Welcome to Center Stage, our series that gives the spotlight to the college kids who deserve it. These peeps are doing incredible things with their spare time, from starting a popular sports website to creating a revolutionary free music site to blogging about fashion. If you have a friend you think should be featured in this series (or you yourself would like to be a STAR), email us at theprospectblog(at)gmail(dot)com.
Name: Neil Mallinar
College: Johns Hopkins University
Class Year: Freshman (Class of 2016)
(Prospective) Major: Double major in Computer Science and Physics, minor in Mathematics (“We’ll see how long that lasts…”)
Why He’s in Center Stage: Co-Founder of Womp.in
Name: Michal Krupa
College: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Class Year: Freshman (Class of 2016)
(Prospective) Major: Computer Science
Why He’s in Center Stage: Co-Founder of Womp.in
What is Womp.in?
Neil Mallinar (NM) & Michal Krupa (MK): Womp.in is a visually compelling music discovery website where people can interact with local and famous artists. Our approach was to target anyone that was looking for music regardless of their background in musical knowledge. You could come on the site being someone who has no idea what they’re looking for and have as great of an experience as someone who would know what content they were going to browse.
How and when did you guys come up with the idea?
MK: Originally, WOMP was going to be a pocket tee business and more importantly a lifestyle brand that was going to be defined by not just clothing but also music, similar to how American Eagle markets itself. One of the promoters we were working with, Jason Wimp, engaged me on the idea and we (Jason and I) got together and started talking about what he wanted from the blog. He wanted to have a streaming service, mostly playlists over an RSS feed, but after going through a couple of sites that are currently out (WeAreHunted, YouTube, and other blogs), I put my developmental and design skills together and pumped out the first version which was comparable to how Netflix presents their content. Then we just kept tweaking and redesigning (we’ve been through about 4 complete facelifts) and really built it on suggestions.
What separates Womp.in from other music listening websites?
NM: Contrary to most popular music discovery services, Womp presents you with music content right off the bat. To quote a friend “We brought the funk back. I’m Ol’ Greg!”
MK: Most other sites are really just commercial engines that add content in order to sell whatever they’re marketing. We ended up reverse-engineering that commercialized paradigm in order to bring the functionality and features into the limelight, rather than the ads and things that people don’t have any interest in.
What skills did you learn high school that enabled you to make the site as full and functional as it is today?
NM: Nothing. Literally high school taught us nothing for that. We just do stuff with computers when we get bored. Possibly mild autism, who knows? In middle school, we hacked the school network and created this Anonymous-esque group called “Team Damnit”, which were the initials of everyone in the group, and gained access to the system. That just sort of sparked us on this path of development and programming as a team.
MK: It was all super Oceans 11 type stuff. We ended up only using it to upload a picture with our watermark on it. We never intended to do anything with computers that would be “bad”, so it was just nice to be able to visit the page we uploaded it to and be like “Yeahhhh!”
How has your school work translated into your work on Womp.in?
NM: The school work right now, in terms of programming classes, has been Java and C/C++ and since Womp is web-based and programmed in Ruby on Rails, there’s not much of an application yet (outside of the fact that the logic and fundamentals of a programming language are not limited to each specific language). Once you are familiar with thinking analytically and like a programmer, the rest is just looking up how to write a certain function in Ruby rather than Java. However, all of the courses I have taken have been helpful because they set the foundation for more specialized courses in the future.
In general, I like to take a learn-by-doing approach to things, so going to class and taking tests isn’t my cup of tea. Rather, I’ll take up a project (like Womp) and teach myself what I need to know in order to successfully complete it (the internet is my favorite resource, and the better you get at Googling and researching questions, the easier it is to find information). Eventually it all comes down to how passionate and driven you are about what you’re working on, be it school or work. The classes I’m taking have helped me develop a work ethic and have sparked interest in me, and that’s the best result in my opinion.
MK: I’ve only been really taking core engineering classes like vector calculus and physics, and whatever else is required for my degree in terms of GE classes. I think math is a strong contribution to what we know about programming, not because we need intense math skills but because math is all about problem solving. I don’t need to have a solution in mind at the start, but I need to know how to work through the steps and find the solution. With something like Womp, we have to build a lot of unique functionality just because of the way our data collection system works, so we started by asking a lot of questions that we really didn’t know the answer to. But I start at the beginning and I use logic and eventually I complete a feature that does exactly what it’s supposed to.
Classes I’ve taken may have taught me how to use a programming language, but outside of that, being able to make a product like Womp requires people to know how to think. I think that people who are good at coding are good because they think in a certain way and approach problems in the ways that I have described, and not because they have a brilliant knowledge of things like language efficiencies and syntax.
How do you find balance between working on the site, going to school, participating in other extracurriculars (if any), and just hanging out?
NM: It’s definitely a challenge to find a balance between everything but I like to think that you can always make time for something you care about doing. That being said, I have had to say no to friends who are going out to parties to catch up with schoolwork that I missed because of work, or visa versa. I like to think that I still have as good of a social life as most other students, and I’ve got a great group of friends who are really supportive of Womp and everything I’m doing. I don’t find it terribly difficult to multitask the programming and chatting with friends or music or TV.
