Aza Raskin, 30, is the guy behind a lot of the coolest stuff on the internet, from our browsers to our music, to our health tech toys.
At age 23, he invented song-sharing site Songza, bought by Google last month for an undisclosed sum. Raskin wasn’t involved in Songza at the time. He sold it back in 2008 to Amazon-backed Amie Street.
But he had been creating cool things long before that. When he was 20, he built a human interface for computers similar to Siri and used by typing your question or command, not speaking it. That led to a startup called Humanized, bought by Mozilla in 2008. At Mozilla, he was the creative lead on the Firefox browser; he worked on the mobile browser and other projects.
He later launched health app startup “Massive Health” acquired by Jawbone in 2013 and now he’s the VP of Innovation at Jawbone.
Along the way he wrote the first “geolocation” spec for the web (mapping locations of objects), created a new way to prevent certain types of phishing attacks, and founded Bloxes, a startup that builds cool things out of cardboard.
And he did all that as a high school dropout, skipping straight to college, where he studied mathematics and physics.
Raskin’s creativity could be in his genes. He’s also the son of Apple Macintosh creator Jef Raskin.
“Great ideas are almost always great ideas in hindsight,” Aza Raskin tells us. “So if you want to have great ideas, learn lots of fields and then combine. I’m not the smartest mathematician, or physicist,” he says but it is that combination of these fields that makes him come up with “unique” ideas.
We caught up with Raskin to ask him what it felt like to see his project get bought by Google.
Business Insider: Tells us about Songza. What inspired you to create it?
Aza Raskin: I was 22 or 23 at the time. In high school I was a complete classical music snob. I traveled around the world playing music in an orchestra. When Green Day came on the radio, I would say, “turn that off.”
But then one day I was like, “What is that Green Day thing anyway?”
I realised that music wasn’t particularly social. You could listen on your iPod, but I’d be sitting in this Starbucks in Chicago and I wanted to share a song with someone and there wasn’t a way of doing that, so I made it.
We indexed the web to find music … the real value came in curation and finding music. And eventually that became the Songza that we know today.
And then the very first song I ever played on Songza, I’m embarrassed to admit it, was Green Day’s “When September Ends.”
And the first week we had over 1 million songs played.
BI: What does it feel like to see this project you did take on a life of its own and be acquired by Google?
AR: I have success amnesia. Growing up, my father had this phrase: ‘You are only as good as your next thing.’ That was his way of living in the world where he had made the Macintosh. What could he possibly do to top that? It was: just ignore it.
So people will come up to me and say, “You made Songza. I use it every day!” And I’m like, “Yeah, I guess I did do that.”
Imagine having a cousin, and he lived with you for a while and he goes off to college. He’s very dear to you and now he just got married to the most wonderful girl. And you have that feeling like “Good for you! I’m really pleased for you.”
BI: Can you give me any insight into this deal. Why did Google want Songza?
AR: Part of it is the team. They are very passionate and they know the space.
Compared to Google’s user base, Songza’s user base is small. [Note: Songza has about 5.5 million active users]. But to build up a group of people that subscribe, pay money for music, is a very difficult thing to do. People really care about Songza. It takes a mood and matches that to music, and the fact that there’s all those paying customers, means they are getting it right. But it hasn’t hit Internet scale yet.
So there’s something about the product vision of Songza that is applicable to Google.
I start looking at trajectory of Google — Google Now, for instance, which is it knows what you want to do when you open up your phone. While I have my own personal thoughts on that — that this is slowly stealing our free will [with distractions] — … eventually, if you move forward, we can see our emotional selves are going to be reintroduced into technology and Songza becomes a component of that.
BI: You also founded Bloxes, a company building stuff out of cardboard. What did you think bout Google Cardboard (the cardboard virtual reality headset)?
AR: It was funny situation. Two weeks before the Cardboard Occulus Rift came out from Google, randomly, I had started the exact same project. I was working on a blog post. And then Google’s came out, I thought, “Wow! I love it.”
Oculus was acquired for what, $US2 billion? I love that you can re-create that in your home with some cardboard and some programming. How cool is that?
BI: I know you can’t talk about your projects at Jawbone. Besides that, are you working on anything else?
AR: One thing that I can talk about is for fun, I’m revamping Bloxes and we’re building a really large installation structure up at Burning Man (which takes place on August 30).
I’m doing them out of corrugated plastic, so they can withstand anything. It will be a huge “Legoland”-equivalent, where you can build anything, like a giant wheel that rolls across the desert.
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