Alex Oana and I first met at St. Olaf College, back when I was a music student (clarinet/saxophone) and Alex an aspiring sound engineer. Alex recently launched his company and eponymous product, Audio Test Kitchen. St. Olaf Alumni Magazine gave me the opportunity to interview him about how and why he started his new company in the following article:
Alex Oana was at the end of his credit line. He had spent the last dollar from a $150,000 second mortgage on his house in Culver City, California, and maxed out his credit cards. All that money had gone toward his new company, Audio Test Kitchen (ATK), which he had recently started with his co-founder, Ian Hlatky.
Their aspiration: to create a Spotify-meets-Consumer Reports-type of website for the $17 billion professional audio and musical instruments industry and become the world’s first unbiased online showroom for pro audio gear. In this virtual space, musicians and recording engineers can hear and compare the sound of pro audio gear, apples to apples.
Audio creators used to select their equipment without being able to hear it first. To Oana and Hlatky that seemed like asking online shoppers to make purchases without being able to first see what they are buying. Watch how Audio Test Kitchen works here:
During his 30-year career as an audio engineer and producer, Oana’s mission has been to “make the world a better sounding place.” But why risk everything to make that dream a reality?
Inspiration from Family
In 2015, Oana’s dad passed away while Oana was working a job in pro audio sales and marketing, supporting his daughter, Veta, and his son, Orion. “With every phone call as a sales representative, I had my father’s death on my mind. I felt that my time on earth is limited. I could no longer stand to spend one more minute doing a job in which I was not fully using my gifts.”
While looking for other job opportunities, he found himself at a dead end. Finally, he asked himself, “If I won’t take a risk on myself, why should I expect someone else to?”
Oana officially co-founded Audio Test Kitchen in Los Angeles in 2017, pitching the concept, building the team, and eventually securing $270,000 in a “friends and family” round of financing for the company. But his passion for music started long before that.
Growing up in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, Oana remembers dabbling in music as a toddler at his local Lutheran church, where his mother played the organ. When she wasn’t looking, he often crawled across the organ’s bass pedals, delivering a little drama during the pastor’s sermon.
It wasn’t just his mother’s love of music that influenced Oana. She also had an entrepreneurial spirit, spearheading innovative projects at the hospitals where she worked. Talking to her about these projects as an adult helped to nurture Oana’s own interest in entrepreneurship.
But while growing up, Oana’s dream was to be like one of the big-name producers he admired, the guys who appeared in the credits for hit songs and best-selling records. “I wanted to be a household name as a music engineer and producer,” he remembers.
Career Beginning at St. Olaf College
Oana got his first taste of the audio equipment industry at St. Olaf, where he was a student in the Paracollege where he designed a personalized major called “Creative Expression Through Sound, Poetry, and Video.” As a first-year student, he observed some students packing up the sound equipment after a rock concert in Skoglund Gym. He asked who they worked for and discovered that being part of the sound crew was their campus job. He responded, “You mean you get paid for this?”
After a lot of friendly persistence, Oana got a job on the sound crew the following year. For the next three years, he ran the sound equipment in The Pause, the campus club, for concerts and events. “That meant that I was learning for the first time how to set up microphones and run them through a mixing board,” Oana said. “This gave me access to gear, which was like having the keys to the kingdom.”
Alex and I lived on the second floor of Ellingson Hall during our freshmen year, just down the same hallway from nearly all of the members of our rock band, Shark Sandwich. I played saxophone while Alex mixed our sound. Like Alex, two of our other band mates have become entrepreneurs. Trumpet player Nathan Anderson, Alex’s roommate at St. Olaf, is today the founder of DemoReel.com, a video hosting service for actors and talent agencies. And drummer Eric Fawcett is the executive producer at Egg Music, a music creation/production company for film, television, advertising and media clients.
Music and Entrepreneurship
Some people may perceive playing in a band during one’s youth as an “immature” period of that person’s life. But, Fawcett counters that concept, saying, “Playing in a band helps people figure out how to get along and work together. It’s the perfect training ground for entrepreneurship.”
One cold winter weekend during our sophomore year, Oana recorded Shark Sandwich at The Pause, St. Olaf’s campus club, teaching himself the art of microphone set up and live recordings. He still considers it a great recording to this day. Listen to the recording here:
Setting Up His Own Recording Studio
After graduating from St. Olaf, Oana took his first shot at entrepreneurship in his early 20s when he set up his own recording studio, CityCabin, in Minneapolis. He produced, engineered, mixed, mastered, and arranged music for numerous bands and won 11 Minnesota Music Awards, including Producer of the Year, Best Indie Recording, and Best Pop Recording. One of those bands was Spymob, which included two former members of Shark Sandwich: Eric Fawcett and John Ostby. After Sony Music signed them, Oana joined them as a sound engineer on a world tour, opening up for Pharrell Williams’ N*E*R*D. Check out Spymob’s “Half-Steering” the 10th Track on the album, “The Neptunes Presents… Clones” here, (arranged, engineered, and produced by Alex Oana):
[Historical side note: Prior to Oana occupying CityCabin, it informally served as the home studio to Twin/Tone Records from 1978 through the late 1980s and hosted recording sessions for artists including The Replacements, Soul Asylum, The Suburbs, The Jayhawks, Trip Shakespeare and Hüsker Dü. The Minneapolis Star Tribune documented the legendary Dinkytown studio’s back story and rebirth, in this article, “A New Day Rising at Old Blackberry Way.”]
Though he accomplished much in his years running CityCabin, his early dreams of becoming a big-name producer never fully materialized. But, as in his early days trying to get a job on St. Olaf’s sound crew, he persisted and continued to pursue the vocation he felt was right for him. This pursuit eventually led him to start Audio Test Kitchen in 2017.
The Highs and Lows of Entrepreneurship
In the two years since, Oana has experienced the ups and downs of getting a startup off the ground. Along with the significant financial risks, he and Hlatky have encountered some unanticipated headaches, such as bugs in the product’s software. But Oana has become very comfortable with facing and overcoming roadblocks.
“It’s really easy to get defeated,” he says. “Being an entrepreneur is a very emotional experience. You’ve got to be willing to be vulnerable.”
Oana says that when you can’t solve a particular problem alone, you have to be willing to say, “I don’t know.” You have to see the roadblock as an opportunity to enroll those you trust to help solve the problem at hand. Oana has discovered that this kind of open-minded collaboration brings its own rewards.
“The awesomeness is in the relationship between those two people who are collaborating to brainstorm and create something new together. Relationships are the most important thing,” he says. “You can’t just pull those out of thin air. Audio Test Kitchen is possible because of the network that we’ve built over the course of a 30-year career in this industry.”
As of early 2020, Audio Test Kitchen has finally launched after two years of hard work. Early signs indicate that the company will be a sustainable business, says Oana. But no matter the outcome, Oana has stood firm in pursuing his dreams and setting a positive example for his two children.