Alex Oana ’92 is Pursuing an Entrepreneurial Dream
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’d recently started with his co-founder, Ian Hlatky.
Their aspiration: to create a 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 artists would be able to hear and compare the sound of pro audio gear, apples to apples.
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?
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.
Oana got his first taste of the audio equipment industry at St. Olaf, where he was a student in the Paracollege (the predecessor to the current Center for Integrative Studies), designing a personalized major called “Creative Expression Through Sound, Poetry, and Video.” During his first year on the Hill, 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 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.”
One of the student bands Oana mixed sound for was Shark Sandwich, whose members mostly lived with Oana on the second floor of Ellingson Hall during their first year. The band’s members included his roommate, Nathan Anderson ’92, and Eric Fawcett ’92, both of whom also became entrepreneurs.
One cold winter weekend during his sophomore year, Oana recorded Shark Sandwich at The Pause, teaching himself the art of microphone setup and live recordings. He still considers it a great recording to this day.
“We were all buddies and Shark Sandwich had a sound guy who was obsessed with making them sound good,” Alex says. “I convinced the band to go into The Pause with me to record direct to stereo cassette, live, right from the stage.”
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 made hundreds of recordings and won 11 Minnesota Music Awards, including Producer of the Year, Best Indie Recording, and Best Pop Recording. He also produced, engineered, mixed, mastered, and arranged music for numerous bands formed by St. Olaf alumni, including Spymob (Fawcett and John Ostby ’92), Kid Dakota (Darren Jackson ’94), Storyhill (Johnny Hermanson ’93 and Chris Cunningham ’94), and The Olympic Hopefuls (Fawcett, Hermanson, and Jackson).
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 ATK in 2017.
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 enlist 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 I’ve built over the course of a 30-year career in this industry.”
ATK has recently finished testing it software and refining its website, and it’s nearly ready to launch. Early signs indicate that the company will be a sustainable business, says Oana. But no matter the outcome of ATK, Oana has stood firm in pursuing his dreams. And that’s what’s important.
Joe Kutchera ’92 played saxophone in Shark Sandwich and today is a freelance writer as well as the author of three books.