An entrepreneur works from an at-home office humming with five computer monitors. He’s developing a high-tech startup, with years of experience and a network of specialized teammates by his side. Serving as a private consultant for several of the country’s Fortune 100 companies has prepared him to transfer a lifelong passion for music into an innovative company. While his two kids play with the dogs in the backyard, an investor rings on the line.
Behind the house lies a scenic backdrop—but it’s the Appalachian Mountains contouring the horizon line, not the Silicon Valley skyscrapers one might expect.
Justin Whitman lives in Hedgesville, West Virginia. The small town, consisting of 318 residents at the 2010 Census, falls in the colloquial “eastern panhandle” of the state. Justin was transplanted to West Virginia in 2008, when he and his family moved to Hedgesville, his wife’s hometown. At that time, Justin began to explore the feasibility of locating UMuseUs, a social platform for sharing music, in West Virginia.
UMuseUs uses proprietary software to create musically oriented connections that defy geographic boundaries. The mission of the company is to “provide platforms, venues, and resources that empower Musicians and Music Lovers to Share, Discover, Interact, Create, and more.” The interactive opportunities of UMuseUs are multifaceted.
On the website, a user first registers under their primary instrument. The musician can then connect with other music makers by uploading their work and listening to others. In this scenario, an old-timer jamming in their basement gets the chance to share an experience with a similar artist across the country. Fans, indie labels, and producers are all enabled to interact with the website’s members; the potential connections made through the platform are nearly limitless.
Musicians, be they school teachers, performance instructors, or experienced artists, can also upload educational videos on the website. Whitman hopes to create partnerships with public schools in West Virginia, with goals of increasing access to a variety of instruments and supplementing music education.
“One of the key components will be educational or how-to videos. One of the things I really want to see down the road is if schools could direct students to UMuseUs to see how-to videos on string and brass instruments,” Whitman said.
Students would have the opportunity to hear several types of sounds before making a decision about what instrument to rent. The students would “see what it takes to play one, what it sounds like, how to hold one, how to clean it—so they’re really getting a functional idea. That gives the music teacher more time with the students on actually learning the instrument.”
Another component of the website is the UMuseUs competition. In the competition, UMuseUs members pick their favorite musicians from the site to create a virtual band. The member can then share their band creation on UMuseUs and other social sites, prompting their friends to vote and/or create their own match-ups. The bands—whose musicians have still not met each other— with the most votes will be flown to West Virginia, and, in a format similar to popular shows like American Idol, will have a month to establish their style and sound. The competition will be either streamed online or aired on television, where viewers see the trials and tribulations of the bands in their beginning stages.
Each year, the band that ultimately receives the most votes will receive a record deal and the opportunity to tour and compete among renowned musicians.
Why West Virginia?
Music competitions and high-tech startups echo of Hollywood and city lights. Whitman is no stranger to the question of locating a start-up in the only US state that falls completely within the bounds of Appalachia.
After moving to Hedgesville, Whitman noticed the perception of West Virginia as being a quintessentially blue-collar state.
“Why can’t we also be a location where tech-companies come to set up? I look at what we’re doing with UMuseUs as a gigantic spotlight that I’m hoping to place not just on Berkeley County but also West Virginia,” Whitman said.
“Here is this really great tech idea that a lot of people have overlooked. Early seed capital investors have told me they will fund me, but I’d have to leave West Virginia. When someone says you can’t do something based on where you are located, it creates an overwhelming desire to do it and to prove them wrong in the most positive way.”
Whitman cites a central location, low costs, and the beautiful region as reasons to choose West Virginia for his startup.
“West Virginia offers so much outside of the office. For us, Harper’s Ferry is right around the corner. You can go hiking, you can go to the mountains— everything is a short distance away. It’s even a simple drive to DC if you want to head out of town. You’re still conveniently located to everything, but at the same time you can have so much more.”
Partnering with the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Law Clinic
Whitman began working with the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Law Clinic (EILC) at the West Virginia University College of Law in 2016. The EILC provides transactional legal services to West Virginian startups like Whitman’s. Working alongside EILC Director Priya Baskaran and third-year law students allows Whitman to grow UMuseUs. The EILC has worked with Whitman to draft nondisclosure agreements, privacy agreements, and terms of service.
They were my eyes and ears,” Whitman said. “They work with you to make sure that you’re legally covered.”
“They care. They want to make sure that I understand every aspect of any decision I make. Knowing that Priya is concerned about my company, and that it’s not just a project but something they want to see succeed, is amazing.”
Talent West Virginia
The College of Creative Arts at West Virginia University is also partnering with UMuseUs on a state-wide, musical contest, Talent West Virginia. The contest is open to all West Virginia residents and WVU students.
In the first round, contestants will upload one song to UMuseUs.com. Both website users and music industry professionals will judge the videos. In the second round, finalists will compete at a live competition. Talent West Virginia winners will receive monetary awards and recording contracts with Mon Hills Records.
Darko Velichkovski, director of the Music Industry Program at WVU, feels that Talent WV and UMuseUs are great complements to one another.
“For Talent West Virginia, UMuseUs is a perfect platform. As far as we are concerned, there’s nothing better. We’re excited that UMuseUs is a young, entrepreneurial venture that’s connected with WVU already. It’s such a natural and easy match—it’s almost like it was made to be.”
Like Whitman, Velichkovski believes in celebrating and utilizing the state’s assets. He argues that West Virginia’s musical heritage can play an important role in the state’s economic recovery.
“So much of American music has originated here. We have a right, a claim, to a large part of bluegrass and old-time. We are it. We are Appalachia. We need to find a way to capitalize on that, in the best possible way. It’s our financial capital and our cultural capital that the world needs to know about,” Velichkovski said.
Talent WV’s inaugural competition will begin in January 2018, with the final round scheduled for late spring.
UMuseUs is just the beginning of Whitman’s work in West Virginia. Whitman also seeks to develop a business incubator for other entrepreneurs launching startups in West Virginia.
Whitman’s incubator will focus on technology and emphasize the importance of growing roots in West Virginia. In Berkeley County, his team will assist startups and allow them to grow under an umbrella of support.
Whitman encourages elected officials to invest in technology and to prioritize improvement of West Virginia’s business climate. “Forty-five minutes from my doorstep is Loudon County, Virginia, one of the top five counties in the country to have a tech company. Why can’t we, as the state of West Virginia, bring those small startups here?”
“Ultimately I want to turn around and pay it forward,” Whitman said. “WVU is a huge proponent of startups, technology, and pushing the envelope forward for the state. To be a part of that is amazing.”