You might call Bruce Zhang ’14 a professional guitar teacher. Just not the kind you would call for a lesson.
Instead, the Stevens Institute of Technology graduate created an innovative company aiming to revolutionize how musical instruments are mastered.
Zhang is founder and CEO of Poputar — a portmanteau of “popular” and “guitar” — which moves the popular Guitar Hero concept much closer to reality through a special acoustic guitar and accompanying mobile app. The jet-black guitar is outfitted with a grid of yellow LED lights built into the fretboard, giving players visual cues to guide their fingerpicking.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, guitar was maybe the best thing in the world,” said Zhang, who taught himself to play the guitar and the piano as a boy growing up in China. “But now more people are playing games on their phones — they quit practicing the guitar because it’s hard to learn.”
The problem isn’t the people who want to learn to play, Zhang said — it’s that guitar instruction hasn’t innovated with technology. “When you get that guitar, you don’t know where to start,” he said. “There’s no screen, no instruction, no anything.”
Instruments of innovation
Poputar solves that through its hardware and software. The lights on the guitar are controlled by the app, so as you select a song to play, LED cues flicker where your fingers should be, walking you through the song. The guitar links to your phone through Bluetooth, to help you keep pace with the music, and sound-responsive technology allows for real-time feedback and correction.
“Seventy percent of knowledge comes from what you see,” Zhang said. “Learning music is hard, because you can’t see it. That’s where this idea came from — and I believe technology is going to help more people learn skills by visualization.”
It’s not just prospective musicians who are impressed by Zhang’s early work. The 26-year-old was named to Forbes’ list of 30 under 30 in Asia’s consumer technology sector, highlighting some of the most promising technology innovators in India, China and beyond.
Zhang completed his bachelor’s in Business at the School of Business after studying international economics at Beijing Institute of Technology. He most liked how the Business & Technology coursework “combines two perspectives into one major. Providing more than one angle to see the world is important.”
Dr. Gregory Prastacos, dean of the School of Business, said successes like Poputar are evidence of the value of Stevens’ partnerships with universities in Europe and Asia.
“Bruce is just one example of highly talented students who were able to come to Stevens to add important depth to the studies they did in their home countries,” Dr. Prastacos said. “What Bruce has accomplished so far is a testament to his willingness to work hard and the emphasis at Stevens of teaching professionals to approach business problems from the mindset of entrepreneurs.”
A business hatched in Hoboken
His Stevens classes played an important role as Zhang thought about his future. He turned down several jobs in data and finance to pursue his entrepreneurial passion, which he nurtured in his 12th Street student housing in Hoboken, N.J., before formally launching in China in 2015. The company now employs 50 in Asia in addition to a small North American team.
“It was hard to say no to those offers, but I really saw an opportunity to create a business around my passion for music,” he said.
“The most valuable thing I got from my classes is to have a direct sense of the business world, instead of just general knowledge.”
Zhang said the Stevens Senior Design experience helped him in developing a strategy for Poputar. As seniors, each student in the School of Business takes two courses that serve as a capstone and provide real experience in creating a business — an important step for students like Zhang, who go on to become entrepreneurs. Several startups trace their roots to Stevens and the Innovation Expo, the showcase for Senior Design projects, including NovaFit and Scrumptious Secrets of Vermont.
His Senior Design experience with Professor CV Harquail, Zhang said, “taught me the startup canvas, which provided me the fundamental knowledge for creating a prototype and a product.”
Zhang said Dr. George Calhoun’s classes also were an important influence on him as he thought about the company, especially in finance and securities valuation.
“Professor Calhoun made a lifelong impact on my business instinct,” Zhang said. “The most valuable thing I got from my classes is to have a direct sense of the business world, instead of just general knowledge.”
The short-term goal for the company, Zhang said, is to get early-stage capital to allow its U.S.-based team to move forward, while also taking a first step toward product globalization. The long term hopefully will see the company become a global brand beyond just the guitar — in fact, Populele, which is the same business model on a ukulele, raked in more than $350,000 in sales within 12 hours of its launch in February.
“I hope to continue to focus on the design of smart instruments that guide more people all over the globe to pick up basic musical skills in a far more effective way,” he said.