Intern at a Lebanese Startup Creates the Coolest Music App You'll Download this Year

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If you’re tired of hoping a free streaming radio app will make it to the Middle East, the wait is over. You can thank Rony Fadel, a 21-year-old student in Beirut, for launching Twist Radio a few weeks ago, bringing streaming music to your iPhone for free, regardless of where you are in the region.

Powered by audio distribution platform SoundCloud and music intelligence platform Last.fm, TwistRadio packs punch into an easy-to-use app that streams music seamlessly, even in Lebanon. What’s especially cool about the app is that it searches not just for released recordings, but also for user-generated content on SoundCloud, including unique remixes. It also allows users to favorite songs, save a personal “station” (list) and share and save “stations.”

Essentially, it’s a cool way to access music that you might not ordinarily listen to. Testing it here in Beirut, I found that it streamed flawlessly over Alfa 3G on an iPhone 4. I was able to listen to Jade’s remix of Mashrou3 Leila’s Embembelela7, as I worked to work, as easily as if it were on my iPod.

What’s also cool about Twist Radio is how quickly Fadel was able to build the app. He completed the initial prototype in around 2-3 months while studying as a computer engineering student at Université St. Joseph in Beirut. He then perfected it while working as a summer intern at Dermandar, an iPhone app that takes panoramic photos, deployed a preliminary version on August 26th, offering it for free in the Apple Store on October 10th. It has since had 17,000 downloads, with 15,000 active monthly listeners who have played over 100,000 minutes of music so far.

Interestingly, Fadel notes, only about 1,000 of those users are in the Arab World, mostly in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The rest of his users hail from the U.S., where users may be thirsty for as many streaming apps as they can get their hands on, and China and Russia, where users may have fewer alternatives. Lower uptake in the Arab World may simply be a factor of lower smartphone penetration, as China, the U.S., and Russia are three of the largest smartphone markets in the world. Regardless, the app shows global promise.

While Fadel didn’t set out to create Twist Radio with a list of rules, the lessons of his experience may be helpful to others dreaming of building an iPhone app in their free time- he makes it look incredibly easy! Here are the lessons of his approach:

1. Leverage the support of colleagues and teachers

After coming up with the idea, in what he calls a “Eureka moment,” Fadel kept his idea a secret while developing it for a competition in his iPhone and iPad coding class. After studying coding for three years in university, “taking a course in iPhone and iPad coding definitely accelerated my experience in the field,” he says. “I never would have been able to build this if I only had a business background.”

Working at an iPhone startup also helped Fadel tremendously, as his colleagues at Dermandar critically helped him debug the app and develop the code, he says.

2. Use existing resources

To compete with existing streaming platforms Pandora and Spotify, Fadel didn’t try to reinvent the wheel by building a gigantic music database. Rather, he powered the app using a combination of Last.FM, a music store that offers recommendations based on user preference, which charges around $4 a month for service outside the U.S., U.K., and Germany, and SoundCloud, a music service that allows users to record and share their own sounds. Fadel procured a license from Last.FM to leverage their database to index similar artists and artist artwork, while using SoundCloud’s free API to integrate song data, user generated data, and individual track artwork.

3. Iterate faster by first building a knowledge base

Fadel began building the app in April. He estimates that creating it took him 2-3 months of learning how to code for iOS, after which it took only two weeks, working from 7am- 1am every day, to develop the core app this summer. He then perfected the final 20% of the app during the final two months of summer, getting help from a designer and developer to polish the interface and tweaking the search results, while finalizing his Apple license, before launching the preliminary app on August 26th, and perfecting the final version by October 10th.

4. Build Lean

Generally, Fadel says, creating the app cost him around $500. The Apple developer license cost $99, while the Last.FM and SoundCloud licenses were free. A designer he hired charged $200 for interface designs and $50 for the app icons. A developer charged $150 for his work to debug code and focus on peripheral functions so that Fadel could perfect the core of the code.

5. Outprice your competitors

Fadel developed Twist Radio with the idea of bringing the services that Pandora and Spotify offer to the Middle East for free. While Pandora charges $36 a year for service, and Spotify charges $5 a month for its bare minimum desktop services, TwistRadio is currently completely free.

6. Localize your platform

To power the music player itself for his app, Fadel built a song streaming engine that could accommodate a Lebanese internet connection, which notoriously ranks among the slowest in the world. To do so, he had to rewrite the code twice, but he persevered, and it works.

7. Target Your Market(s) Appropriately

In general, Fadel says, the app store is easy to get into and be successful in once you’re launched a good app.

Yet finding the right market for that app is another challenge.

As he strove to create “the first radio streaming app in the Middle East,” Fadel found himself straddling two sets of user feedback. “I've received feedback early on from the U.S. that I should put Middle Eastern songs on the app,” he says. “Specifically, someone from a major AOL-owned Apple review blog contacted me and said that users in the U.S. market would enjoy seeing ‘exotic’ songs on the app and that this would differentiate my app from other U.S. services.”

In the Middle East, however, while users will also enjoy having local music, he certainly does not feel a need to have the app feature a particular set of music, or seem too Arab-World centric.

Clearly, as the app now has some uptake in the U.S., Fadel has achieved the goal of satisfying a good part of his market. And with a tailor-made engine designed to stream songs even in tough internet markets like Lebanon, and offline listening coming in the future, TwistRadio may well be the app that further introduces listeners in the region to workable streaming radio.

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