Business

SoundCloud boss puts in the air miles

Alexander Ljung
Image caption Companies can improve their image through the use of music, according to Mr Ljung

"All jet and no lag" is a pretty good slogan for an internet entrepreneur who divides his time between Berlin, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and London.

"It's my silly little tag line," says Alexander Ljung, the chief executive of SoundCloud, the social media site for sharing audio which he and a friend started in Stockholm, and which they're now expanding from Berlin.

Expanding means air miles, so in an average month he spends about a week-and-a-half in Berlin, about a week in San Francisco, and the rest elsewhere (or as he puts it "everywhere and nowhere").

"It's start-up life! There's never really much calmness to it. It's fast, it's exciting, it's chaotic and exhausting at times. Basically, that's my life," he tells the BBC.

Berlin is what he calls his "home home" - the place where he slumps, and has clothes in cupboards, and friends around the corner - though at the age of 31, a place for slippers is not top of the agenda.

Bouncing ideas

SoundCloud came out of an idea he and a friend, Eric Wahlforss, had. Both of them were involved together in the music industry in Sweden, Alex behind the mixing desk and Eric in front of the microphone.

They were creating sounds which they, as collaborators, wanted to bounce back and forth as each piece developed, but they found that the web wasn't very friendly when it came to sharing bits of audio.

They realised there wasn't an easy way to do it on the internet - so they devised their own.

SoundCloud was meant initially for the music business, but they came to realise that it had a great use for people who just liked sound - the sounds they wanted to share, like a new baby crying or an extract from a book they had read out.

And for people who liked the sweetest sounds, also known as music - which means pretty well everyone.

It became a means for bands and music companies to get their creations out to the public. It's also increasingly becoming a way for companies to get to customers or potential customers by producing music and promoting it as an enhancement to a corporate image.

And herein lies the way to profitability, according to Alex Ljung - companies like Red Bull will pay to connect and promote their product to the kind of people who use SoundCloud.

The way SoundCloud works is that it is free to listen to unlimited songs or audio. Regarding what you wish to upload, you get two hours of space for free before you have to start paying a subscription.

Making money

But the route to profitability runs through the offices of investors and venture capitalists. Alex spends much time in New York, raising funds.

SoundCloud still isn't making a profit. Alex said the task was to get the number of users up (what he calls focusing on growth and engagement) and then to worry about turning scale into money. The scale is coming - the site is used by 200 million people every month.

Image caption It is free to listen to music and audio placed on SoundCloud

The company's office in Berlin has all the things you would expect an internet start-up to have - table tennis tables and young people sitting cross-legged with laptops. Even a hammock.

Employees are allowed to move between offices, deciding to leave work in Berlin on Friday and start in San Francisco on Monday, and Sofia or London the Monday after that.

Alex says he sometimes gets surprised because he bumps into someone in one office whom he last saw on the other side of the world. When the BBC was at the Berlin office, a bunch of people from the Bulgarian office came in.

Bigger risks

To get the company over the start-up, no-profits stage he's raised money in New York and California. One of the things Alex likes about California is the cluster of people doing the same kinds of things - if you're wondering how to grow a tech company and what the pitfalls might be, there are people there who've already trodden the path.

Image caption Staff at SoundCloud can choose which office they want to work in

There's one other cultural difference he's spotted - as you move from East to West, investors expect more reward for more risk. Americans will take bigger risks for bigger gains than the more cautious Europeans.

So what does the future hold? For SoundCloud, he thinks that in the next few years it will become a "large platform where people have these remarkable experiences with each other all over the world and where the centre-point is always audio".

Alex adds: "Music and audio has this very strong emotional component. They make people feel things. They make people feel closer to each other. It would be really great if we could really add on to the internet that emotional layer.

"We have 2.7 billion people online and for every single one, sound is important in their lives. They will feel connected through the power of audio. Audio will really fit into the architecture of the internet."

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