As a boy, he earned his first pocket change by selling Christmas trees in his parents' store. As a young man in his 20s, he founded music recognition app Shazam with a few friends. And today, as a tech elder in his 40s, alumnus Philip Inghelbrecht is leading a company in Silicon Valley that employs more than seventy people. ‘I feel like I have nothing left to prove.’
When we chat with Philip Inghelbrecht (47) on a Monday morning, we can look through his office windows at a sparkling sun shining down on the streets of San Francisco, rousing the city for a new week. At least, that’s what we see on our computer screen — we’re interviewing him via a video connection. Not ideal, but in this case it’s fairly appropriate, as Inghelbrecht has made a career out of launching a series of technology start-ups.
The best known: Shazam. Worldwide, 100 million people use the app when they hear a captivating song and want to know who the singer is or the name of the track. You open the app, hold your smartphone in the air, and a moment later Shazam gives you the title and performer. Very handy, an opinion shared by the music industry: Shazam knows faster than radio broadcasters or sales figures which songs have the potential to be a hit. No surprise, then, that Apple bought the company in 2018.
Tamed party animal
The fundamentals of that success were laid down by a Belgian. The story of Philip Inghelbrecht, one that would eventually see him transported to the American West Coast, began in West Flanders. ‘My parents had their own neighbourhood shop in Zedelgem, and when I was six, seven years old, I started pitching in. They even paid me for my work. Which was very smart, because I immediately understood the link between work and money (laughs). My first real job was selling Christmas trees. My father gave me ten Belgian francs for every tree I sold, but I earned more from tips: the customers found it funny that such a little guy was selling Christmas trees.’
At school, Inghelbrecht excelled at science and math. Even back then he saw himself standing on the trading floor one day and later left for Leuven to study business engineering. Not everyone was convinced at that point that he would make good on his potential. ‘I had a reputation as a party animal and many thought that I would have difficulties in Leuven. I was also afraid of that, so I did a complete 180 during my first year; I hardly went out and buried myself in my studies. I succeeded and just about finished cum laude. That’s when I realised: ok, I can turn this down a bit. From then on I had a somewhat looser approach.’
'In later years I began to find my classes more and more interesting. I have fond memories of Piet Sercu, a great professor who gave us a good sense of how the financial world is really put together. We had classes with him on Friday morning at 8.00. Friday morning! Eight o’clock! And I was there! That says it all (laughs). He walked in and said: “The exchange rate between the dollar and the Belgian franc did this today, what does that mean for the banks and businesses?” I thought: Wow, now I see how it all fits together.’
'I can still recall sitting on a Berkeley hilltop with a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean, and I promised myself: I’m going to live and work here one day.'
Inghelbrecht gained a more global perspective when he left for an Eramus program in Germany during his last year of university. There he met several Americans, the first in a series of happy coincidences that would determine the course of his life. ‘I didn’t want to get a job immediately after graduation, so I left for America to visit my friends and travel around a bit. As soon as I got to San Francisco, I immediately fell in love with the city. I can still recall sitting on a Berkeley hilltop with a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean, and I promised myself: I’m going to live and work here one day. It sounds romantic, but it’s absolutely true (laughs).’
Who is Philip Inghelbrecht?
- 1990-1994: Business Engineering, KU Leuven
- 1998-2000: MBA, Walter A. Haas School of Business (University of California – Berkeley)
- 1995-1998: investment banker at Bank Dawaay in Brussels, later at Fortis in Luxemburg
- 2000-2004: co-founder of music recognition service Shazam
- 2005-2008: hired on at Google and became – after its acquisition by Google – Head of Sports and Entertainment Partnerships at YouTube
- 2008-2010: President of TrueCar, a website providing information for buyers and sellers of cars
- 2011-2016: various jobs at a number of different start-ups
- Sinds 2016: co-founder and CEO of Tatari, which advises companies on their TV advertising strategy
- Lives in San Francisco
- Has two daughters, Sahar (8) and Lyra (10)
Picasso behind the pc
But first Inghelbrecht had to pay his dues; he worked for several years as an investment banker in Brussels and Luxembourg. ‘I had mastered the technical material, but on the trading floor I saw men who had a much better feel for the psychology of the market and consequently did three times better than I did.’ Time for a restart, one that could go either of two different ways: world travel to recharge his batteries, or a graduate program abroad. ‘When I was accepted into the MBA program in Berkeley, I figured: two years in that beautiful city of San Francisco outweighs a trip around the world. I didn’t think much about Silicon Valley at the time…actually, I didn’t even realize it was so nearby (laughs).’
In Berkley, luck played a role once again. ‘Because I had studied “banking and finance” in Leuven, I could immediately enrol in advanced finance, alongside the second-years. There was one other first-year in the class: Chris Barton. When the class split into two-person groups for a project, we joined up almost immediately. Chris is a night owl — I didn’t know that at the time — and he didn’t make a very good impression in the class. I thought, “Oh man, I’m stuck with this guy now (laughs)”. But he seemed very smart and strategically gifted. We became friends and soon started hatching ideas to start a business of our own.’
They landed on one of Chris’ ideas: a music recognition service. ‘That sounded like something that we would use ourselves, always a good sign. Systems for recognizing music already existed, but they were slow and only worked if the number of possible tracks wasn’t too high. We knew that we needed robust software that could identify a song in milliseconds from out of a database of millions of tracks, and one that could filter out ambient environmental noise.’
