The Entrepreneur: Alena Golden, Rap Fame

The platform that allows anyone to record, collaborate and share rap tracks with a global community of more than 10 million users

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Founder: Alena Golden
Company: Rap Fame

Description: Rap Fame gives anyone the tools to record, promote and share rap tracks with a global community of more than 10 million users.

Alena Golden, cofounder and director of Rap Fame, speaks to Startups about international growth, business challenges, and how her platform is making a tangible difference to the lives of its users.

The Business

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

Rap Fame by Rap Tech Studios is a global community platform and mobile recording studio for hip-hop fans to create music, collaborate and share their tracks. It’s a software as a service (SaaS) business model – our subscribers pay to access our premium tools and features, such as more recording time for tracks or custom-made and legally verified ‘pro’ beats to rap to.

We have users all over the world, with hip-hop communities in multiple languages and 60% join the platform as complete beginners, often using the free version. This means it is completely inclusive and designed to support people of all abilities who want to make music, with ready-to-go lyrics, vocal effects, more than 1,000 free beats, and an AI-driven EasyMix tool to produce better sounding tracks. The combination of both the studio and a social network for fans to connect and collaborate makes Rap Fame completely unique.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

I started building apps for rappers with my brother Dan and our CTO Dmitry when I was 25. In just a few years, we’ve built our community to over 10 million users across the US, Europe and beyond, achieving #1 rap app on Google Play along the way. More than 2.5 million of our users are in the US, which for a London-based startup with a modest amount of funding is amazing.

It’s the passion and talent of our users that excites me every day – knowing how much of a difference Rap Fame has made to so many lives made us want to hear their stories, which led to our ‘Behind the Lyrics’ videos on YouTube. It’s inspiring knowing what inspired them and how hip-hop music is such a universal way for people to express their feelings and experiences.

The relationship is very much a two-way thing too. They express their enthusiasm and loyalty through things like creating their own rap tournaments and printing our logo on their T-shirts and caps. We love that they have taken so much ‘ownership’ and we respond by developing new features and functionality to make what they do organically easier.

How did you fund your business?

We went through the startup accelerator Wayra, run by O2-Telefonica, which led to our seed funding round from Supernode Global (formerly Rooks Nest Ventures), Wayra, and Plus Eight Equity Partners, an early-stage VC firm focused primarily on the electronic music industry. At some point in the future we may want to raise a Series A round, but have been growing the business organically.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

I have a computer science and maths background, so I’m really driven by user metrics and spotting patterns that help to inform our product development roadmap. We keep our costs, especially marketing, very low compared to industry averages doing A/B testing on things like the visual icons we use and then monitoring download conversion rates on Google Play and the Apple Store. We saw a 4x better conversion rate from one of these tests, which led to us getting hundreds of downloads a day and being #1 for the search term ‘rap app’ – a huge turning point for our growth.

Within the platform, we respond quickly and develop what users want. We have a highly engaged community, who spend an average of 31 minutes every day on the platform and more than six million user tracks were uploaded between 2019 and 2020. One of our super-users, a rapper called BR33ZE hit the amazing milestone of a million listens to his music on the Rap Fame platform recently, and we presented him with a Platinum certificate to mark his achievement.

To what extent does your business trade internationally?

Rap Fame is entirely global. It was featured as ‘App of the Day’ in 163 countries on the Apple Store in 2020, and in May and June 2021, the platform was a featured app on Google Play across the US, Canada and Mexico, Europe, and India. We have paying subscribers all over the world, with the US being our main market.

Where would you like your business to be in five years?

Aside from commercial growth and becoming a hugely successful global musictech platform, we see Rap Fame as a ‘tech for good’ platform. Music has always been a source of escapism and storytelling, an outlet and a way to be heard.

We have so many stories that our users have shared, like Abi Nyxx, who was born and raised in Newcastle, England. She was put down by those around her, especially when she said she wanted to pursue her music ambitions. Last year, during lockdown, she released her first single and has performed at gigs, travelled overseas, and spoken to the media.

Others have recorded often visceral tracks to respond to bullying or used hip-hop to highlight painful experiences such as being subjected to police brutality. There are so many celebratory tracks too, such as the couple from two different states in America who met on Rap Fame and have now had a baby, or the user who shared a track about receiving the all-clear following a fight against cancer. I can see Rap Fame making a tangible difference to people’s lives, so want to see that grow.

