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Big Ideas

SoundCloud: On Startup Culture, Entrepreneurial Employees & Hackdays

Does hierarchy help? SoundCloud CTO Eric Walhforss on building a lean, mean startup culture while still finding time for personal creative projects.

YouTube owned video; Facebook, our social interactions; Instagram, our photos; Twitter, our quick thoughts; and Google, our burning questions. Yet, there was something missing, something so simple it seemed crazy no one thought of it before. A place devoted entirely to high-quality sound. Was it even necessary? SoundCloud, a social sound platform has proven, emphatically, yes.

With a beautiful user experience, including sound visualizations that allow people to comment on a single note, SoundCloud has rapidly grown to host over 15 million users, creating and promoting their sounds online. While it’s a natural home to electronic musicians and DJs (Skrillex, Sebastien Tellier, and Diplo to name a few), SoundCloud extends far beyond that, from university lectures to radio shows to theatre reviews to comedy to coverage of our own 99 Conference.

At the helm is Co-Founder and CTO Eric Wahlforss, who oversees product strategy with a well-curated team of architects and engineers at the center of Berlin’s burgeoning startup scene. SoundCloud and Wahlforss, himself an ambient electronic musician operating under the name Forss, have found success in simplicity. Focusing in on one problem and keeping the solution simple is perhaps the defining characteristic that separates successful startups from yesterday’s news.

With a new, more social Next SoundCloud release due in the near future, I thought it was the perfect time to sit down with Wahlforss for a chat about how to build an awesome (and empowered) startup culture.

What was the biggest challenge in starting your own company?

SoundCloud was born out of the frustration that there were no tools available at the time for creators, so we decided to change that. Both Alex [Founder & CEO] and myself were hugely influenced by the social web, and it created an intersection that allowed us to think about sound as a solid platform. The biggest challenge in starting SoundCloud was getting the idea focused and simple enough. It literally took us months to boil our many ideas down to the rather minimalist idea of just being about people and their sounds.

What’s the most important thing for you in building a company culture?

There are many things to consider here, but I think one thing is pushing responsibility to the individual. We’re working in a highly cross-functional and collaborative way, with as little hierarchy as possible. The aim of the organization/process is getting out of the way as much as possible for people to actually get the job done, whether it’s a coder or a business developer.

The biggest challenge was getting the idea focused and simple enough.

How do you achieve this shift to individual responsibility?

We expect every employee at SoundCloud to take a lot of initiative and ownership in their areas – we want our employees to be “entrepreneurial” in that sense.  We have next to no process in product development; every team sets up their own workflows and ways of communicating with teams and stakeholders. We expect product managers to act as CEOs of their area, so they not only carry product vision, but it’s their responsibility to also deliver that vision to the rest of their teams, and make sure they own it collectively.

We have a very flat organization with very little top-down style management. We have cross-functional task forces and workgroups for things like office improvements and hackdays, and anybody can create a workgroup on their own initiative. We aim to empower our employees rather than to control them.

The aim of the organization and process is getting out of the way as much as possible.

You recently released a full-album iPad app, Ecclesia. How did you find the time for personal creative project while running a global company?

Looking back, I actually don’t really know how I made it happen. The short answer would be evenings, weekends and sometimes during vacation. But it took over three years from start to finish so I had to be patient.I think it’s essential to maintain a healthy work/life balance and I’m really proud of having been able to release some music recently while running SoundCloud. The album was an audio-visual collaboration with Marcel Schobel and Leonhard Lass and so I had excellent people to collaborate with throughout the process.

Do you encourage employees to have side projects?

Of course. Back in December 2011, we announced Hacker Time – an attempt to keep both the ideas and the employees focused on making the product even better.  The biggest decision was how to allocate time to these projects. How do we juggle giving people as much freedom as possible while also not cannibalizing valuable product development time?

We decided to put the decision-making in the hands of each team, allowing them to allocate Hacker Time according to each team’s work style. It’s an experiment, and something we’ll be reviewing in the early stages. Recent updates on Hacker Time can be found here.

What’s your productivity playlist?

Well, there’s this set I recently created with some music that inspired me to create Ecclesia. I love classical music and choir in particular, and this set contains some of my favorites.

What’s the one piece of advice you know now you would have given to your younger self when first starting out SoundCloud?

Be even bolder than we have been. Looking back, we could have moved even faster in pursuing our vision, but I think we’re finally up to speed now. Then again, it’s really easy to say things like that in hindsight.

Comments (5)
  • colorcubic

    Fantastic read! Thanks for publishing this!

  • James

    Thanks so much for this insight! As I’ve been developing LifeSketch ( ) I feel like I’ve been going through months of narrowing down in simple terms exactly what it is I do. I feel like I’ve finally reached a point that’s helping guide my plans. It’s nice to have someone else voice their experience with that. It helps keep me motivated.

    I guess it’s true what they say – Live and Learn!

  • Jonathan Manness

    Nice article, Ariston! Excited for when the Next SoundCloud goes public.

  • Guest

    Thank you for choosing my ‘favorite’ piece, “Totus Tuus”, for your collection. It is an honor.

  • Martin Fasani

    Thumbs up from Berlin Soundcloud!

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