As for other school activities, I’m doing a research project and I’m on the Johns Hopkins X-Prize Competition Team, and those are activities that I just have to schedule ahead and plan the rest of my work around. It gets stressful, and sometimes I can’t actually handle the workload and end up letting something slip. At least now I know how much I can handle. It also helps that my parents were extremely helpful in motivating me to get my work done when I was younger (I was never able to say, “F*ck this, I give up!”), so I developed a work ethic over the years that has helped me tackle my workload. In the end things are going to work out. Everything I’m doing is bettering me in some way, so I’m not complaining.
MK: It’s tough. I believe you can fit everything in easily as long as you keep to a schedule. However, it’s hard to do anything spontaneously, because everything is set aside for a certain time. So when your friends are free at a time that doesn’t work for you, there are times where you just say “f*ck it, I’m not a robot” and you sacrifice the schedule. Everyone needs to have fun, but you definitely learn to appreciate the #YOLO moments when you know you have to give something else up.
It’s really just finding a way to get everything to work together, and if you’ve been programming since middle school and have always been active and busy (because your parents are Eastern European and raised you to be driven and fearful of them), then you’ve adjusted into that mind set. I guess I just accept that everything will fall into place and I can do it all, and that if something doesn’t then it means that I am already doing so much else that I don’t need to feel guilty about it. I actually took this semester off of school because I had [a medical condition]. But even at school I was in a couple of clubs, working at Wolfram Alpha, and working on Womp. Now I’m still working on Womp as well as 2 other startups and taking some classes at the community college in my hometown before I go back to Illinois in the fall.
Favorite feature on the site?
NM: Playlist from Current is best bro. Literally just creates a playlist of 10 songs similar to the one you’re currently listening to. I use it all the time to auto-generate short playlists of good music.
MK: Isolation Mode IS BEST! Definitely gives you a super awesome visual experience that you won’t find anywhere else.
Any good stories behind your super awesome logo (the owl)?
NM: Owl’s are a symbol for intelligence, and we have an intelligent backend system. But that’s mostly our forced interpretation of the image that we just really liked (the owl with the trippy eyes).
MK: Yeah, actually though. We give creative control for stuff like that to our design team, and Dohee Yang is in charge of things like graphics. We have another member, Francis Sullivan, who does the web application layouts, referring to the core site design, but Dohee is definitely the graphic artist on the team. We just told her to do something cute and she did.
Favorite song at the moment?
NM: That’s a tough question…“1 Train” by ASAP Rocky ft. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Big K.R.I.T.
MK: “Polish Girl” by Neon Indian. It’s just super pop-y and as eurotrash I can’t not love it.
Favorite song of all time?
NM: “Like a Prayer” by Madonna. Or “Lose Yourself” by Eminem; it was my childhood, man.
MK: “Memories” performed by Barbra Streisand. The only woman I could ever truly love.
Favorite music genre?
NM: I’ve gotten into the House and Dubstep music scene recently, especially for while I’m intensively studying. But still my heart will always lie with the rap scene. I do, however, listen to all genres of music depending on my mood.
MK: Folk or Pop.
Turn on your iPod. What song were you last listening to (even if it was Miley Cyrus, don’t lie!)?
NM: Trick question, I don’t have an iPod (Galaxy S3!). “Bixby Canyon Bridge” by Death Cab for Cutie.
MK: Haha, I actually don’t have an iPod either. Zune all the way! But I don’t use it, so I’ll check my phone. “World At Large” by Modest Mouse.
You’re walking into an arena filled with thousands of people because you’re really important. What song do you want to hear playing when you enter?
NM: “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin Ta F*ck Wit” by The Wu Tang Clan…love that bass drop. Or “G’z and Hustlaz” by Snoop Dogg.
Most overrated artist or band and why?
NM: Maroon 5. BECAUSE EVERYBODY ON THE RADIO SOUNDS EXACTLY LIKE THEM NOW.
MK: Taylor Swift. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will explain why (all her songs are just about different boyfriends).
If you had to create your own DJ name, what would it be and why?
NM: Dashaman, mostly because that is my producer name. My friend Arian Dehnow came up with it when we decided to make our album and it stuck. Probably named that because shaman are dope healers, and I’m Da Shaman.
MK: Killa Krup. The alliteration is too much to waste.
Best Womp.in milestone thus far?
NM: I’m not sure if there’s a specific date for this but recently I’ve started noticing growth at anywhere between 3-5 users per week, which I think is amazing considering we’ve done little to no advertising.
MK: When we hit 500 users. We’ve had very little publicized about us, so it’s a pretty remarkable number. Of course it’s not thousands or millions, but long as the numbers keep going up we aren’t complaining. Especially since we are just now considering ourselves as ‘launching’.
Where do you see yourselves and Womp.in in five years?
NM: These things are always difficult to answer because in this industry anything could happen at any moment. I think we have a lot of potential and people like our site, so it’s feasible for us to get picked up. However, we could end up in the complete opposite direction and get no attention and fail. Regardless of how it ends, Womp.in has been one of the best learning experiences in my young life, and I will never forget the lessons I’ve learned (programming, business, and friendship). So in five years, Womp.in will still always be my first venture. Wow, that sounded a lot less cliché in my head.
MK: Hard to tell. We could be iTunes for the web browser, bankrupt, or absorbed by a competing service. Things could go any way at this stage but building Womp, regardless of success has been worthwhile.