Having beaten off competition from James Caan, Jacob de Geer and Niklas Holmsten to win Male Entrepreneur of the Year at this year’s Investor AllStars, SoundCloud co-founder Alexander Ljung invites GrowthBusiness into the Berlin-based start-up’s world to find out how things are going.
(1) How did you initially come up with the idea for SoundCloud, and what had you been doing before?
SoundCloud was born of the realisation that sound was an untapped territory on the web – compared to images, video, and text. We decided to change that. Before SoundCloud, I was working in sound engineering and Eric [Wahlforss] was in music production.
(2) How did you initially go about building the business and assembling a team to help you?
Community is at the heart of SoundCloud as we bring people with a shared interest together into the context of a sound. We built the business around the product, taking a lot of inspiration from the social web, which was starting to emerge around us at that time. That helped shape our ideas around commenting on the waveform directly, private sharing, and reposting tracks and sets.
Growing quickly is a challenge for any start-up, but our hiring policy has always been to take on the best people and keep them happy by giving them freedom to develop and use their talents. We were fortunate enough to take on some extremely talented people in the early days, the core of whom are still with us, and they have all left their mark on SoundCloud as it is today.
(3) Why did you decide to establish the company in Berlin?
We often describe the city as where ‘punk meets tech’, because Berlin is the perfect place to lead an alternative, independent and ambitious lifestyle.
Given that there is a very diverse pool of talent (which is growing all the time) and a strong relationship between technology and art here, it’s a great place to find developers and designers, and it made perfect sense for SoundCloud to establish its headquarters in the city.
(4) What have you done to differentiate yourself from competitors?
Although SoundCloud has some features in common with other audio and music platforms, the combination of being able to upload, create, collaborate, share, listen, plus get feedback and data, is unique. Just an example: our interactive waveform player – SoundCloud’s signature waveform puts creators’ sounds at the forefront. It’s highly visible, interactive, and creators can read comments with a single scroll and respond in real-time to their fans/listeners. Of Montreal used this to great effect recently by responding to fan comments.
(5) You’ve had significant backing from the likes of Index Ventures and Union Square Ventures and Ashton Kutcher, what has their contribution been able to allow you to do?
We’re now at the stage where we have over 200 employees in five cities around the world and 12 hours of music and audio posting every minute to our platform.
(6) Is it essential for technology companies like SoundCloud to take on venture capital backing to keep up with competition?
I can’t speak on behalf of other companies, but it’s enabled SoundCloud to continue to scale the business.
(7) How exciting is the European tech scene, and are we now seeing it firmly compete with the US?
There’s a thriving tech scene in Berlin and many other major European cities, but we don’t see them trying to replicate Silicon Valley. One of the most exciting aspects of having offices in London and Berlin (and people on the ground in New York, for that matter) is that there is a strong tech presence that exists alongside many other creative industries such as fashion, publishing and music.
(8) What are the plans for the coming year?
Right now, we are concentrating on making SoundCloud a long lasting, sustainable company. We are focussed on continued growth, mobile, expanding features across all platforms and leveling up the direct-to-fan experience.