Local Biz Profile | Spark DJ

Spark DJ Founder James Jones

By C. Rick Jourdan and Sarah Kowal

James Jones & John Boss: SPARK DJ

Spark DJ founders James Jones and John Boss are marching to the beat of a different drummer on their hi-tech entrepreneurial journey—one powered by the latest AI technology.

Jones and Boss are the founders of what started as an innovative music service on a mobile app using artificial intelligence to stream music. The service combined DJ inspiration, seamless song transitions and requests from the crowd, that gave users an exceptional party experience for any occasion.

The Spark DJ concept is currently evolving into a music software product.

Jones is the tech guru and Boss is the business and branding side of the startup. Both are using their unique business skills and backgrounds to aid in their entrepreneurial journey.

A College Passion Matures

James Jones majored in engineering and economics at Notre Dame University. While in school he used his passion for music to start a DJ business to help cover college expenses. Starting with only a cell phone, iPod and laptop, he rented other equipment as needed. Jones became the most popular DJ on campus and opened for several national events. This experience helped him identify the future opportunity that would eventually evolve into Spark DJ.

In 2010 James learned how to code and later followed that with a job at Target as a senior business analyst in charge of innovation and development. But life really changed for Jones when he met Spark DJ co-founder John Boss who was a DJ at The Loop in Rochester, MN. Boss was the finance lead at IBM who also maintained an abiding passion for music and DJing.

Both partners started doing DJ gigs together and tinkering at Boss’ house. They saw a limitation of live music options for bars, restaurants and music venues. They identified an unfulfilled opportunity for these venues to engage customers and drive loyalty.

A Spark Is Ignited

Based on that experience, the duo came up with the idea of Spark DJ. The app uses artificial intelligence and software to create an interactive music entertainment that connects with customers’ phones and laptops at diverse music venues.

The duo decided to launch the new music service on college campuses, knowing it was a good market.

Spark DJ has already piloted this technology with Target, Amazon and at the Capital One Orange Bowl.

The Journey Starts with the MN Cup

In April 2016 the two tech entrepreneurs took the first major steps on their journey to success. They applied to the MN Cup, the largest startup competition in the U.S. that’s sponsored by the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

The MN Cup offers business startup competition in several business categories, including hi-tech where Spark DJ competed. The competition’s benefits include seed money, business plan feedback, mentoring and media exposure.

“We had a prototype at that point but it wasn’t totally finished, “Jones commented. “Competing in the MN Cup opened our eyes to the cutting edge of entrepreneurship and potential investors. Everyone was very generous, friendly and willing to help. And it gave us our initial customers and beta testers.”

The initial investor in Spark DJ was one of Jones’ colleagues from Target. Jones quit Target and Boss left IBM to dedicate their full-time efforts to their new business venture.

The Big Break

Spark DJ and its owners were recently accepted into the California-based Techstars Music Accelerator program for music startups. Techstars is a premier accelerator platform and global network providing entrepreneurs with the services and connections they need to succeed.

“Our original business model was trying to replicate the DJ experience of blending words with instrumentals,” Jones said. “But when we brought it to our investors, they weren’t excited about the song transitions. They thought people should be able to interact more with the songs.

“So we shifted our focus to creating a fun, new and engaging environment within a venue. We focused on creating new value with a new music experience,” said Jones.

Thanks to Techstars, the Spark DJ duo was in Los Angeles for 13 weeks and had the opportunity to be mentored by experts in music, media, technology and venture capital. Each Techstars honoree receives $120,000 to invest in their startup.

An Eye-Opening Journey  

“My experience at Target taught me a lot,” Jones offered. “I learned the benefits of a lean startup model. First, figure out a MVP (Minimum Viable Product). Then test a lot of assumptions very fast, without spending a lot of money.

“The help we received from the MN Cup and Techstars was invaluable. Both organizations are great business incubators providing the valuable knowledge and connections to learn who to talk with and what works,” continued Jones.

The original feedback from their Techstars investors helped the pair pivot from trying to replicate a more common DJ experience to using artificial intelligence and customer preference to diversify Spark DJ from Pandora, Spotify, and other well-known app-based music services.

Additional recent feedback told them that instead of following their original plan to replicate the DJ experience by creating an app, they needed to focus on a product that gets people to spend more money, show up and stay longer. The most important KPI (Key Performance Indicator) is driving traffic to the location by using gamification.

So Jones and Boss have changed their Spark DJ concept from an app to a software platform. The new concept is to deliver a software device to run the software at the host businesses that can connect customers’ mobile phones or laptops.

“We’re super excited,” Jones commented. “It feels like we’re solving an actual problem now–something people really, really care about.

“I learned the difference between an inventor and an entrepreneur. In college, I was waking an inventor’s path. Techstars is helping me take an entrepreneurial path.”

Jones and Boss have raised $300,000 of $500,000, so they can go back to working on the project.

At present, Spark DJ is a working product that’s in beta testing.

Entrepreneurial Advice

Jones has advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

“Know yourself—what you are good at and at. Be honest with yourself. Have people who can do what you can’t,” Jones commented.

And follow your muse!

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