How Piano Marvel Went From Debt To 17k Paying Users: Q/A with CEO Aaron Garner | Piano Marvel

How Piano Marvel Went From Debt To 17k Paying Users: Q/A with CEO Aaron Garner

by Roberto Popolizio (re-published courtesy of Website Planet)
[Click here to be taken to the original article published on Website Planet.]

The Aaron & Heidi Garner family then (2013) and now (2023).

They told him there was no market for his idea.

He went ahead and invested $600,000 that he didn’t have in 2008.

Now, in 2024, Piano Marvel has over 17,000 active subscribers with a premium account, hundreds of affiliate partners, and a team of 17 developers.

Thanks to Website Planet, I had the chance to interview Aaron Garner, CEO of Piano Marvel, to learn how he built a thriving online platform without any business or software development skills and how a bunch of tools help him run the entire operation.

P.S. Competition is tough, but that’s good, according to Aaron. Read on to learn why.

What’s your story, and what made you start Piano Marvel?

I was just a small boy when I was listening to my mom playing the organ. My true love, though, was football, American football, but my mom wanted me to learn to play the violin. She had nine children, and I was chosen as the violinist. 

My older brother was the pianist. He was eight years older than me. He would take me on his motorcycle, put me on the back, and I'd strap my violin on my back. We'd go about half an hour to my violin lesson. I hated the violin and didn't want to practice; I just wanted to play sports. 

When I was 10 years old, we got news that my brother had been in a motorcycle accident and died. My mom went into a depression, and I decided to kind of take up his instrument, the piano, with no instruction. 

She just didn't have it in her to teach me, so I just picked it up on my own, and, by the time I went into high school, I was playing some Beethoven sonatas, just on my own–it was really bad. Regardless, I went into a competition where the judge said that I had raw talent, which really meant that I wasn't very good, but I had potential. We didn't have any money to take lessons because my dad was laid off from the steel mill. So the judge from the competition said he would go ahead and teach me for whatever we could afford. 

This college professor taught me piano, and the very next year, I won a competition. I remember thinking, “Oh, well, maybe this is something I'd be interested in!”

But what I really wanted to do was be a neurosurgeon–I was going to be a doctor. However, I was feeling just more and more inclined to music, so I eventually did go into music, and I won the piano competition at the state level for Colorado, plus I got a scholarship to BYU. 

When I got to BYU, they asked me to sight-read, and I couldn't read music well enough. They didn't renew my scholarship, so I decided to go to another school, and I finished my bachelor's. Then I started looking for master's and doctorate programs, but most of them wouldn't accept me because my reading was so bad. 

Luckily, I found the University of Northern Colorado. They forgot to ask me to sight-read, and they gave me a big scholarship to do my master's and doctorate there. Once I got in, I said, “I have a confession… I'm not a very good sight reader.” 

They said, “Well, we don't know how to help you.” Nobody could help, and nobody knew what to do by this point. At the point that I was at, everybody should have been sight-reading really well, so they didn't have a program in place to help me. 

I started teaching class piano at the University of Northern Colorado, and during those years I thought there's got to be a better way to teach students. I was teaching 16 students at a time from 1997 to about 2002. We had little audio CDs that would play the backing tracks to make these little songs more fun to play, and books and music. I thought, “Wouldn't it be cool if we could combine both of them together, but something that could assess you, so it could tell you which notes you played right, and which ones you played wrong, and assess rhythm, and you could pass off your songs with technology…

What if everything could be built into just one app?”.

At the time, nothing like that existed. I was a poor grad student, but I decided to go looking for a developer because I thought there was a good market. We found a company that said, “No, we don't know if it's possible, but it will take you at least $200,000 just to get started.” 

$200,000 was way out of my budget as a poor grad student and musician, so I decided to let some big company do it. I waited for about four years and started looking to see if somebody had done it, but nobody had done it yet. I called up a company in the tech industry for music, and they said they didn't want any part of it; there was no market for piano music or for pianists teaching piano. 

I got mad, really mad, so I decided to go look again, and this time, I found a developer who would get started for $600,000. I told him, “All right, I'll come up with $600,000. Can we start next month?” My wife stared at me. She asked, “Where are we going to get $600,000?!” We had a month to come up with $600,000 to get started. 

I found the money, and we went ahead and got started. I didn't know what I was getting into back then, but right now:

Aaron Garner using Piano Marvel to teach young children in 2009, and later, college-age students in 2022.

One of the cool things is that I teach piano in a studio. This helps me keep thinking of ideas that I want to develop to enhance the studio experience and the experience at colleges. 

It's really fun to see the growth and expansion and how Piano Marvel is very different from any other software in the same niche because it's really geared toward educators and education. 

A lot of music software is just DIY, but it’s not built by piano teachers or somebody who's done extensive research and development in pedagogy. For example, when you're reading music, some people want immediate feedback. But what we found is that if you give them immediate feedback with red and green notes, their eyes span across the music, and they look backward. That causes people to develop a bad habit of looking backward, which can permanently damage their reading. 

So we make choices based on good pedagogical practices that some people just don't understand the purpose of. That’s one of the most frustrating things for people to understand. We were seeing this through the eyes of a piano teacher.

The journey has been a lot of fun, and my mission in life now is to give the world the same feeling I had when I started learning a second language. Can you imagine not being able to read your own language? And when you do learn to read, it opens a whole world; even learning a foreign language opens a whole new world that gives you enjoyment, opportunity, and fulfillment. And so I see music as one of these key pieces that fills our soul. 

