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Interview with SoundCloud’s Alexander Ljung

Alex Masters

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Over the past few years the company has grown from a small Berlin-based startup into one of the world’s leading online audio distribution platforms with a truly global footprint. With over 170 members of staff, comprising of 30 different nationalities, SoundCloud is both growing and innovating at a rapid pace. It’s no surprise then that Alexander spends a great deal of time traveling from country to country, attending conferences, meetings, announcements, and visiting SoundCloud’s various offices as part of his general duties as CEO.

His ‘all jet, no lag’ lifestyle, as he puts it, is a hectic one, and despite stepping off a transatlantic flight just minutes earlier, he was more than happy to answer all of my questions in detail. Starting with the topic of sound and the changing part it plays in our increasingly connected lifestyles.

The importance of sound and its place on the web

To start off we spoke about sound’s place on the web. Specifically how different forms of sound have traditionally been pigeon-holed based on their different forms, and how this helped inspire the founders to create the SoundCloud service we have today.

“For every single human in the entire world hearing stuff is a key part of how we experience life. It’s one of the senses and therefore deeply fundamental, we totally take it for granted and it hasn’t been developed enough online, there’s huge amounts of things to do there and I’m convinced that the sound platform that we’re building is going to end up overtaking YouTube in size because video is hard to create and much more expensive to create.

There’s also the listening side. It’s the only content form that you can enjoy in parallel, while doing other things. Video is very immersive, but it doesn’t leave much to the imagination. However, when you’re listening to things, you’re kind of participating and creating it in your head.

It’s been as surprising for us, as for the rest of the world, that there’s always been these distinctions between different kinds of audio and how to think about them, usually based on things that aren’t relevant, like how they’re being delivered, or where you listen to them. Just podcasting as an example, it’s a delivery format, it’s not about the content itself.

It’s weird that you have to subscribe to a podcast, you have to sync it, you have to download it, all of this stuff, when a more normal way of consuming it is just streaming it online and syncing it offline if you need to.

I think what we’ve been trying to do is really break down all of that and think about listening in general. Some days I want to listen to 50 Cent, and somedays I want to listen to a comedy show, and somedays I want to hear a news event. Another day I want to hear Al Jazeera gathering citizen journalism from people in Egypt and what their thoughts are right now.

So generally we think all of that fits into one platform, and as a user, you kind of want the same thing no matter what you’re listening to, in terms of how you would listen to it. So we’ve been trying to fit all of that into one platform and it seems to be working really well. I think that was one of the things that Google has picked up on really well with video. It serves them well on YouTube.”

Inspired by the Internet

When talking about SoundCloud’s international footprint, it‘s clear that they see themselves as a company with no geographical limitations. Despite their offices being scattered across several different countries and continents, the internet enables all of SoundCloud’s employees to coexist in one location. Alexander explained how this organisation set up came to be and detailed a few of its many benefits.

“Unintentionally from the beginning, and it’s then become an intentional thing, is that we’re trying to think of SoundCloud like it’s one global company. Eric my co-founder and I were joking that we don’t really live in any country, we live on the internet, and there are no countries there that exist. It’s just one world and that works really well. I’ll email with somebody in who’s in Moscow  and somebody who’s in Tokyo, or somebody who’s in New York. It doesn’t really matter where they are for that, so we try to think of it as global, both in terms of how people use it, but also where we are

Even now we have offices in Bulgaria, Berlin, London and San Francisco. None of that is split into: “Oh, this team is working on this market, or this team is working on this geography”. It’s actually quite split. We try to avoid the thing of like: “OK, here’s the US team and here’s the UK team”.”

A great example of this location independent model is SoundCloud’s flexible office policy, which Alexander took the time to explain in more detail.

“Anybody in the company can pick up their laptop and go to a different office at any point they want”.  “It’s really cool because a) It gets people to get to know each other and tons of study show that if you meet in person then remote working afterwards is a lot easier, but also the people who work in San Francisco, or London come to Berlin and get some of that Berlin flavour, which is quite important for the culture at SoundCloud.

Obviously it’s a great thing to go to the [Silicon] Valley and soak up everything there, get to meet with Facebook and all of these companies. It’s really good, especially for younger engineers to go over there, sit down, and talk to the people building Facebook and realise that “Wow, actually, we’re smarter than these guys at some things and their smarter than us at some things”, but it’s not this unequal thing.”

The magic of SoundCloud

When it comes to SoundCloud, what is it that you’re most excited about right now?

“For me it can change quite a lot quite quickly, because it’s usually based on how I’m using it at the time, and what’s happening at the time. What I think is really cool at the moment is the combination of it being so easy to use, and now reaching such a scale, that all of a sudden it feels like anything new that’s happening in the music world and audio world is happening instantly on SoundCloud, right when it’s going on.”

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