The NEN Interview - Jon Gunnar Thordarson, CEO Mussila
Home to musical innovators such as Björk, Sigur Rós and Oscar-winning composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Iceland is known globally as a creative powerhouse. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Iceland is also home to Mussila, a leading music learning EdTech.
I was delighted to talk to Jon Gunnar Thordarson, Mussila’s CEO, last week for this latest Nordic EdTech News interview. After a year in which they’ve made an acquisition, raised investment, begun to scale international sales and found time to build a Eurovision app, there was no shortage of topics for us to talk about!
As previously, the transcript of our conversation (edited to bring you all of the very best bits) follows below.
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Many thanks, Jonathan
Jonathan Viner (JV): Hi Jon Gunnar! Many thanks for taking the time to talk to me today - can you start by telling me what Mussila is and what it does?
JGT: Mussila is an EdTech company providing children with digital solutions for learning. We already have one product on the market, which is called Mussila Music School. This teaches children (aged 6 - 10) music through game-based challenges and the children learn, play and create music all in one app. Mussila Music School is available globally through the App Store and Google Play and we also now have a classroom solution to support remote learning. Schools globally can now buy this directly through our website.
Earlier this year we also acquired a reading comprehension app called Orðagull. We’ll be translating the existing teaching materials into English and taking this into global markets later this year. We’re stepping further into EdTech as we have the technical infrastructure in place, access to families and schools and can now start developing solutions for other subjects as well.
JV: How does the app help a child to learn an instrument?
JGT: Mussila is the best place for beginners to learn before parents start to buy instruments or pay for lessons. Children learn the basics of music theory and how to play the piano via an easy step-by-step tutorial and the app’s inbuilt keyboard.
The app also has features such as tone recognition. This can be used with any instrument and the app picks up the notes that your child is playing and tells them if they are hitting the right notes or not.
JV: Where did the idea for Mussila come from?
JGT: The company was founded by Hilmar Birgisson, our COO, Margrét Júlíana Sigurðardóttir, a musician and the graphic designer, Ægir Örn Ingvason. They realised that there were not many digital resources for parents to help their children learn music. They wanted to combine music theory with the joy of playing an instrument as well as offering these game-based adventures. By pulling everything together in the app, they also gave children the motivation to learn more.
JGT: It’s important to stress that we want children to learn through curiosity, through exploring and by making mistakes. We’re not focused on the testing or assessment of our users. LEGO talks about learning through play, but with Mussila, children can learn, play and create all in one app.
We’re going to use this approach to expand across different subjects by leveraging the technical infrastructure we’ve developed over the last five years. Mussila has also built up our educational expertise and now has a classroom solution for remote learning.
We can therefore create new products in the future that support children to develop literacy or logic skills. Our vision is that Mussila will become THE place for parents to come to download these apps and resources.
JV: Mussila has clearly taken time to build strong relationships with music teaching experts. How has that approach supported the product’s development?
JGT: Mussila is a company that builds successful EdTech products, but we recognise that we need to work with specialists in the field to help us. Our Musical Director, Arngerður María Árnadóttir, is in constant collaboration with experts who give us valuable feedback. Importantly, we also have lots of teachers testing the app and we constantly use their feedback to improve it. So you could say that Mussila Music School has really been made by feedback from hundreds of music teachers!
We’ve also taken this approach for our upcoming reading comprehension app, where we ‘re working with two expert speech and reading pathologists.
JV: Where is the business focused? Is it B2C or B2B? Which is the priority?
JGT: Long-term, our focus is to target both audiences equally.
At the moment, most of our users are B2C (i.e parents or families) and we certainly see that continuing. But since the pandemic, we’ve started to get lots of requests from schools and have now built an infrastructure to support remote learning through a dedicated teachers’ dashboard. Over the next two years, we’ll be really focusing on driving strong growth in B2B sales.
JV: Whilst we’re talking about B2C activity, how successful has your Daði and Gagnamagnið Eurovision app been?
JGT: It’s been amazing and the app was in the top 3 apps globally on both the App Store and Google Play, but it’s also been a really valuable experience for the whole team.
