Piano keys in black and white

HDPiano: Bootstrapping a Successful Video Subscription Business

By Kirby Prickett on August 5, 2015 — 15 mins read

HDPiano is different to many of the other subscription businesses we’ve spoken to as part of our interview series.

Because their product is a video subscription business—a membership to view videos of piano lessons—HDPiano don’t have to worry about shipping, inventory or many of the other hassles that consistently plague eCommerce entrepreneurs.

Another distinguishing fact about HDPiano is that YouTube is their top lead generator. Founder Sean Lee, told me that to date they haven’t spent anything on paid advertising to build HDPiano’s audience. 

Read on to find out how Sean was able to build HDPiano from humble beginnings with a $500 personal investment with no programming skills.

You’ll also learn a little bit about Sean’s digital nomad lifestyle in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and how Tim Ferriss’s The Four Hour Work Week influenced his approach. 

Kirby: Would you be able to tell me the story of how HDPiano came to be?

Sean: HDPiano was started basically out of my own frustrations. It’s the classic scratching your own itch kind of story. I was always trying to teach myself piano because I’d given up on traditional piano lessons.

I would watch these lessons on YouTube back in 2008—of people teaching songs and trying to figure out what they were playing—on the pixelated videos [they had] back then. It just was all garbage, you know, poor angles, poor instruction, bad lighting, or upside down camera, you name it. I couldn’t find the lesson that was good enough for me. So I just decided: “I have to create my own.”

I was [also] watching my friends at the time play Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Those games were becoming really popular. I saw them watching the notes fall down the screen and banging on a piece of plastic and thought: “Why can’t you learn a real instrument that has real world value instead of playing a piece of plastic?”

It was the perfect timing. I wanted to incorporate the game I was watching all my friends play, with solving my own problem of wanting to have clever piano lessons that actually worked. That’s how it started.

I created my own prototype back in 2008 with my limited piano skills and limited resources, and it was basically an instant YouTube hit. It got great responses on the limited videos I did make and that’s how I got my proof of concept.

HDPiano hands at piano keys

Kirby: I was curious about whether you are one of the teachers or if you’ve brought people on to teach.

Sean: I’d say I’m one of the retired teachers, [and that’s] because I don’t really play that well, and don’t know that many songs. Once I had the proof of concept, I immediately started looking for people who were better than me, who could actually play anything, who could learn songs by ear.

Over the years I’ve come across guys and now I’ve got two really incredible instructors who can learn anything, basically as fast as they can hear it, and then teach it right away.

Kirby: Did any other individuals or companies inspire you?

Sean: Yeah, Guitar Hero inspired me. When I was trying to figure out the falling notes graphics to put into my lessons, I was thinking: “Do I have to invent my own game? How can I get that?”

I stumbled across a company called Synthesia, created by a guy called Nicholas. It’s like Guitar Hero for piano. I contacted him and said: “Hey, could I use your game in my videos?” He was all for it and his software really inspired me. Developing that partnership early on really put me ahead of where I needed to be.

I was also inspired, four years later, by Tim Ferriss and The Four Hour Work Week. From 2008 to 2012 I had over a million YouTube views and I wasn’t doing anything with it.

I didn’t have a business, I didn’t have any substantial income. After reading The Four Hour Work Week and being inspired by Tim Ferriss, that’s when it became a business. What you’re seeing today is a result of what started in 2012.

Kirby: People can try out HDPiano for 30 days for free and then pay a very reasonable yearly subscription fee, how did you come up with that pricing model?

Sean: I wanted to be able to offer people the option to get one year’s worth of piano lessons on our site for the price of one hour of one-on-one piano instruction.

Kirby: Can you tell me about why you decided to charge on a subscription basis, rather than selling each song individually?

Sean: This was two things: one is I wanted it to be a one-time fee so that people could learn everything, instead of having to pay one by one [for each song]; [two] it was a licensing issue.

We teach copyrighted songs. The way our licenses work, it’s a blanket license, it’s not a per song [license].

Kirby: How do you get the license?

Sean: A lot of research and a lot of emails with lawyers and figuring out who we need to get deals with. We have more deals than we can keep track of. You have to contact the major groups, the major publishers, the major labels and work with them one-on-one.

There’s no one place you can go and say: “I want to teach any song ever written that’ll be popular, can I just pay you?”

Admittedly, I didn’t do that right in the beginning. Like most entrepreneurs, you just kind of want to prove your concept and see if anyone will actually be interested. But then, you want to make sure you’ve dotted your i’s and crossed your t’s and make sure you’ve taken care of the legal aspect as soon as possible. But that’s not something I did before I started, I didn’t let that hold me back from proving the concept… Maybe I should have.

