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the challenge

As a teenager, Kam Lal wanted to be a DJ. Today he is the founder and chief executive officer of Notetracks Inc., whose music-annotation software lets users mark up audio files and share them with others.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

As a teenager, Kam Lal wanted to be a DJ. Eyeing a pair of Technics SL-1200 turntables that cost twice as much money as he had, he asked his brother for a loan. It worked, and, after a few months, Mr. Lal had made enough money behind the decks at parties to pay his brother back.

Friends began to inquire about his skills and savvy in procuring hardware; soon, he was using his eye for deals to make money buying and selling DJ equipment. "It was my first startup," he says, "without realizing it was a startup."

Two decades later, Montreal-based Mr. Lal continues to find business opportunities at the crossroads of music and technology. The 35-year-old is the founder and chief executive officer of Notetracks Inc., whose mobile music-annotation software lets users mark up audio files and share them with others.

Construed as a sort of Google Docs-meets-SoundCloud, the software serves those who regularly work with audio. Students can use it to break down and understand songs. Dancers can use it to choreograph. Producers can use it to collaborate on tracks remotely.

Mr. Lal envisions growth on countless fronts. That is, once he has the staff, connections and clout to make it happen.

He grew up in a musical household – his sister played the piano, his father, a classical Indian musician, sang and played the harmonium – but he "wasn't too disciplined" with his own piano lessons. It was those turntables, instead, that called his name.

He came into DJing just as the tools of the trade were being augmented by software for home computers. And so he found himself making remixes and playing with sequencers, and he began shifting, as much of the discipline now has, to more of a hybrid producer-DJ. "From that point, I was like, 'I need to learn how this stuff is actually built,'" Mr. Lal says.

At Concordia University, he studied computer science with a minor in electroacoustic studies, a sound-design program that kept his interest in music alive. He spent nearly a decade working in mobile software, growing with the sector from flip-phone ring tones to iOS and Android apps. All the while, he was refining an idea for a note-taking tool that combined audio, its visual waveforms and notations.

Two years ago, he turned the idea into Notetracks. Users can upload audio from sources such as Dropbox and iTunes, and leave colour-coded comments, lyrics, symbols and drawings, then share with collaborators or teachers. With more than 3,000 downloads of its $6.99 iOS app to date, Mr. Lal plans to offer a Web version next year.

Mr. Lal says his company as in a pre-seed stage, but Notetracks is earning funding and praise. At Canadian Music Week in Toronto this year, it won the inaugural Startup Launch Pad competition. It has also received backing from the Canada Media Fund and Fondation Montréal Inc., which has given the company runway for the near future, Mr. Lal says.

To take Notetracks to the next level, he wants to quickly expand his team beyond the current five. He needs a chief marketing officer to get the word out and a product manager to handle continuing development.

Mr. Lal would prefer these employees come from the same music-loving world he's in. He also has to make do with limited resources, more in terms of time and connections than money.

"For this specific product, you're looking for specific folks," Mr. Lal says. "If you're looking for a chief of marketing, it would preferably be somebody who understands the platform, and has a music or audio background."

THE CHALLENGE: How can an early-stage company such as Notetracks attract talent that fits its corporate spirit?


Cortney Harding, music and entertainment startup consultant and author of How We Listen Now: Essays and Conversations about Music and Technology, Brooklyn, N.Y.

For a lot of startups, it's tough, because they may not have the big salaries, and the equity might not pan out. A lot of it is getting in front of the right people. Panels are a great recruiting tool – like at Canadian Music Week and SXSW. People who are looking for jobs, if they're interested in the space, that's somewhere they'd go.

Figure out who's in that ecosystem and ask them for recommendations. Mine your connections. Don't be afraid to go ask friends from college, friends from your last job, friends from clubs you're in. You can say, "Hey, who knows a really good CMO? I'm looking for one." If you put that on your Facebook, you'll be shocked at how many people will respond.

Catherine Moore, adjunct professor of music technology and digital media, University of Toronto

It's important that they advertise specific jobs. There's a "Jobs" tab at the bottom of their website, now with only a quite general message. Put two jobs there – chief marketing officer and product manager – and include fairly detailed job descriptions. Then put a link to that page on all social media.

Doing this will not only help everyone in the hiring process, it's also a form of marketing and brand-building for Notetracks itself.

Darryl Ballantyne, co-founder and CEO, LyricFind, a data-centric digital lyrics-licensing service, Toronto

Lots of people in different industries are passionate about music. One of our early, best hires was our vice-president of sales – our first full-time sales guy, eight years ago. He'd been selling cellphone plans before that, but he was the perfect hardworking personality, the right personality fit with the rest of the company, and with me.

Find people who have the right passion and personality that matches yours, and make sure yours is a personality that people want to be around, and want to spend a lot of time with. Very few people have a passion for digital lyrics, so we were never going to find somebody who was already perfect. We had to mould that ourselves. But when you find the right personality, they can learn, and they're smart, they can get things done.


Reach out

Go to SXSW, return to Canadian Music Week and seek out other conferences to spread the word.

Be more specific

Use your connections and ask around for the specific roles Notetracks is trying to fill.

Cast a wide net

Remember that huge music fans work in every industry. Try to entice the ones with the right personality fit.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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