After deciding to collaborate with Daði, we developed the app in just six weeks. Our development team stopped doing what they had been doing for the previous five years and did something completely new! We’ll also be able to incorporate elements of the work in future versions of Mussila. The karaoke game and tone recognition functionality we’ve developed will help children to learn to sing through the app.
But it was also great for our company to take on something completely new. We’re a team of 10 people and we ensure that everyone is involved and that their voices are heard. So it’s great that we’re able to build this together in such a short period of time.
JV: Where are your B2B customers at the moment ?
JGT: We’re working with about 100 schools currently. They’re located in Estonia, Iceland obviously, Sweden, the UK and the US.
In Iceland, we’ve done our first municipality deal across 12 schools in Kópavogur. So we’ve proved we can do those kinds of deals and we’re now looking to scale that model up.
Music is a universal language so we can see the whole world as our stage. Our community of schools is really powerful - they talk so positively about Mussila that the word just spreads!
JV: If music is such a universal language, why is it relatively underserved by EdTech companies?
JGT: I think that comes down to parents’ spending priorities as they’re the key decision-makers in B2C markets. They start with supporting their child’s literacy, then maths, then coding, then art and then music learning.
Music learning is therefore seen as quite niche and that deters competitors.
JV: Given that you’ve recently closed a funding round, you’ve obviously been able to demonstrate that there’s a significant market to target! Can you tell me a little bit more about the whole process as you took quite an unusual approach to raising?
JGT: Our target was to raise a seed round of €600,000 and we actually ended up raising €675,000 from 250 investors through an Estonian platform called Funderbeam. It’s amazing that so many people believe in what we’re doing and where we’re going.
The investment will really help us to build and to achieve our dreams. We’ll speed up the technical development and scale up our team as we handle the huge number of enquiries we’re now getting from schools via organic traffic. There’s a huge opportunity for us and we’re working with SuperCharger Ventures to do a Series A round next year!
JV: How realistic is that given that your investment prospectus states 2020 revenues at just over €75,000?
JGT: Our solution has received lots of awards and lots of public recognition, so people obviously like what we’re doing. During the last year, we’ve also seen revenues increase 7x as parents and schools looked for quality digital education solutions during the pandemic.
To take advantage of this opportunity, we need to keep telling the world about Mussila and we need investment funds to do that.
JV: Do you ever get pushback from parents who don’t want their child to learn a musical instrument through an app?
JGT: I understand that perspective and agree that children do spend way too much time on iPads and other smart devices. But Mussila does help children to learn something useful and helps build their skills for the future.
Also our tone recognition feature means that children can place the device on their instrument and see if they’re playing the right notes. We’re providing tools and resources so that children can play in the physical world, not just on the device. So Mussila can really support them in their music learning.
JV: Can you describe the EdTech ecosystem in Iceland? Where do you look for advice and inspiration?
JGT: I think that we have learned most from conversations with people from the Icelandic gaming industry. Companies like CCP, the developers of Eve Online, Klang Games, Myrkur Games and Solid Clouds, who have all built and scaled global businesses from Iceland.
The Icelandic startup community is quite close and people are keen to help and mentor each other. Our company also has a strong board of directors and advisors with broad experience in investment, gaming and international sales.
JV: OK, so finally what led you from the world of drama and theatre into the world of EdTech? How did that come about?
JGT: Well there’s lots of similarities - certainly throughout my career I’ve been asking people for money to do my projects!
The reason I went into the theatre was because I wanted to change the world. But ultimately, when you direct a play, it carries a certain message and usually the people who come and see it believe that message too.
EdTech is also about changing the world, but through empowering children. We don’t know what the future holds over the next 15 to 20 years, but we do know that children need to have the ability to create and innovate in order to answer the big questions that are ahead of us. I hope that our work in EdTech is about building something that helps young people develop the critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration skills to really help the world in the future.
JV: Thanks very much for your time Jon Gunnar. Once again, that’s a really inspiring message for us to finish on!
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