Kirby: Does it still take up a lot of your time?

Sean: No. Now that the relationships are set it’s just kind of reporting and paying quarterly… I’m pretty strict about the whole four hour work week thing.

Kirby:  What was your process for finding your first customers?

Sean: That was just through teaching songs that people wanted to learn, putting them on YouTube.

YouTube has always been our primary lead generator, or way of connecting with customers. To date, we’ve done basically zero paid advertising. When a new song comes out, we’re one of the first premium YouTube channels out there teaching it. We’re scooping up all that traffic.

It’s just a numbers game. The number of people who watch the video, who click the link to our site to learn more, and a certain number of those people will sign up for a paid subscription.

Kirby: It sounds like you are still reaching customers the same way, mainly through YouTube?

Sean: Yeah, primarily YouTube and by teaching the right songs at the right time. If we were to put out a lesson today for how to play Hey Jude, it’s not going to do very well. That song has been taught over and over.

But if we put out a lesson for the next Rihanna song or the next Sam Smith song, right when the music video comes out, that’s where we reach the most people.

Kirby: What kind of growth have you experienced in the three years you’ve been running?

Sean: Let’s see. In the beginning we were making basically zero. I remember it took about fourteen months to reach about $10,000 per month gross. That was a big milestone. That’s when you know that you’ve really got something, when you’re providing for multiple people like that, with very low overhead.

I think for beginner entrepreneurs, that’s the most exciting thing to hear, is how quickly you can start in the beginning. Using these tools that are relatively cheap. WooCommerce is free and the Subscriptions plugin is not unreasonable. These are very affordable tools and the fact that you can turn those couple of hundred dollar investments into multiple thousand dollars recurring revenue is pretty incredible.

Kirby: And it’s still growing now?

Sean: Yeah, it’s growing really really well. We don’t advertise what we’re making now, but yeah, the growth is very nice.

Kirby: How many people are on your team, including teachers, and you and anyone else who helps out?

Sean: There’s me, there are two main instructors. We’ve got two part-time video editors. One main web developer, a back-end guy and then the part-time legal/part-time accounting. The main core team is about three people.

Kirby: Was it hard to find the instructors?

Sean: I wouldn’t say it was hard. We only had to reject two people for the one that would work. We’d have to get in touch with three potential instructors to get one winner.

One guy actually came to me. He saw what we were doing and said he wanted to be involved and he turned out to be one of the winners.

This is a really great opportunity for people. A typical piano instructor has to drive to a studio, and sit and teach people one-on-one and make an hourly wage. Dress up nice and be proper. I was offering guys a chance to teach in their living room in a t-shirt and shorts whenever they wanted, in their free time. And make, in many cases, a higher hourly wage.

Kirby: Did you bootstrap or did you get investment from anyone?

Sean: Yeah I bootstrapped. I think I calculated I put in about $500 of my own money in the beginning to get it going. I have not taken on any outside investment, I’ve just been reinvesting profits.

Kirby: You were one of the earliest users of WooCommerce Subscriptions, how did you find it in the beginning and what has been your experience growing alongside the extension?

Sean: It was total luck. I remember I’d already downloaded WooCommerce. I was already using WooCommerce and WooThemes. I found WooThemes because of a video theme that they had.

I found them for the theme and thought: “Oh, they have this WooCommerce eCommerce platform, I’ll use that to sell (a different product that I had).” I hadn’t figured out the whole subscription thing yet. I remember I went back to WooThemes.com and refreshed the page and it was like: “We’re announcing WooCommerce Subscriptions.”

I couldn’t believe it! I watched the overview video and thought: “This is exactly what I need.” It must have just come out because it wasn’t there the last time I looked at the site. It was just perfect and I think I bought it right away and started trying to figure out how to use it. I was probably one of the first people to jump on and use it and I’m really grateful that it worked out perfectly for my business and that the developer behind it (Brent) was just so helpful throughout the whole process.

Since early on there were a couple of kinks, nothing major, but things you can’t really plan for before something comes out in these situations you might never expect. We worked through them together, so seamlessly, I felt like he was part of my team in that first year or two, it was awesome and now I think the plugin is just rock solid.

Kirby: Have you thought of any other subscription education or subscription music businesses that you’d like to see somebody else create?

Sean: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m what they would call a digital nomad, so I live in Chiang Mai, Thailand and I travel around the world and run my online business.

