The entrepreneur

Many teens can’t live without their mobile technology that allows them to take their music everywhere — they can’t fathom life before iPods. As a music fan and iPod user, John Muckerman, a 16-year-old West Potomac High School student, thought his iTunes was missing something: the ability to queue up new songs on-demand in a particular order without having to program in a new playlist. Has he dreamed up a new application that could be the foundation of business venture?

The pitch

John Muckerman

“Have you ever been listening to your iPod casually, or while exercising and as you’re listening, you think of a song or several songs you want to hear NOW and in a certain order after your current song? YouTube and Netflix have this feature, but having it on iTunes would greatly enhance the listener’s enjoyment.

“I’m calling my idea for an iTunes feature On-Queue. This feature would allow the listener to play songs and ‘queue up’ the next songs to be played in the order of their choice (unlike a traditional random shuffle feature), totally on-demand. This differs from a playlist because a playlist takes a while to make and the order of the songs is set each time you create a list. On-Queue would also differ from Apple’s ‘Genius’ feature because it allows you to select the specific song(s) that you want to hear at that moment – not a genre among song selections similar to what you are listening to on, say, Pandora.

“Is this instant music selection feature for iTunes feasible as a business idea? How do I determine if anyone else has thought of this idea, and whether it is currently under development? If it’s not, how can I get my idea to the right people at Apple?”

The advice

Asher Epstein, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship

“By looking at a problem you personally experience, you are absolutely starting in the right place as an entrepreneur. You have an interesting, good idea, but it’s very difficult for an individual entrepreneur to be able to build a business around a feature that relies on fitting into another company’s platform.

“Now that Apple is moving music to its new iCloud streaming service, this is the type of feature that they could quite easily incorporate into their new platform. If you take your idea to Apple and they like it, you’d have to have invested in an intellectual property patent to protect your idea. That’s a pretty low-yield business strategy, especially because they could easily tweak your concept to get around your patent. Plus, patents are an expensive, lengthy process and require legal action to defend. Plus, just your idea isn’t enough. As they say in the venture capital world: An idea in and of itself is worth nothing; it’s the execution of that idea where the value is created.

“Unfortunately, it’s unlikely you’d even be able to get a conversation by approaching a large company with an idea to make their product better. That’s not to say big companies don’t value ideas from consumers. Many companies are now utilizing crowd-sourcing Web sites to come up with innovative solutions to problems, and in many cases, they are willing to pay for those ideas.

“In general, as an entrepreneur with an idea, the first thing you want to do is research your idea. Entrepreneurs today really benefit from the amount of information readily available on Google. You should be able to quickly determine whether someone else is thinking about your idea or the same problem you hope to address. After your research, always develop a prototype. This can just be a very rough version of your solution, but something that others can try. This is how you validate your concept before you really invest resources to pursue a venture.”

The reaction

Toni Andrews (John’s mother)

“I realize we were being a little idealistic thinking Steve Jobs would welcome John’s idea. I’m proud of him for developing this idea to solve a problem. His great-great-grandfather started a business that still exists, so it’s great to see that spark of entrepreneurship is in John. This has been a good lesson that the real world is just as you describe — lawyers and patents and things that cost money to bring an idea to reality. Attacking a problem is the best way to start a business, so I’m sure John will remember the initial steps for the next idea.”