What software or technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

There are two. The first is that mobile devices are now capable of producing higher quality recordings, with the right adjustments. My brother Dan tried to build a recording studio with a Sony-Ericsson device back in the early noughties – turning a voice recorder into a freestyle tool. With some engineering, he managed to extend the maximum recording time from 15 seconds to a minute. With advanced mobile devices, the world is a different place today.

Now our challenge is around Android devices as – unlike Apple, which has around 20 versions – there are thousands of devices and you have to make sure your software works well on all of them. The coding has to be robust. As a second point, Cloud technology has transformed our ability to deliver a social network where the community are truly connected in real-time, regardless of location, and able to provide instant feedback to uploaded tracks.

Growth challenges

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in business?

It was a challenge finding and being accepted onto the right accelerator, which inevitably plays a part in how you then fund the business. As a first-time female founder starting a rap-focused app, it’s not necessarily something the people making decisions can understand or identify. In the last few years, the MusicTech space has grown and hip-hop has truly become a mainstream genre, so those conversations – along with the fact we have commercial traction – have got easier.

What was your biggest business mistake and what did you learn from it?

I’m a perfectionist, which can mean things don’t happen as quickly as they should. It’s not only my mistake but shared by many co-founders, who risk missing out on growth opportunities for their businesses. We have also operated on a tight budget, but our growth together with hiring new team members is changing that, giving us the ability to test and roll-out new features at a faster rate.

What one thing do you wish someone had told you when you started on your business journey?

It’s hard to pick just one, but I wish we’d carried out regular one-to-one interviews with our users to truly understand what they wanted and how they used our apps. We’ve seen how valuable our community is when it comes to developing new features, and we listen and engage with users far more now. By letting them effectively take ‘ownership’ we can become the facilitators – there to deliver an authentic product that they want.

How has the pandemic affected the market you operate in?

Being mobile-first, we’ve been lucky and largely unaffected. If anything, the people may have been more inclined to create music and connect with others in the community during lockdowns across the world. Users often headhunt for new crew members to collaborate with, and we’ve seen people doing that across multiple countries, showing how important hip-hop is for people who want to express themselves and connect with others who share their passion.

As a business we have also doubled the size of our team to 21, with new engineers and employees hired to accelerate growth this year. This has led to us being able to add new features and launch a browser-based version, as well as a ‘Rap Career’ function, for users to navigate the platform and develop their skills to achieve personal goals. The time also allowed us to focus on gamification mechanics to encourage users to stay active in the community, while having fun.

Personal growth

Did you study business or learn on the job?

Almost everything has been learnt on the job. I studied applied mathematics and worked as a CRM consultant for SAP. But starting in business at 25 meant that most of my entrepreneurial skills have developed through experience. I strongly believe in performing every function in the business first before I hire someone, which means I am informed.

Having that understanding of marketing or finance, for example, puts me in a better position to lead and have in-depth conversations with experts, which ultimately influences our strategy and the ability to execute it.

What would make you a better leader?

Being an entrepreneur, the business is far more than a job – it’s highly personal. This can have an impact on how you present yourself in both a positive and sometimes negative way. The passion and pride I have for my users and the business we’ve grown are incomparable to most other things in life. It drives me and conveying that to potential partners, investors and new hires puts us at a great advantage.

But I think my leadership would reach another level if I were able to introduce processes that allow me to remove myself from day-to-day tasks, leaving me to focus on the bigger picture and leading our fabulous team.

One business app and one personal app you can’t do without?

The business app would have to be Google Calendar, which keeps me on track and focused. On a personal level, Audible. Listening to audiobooks and podcasts from anywhere fills any ‘dead’ time I have, keeps me informed, and is also an all-important way to switch off from the business. Creating that headspace is actually valuable for Rap Fame too – many entrepreneurs get stuck into the minutiae of working ‘in’ the business and fail to work ‘on’ the business. Sometimes you need that distance to see more clearly.

A business book or podcast that you think is great:

The Art of Negotiation: How to Get What You Want (Every Time) by Tim Castle is memorable, and I’ve probably put some of the tips to good use. Also, Stand Out 2.0 by Marcus Buckingham helped in terms of identifying my strengths and focusing on them first and foremost, while hiring in areas of weakness. The Snacks Daily podcast is just 15 minutes a day and gives me digestible financial news, as well as a bit of hip-hop.

Written by:
Henry Williams headshot
Henry has been writing for since 2015, covering everything from business finance and web builders to tax and red tape. He’s also acted as project lead on many of our industry-renowned annual indexes, including Startups 100 and Business Ideas, and created a number of the site’s popular how to guides.
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