Allison Clift-Jennings was already a seasoned Techstars founder when at the last minute, her latest startup, Tonic Audio, was accepted into the accelerator program’s 2022 London class. The chief technology officer and her husband, Tonic Audio co-founder and CEO Ethan Clift, trekked to the vibrant city from their home in Reno, Nevada, aiming to amp up the Tonic Audio app built for remote music collaboration.
But the temporary move planted an earworm: Move to London permanently, it echoed.
Now, the co-founders are back in Reno in the midst of logistical planning for a move back to London sometime this fall to stay. Here’s how Clift-Jennings, a veteran entrepreneur, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and off-road dirt bike racer, made the decision to move the business and the family to London — despite the fact that she’s leaving her bike behind.
Clift-Jennings’ story, as told to Protocol, has been edited for clarity and brevity.
When you have the opportunity to actually move somewhere else, you start to consider it seriously. Accepting the program in London, even though it was a three-month time-limited commitment, let us actually explore the waters — wanting to not just see more of the world, but honestly experience different cultures in different environments and different sides of the world. I mean, we live once, so we wanted to kind of dig into it.
So when we thought about running a tech startup somewhere else besides where we live, there's pros and cons. Where we live, it's a smaller community. It is a three-and-a-half-hour drive to the Bay Area. We do have a small startup scene here, but there isn't a massive momentum of startup culture here like you'd see in any major city. So, we're not in the Bay Area. Though we're close to it, we still have to drive to it. And that's fine for fundraising. That's actually very good for fundraising. You go there and take a bunch of meetings and then come back. But fundraising, while a super important part of the startup, is hopefully a thing you need to do, but doesn't take up all of your time.
Building without knowing who you're building for, and what you're building, is dangerous. The thing that most startups should do, especially after having done them for, like, 20-something years, is that 80% or 90% of your time should be focused on customers and the users, and just becoming obsessed with what they are concerned with. So go where your customers are, don't necessarily go where your investors are, right? That was our big kind of takeaway with this. To be able to really be in a city that is legendary for music. The current music scene [in London] is so indie and so raw, and so just pervasive in that culture. For us, obsessing about customers — it's like, well, shit — this is where we should be from a customer standpoint, from a business standpoint.
There are even VC firms in London that focus on music and creative. It’s unusual to see. Generally, you'll see there are a handful of music-centric investors. But out there, there is definitely a unique subculture that's happening both on the commercial side of investment as well as the indie music creation side. We’ve got to get tapped into that.
That middle one, that hybrid one, I feel like it's the most dangerous.
For Tonic Audio, we will be a distributed workplace. I've worked remotely off and on for most of my career. Being in Reno but wanting to work for big companies or even just startups, I've often had to deal with remote work. I think it's the absolute future of work. I recognize the benefit of being in person for some things, absolutely. What we'll end up doing is we'll have a remote, distributed team with maybe yearly or twice-a-year get-togethers, in person.
There's distributed — everything's remote, everyone works remotely from wherever they want. And then there's central — everyone comes to a single office. And there's hybrid, which is, we have an office, but you can work remotely if you want.
That middle one, that hybrid one, I feel like it's the most dangerous. That's where I've seen the most trouble. In my own experience, it is inevitable that people who work remotely when there's a central office become second-class citizens within that community, just by the nature of how humans communicate. You're in the office with someone and three of you are chatting and then, “Hey, let's go to lunch.” You go to lunch, you have a deeper conversation, you just build rapport. And the person who wasn't there doesn't get that, and after a while, it starts to compound.
I am into motorcycles. It's a sensitive subject. There's really very little off-road riding in the entirety of England. So, I'm [going to] just take a break for a while, focus on music more.
I have a dear friend who's coming to buy my off-road racing beauty motorcycle. It’s a Honda CRF450RX — it's a racing dirt bike, and I've raced many hundreds of miles on it. I’ve had a lot of very positive moments on that, pushing my body and my mind to places where I have not taken them before.