When you learn an instrument, it just feels fulfilling, and I want to provide that for more people—the ability to not only play music but also read it.

Josh Garner and Clarissa Peterson use an iPad to play a duet piece from Piano Marvel's extensive library.

I still use Piano Marvel every day, and my reading is getting better all the time. I love it. It's addictive, and we are always coming up with new features that make practicing even more effective and fun. I like that I can learn my big sonatas and big repertoire pieces so much faster, and it is more enjoyable just because of the tools we're developing around good practice techniques.

They told you there was no market for Piano Marvel. Did you just have a hunch that there was actually a market?

When cell phones were first made, there was no market for them. People didn't know they needed it. Someone had a dream and made it happen. 

Even though others couldn't see it, I saw the potential. When we introduced it, not everyone liked the idea. People said, "Why do this? We just want to read from our books like we always have." Only a few pioneers saw the vision. 

I remember going to a conference where music teachers turned up their noses, saying, "We're professionals; we don't use technology for teaching." – This was in 2009, way before iPads and smartphones. 

Over time, as more people embraced technology, teachers went from saying: 

"I would never use that." 


"I know I need it, but I don't want to learn it." 


"Yes, please teach me more."

Aaron Garner addresses a group of piano teachers at a Piano Marvel Teacher Conference in 2023.

So there really wasn't a market at that time, but we wanted to create one because Piano Marvel is something that actually helps people learn faster.

You can use it on various devices like iPhones, iPads, computers, and even Chromebooks. Initially, it was limited to PCs and Macs, but we adapted it for Chromebooks, expanding our reach to schools using them. 

Currently, we're working on an Android app. Additionally, we're invested in a project, worth over a million dollars for a microphone assessment feature. This means your phone can listen to the piano without plugging in, providing instant feedback.

What is the level of competition now in 2024?

Most apps target individuals learning piano on their own, but we are the only ones that focus on educators.

So we don’t have much competition, but more competition will only be good for us.


Because many users start with the more basic apps and then want to get more serious or learn to read music, they discover us… It's like a funnel—the more exposure our competitors get, the better for us.

Picture it like a stand-alone restaurant–a restaurant all by itself doesn't attract many people unless you put it on a street with McDonald's and a Taco Bell, etc. These streets with all the restaurants are where everybody goes to eat. 

Our industry works more or less that way. We need more players in the piano teaching market to create a hub where everyone goes, just like a cluster of restaurants drawing more people. The more of us there are, the better it is for everyone, especially for us, because we are so unique. 

In fact, we're proud to be the only software allowing you to upload any song, chop it into learning segments, and make it your own.

Because we have so many universities, we cater to the needs of teachers with reports that show the students' sight reading scores and which assignments they've completed. We're also developing more tools that we'll be releasing this summer.

 We're holding a Piano Marvel teachers conference on June 21 and 22 in Salt Lake City, and we hope to have about 300 piano teachers attend. We will reveal three of our biggest new features there, but I can't tell you now because they're supposed to be a surprise!

How is your clientele split between teachers and students right now?

Students are not our primary focus, but they make up probably 50% of our customer base. They are people who find us on the internet. That happens because we make it work so well for teachers that students who decide to learn on their own find that Piano Marvel actually works really well for them too! 

That's where it's good to have the 17 full-time developers–a lot of these tools will benefit both teachers and their students.

What were the challenges of hiring and managing developers as a non-coder yourself?

First, we had to find developers who could speak English since we develop in English. Then, we trained them in music, so we could all speak the same language–the language of music. It was a challenging journey, learning to communicate using our terminology.

Initially, we connected with a company in the music industry and asked if they were interested. As we outgrew them, we moved on, and through their connections, we found new developers. It was mostly word-of-mouth that led us to build our current development team. We've had our share of mistakes, learning the hard way, by choosing developers who weren't as good. But each mistake taught us valuable lessons.

Aaron Garner with members of Piano Marvel's development team in Vietnam in 2014.

What is the current tech stack running Piano Marvel?

We built our website from scratch using HTML. We added Bootstrap along the way and used Python, C++, C sharp, Swift, and PHP (starting with PHP1 and now PHP3) for different aspects. We're currently rebuilding our back end. Additionally, we utilize Java and JavaScript.

For payment processing, form creation, social login, and website analytics we use respectively PayPal, Google Forms, Facebook Login, and Google Tag Manager.

Believe it or not, we use Skype every day for communication. Skype is one of our main communication tools, because of the way you can use it for video conferencing and ongoing chats. We also use some project management tools, but my favorite is still Skype and, of course, Google Sheets!

Every year, we take some interns from music degrees and music technology. We give them marketing, sales, or music-editing tasks. We keep on those we find to be talented or have expertise in areas in which we are trying to grow.

What has worked so far to resell Piano Marvel and increase your audience?

We have several hundred affiliates selling Piano Marvel. We are in schools, bookstores, and music stores. We're interested in working also with parents, teachers, and anyone else who wants to promote music education.

Trade shows are great for getting a lot of contacts, but following up is the hardest part; conversion of contacts and getting referrals is key. They easily forget about you after they go home. 

Piano Marvel also hosts regular contests to give students a chance to compete no matter what level they are at in their studies, plus a YouTube channel and a Facebook community. We rely on our marketing team to build our online presence on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.

Learn to play piano online today with Piano Marvel!

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  • Over 25,000 popular songs and exercises
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