Marcus Blackwell, Jr., CEO and founder of Make Music Count in Atlanta, Ga., saw a market for making math fun through the power of music. To overcome common hardships associated with learning mathematics, he created a program that combines playing the piano, algebra and popular hit songs.
The beginning of Make Music Count
What inspired you to start your business? When?
I’ve played the piano since I was 5. In school, I struggled in math and wasn’t given the extra help I asked for. So I used the piano to make math feel better. Later, I majored in mathematics at Morehouse College while continuing to play the piano at local churches. I’ve always had an interest in how math and music connected, and my personal struggle to succeed in math led to the creation of the idea that began Make Music Count.
What first steps did you take to launch the business?
I started out by teaching my math and music curriculum for free as a volunteer service. It started as just a fun way to give back. I taught a class once a week, leaving my corporate job to teach at a local middle school.
I did this for six months, and that’s when my first school partner called me to teach during their upcoming summer program. That’s when I quit my job to pursue what I realized was what I was always waiting for: an opportunity to teach my curriculum full time.
What obstacles did you face as a startup, and how did you overcome them?
One obstacle was convincing schools to take a chance on my curriculum. We were new to the market, and I had no idea how to approach other schools about using our method. But, I was able to overcome this obstacle by knocking on school doors and simply asking for five minutes to speak to the principal.
What I realized was that students’ math scores were so low that schools were interested in any creative way to engage their students.
Another obstacle was finding the correct price range for my curriculum — learning what was appropriate to charge schools for workbooks and services. As a new program to the market, I just wanted a foot in the door, but needed enough money to pay bills. So through trial and error — from charging too much so other schools wouldn’t work with me, to charging too little to where I wasn’t taken seriously by the school — I figured it out.
How did you identify your niche in the market?
My niche is using actual artists’ songs to teach math lessons. I created a way to get students to solve math equations, where the answers are musical notes, to play these popular songs on the piano.
Tell us about your business model.
For the past six years, we’ve been an after-school program where schools and other entities purchased workbooks and paid for my staff to teach each lesson. Now, the curriculum is taught through our online platform available for iPads, iPhones and all Android products.
The business model will now be to license the curriculum to school districts so they can upload our app on the tablets and iPads they’ve already purchased.
Secondly, we will partner with other educational platforms that are looking for new math content to offer their audience. Lastly, we will offer a freemium subscription model for our curriculum to be used outside of the classroom.
Goals and philosophy
What are the goals for your business?
The goal for my business is to eliminate the phobia that third- through ninth-grade students have toward mathematics.
We want to bring fun back to math, and if people can learn how to play the piano at the same time, that’s even better.
Are the students engaged? What would best encourage them to complete math assignments? What music and artists best connect with students? These are the questions we asked to lead us to the creation of Make Music Count.
What words epitomize success in your book?
Impact and access.
What strengths do you bring to the table as an entrepreneur?
Personal connection and determination. My business is literally my testimony for how I overcame my personal math phobia. And I am driven to provide what I wish I would have had as a student growing up.
Where do you see your business in five years? Ten years?
In five years, I see Make Music Count saturating the education market as a staple for how to correctly teach STEM and STEAM curriculum. In 10 years, I see this curriculum being used on other platforms like AR, VR and other creative ways that will be brought into the classroom.
Advice and personal
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned since starting your business?
To keep an open mind for the direction of your business. When I started Make Music Count, I had no idea we would now be an online platform. But it made sense to solve our issue of scalability.
What’s your best advice for other entrepreneurs?
You have to believe in your idea with everything in you. Take chances, but also stay in your lane. If you don’t know how to do something, ask for help. It’s impossible to know everything.
How do you unwind?
I play the piano at home and also love going to the movies.
How do you balance the needs of your business with your personal life?
It’s not easy, but you just have to do the best you can. True friends will understand your grind. But speaking as a newlywed, wives need just as much attention and love as your startup!
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions, Marcus! If you’d like to learn more about Make Music Count, be sure to check out their website and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Image by: Make Music Count's Facebook