretive dance to the Strauss horn concerto.
  • A student playing Massenet: Meditation from Thais, originally a violin piece, on a mandolin. Cadenza still followed him perfectly.
  • Several students trying to trick Cadenza into losing them by playing outlandishly fast or slow.

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But the common theme tying everyone together was the pure enjoyment of leading an orchestra, something most of them haven’t been able to do yet even at their level of talent. We saw it in their expressions and body language as they were fully “in the zone,” engrossed in the music and imagining a real orchestra behind them. One student said she honestly felt like she was in Carnegie Hall. Some came back multiple times to try as many different pieces as they could, and had their friends record them to show their families. And we saw how the students encouraged each other with the fact that this was a judgment-free zone. People could try any piece they wanted, even sightread something really difficult, without the pressure of being graded or criticized for not being good enough. This is the spirit that we wanted to establish from the beginning, in our company vision.

Beyond their excitement about using the app for the first time, the students all asked us a common question: “so when can we get it?”

The answer is today! We got approval from Apple and you can download Cadenza here. Treat yourself and your instrument to a Carnegie Hall experience, and have fun!


Ann Chao, MBA 2013


The Art of Naming a Start-up

We recently chose new names for our music startup and product. Music+1 is now Sonation, Inc. Our app, previously also called Music+1, is now sona:Cadenza. And we’ve just made a new intro video featuring the app logo with footage from the Harvard Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge.

I approached the naming process eagerly at the beginning, since as an amateur writer I enjoy picking names for fictional characters and places. But there were rules to follow, as my cofounder pointed out when the three of us began brainstorming in June. The process turned out to be quite drawn-out and elusive.

1. The names could not sound foreign or antiquated. That ruled out candidates like Cantabrio, Cantissimo, Vivissimo, basically anything ending in the suffix “–issimo,” and many other beloved musical terms. We browsed this Wikipedia list at length anyway, as I’m sure every audio company has done.

2. The names had to be unique. That ruled out using words like “music” and “sound.” It’s astounding to see how many audio companies and apps begin with “sound.” Soundcloud, Soundhound, Soundbrush, Soundwave…we were definitely staying out of that.

3. The name had to connote the essence of what we do. This was the most important rule, and the most difficult. We are about enhancing people’s musical voices. Technology at the service of human expression. Freedom from technological restrictions. Creating tools for magical experiences.

Mulling over the above rule was always the last check on whether a name passed or failed. We didn’t want a run-of-the-mill name that simply told people we were related to music. Whatever names we picked had to be imbued with musical character, expressiveness, and an invitation to experience something beautiful of one’s own making.

We almost settled on Sonoloft for the company name, since it was related to sound and invoked an aspirational feel (or maybe not, in retrospect). But I couldn’t help but associate it with the image of a white-walled IKEA-furnished lounge, so it failed.

Finally, in early July we sat down for two hours one morning in the i-lab with no other distractions, determined to settle the name issue and be done with it. We revisited numerous sound-related Wikipedia articles and music glossaries. At some point we started discussing birds that were known for song. That led us to an article about birdsong where one term, mentioned almost as an afterthought, caught our eye: “sonation.”

Even before we looked up the definition, it sounded right. Its meaning made it even better. Sonation is the sound produced by birds not through their voice, but from other structures like the wings, tail, feet, feathers, or by use of tools. Our company is about supporting people as they make music, providing the accompanying sounds to their solo part. Ornithologists might roll their eyes, but the name fits.

To tie the names of the company and product together, we chose “sona” as a prefix for our first app (which serves classical musicians) and other apps to follow. The second half of the name, “Cadenza,” refers to an important passage in a concerto where the soloist shines, displaying their virtuosity in free time (flexible tempo) while the orchestra waits and listens.

Almost ten years ago in college, I entered two concerto competitions with the Schumann piano concerto. What I remembered most about that piece was the cadenza. It was intense and emotionally demanding. I couldn’t practice certain parts of it for more than a few minutes before my hands got tired. As the cadenza ended, I imagined the orchestra joining the solo part, tense and quiet in the buildup to a breathtaking finale.

