A group of Airfoilers attended the University of Michigan Alumni Association’s Trends in Music and Technology event in San Francisco last week featuring Pandora Chief Technology Officer Tom Conrad.

Tom is a delightfully geeky tech hipster-type who spoke about the interesting path that has led him to product management at Pandora after working on products such as Macintosh, flying toasters, You Don’t Know Jack and Pets.com. Lessons learned from the event:

  • In the web 2.0 economy, the engineers are driving innovation, not marketers or managers.  These engineers are often working on something they are passionate about and they build the business around that passion.

  • By leveraging his network, Tom managed to work at Apple, Berkley Systems and Pets.com without ever interviewing for a job.  Pandora was the first job he had to interview for.

  • Smart leadership always gives a company an edge. Had it not been for the new CEO Joe Kennedy, who had the vision to foresee the Internet radio market and the savvy to navigate the licensing issues, Pandora wouldn’t exist.

  • Pandora’s success can be attributed to its focus. Pandora resists the temptation to add myriad features, side products or options in order to focus on a simple, clean interface that delivers great music.

  • Branding and research are important. The name “Pandora” won out after a consumer survey revealed it had the right balance between being easy to remember and conveying a powerful image.

  • Online applications with social components can help forecast consumer trends For example, James Blunt was big on Pandora about six months before he broke in the U.S.

  • The lessons learned from Dot-Com debacles drive the development of new Internet companies with sustainable business models.  In Pandora’s case, they have advertising as a core competency and provide the service for free on an ad-supported platform.

— Eric Rodriguez

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