“All jet. No Lag… Berlin / San Francisco / Here, there, everywhere and nowhere.” This is what you will see if you visit SoundCloud co-founder and CEO Alexander Ljung’s own website. That’s the way his life has been so far. It’s also an apt analogy for his passion and profession as a sound engineer who wants to help people realize that sound is not just music. Every sound you hear or create is a form of human expression and a memory that can be saved and shared for entertainment and posterity.
Music and technology right from childhood
Alex Ljung is a citizen of the world. His father is Swedish and his mother is from England. He was born in the U.K., and the family lived in the Middle East for a short time before they rolled up the Persian rugs and moved to Sweden, where Alex grew up as a geeky teenager who was into music and technology.
He spent a couple of years lost in music and instruments, and started recording and fooled around with sounds on computers. This was when he found his calling. This was what he wanted to be – a sound engineer who gets to play with sounds, technology and music in a studio. His first attempt at stardom with his own album recorded in his makeshift bedroom studio was, in his own words “terrible music, very, very bad music.” But the production value was good enough that it landed him a job in ALC Ljuddesign, a post-production studio in Stockholm, right after high-school.
Alex learnt about sound design for television and feature films at this job for the next two and a half years, and then sought to expand his horizons with a better education. From 2001-04, he studied at Stockholm University and took courses that ranged from politics and international relations to philosophy and film music. He then took a one-year marketing course at the Stockholm Technical School in 2005-06.
Alongside his studies, Alex also founded and ran a media production agency called akryl.p, before landing up at the Royal Institute of Technology (Kungliga Tekniska högskolan or KTH) of Sweden for an M.Sc. At KTH, he was intent on studying human-computer interaction in order to become a researcher working on experimental interfaces.
Roots of Soundcloud goes back to KTH UNIX lab
But fate had other plans for him, and the lives of both Alex and co-founder Eric Wahlforss took a new turn when they met at the KTH UNIX lab. Eric was an artist, but also into music and technology, and they started collaborating on all sorts of projects.
The roots of SoundCloud go back to this period, when the two of them visited San Francisco to do some interviews for a book they were writing on online sociology. They got the idea of starting a company, and wanted to do something with sound in the same way that Flickr had done for photos and WordPress had done for text, by allowing everyone to be a creator and share their work.
They realized that sound services on the Internet were mostly limited to a play button for listening to music, and mostly focused on consumers. Theirs would be a platform for creators, and would make it easy for creators to upload, record and share their sounds with others. It would not just be for musicians, but for anyone who wanted to save or create a sound, in the same way that people take a picture or video with their mobile phone or camera and share it on the Internet.
It was a tough slog at first
The duo landed up in Berlin, Germany in Aug 2007 with a plan to start a company, but it took them a whole year to get things started. SoundCloud was officially launched in Oct 2008, when the whole world was in the grip of a huge recession and markets were crashing everywhere. It was a tough slog at first, since they had no money and found it hard to get their first round of funding.
Finally, in April 2009, SoundCloud scored €2.5 million in Series A funding from Doughty Hanson Technology Ventures. It didn’t take long for them to breach the million-subscriber mark, and that was quickly followed in 2011 by a Series B funding round of $10 million from Union Square Ventures and Index Ventures. SoundCloud had arrived on the international scene, and attracted high-profile investments from the likes of Ashton Kutcher.
Along the way, SoundCloud introduced a host of features. Musicians started flocking to SoundCloud because it was easy to share and distribute their work. Sound files with distinctive URLs can be embedded on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms just like Youtube videos or Flickr images. Music can be distributed using widgets and apps. The SoundCloud API allowed developers to create and integrate their own applications with the platform. There are now more than 230 apps for SoundCloud.
By 2012, Soundcloud was growing by millions
By the time the calendar turned to 2012, SoundCloud had breached the 10 million-subscriber mark and was growing at the rate of a million new subscribers per month. SoundCloud now has well over 30 million registered users who are adding more than 10 hours of sound per minute. The platform has a reach that spans across more than 200 million people every month.
The startup’s stunning growth across the world meant the company had to grow all over the world, with 170 employees in 30 different countries, and offices scattered all over the place. Alex Ljung now spends a lot of time flying between the SoundCloud offices in Berlin, San Francisco, London and Sofia, and he’s not alone.
Watch Alex Ljung at Startup Grind 2013
SoundCloud employees in each of these offices have no region-specific duties and they’re all just part of one big group that works on the Internet. As a matter of fact, any of their employees working in any of these offices can simply head out to any other office and work from there, if they feel like it. They can soak in Silicon Valley, get a feel of London or get a taste of Berlin any time they want. Like Alex Ljung would say, you’re “Here, there, everywhere and nowhere.”