“I was the only child in an Asian family that sort of lives and breathes music.”
Both of Yat Siu’s parents were professional musicians; it was assumed he would become one too, but his passion for entrepreneurship started early.
“I must have been eight or nine? I don’t really remember. I only remember this because it was so ridiculous. […] My mom had all these shoes she was going to throw away.” In the pile, a colorful pair caught his eye. “Being a boy, it was gold, and it looked new. I had no idea what was good or bad fashion but I thought, somebody else might want this.”
“I basically went on a bicycle and I rode through my neighborhood in Austria shouting out to sell these shoes.” It would be his first big failure. “I don’t think I ever sold those shoes,” he laughs, “but I understood the difference between new and old.”
Although Yat has a music degree from the Vienna Konservatorium in Austria, his hobby of computers brought him to Atari in the early 1990s.
He later went to the US to start his first company before moving to Hong Kong where he founded Cybercity, considered the first free web page and email provider in Asia. His next company Outblaze weathered the dot-com crash, and its messaging assets were sold to IBM in 2009.
Yat continues to be a leader in games and content publishing, but also finds time to support the arts as a board member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts as well as the Asian Youth Orchestra.
Always one to build off experiences, Yat’s next venture is inspired by parenting.
The hills are alive
“When my son was born, everyone would say it’s good to play music for your kids.” Yat bought a piano and began to perform for his children, for the first time in over a decade. While his son didn’t take to the piano, Yat’s daughter was a natural.
She started to see a teacher, but something changed. Lessons weren’t going well, so Yat would try to help at home. Progress stopped and Yat became frustrated. That’s when he realized, “This is all the kind of shit I hated to do, and I am basically having my daughter do it.”
How would the world look like if everyone knew how to play an instrument?
Yet his son was having a great time learning the guitar. They couldn’t find a reliable teacher, so Yat spent a lot of time looking up tabs and transcribing popular songs. Yat realized that, rather than practicing Mozart, it was important to play songs you like. Both his children have since picked up the guitar and enjoy singing with it.
People love music, but there is a huge gap between the number who enjoy it and the number who can play an instrument, observes Yat.
“How would the world look like if everyone knew how to play an instrument?”
Yat made several investments in music companies to understand the space. He looked at many alternative instruments like buttons and shakers, but found the answer in Guitar Hero. Over 25 million of the button-mashing toys have been sold to date. That’s much more than the largely flat sales of two million real guitars per year.
Yat watched his children progress, within weeks, from basic chords to songs they wanted to play. He thought, “Can we make this into a program where we take away the cost and anguish of buying a guitar?”
“For $50, I would give it a shot,” considered Yat. Making the guitar affordable and creating a self-learning curriculum would be vital. “We were trying to get the price point low and as inclusive as possible so that people don’t have to worry about, do I need to get a teacher? Do I need to get a guitar? Which one should I get?”
After trying to work with manufacturers, Yat and the team couldn’t reduce the price to what they thought would be needed. They decided to do it themselves, and after a year and a half, Chord Hero was born.
The Chord Hero “Strummer” guitar comes in kid-friendly colors like hot pink, supercar yellow, and volcano red. The basic “Pirate black” color costs US$59 and comes with glitter pens so children can spruce things up to their heart’s desire.
To complete the education program Yat and the team developed an iOS companion app Monster Chords. The app teaches children basic chords in a gamified way. It works with any normal guitar as well. I was able to test out a beta version at home; I thoroughly enjoyed strumming along to background music with my monster friends around the campfire.
Players can also jam along to classic nursery rhymes or different original modern compositions. The app has 30 levels, the first five of which are free. For US$1.99 per month, users can receive new songs and levels. The app also features a minigame where tuning the guitar moves a character on screen.
Yat sees a lot of potential in this space and hopes gamification can be a strong motivator for new musicians. Imagine playing Candy Crush or a running game with the guitar as a controller. The better you become, the more sophisticated your moves can get. Yat notes that the way master gamers handle controllers is virtuosic. It’s like practicing for Street Fighter and getting that combination right to beat M. Bison, he says.
“Now you’re going to learn some Metallica, and during that process of learning the guitar, you are going to kick some alien’s ass.”
Yat didn’t become a professional musician, but he has certainly connected all the dots. He’s less worried about music theory and more about getting the 95 percent of people who cannot play an instrument interested in the arts.
“Music theory is all fine, but for most of the children out there, or even some adults, you don’t really need that,” he says. “I find it difficult for people who just want to play and perform. It’s like you’re going to karaoke – but first you have to go to a music lesson.”