Just over 5 years ago, I joined a little Berlin startup called SoundCloud. It was one of the best things I ever did. We've achieved incredible things and it's certainly not quite as little anymore. But now I need a change. I'm leaving a company that I still love and striking out to seek fresh inspiration and new challenges.
For now, I'll be leaving the music industry but I'll still be a keen observer and hope to carve out some time to play an active role in advising other music startups. Over the next few weeks I still have a few things to transition over, but have made sure to leave time to decompress before I start my next mission. If you'd like to reach out or grab a coffee then I'd love to hear from you (my twitter and email can be found on this blog).
The post that follows is for me, to close a chapter. But I hope that some of you will be interested in at least part of a story and learning experience that I hope to tell more of over the coming weeks and months. If so, read on. I'd like to start by writing about both the beginning and the end. Why did I join SoundCloud in the first place? And why leave now, with such an exciting few years still ahead?
In August 2008, I was privileged to have the opportunity to join a small, but extremely talented team that was bringing SoundCloud into the world. The company's founders were two inspiring Swedes, Eric Wahlforss and Alexander Ljung.
I'd followed Eric's music, as Forss, since my first business running a small independent record shop and label. But having started to work on the digital distribution side of the business, I now found myself following his writing. It sounds horribly cliched, but I had become fascinated with all things web 2.0 and there was a small group of folks (like Lucas Gonze, Jason Herskowitz, Paul Lamere, Chris Messina and Rob Lord) who were all busy talking about digital music and the emerging 'open media web' in a way that I found infinitely more interesting than the writing I'd read in Music Week or Billboard at the time.
Eric wrote a couple of killer posts that deeply resonated and I remember being incredibly excited as he teased out a new thing he was building in Berlin called SoundCloud. I just knew I had to be a part of it and resolved to find a way to join the effort. As I took that first flight to Berlin to go and ask for a job, little did I realise that it would become a regular commute!
The 10x Hustle
I was the first business hire and despite being based in Berlin, I was to stay in London and help us connect with external partners, drive adoption with the content industry and grow the business. It was quite a broad role at the start. One minute I would be meeting a record label or speaking at an industry event. The next I'd be helping write a press release, filing bug reports or collating feedback and feature requests from key users. In a startup with less than 10 people be prepared to do anything. I hate the word, but for me at the beginning, it was 24/7 hustle. My business card said Business Development but I think Ian Hogarth describes it best as the 10x Hustle.
The first months were lean. We didn't raise our first proper funding round until April 2009, and I'd joined knowing that I couldn't get paid a full time wage until we could really afford it. I had some freelance work at Frukt, which meant I could pay the way for the mortgage and my first son (who had been born 6 months previously). But despite being a gamble, it never felt like the wrong thing to do. Alex held such a strong vision for the company that there was never any doubt whatsoever that we wouldn't make it.
Total immersion in music and tech
I threw myself into it. When I wasn't working on SoundCloud, I was doing something else that was related. I was totally focused on all things at the intersection between music and tech. I began hosting a series of events called OpenMusicMedia with a friend from Last.fm called Jonas Woost. It was in the top-room of a pub. No conference bullshit, no business cards, no budget, no agenda. Just good people and open conversation on the changing digital music landscape. We invited guest speakers like Anthony Volodkin (HypeMachine), Ian Hogarth (Songkick), Daniel Ek (Spotify), Joi Ito (Creative Commons) and Yancey Strickler (Kickstarter) to talk about themes in the music industry that we didn't feel were being addressed in the right way. It was here that I met folks like James Darling and Matt Ogle who were instrumental in helping me set up Music Hack Day. And this was even better. Instead of just talking about the future of music, I had an excuse to spend my weekends with people who could build it!
I was working every possible hour of every single day. And none of this felt even remotely like work. On my first-ever holiday with my 6 month old son, I made a deal with my wife that I'd work from the internet cafe overlooking the beach every morning and then join them later in the afternoon. For the record, I would never do that now, but back then I still had sponsors to close for the first Music Hack Day London and certainly didn't want to get behind on my SoundCloud inbox. SoundCloud and everything around it had suddenly become a big part of my world.
So what was it about SoundCloud, that I believed in so much. What was important about what we were building?
The mission for SoundCloud was to become the layer for sound on the web. At the time (and still largely true today), most other digital music startups were focusing on the shift from physical to digital consumption of music rather than a true paradigm shift in behaviour. How could they move people's existing music collection to the cloud? How could they license **they license **the existing commercial catalogue of 15m+ premium digital music tracks? Were downloads or subscriptions the best economic model? And so on… At SoundCloud we cut through all of that. We saw a different problem.
