Metromode: The Young & Entrepreneurial: Jake Sigal

It’s not an accident Jake Sigal runs his own start-up, Livio Radio. Whether it was nature or nurture (one could make a case for either), Sigal undoubtedly inherited his entrepreneurial instincts from his father and grandfather, who both owned their own businesses.

The 28-year-old Ferndale resident’s grandfather established a customization shop in the textile industry and his father had his own photography studio. Innovation was also part of the mix. Sigal’s dad was one of the first photographers to use a digital scanner and work with the earliest version of Adobe Photoshop in the 1990s.

“He helped the paradigm shift between 35mm and digital,” Sigal says.

Sigal was involved with a similar paradigm shift when he helped invent the USB turntable, which allows DJs to digitize their vinyl record collections, in 2005 at ION Audio in Rhode Island. During the early to mid-2000s he worked for big-name audio tech companies like Numark and Delphi. The merger between Sirius and XM satellite radio stations squeezed Sigal out of his job in 2007, leaving him to contemplate an offer from a major brand in his industry.

That’s when the Livio Radio light went off over his head.

“That’s the point when I knew I needed to do this,” Sigal says. “I knew I didn’t want to work for the best brand ever. I wanted to start my own company.”

Livio Radio, his company’s signature product, is a small radio that allows users to listen to popular Internet radio station Pandora, along with NPR and 16,000 additional stations from around the world. It recently came out with an Internet radio player for cars called Carmen after receiving an investment from Farmington Hills-based Beringea, the largest venture capital firm in Michigan. Today Livio employs 10 people and gives work to five independent contractors.

That’s just a few of the accomplishments that are making Sigal’s family of entrepreneurs proud. And it’s why Metromode decided to connect with Jake about his successes.

Radio has gone through a number of dramatic changes in the last 10-15 years, such as the addition of satellite and Internet radio platforms. Is there a future for traditional radio stations or are they a dated platform destined to go down the same road as newspapers?
There will always be a place for terrestrial radio broadcasts that are live and local. The larger issue is what is radio? It’s a form of communication. Regardless of how radio is distributed, success is ultimately a function of the demand for the content, not the medium used to send it from the talk show host’s mouth to the consumer’s ear. Terrestrial radio is one-to-many and Internet radio allows a customized, one-to-one experience.

The future of radio in general is customization. It’s about providing better content, less annoying advertising, and making happier listeners.

You worked for corporate giants Numark and Delphi before striking out on your own. What lessons did you learn at those jobs that have helped you with Livio Radio? As an entrepreneur in his 20s was it a struggle to get investors to take you seriously? Have there been any advantages to being under 30?

The people I worked with at Numark and Delphi are top notch. They gave me the opportunity to work hard and focus on the details. I also learned how to travel, go on national television, handle PR, and manage cross-functional teams. I’ve taken these personal skills, with a foundation of respect and honesty, to set up Livio.

Starting a company at any age in the consumer electronics industry is like learning to ride a bike without training wheels. Fortunately, with my previous success working within the industry, I didn’t end up over the handlebars. However, being 26 makes it easy to get up after I fall down.

Investors first saw me as a greenhorn with big ambitions and little or no probability of success. Winning two innovation awards at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), signing deals with NPR and Pandora, racking up over $1.1 million in sales, and being elected as a board member on the Consumer Electronics Association’s Small Business Council quickly changed the perspective of investors in Michigan.

In your blog bio, you credit jobs like umping softball games to buy your first bike and starting a DJ business to pay for college as playing a major part in developing your entrepreneurial spirit. What do you think our secondary education system could do to better prepare young people for the realities of business and entrepreneurship, or is it best to leave that focus for college?

Require internships, and allow college students to defer loan payments while in post-graduate internship or fellowship programs. You can’t teach someone how to be an entrepreneur, they just are one or they’re not. However, the skills of the trade of business need to be learned to be successful. Specifically for me, I would have failed in three months if I tried doing this business without my experience from previous jobs. The accounting, finance, and HR skills I didn’t learn in engineering school, I quickly learned myself or outsourced to professionals.

You have talked about how your wife keeps you and your work ethic inline in that same blog bio description. Is there a piece of advice she likes to give you that would, in general, help local entrepreneurs improve their businesses?

Work to live, don’t live to work.

Beringea, Michigan’s largest venture capital firm, just made an investment in your company. Conventional wisdom dictates that the venture capital scene in the Midwest is much more conservative (both with cash and control of a company) than on the coasts. Has this been your experience? As an entrepreneur, is there anything you would like to see changed to the VC investment process?
No, not at all. Michigan is on par with the rest of the country, no better and no worse. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to see government funding that has certain types of industry requirements. So many firms that manage state funding have told me that we didn’t qualify because we weren’t making cars, windmills, or whatever else the “state” deemed as good business.

State funding should be searching for good businesses and great entrepreneurs, not familiar industries that are heavily saturated. I would change state funding so they could just hand over cash to VCs and provide tax incentives and matching funds to angle investors providing crucially needed seed capital for start-ups that create jobs.

As both a DJ and an inventor you’ve created a way for DJs to digitize their vinyl records with the USB Turntable. Do you ever have any second thoughts or even regrets about developing technology that allows DJs to do away with one of their signature props? Can you really call yourself a “disc jockey” if there are no discs anymore?

I’ve been part of the coolest industry for many years, the pro-audio industry. Numark, Alesis, Akai, and Station have been leading the way for DJs for decades by replacing their “props” with newer gear that does more and allows more musical freedom.

Check out any of our resident Livio DJs at Gracie’s Underground in Ferndale and you’ll be amazed what technology lets these professionals do with sound and recordings. At Station, I was part of the team that worked on FinalScratch2, which was what eventually led Rane to Serato. At Numark, I worked on software updates for the CDX, a giant turntable that played CDs, as well as the HDX, a hard drive version of the product. I was also a co-inventor of the first iDJ, a great ‘pro-sumer’ DJ mixer for anyone with an iPod. Back when we worked on that project, I was working directly with product developers at Apple right as the podcasting scene was coming out. This was way ahead of its time. Next time you see your favorite DJ with a laptop, look at the screen. Odds are the software they are running has features that were developed by the teams I worked with.

It’s the content and quality of the audio that makes it great, not the gear. But I do love the minimal 1200s plus a two-channel mixer setup. I still have my vinyl in the basement and escape into the music.

Metro Detroit has a rich musical heritage that still produces superstar acts across several genres of music. Do you think the region takes full advantage of its musical assets or even properly appreciates them? Could it do a better job of leveraging its past and present musical reputation?

I’m not the expert in that arena, but I do love electronic music and Detroit is as good as anywhere I’ve lived or been. Paxahau does an amazing job with the Movement festival. Jason Huvaere’s hard work shows because his show is getting bigger and better every year. Livio sponsored this year’s festival to help create more awareness of our national Livio community.

Your start-up could set up shop anywhere in the world, but you choose Ferndale. Why?

Ferndale’s a cool and hip scene. As a resident, I set up the office here so I could ride my bike to work.

Jon Zemke is the news editor for Metromode and its sister publication Concentrate. He is also a freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D. His previous article was

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All Photos by Dave Lewinski