Mr. Do It All

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Bill Nguyen is an idea guy, and it’s infectious. Proposals spill out of his head faster than a reporter can record them, and they’re often eccentric. As is his footwear: every day Nguyen breaks out a new color combination from his massive collection of Crocs.

Now on his seventh start-up, the 35-year-old serial entrepreneur is CEO of, a budding online exchange where music lovers trade CDs. (Nguyen’s earlier ventures include the unified messaging provider Onebox, and mobile email provider Seven Networks.)

At lala, Nguyen says, the higher purpose is to use technology to “fix music.” With his ambitions extending way beyond CD trading, brainstorming is a way of life. Like I said, the no-holds-barred attitude is infectious—a nice quality in a CEO. It is also instructive. I’ll show you what I mean:

Shortly after we met last fall, Nguyen interrupted one of our interviews to pose a question back at me: he wanted to know how to foster better user-generated music reviews for his site. I suggested creating small communities where membership required users to review albums on a rotation (not an original idea, I’d stolen it from my boyfriend) in exchange for free CDs.

As he does, Nguyen got excited, and immediately posted a note about the idea to lala’s user forums from his laptop. Moments later, Nguyen refreshed the page, to show me a rush of comments from lala users volunteering to beta test it.

Nguyen got even more animated over a lala project to bring streaming audio equipment into rock shows. (Some would see Metallica’s Lars Ulrich with steam coming out of his ears – Bill Nguyen only sees opportunity.) Next Nguyen is talking about launching an internet radio studio in the Haight district of San Francisco, and then he’s on to his vision for an Open Table-like web sales tool to hawk last-minute concert tickets.

Nguyen’s vision for how to “fix music” is rooted less in a sophisticated knowledge of music (his favorite band is Simon & Garfunkel) than it is an entrepreneur’s true sense of market opportunity.
Bill Nguyen’s investors trust him, not for his vertical expertise, and not only on account of his track record of success (after all, past performance is no indicator of future success). They back Nguyen, and his ideas, they say, because they buy into his passion. However pie-in-the-sky his idea-of-the-moment happens be, they trust Nguyen will act on it.

For example, Nguyen loves to tell the story about how, while he was on vacation in Costa Rica last year, he stumbled over an announcement that the popular independent radio station, WOXY, of Ohio, was going off the air due to lack of funding. Without consulting his investors, Nguyen posted a note on the station’s listener community forum. Not the most formal M&A inquiry; he’d even misspelled the station’s name as “roxy,” but lala ultimately paid under a million in cash and stock for the station, nailing down the deal within a week of his initial note.

Is such a fly-by-night strategy the best way to run a company? Nguyen insists he won’t let lala be acquired, and with so many oddball revenue streams, he’d be hard-pressed to find an investment banker who’d sponsor an IPO roadshow. So what convinces the VCs to cut big checks? Rich Tong of Ignition Partners (which, along with Bain Capital, put $9 million into lala) isn’t worried that his money is in good hands: “I have very little idea where lala will go, but I know it will be big.”

The amazing part is—Nguyen often succeeds at the crazy things that he tries.

Today, three of the four ideas tossed out in our interview three months ago are in the works:

  • lala has already live-streamed tens of concerts
  • lala pushed off the idea of building its own studio, but is renting existing studios for user radio stations.
  • our reviews clubs idea will be included in the site’s May release.
  • the last-minute ticket sales service turned out to be too hard to automate, so it was abandoned after about a month.

Maybe this is the law of averages at work – the more things Nguyen tries, the more likely he is to succeed at something.

“The iterative approach doesn’t [always] work, so we just try to get [each product] halfway built and see where we are,” he says. “You don’t have to finish everything perfectly.” More than just the ultimate idea guy, Bill Nguyen always delivers a progress report on your last brainstorm. If Woody Allen is right, that “80% of success is showing up,” then heck, the rest is all follow through.

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Hard not to admire someone who gives back 20% of the proceeds to the artists whose work is being swapped. If I could survive on only four hours of sleep a night, perhaps I could keep up. ;]}

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