I didn’t win either of the competitions. At that point, I gave up on my dream of ever playing a concerto with an orchestra. As an amateur musician, my chances were basically zero – and even for professionals, the opportunities are few and far between. It was sad and frustrating, to practice for months and love the music while knowing that I could never experience it fully.

A few months ago when I discovered Music+1, as it was previously called, I felt my dream was actually possible again – in a different form, with an adaptive orchestra recording instead of a live group. I was even more thrilled to join the founding team alongside the inventor, Christopher Raphael, and a software entrepreneur and musician, Paul Smith. We have new names and logos, a Mac app soon to launch, design for iPhone and iPad versions well under way, and demos at the Eastern Music Festival (this week), Interlochen and Tanglewood. While piano isn’t available on the app yet, I look forward to the day it is, so I can finally play that cadenza, joined by real orchestra sound that will be more than I’ve imagined.

Ann Chao, MBA 2013

A Reflection from Graduation Day


Life is an emergent strategy. This is my main takeaway from my two years at HBS.

In one of my favorite classes, Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise, we studied a theory about deliberate strategy and emergent strategy. With the former, we map out our goals and the actions we will take to achieve those goals, predicting that x will lead to y over z time. With emergent strategy we open our course to influence from the environment, and often the resulting actions and outcomes are unplanned and often a surprise. Businesses use a blend of both approaches, though more established companies try to be more deliberate and startups by nature must rely on emergent strategy.

As I pursue entrepreneurship full time after graduation, I have realized that life is really much more like a startup than most of us would be comfortable with. No matter how much we try to plan out our lives, very few of us will end up where we originally intended.

My first year at HBS, I listened avidly at CEO speeches, CPD workshops and career coaching sessions for some hint of what I should do to reach some vague destination in the future where I would be living my life to the fullest. We saw many business leaders who had “made it,” and we all wanted to know how to achieve the same success. We asked the same question over and over with slightly different wording: “How did you get to where you are?” The answer was also basically the same. “I don’t know.” When they were our age, these leaders couldn’t have predicted that they would end up where they are now. They simply lived life and took opportunities as they came along, and with passion and perseverance they accomplished great things.

I came to HBS certain that I would return to China and continue to work in consulting. In a few months that all changed as mentors and classmates challenged me to think about what I really wanted to do with my life. I’ve always had a love of storytelling and creativity. I took a 180 degree turn out of a traditional business field into entertainment and arts, writing script coverage on my free time and landing internships at Lincoln Center and Mirada, a studio in LA. I thought I’d be set for Hollywood after graduation. Then at the beginning of my second year, I was hit very powerfully with a startup idea. It was scary. Heart-pounding scary because I’d never thought about starting a business. At the same time I couldn’t stand the thought of this idea NOT coming to fruition simply because I was afraid. I started working on it right away, wondering if this would derail all my plans for Hollywood.

Several months later I was pursuing three startup ideas at the same time. I eventually picked one as circumstances narrowed down my choices to one path – a revolutionary technology that allows musicians to play with real, dynamic orchestra sound. An orchestra in your pocket that listens to and follows you like real musicians would. As a pianist I’ve always dreamed of playing a full concerto with an orchestra, and lamented that I never would be able to because I’d given up professional training a long time ago. 99% of musicians are in my position. Now this technology, Music+1, can change that, revolutionizing the world of music performance the way recordings did for music listening a hundred years ago. I am working with a great team, and we recently won a runner up prize at the Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge. China is a huge part of our future plans. I’ve landed at the intersection of my passions, and through this I think I have discovered the overall driving force behind my work. To spread beauty to the world.

Two years ago, I had no clue I would end up staying in Boston, much less working on a startup. But through a wandering wide-eyed journey, I have come to a place I know is right at this time in my life. And while from my limited, human perspective, my life strategy seems to be perpetually emergent, I know that from God’s perspective, it is deliberate. Only when I have already lived through these things can I look back and see how He was so meticulous and so very good in how He shaped my path. Proverbs 16:9 encapsulates this.

“In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.”

I can embrace uncertainty because I know that “emergent” does not mean “random.” It means open-mindedness and faith, and no regrets.

– Ann Chao, MBA 2013