‘So for the first few months we didn’t bother ourselves with our business plan. Instead, we searched for the person who could develop the right algorithm. In that, we had dumb luck; right nearby, in Palo Alto, we stumbled on the man for the job: Avery Wang. We gave him three months to develop the algorithm. That’s crazy of course, it’s like ordering Picasso to paint you a picture by the next morning, but he did it.’
The first version of Shazam now sounds truly primitive: you had to call the number 2580 and hold your phone to the radio, after which you would receive a text with the title of the song and the name of the artist. The creation of the track database also raises contemporary eyebrows. ‘Digital music is commonplace now, but that technology was still in its infancy at the time. We had moved to London in the meantime because Europe was much farther along than the US in mobile telephony and because England is such a large music market. Once there we concluded a deal with a CD wholesaler, and for the next six months about twenty of us sat in a warehouse ripping CDs (laughs). You can’t really imagine it anymore, but I think it was one of the smartest moves in my career. A database like that was unique back then.’
Yet it took the introduction of the iPhone for Shazam to really get off the ground. Inghelbrecht would experience it from a distance. ‘I had seen it all in London and had already returned to San Francisco, where my friends lived. Once there I remained involved with Shazam for a few years, but no longer operationally.’ This time, no accident of fate was needed to determine his new destination: online video was on the rise and Inghelbrecht could tell it was going to be very big. ‘I heard indirectly that Google was working on a video platform, and that I could find a place there.’
‘I had been there for only three months when a recruiter called me and told me about a company called YouTube that was much further along. I wanted to be loyal and not leave immediately, but — once again — I was lucky: Google acquired YouTube. I immediately went to the offices of YouTube and the founders, Chad and Steve, just happened to be at the front desk. I told the 30-second version of my story and they said, “Great, we can use someone like you.” I worked on Shazam-like technology that allowed YouTube to recognize uploaded videos, and then use that to handle copyright issues with the Disneys of the world. Because we could show that we were working on that, almost all of the large studios dropped their lawsuits over copyright violations.’
Inghelbrecht calls it ‘the best job you could have at Google at the time’. Yet he again felt the urge to take on a new challenge at a start-up. He joined up with two entrepreneurs who were working on a website for buyers and sellers of cars: TrueCar. ‘If you buy a new car here in the US, you negotiate the price. If we both buy a BMW 550 XI, you might pay $2,000 less because you negotiated better. What we wanted to do with TrueCar, among other things, was to collect data about what people had paid for a car and publish it. That way you’re better prepared when you head to the car dealer.’
‘But TrueCar wasn’t my own baby, and cars don't speak to me all that much. I did, however, have that meaningful click at Shazam; I love music and I go to a concert or festival every month.’
So Inghelbrecht started looking for a new challenge. It would take a few more years — including a new start-up that didn’t get off the ground — before he got his real eureka idea: in 2016 he founded Tatari, which advises companies on their TV ad strategy. ‘Today, most televisions here in America are smart TVs, so they’re online. That also means that you can provide advertisers much more data about viewing behaviour and that they can adjust their strategy accordingly. We give them that information. If they want to spend $1 million on a television campaign, and we tell them it will work ten percent better on a weekend than on a weekday, they can save $100,000.’
‘The television world is changing fast, just think about of the rise of streaming services. That period of chaos is always the best time to start a business, because the industry needs you. Moreover, television in Silicon Valley has an antiquated image, so you immediately stand out if you get involved in that field (laughs).’
It shows; Tatari is a rapidly growing company, with seventy employees already. There aren’t any other Belgians involved as yet. Does the CEO have any tips for Leuven students who dream of a career in Silicon Valley? ‘Be reckless. Especially if you’re young, you have to be willing to take risks. If your plan fails, then you have time to recover and figure out something else. A solid base is also very important: every day I use the science and maths I studied at university. You can learn how to run a company later, but you have to learn the fundamentals at a young age.’
His own daughters, Sahar and Lyra, are now eight and ten. ‘They go to a Chinese school — they only realised a year or two ago that other kids usually go to classes taught in English (laughs). I don’t want to push them in a predetermined direction, but I find it very important that they do something unexpected. I speak Dutch with them: they understand it, but answer in English. At Thanksgiving they don’t have classes and we always go to Belgium. A few of my friends work in education and are nice enough to let my daughters attend their classes for a week, which are taught in Dutch. They find that magical.’
'Especially if you’re young, you have to be willing to take risks. If your plan fails, then you have time to recover and figure out something else.'
Inghelbrecht beams as he says this. In the future he wants to make more time for that sort of family happiness. ‘After Tatari, I don’t think I’ll have anything left to prove. Life is too short. I would rather spend more time with my daughters, also see more of the world, and maybe do something in the world of non-profit start-ups. Do I already have a specific idea? Well, oftentimes the best people I’ve hired have come from the US Army. The stereotypical image of soldiers is that they don’t know much, but they’re actually very well trained and dedicated. I’d like to maybe give former soldiers a crash course on Silicon Valley and on the other hand make it clear to big companies how formidable these people are. It may sound arrogant, but I know I would do that well.’
We’re convinced. But on that point, does he see himself remaining in the US? ‘I don't have an American passport and I certainly feel Belgian, but that doesn't mean I'm considering returning. Just the quality of life here: I love skiing and kiteboarding, I couldn't easily give that up.’
Finally, back to Shazam: does he still often use the app himself? ‘Certainly, although I’m an abnormal user: in half of the cases I do it as a test to see whether it's still sharp (laughs). The best is a ‘Shazam whack’, which means that you’re the first to shazam a certain song — you can see in the app when that happens. Not easy though, it has to be a really obscure song.’