In 2008 the open, social web was being forged. My belief was that the real content revolution was going to be read-write, not read-only. It was about sharing, about collaboration and about empowering a new generation of creators (professional or otherwise). Bloggers already had platforms like Wordpress and Twitter was just starting to open up to the masses. For video you had Vimeo and YouTube. And for photos you had platforms such as Flickr (and later Instagram). What the web lacked was a totally kick-ass platform for audio. For the most part, music services were read-only. They were predominantly walled gardens and focused on selling music as a product. Meanwhile, music creators themselves were stuck in a horrible world of FTP and YouMegaUploadSendShare services for sharing. MySpace had become the main place for any band or musician to make themselves heard, but it was beginning to feel like a ghost ship still sailing the seas of Web 1.0.
SoundCloud would fix this. We would weave sound into the fabric of the web. We would be the 'Flickr for audio'. That was the mission and along with the whole SoundCloud team I threw myself into it head first.
We nailed it.
The day I started, we had 9480 users. We now have well in excess of 30m registered users (we stopped giving out the actual number quite some time ago) with a monthly reach of over 250m unique people. There is more than 10 hours of audio uploaded every single minute and anecdotally we are the most commonly shared audio player across Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and the wider social web.
If you're a band, artist, musician or producer making music in modern times you've probably got a SoundCloud account. We're integrated with all the major music creation tools, from Apple's Garageband to Ableton to a plethora of new music creation apps that are bringing music making to the masses. In 5 years we've seen entire genres and sub-genres born on SoundCloud. We've empowered musicians to form their own communities and have given musicians like Lorde their first chance to be heard. And that's just music. Sound is not just music - something we always knew but didn't really focus on until a couple of years in. Whether it's my son's first minute of life, a comedy podcast with hundreds of thousands of listens or a serious piece of breaking news, you can find it on SoundCloud too.
I think we can humbly claim to have achieved our goal of being truly woven into the audio fabric of the world wide web.
But there's still a lot more to be done.
SoundCloud's vision to allow anyone to hear the world's sounds and - importantly - allow anyone to be heard, is subtly, yet infinitely more bold than that of many other music streaming services. We're not just making it easier to consume a catalogue of premium commercial music, we're redefining the way that sound can be created, expanding the world of sound that is available and changing the rules for how it can shared online. SoundCloud is not just empowering those that want to consume music and audio, we're empowering those that want to collaborate, share and create it too. There's a huge amount of value left to unlock here for everybody - for creators, listeners and rightsholders.
Work is well underway, and with many of the growing pains of scaling a world-class and world-wide organisation now out of the way, I believe 2014 will be a milestone year for SoundCloud.
So why leave now?
For such a long time now, I've put my whole self into SoundCloud. It's been one hell of a rollercoaster ride and in all honesty it's not an easy one to step off of. However, it's time for me to take back a part of who I am. I'm leaving to find a new mission with fresh challenges. I also need to catch my breath for a few moments and create a little more time for myself and my young family that now has two amazing boys who are growing up fast.
SoundCloud is a global company and thinking and acting globally has been one of the factors to our success. But there's an unavoidable overhead to managing a team in three different timezones and for the last three years I've been away from home for nearly a third of the year. In a rapidly shrinking world I don't think this is uncommon and I can imagine I will do it again. Travel is something I've considered a perk of my job but right now, I want to make it something I love, rather than something I feel I have to do.
Asides from the travel, I hadn't noticed how unhealthy I'd let myself become. Over the months and years, it's easy not to notice your energy ebbing away and working relentlessly was a big reason (but also an excuse) for me ending up in a rut both physically and mentally. By getting dramatically more fit and active again I've been surprised at just how much energy I've restored. But I now I need a new spark. To innovate, move things forward and contribute towards truly great ideas you sometimes need to connect new dots. You need to riff off new people, find inspiration in adjacent fields and occasionally plan for the unplanned. To fully get my energy back, I need to broaden my horizons, get fresh stimulus and explore the world from a different angle. I don't know how things will look 12 months from now, but that's exactly the spark I think I need.
So, this post marks the end of a chapter for me. I'll be supporting SoundCloud from the sidelines and will enjoy the freedom to observe how the space develops from a slightly more neutral perspective. Over the coming weeks and months I hope to write more about the things I've learnt and what I plan to do next as I go back to start-up life in London. But I'll leave it here for now. All that's left for me to do is to thank Eric and Alex for letting me come with them on such an incredible journey. I want to tell the team how much I'll miss them. And I'll definitely not forget all the amazing experiences I've had over the last 5 years.
Over and out.
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