It's All In The Family

(Above from left) MetroLeap’s Michelle Bailey, Milun Tesovic, Radmila Juristovski, and Alan Juristovski.
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by Barry Shell
Illustration: Janice Kun

MetroLeap Media’s SFU Roots

Sometimes alan juristovski finds the music industry a bit perplexing.
A tall, slim fellow in his mid-40s with thick greying hair and a warm smile, Juristovski is CEO of MetroLeap Media. MetroLeap’s web site, MetroLyrics (www.metrolyrics.com), based in Burnaby, B.C., is a leading source for online lyrics, receiving 33 million unique visitors per month, more than any other Canadian-owned web site. In part that’s because Juristovski, a graduate of SFU’s Executive MBA program (2001), had the vision to establish the first lyrics site to negotiate licensing agreements with copyright holders through Gracenote in 2007. With his brilliant young partner, Milun Tesovic, an award-winning student in SFU’s Faculty of Business Administration and the
creator of the MetroLyrics web site, Juristovski has built a successful company based on strong family values. Even so, working with music publishers can be frustrating.

According to Juristovski, the industry is a dinosaur. “Music publishers haven’t been that interested in monetizing lyrics,” he says, explaining that all lyrics sites are user driven. Words to songs are submitted freely by enthusiasts wishing to share them with other fans. MetroLyrics lets people copy or print song lyrics until they are checked and approved by their rights holders, but at that point the publishers insist the words be locked down and made impossible to copy or print. It’s this sort of unfriendliness to end users that troubles Juristovski. “I can show them that people stay on a lyrics web site for several minutes if they can copy or print the lyrics, but if they can’t they are gone within two seconds,” he says.

MetroLyrics’ revenue comes from advertising, which is directly tied to the length of time visitors stay on a page. If they can’t get what they want, it takes only two mouse clicks to return to Google and find some other lyrics site that allows easy copying for free. “We have created a product: lyrics that can be monetized. But people still get lyrics for free,” says Juristovski. His company shares advertising dollars with the music industry but he feels they could make even more money by letting people print song lyrics for a small fee. In the meantime they do very well selling advertising.

The company is a great Canadian success story. Both Juristovski and Tesovic came to Canada in the 1990s to escape the ethnic wars in Yugoslavia. Their families met when Juristovski’s daughter became school friends with Tesovic’s younger sister. The first time Juristovski visited the Tesovic household Milun was only 14. “He was just a kid playing behind a computer screen,” Juristovski recalls. But a few months later, Milun’s father called and asked him to come over to have a look at what his son was doing because cheques had started arriving from a U.S. company. At the time Juristovski was vice-president of product development in a Cloverdale company that made coatings for asphalt, a type of specialized paint for marking crosswalks. “I went over and saw the cheques were from Google ads,” he says.

“We have created a product: lyrics that can be monetized, but people still get lyrics for free,” says Juristovski.

Despite their 25-year age difference, Alan and Milun got along extremely well and decided to form a company. Tesovic says, “I don’t necessarily see Alan as someone experienced teaching me everything. We both contribute equally.” Tesovic brings the creativity and energy of youth to the partnership, while Juristovski does the business negotiations and strategic planning. Tesovic says, “I am able to bring innovative ideas, while Alan keeps it manageable so we don’t get in over our heads.” As a fringe benefit Tesovic can practise his Serbian language skills with his older partner. Even before they started the business, Milun’s mother had asked Juristovski to be her son’s godfather. Juristovski says, “When he was 16, I told Milun that MetroLeap could some day become a multimillion-dollar company. He just laughed.”

In fact, the company was founded on cultural family values brought from their Yugoslavian homeland. They offer full medical coverage and staff training programs. “We take care of each other and focus on creating a fun working environment, rather than trying to squeeze every dollar we can out of the business,” says Juristovski. Both Juristovski’s wife, Radmila, and Tesovic’s girlfriend, Michelle Bailey, work in the company.” Besides the two couples, four other employees work at MetroLeap, two of whom are SFU graduates.

Based on his positive experience in SFU’s Executive MBA program, Jursitovski encouraged his wife to take SFU’s unique Management of Technology MBA. She is now vice-president of sales and marketing at MetroLeap. Similarly, Bailey also enrolled for a standard SFU MBA from which she graduated this year. “Alan inspired me to do it,” says Bailey. “His whole attitude about SFU was positive.” The company sponsored Bailey’s degree. Juristovski says, “SFU’s MBA program turned some of my views around 180 degrees.” For instance, Mark Wexler’s course on corporate structures taught him why some companies grow and some don’t, why some transitions are easy and others difficult. Professor Daniel Shapiro was another source of inspiration. “He gave me a way of thinking that allowed me to expand my interests,” says Juristovski.

Tesovic admits that Juristovski is like a father figure in his life. “I bought a house two doors over from Alan’s place in Burnaby so I could pop over whenever I needed advice,” says the 24-year-old entrepreneur. The two take turns looking after each other’s dogs when one is away. Juristovski has an Australian shepherd while Tesovic has a border collie.

Tesovic recently won a Canadian student entrepreneur of the year award from ACE, a Canadian charity that supports young business students. Earlier this year he was also named SFU’s first student entrepreneur of the year, which won his company a spot as the inaugural client in the SFU Venture Connection’s Venture Labs Early Stage Business Incubator. Juristovski praises the Venture Labs program saying, “Though we do not need the office space and facility support they offer, the mentorship program was very valuable. Our mentors realized we could possibly go public or be acquired, so the panel advised us on exit strategies and they gave us a lot of good advice on mergers and acquisitions.”

Jim Derbyshire is one of Venture Connection’s mentors-in-residence. He says, “When I first went and saw MetroLeap’s business in April I was totally amazed. Web-based businesses are so different from regular start-ups because they can grow large without staff or buildings.” Just four people accomplished most of MetroLeap’s growth.

Although the company was already a success, the Venture Connection mentors provided an outside independent expert review, something every company needs to make sure they have not missed something important. Derbyshire says, “Alumni interested in helping young SFU entrepreneurs should come forward. We need people with retail and other business experience to join the Venture Connection affiliate program. It’s not just about high tech.”

In the last year Juristovski and Tesovic have realized just how passionate people can be about song lyrics. For example, people now post lyrics as their Facebook status. “We are learning how engaged our users are from comments on our site generated by the lyrics,” says Juristovski. Consequently, Tesovic added a feature on their web site called “Tweet this song.” “Now every day we’re getting about 100 people tweeting our lyrics,” he says. The company has also hired a data-mining expert to explore the company’s enormous database of songs. “We can see how an artist’s writing evolves over time – for instance, how they use the word ‘love’ more frequently when they are young, or how the lyrics in one song relate to other songs by other artists,” says Juristovski. The future is all about connecting artists with music lovers in ways never before imagined, something the Internet can do, and MetroLeap is right there at the forefront.

For information on SFU’s Venture Connection program, contact manager Janice OBriain at jobriain@sfu.ca.