Can music help you concentrate (on school, work, or other tasks) better? That's the idea behind Focus@Will (www.focusatwill.com), a new Los Angeles music startup headed by Will Henshall. We caught up with Will to learn more about the company and how it hopes its service and music can help people improve their concentration.
Explain what Focus@will is all about?
Will Henshall: Focus@will is the first, ever music service which helps with focus and distraction, while writing, reading, and studying. It's quite simple really, it helps you concentrate better on tasks. Whether you're working, you're a journalist, a student, or a writer, it's extremely effective in helping the concentration of two out of three people. Research shows that most people can only concnetrate for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Our tool helps you to extend your productivity cycle to up to 100 minutes, for many people. The secret sauce, is how we trick your brain not to tune out, by using music.
Where'd the idea come from? And how did the company start?
Will Henshall: My own background, is I am equally left-brained and right-brained. That's comparatively rare. I've been a songwriter and composer, with the band London Beat, and was signed with Radioactive Records for about nine years. We place quite a few hits, such as I've Been Thinking About You--I'm the guitar player. The second thing, is I've been a technology inventory. I created digital delivery for Protools and Avid, the industry standard for video and audio editing. Prior to Focus@will, I also had a long background both as a musician and as a computer, doing TV and movie stuff, as well as pop stuff. I had been learning about network audio and online startups. Interestingly, what happened, was I was flying a lot for one of my previous companies, and I noticed that a lot of people were listening to headphones while reading and working on a plane. That's also something I always like to do. The problem is, you intuitively want to listen to musci you like, but you want something that helps focus you and reduces distractions. It turns out that 99 percent of all available music is actually distracting. If you think about that, it's entirely logical, because commercial music is designed to be engaging. That's why you like U2, or why you like Nat King Cole.
In fact, if music is not designed to be engaging and grab your attention, it's not going to be successful. Because of that, I had to think of what kinds of music would work for this. The very simple thing, is music with no vocals at all. But then I started listening to instrumentals, and found out that human beings are very sensitive to the order of a song. It turns out we're very sensitive to the actual sequencing, tempo, and timing of individual pieces of music.
That experimenting led to the creation of the company. I have a couple of friends who are neurologists, and my parents were from a medical background., I have always been fascinated by the brain. What happened, was I found that by playing certain music types in certain sequences, we're able to fool the limbic system. The limbic system is the vital mechanism in the brain, which is constantly interrupting you. So, if you saw smoke wherever you are, you'd tell me to hang on because you had to take care of it because you smelled smoke. The limbic system is constantly thinking about flight or fight. It's looking for danger, food, and opportunities to mate.
What we found, is by playing certain music styles in sequence, we're able to sooth the limbic system just enough to help you concentrate better on what you're doing. The kind of music we found was very specific, and it just didn't exist. We started a new, exclusive music library of instrumental compositions, which had many of the attributes we were looking for. Our project is the server technology, which is able to define and produce a playlist of material, which has been honed in our research to consistently help focus.
Where is the service now - can people use it?
Will Henshall: Yes, the service is in open beta today. It's free to use. It's been very exciting, we're seeing an extraordinary amount of stickiness on the site. People are signing up for the site, and we're finding they're staying on the site for two hours and 39 minutes. Those are really stick numbers. Plus, our traffic is doubling every week.
It sounds like you had to source quite a bit of music specifically for the service?
Will Henshall: We're licensing music from the smaller labels, and also directly from producers and musicians. It is a very specific thing. We started assuming we'd just go out into the world and license stuff. In fact, it turns out the music that works well for this type of thing, to help with that productivity and focus enhancement, has a very specific criteria. What we've done is create this very specific set of attributes for the music. Our music department is run by John Vitali, my co-founder. He was a well known Hollywood music supervisor in a prior life. He's done lots of car commercials. We've created a new kind of label, really. We also have a couple of really talented music we've engaged in the last two weeks specifically for our service, including John Metcalfe, Peter Gabriel's Music Director and a viola player, who has delivered a lot of new instrumental music into our system, and Josh Gabriel, in the electronica genre. He's created some really interesting new kind of electric productivity music. We're calling it EPM, Electronic Productivity Music. Over the next year, we're going to sign significantly more and more original and exclusive works, versions of compositions you won't hear anywhere else.
How is your company funded?
Will Henshall: We've raised about $3.5M dollars. We're funded by the Michael Vlock and Karen Pritzker Family Fund and some private investors. It's a classic startup.
Finally, what's the next big thing for you?
Will Henshall: We've got our next big thing coming in another month. I can tell you that it will be a new, personalized focus system coming down the pipe. We'll also be talking about our mobile apps, which will be coming out in the next few weeks.