Chiang Mai is the capital of digital nomads for many reasons. In February, there was a Nomad Summit where they had all these different speakers and people interested in being a digital nomad. I gave a talk about selling videos online, creating a video subscription service as your business. I think it’s the best route to take in 2015, and I gave a huge plug to WooCommerce and WooCommerce Subscriptions as the tool to use for that.

I’ve [also] got a trick up my sleeve. I’m working on a platform that’s going to help people launch their own video subscription websites. [It’s for] the people who don’t want to set up their own hosting and don’t want to know about WordPress and installing plugins. It’s a plug and play solution, where people can focus on just creating content. I’ve got an audience of people that I’m excited to launch that to in the coming months.

HD Piano is a faceless brand. We’re just hands on the screen. So, where I actually interact with people face-to-face is a different YouTube channel called Minimal Pro, and that’s where I give all my business tips and entrepreneurial tips and I have a whole series about starting a WordPress site and using WooCommerce on that channel.

Sean Lee riding bike

Kirby: And in a couple of months you’ll leverage that audience to launch this platform?

Sean: Oh absolutely. I have so many people following me that are yogis or chefs or elite athletes. They don’t want to worry about the technical aspect of setting up a site, but they can make YouTube videos or they can record videos of themselves and those are so valuable that they can definitely set up successful subscription video-based websites. I totally believe in it.

Kirby: Can you tell me about the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far with HDPiano?

Sean: I’d say the biggest challenge for any business is growing the team. But I think I avoided a lot of the common mistakes because this was not my first business.

Making sure that you’re bringing someone on for the right reasons, and that they’re going to fit with your team and that they’re going to be able to grow with your team [is really important].

In the past, with other businesses, I had this mentality of: “This person is going to save me. I just need to find this one person and they’re going to save me and save the company.” But it’s not like that, you can’t put so much pressure on hiring people. You have to define the position, the roles and the responsibilities and the compensation, and you have to create the space for the right person.

I think I’ve made a video about that. You should be able to on one sheet of paper, write down exactly what you need someone to do and what you’re willing to offer or pay them in return. Once you have that sort of one-sheeter, it’s almost like the people appear to you.

Kirby: What has eCommerce allowed you to do that you couldn’t have otherwise done?

Sean: ECommerce has afforded me my digital nomad lifestyle. I mean, if I was running a brick and mortar operation there’s no way I could be living in Thailand and traveling around Korea, the Philippines, Australia. Working from home.

Everyone wants to make a successful eCommerce business, because it allows you to have more freedom of time and freedom of location. I have more time to exercise, more time to care about nutritious food, more time to read and spend time with my friends and do that wherever I want around the world. Instead of having to show up everyday and turn on the lights and open my doors at 9am.

Kirby: Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs?

Sean: I think my advice is always to scratch your own itch, it’s a great place to start. What’s the product or service you wish you could use today that doesn’t quite exist yet? What would make your life easier, simpler, more rewarding right now? If you can’t find it then you create it.

The other great tip that I often give people when they’re thinking about writing an eBook—because that’s usually the first step into eCommerce or digital entrepreneurship—is to think about: “What if you were going to write a letter today to yourself a year ago? If not a letter, an eBook, a manual you could send back in time to yourself, a year ago or two years ago today. What would you tell yourself that would have made the last one year, two years that much more efficient, more effective, to avoid the mistakes you made?”

When people really think about it and look at what advice they would give themselves a year ago, what they usually end up with is a pretty cool, focussed eBook. That’s my one little simple idea that I usually give people.

Everyone has a unique skill to offer, or they have a unique set of experiences, no matter what. Most people just don’t think they’re that special. But really, everyone is unique and has something they can offer. If you’re interested in it, there’s definitely someone else interested in it.

Sean Lee eating Durian

Kirby: Good advice. What have you got planned for the future for HDPiano?

Sean: Well my partner just got back from VidCon in LA. So we’ve got a lot of great things cooking up on the YouTube front. He learned a lot, so we’re going to improve the channel and have some good ideas there.

You can [also] expect a big redesign, relaunch of the website. You’re going to see us getting involved in some different industries. I’ll have to tease it at that for now.

We’re set for some exciting growth here. We’ve got some cool agreements or licenses that we’re negotiating with some of the major labels, to allow us to do some more creative stuff with their songs. It’s a really great place to be in.

Here at Prospress, we’re excited to see what’s Sean has got cooking up for the future at both HDPiano and Minimal Pro.

Thanks Sean for explaining the ins and outs of how you’ve used video subscriptions, YouTube, WooCommerce and Subscriptions to bring catchy tunes to aspiring pianists all over the internet, as well as attain the digital nomad lifestyle you lead today!

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