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SoundCloud Founder: How Important is Being Creative When Building a Startup?

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Since it’s launch in 2007, SoundCloud has evolved from a small startup in Berlin to one of the top online audio distribution platforms in the world.

To give you an idea of the company’s growth, SoundCloud recently told us that 12 hours of music and audio get posted every minute on their platform and 90% of the tracks get played.  Of that 90%, the majority are played on the day they’re posted and half of that within the hour.

Aside from it’s growth and accomplishments, SoundCloud prides itself on a relaxed company culture. One employee perk is being able to work out of any SoundCloud office in the world!  That means employees are able to choose from awesome locations like Berlin, SF, NYC, and London.  This is a benefit many new startups today have adopted.  Does this type of freedom contribute in startup success?

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Alexander Ljung, founder and CEO of SoundCloud via email. Here, we discuss SoundCloud’s company culture, how important it is for entrepreneurs to have a creative side, and the biggest risk he’s taken on his company.

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Why do you choose to base your headquarters in Berlin? What does it have that other prominent startup cities don’t have?

“Berlin has its own creative and artistic scene that attracts talent from across Europe and the rest of the world. We’ve often described the mentality here as ‘Punk meets Tech;’ a general outlook of ‘going your own way’ that in some way traces back to the city’s re-emergence at the end of the 80’s and is still present today. It’s a big part of what makes Berlin distinct from other startup communities. The city is a centralized hub of creativity with a strong intersection where technology meets the arts, attracting a diverse pool of people and different talents. We visited many cities around Europe and the US when we were initially looking to start SoundCloud back in 2007, but Berlin stood out for its collaborative atmosphere and affordability.”

You have an interesting company culture where you allow your employees to work out of any office they wish. Can you talk a little bit about that? How has that benefited your company in terms of morale and productivity?

“We started the Global Exchange program to provide our company the opportunity to connect with fellow SoundClouders based in different locations around the world, as well as to experience a new culture and working environment. The nature of the businesses means that it typically becomes necessary to collate the different internal functions of the company in particular locations – the majority of our engineers are in Berlin, for example – but our Global Exchange program instills a global mindset in our employees (and any team member at SoundCloud can apply for this opportunity on a quarterly basis).”

How has your artistic background helped you in building your startup?

“Both my cofounder Eric Wahlforss and I have a history of working in audio, so it’s fair to say that this was the primary catalyst for us coming up with the idea for SoundCloud. I was working for a sound production studio, Eric was starting out as a recording artist, and we were both left frustrated at the lack of viable options at the time for audio professionals to share elements of their work when collaborating or seeking immediate feedback. We recognized there was a notable gap in the market with no dedicated platform for people working with audio, in the same way that say Flickr operated for photographers.

More broadly, a certain degree of creativity is helpful in running a startup. Not necessarily in a directly artistic sense, but a creative mindset will certainly help when facing the innumerable challenges that starting a company from scratch presents.”

YouTube is known to be a place for independent artists to get their music discovered. Can you explain the differences in audience when comparing your platform to theirs when it comes to music?

“SoundCloud has been dubbed ‘the YouTube of audio’ on a number of occasions. While it does serve as a convenient soundbite, SoundCloud offers something quite different. Our platform has a highly engaged, ever-growing global community of audio creators and listeners, from bedroom artists putting their first demos into the world to Diplo creating playlists of music that he enjoys. Combining a focus on creators’ needs, enabling audience building, and social features to aid collaboration is what collectively puts SoundCloud into its own category online. The waveform player itself has also become iconically SoundCloud (we recently launched a new visual player), given that it is how most people interact with the platform through finding it embedded in Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, personal blogs and pretty much anywhere else online.”

In an interview last year, you envisioned SoundCloud as a platform that will overtake YouTube in music. Can you elaborate more on this?

“SoundCloud is dedicated to music and audio creators in a way that other platforms on the Web currently are not. We allow everyone to discover original music and audio, connect with each other and share their sounds with the world. The secret for SoundCloud was to create a product that was inherently social by design. Combined with its ease of use and being a true solution to a problem, it brings people with a shared interest together into the context of a sound.”

How has your life changed since the success of SoundCloud? What are some things you’ve learned from all the press you’ve gotten and things you’ve accomplished?

“Being the founder and CEO is an all encompassing job, and typical 9-5 days are now something of a distant memory, but my passion for what we do at SoundCloud is what carries me through. We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved so far in establishing the world’s largest community of music and audio creators, but our feet remain planted on the ground. We’re only just getting started.”

Tell us some of the memorable mistakes you made in the early years of SoundCloud.

“In the early days, before we even launched the company, we spent a lot of time debating what should and should not be included in our initial feature set. We had so many ideas, some of which probably outstripped our abilities to deliver at the time, and it became tricky to pick out what to keep and what to discard. In the end we opted for a very pure offering; just people, their audio and a sharable player that could be embedded anywhere on the Web. It proved to be the right choice, and many of those earlier ideas have now made their way into SoundCloud in one form or another.”

What would you say was the biggest risk you’ve taken so far in building SoundCloud? Did it have negative or positive consequences?

“Perhaps the biggest risk we’ve undertaken so far as a company was to relaunch the main SoundCloud platform in January 2013. We had previously undertaken a six-month closed beta session, and spent countless hours on design and engineering to get what was then the new version up to scratch. Naturally, we were nervous at how the new look of our platform would be received, given how passionate our community is, but it has proved to be a game changer for us — users of SoundCloud now post 12 hours of music and audio every minute.”

What is the end goal for all this? Do you want to eventually sell this company? Or do it forever and potentially take it to IPO?

“SoundCloud is a project very close to our hearts. We honestly feel that there is so much more that can be achieved with sound as a medium, both on the Web and in our daily lives as a means of communication and collaboration. Our company-wide ambition to ‘unmute the Web’ is an on-going commitment. We’ve done a great job to get as far as we have, but we’re under no illusions as to how much more there is to discover with audio online.”

What are some cool things you have planned in the near future for SoundCloud?

“Mobile. It’s an area which we are committed to capitalize upon, so keep an eye out for developments from SoundCloud in that area.”

Follow Alex on Twitter @alexanderljung

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