What does it mean to make it in the north? This is part of a series of portraits of local people, organisations, and companies working to further internationalise Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe. This time we spoke to Gijs Bekenkamp, CMO and co-founder of Chordify, a young and fast-growing company that turns songs into playable chords, so you can play along too.
By Erin Goedhart-Stallings
Gijs Bekenkamp greets me in Chordify’s colourful new open-plan office near the Oosterpoort, which has musical instruments on the tables and a young team of product designers and market developers working to improve their signature app. The company he co-founded, Chordify, is an e-learning platform based on a simple idea: it transforms music into chords so musicians can play along with their favourite songs. Behind that simplicity is some impressive technology based on deep neural networks that are trained to recognise chords and track beats.
‘The idea originated from the mind of Bas de Haas, one of the founders of Chordify’, Gijs explains. ‘He wrote his doctoral thesis on informatics and a chapter was about automatic chord extraction. One day, seven years ago, he came to my place and started talking about this idea he’d had, and he wondered whether I was interested in building a platform for it. I was enthusiastic and a few other guys were as well, so we just started building. Within a couple of months, we had a prototype that we launched in beta. At first, it was just a fun side project.’
‘We officially launched the service in January 2013, during Eurosonic Noorderslag, the music festival here in Groningen. And that was also when we realised that we had something more than just a fun project. The first day, we already had a thousand people visit our website. We didn’t do any marketing: nothing to create brand awareness. There was actually just quite a lot of demand for this type of product.’
The founders were living in Utrecht and Groningen, so they established offices in both cities. Gijs started and continues to work in the North. ‘It’s a bit of a cliché, but Groningen is thriving with talent. There are so many educational institutions here, and such a large portion of Groningen consists of students or recent graduates. It’s not always easy to find the right fit for our company, but it’s easier to find quality staff here, compared to elsewhere in the country.’
Chordify now has approximately 25 employees across the two cities, plus one customer service representative in Austin, Texas. Most of their employees are Dutch, but that is evolving. ‘We have just one non-Dutch-speaking person in the Groningen office, a woman from Germany. But a lot of English is spoken in this office nonetheless. In Utrecht, English is the main language for the office. There are four or five non-Dutch employees there, all from different regions. We try to stick to English in all our written communication as well.’
Gijs has watched the start-up scene grow in the region, while chafing a bit at the label. ‘There’s a lot of hype around “start-ups”, but people should just focus on building a good business.’ He also has some thoughts for investors in the north of the Netherlands. ‘Create your own boundaries of what you’re willing to risk, weighed against how much control you wish to exert on a company- and make sure to commit to the consequences of your decision! Generally speaking, it seems that investors in the North are risk-averse but would also like to control a large portion of the company they invest in, and this balance should be re-assessed.’
Gijs also has some advice for budding entrepreneurs: ‘Create more focus faster. Make sure that everyone is working on the same project and putting all of their effort into it from the beginning. For Chordify, all of the founders had their own projects or companies when we started, and it took us quite a while to take the leap and completely focus on this project alone. When the company got the attention it deserves, we grew much faster.’
He also emphasised the importance of formalising agreements amongst partners. ‘Make sure everything is on paper, so all of the founders understand what they are getting into. One of our founders left after three years, and we were lucky that we got along and could come to a solution regarding his exit. But not having things written down is a classic example of how things can go wrong with a new business. It’s quite simple and doesn’t necessarily need to take a lot of time; just do it.’
Chordify is still growing fast. Gijs ends our discussion with a message to readers: ‘We’re hiring in both of our offices! Check our website and Make it in the North to see the vacancies.’
Erin Goedhart-Stallings is a writer and editor who works on Make it in the North with the International Welcome Center North (IWCN). For more information about Make it in the North, just visit www.makeitinthenorth.nl