From Stockholm to Berlin: Interview with SoundCloud CEO Alexander Ljung

As you already might know, here at Twingly we like to support our fellow Swedish startups and Internet founders. And not only those with a great taste for colours. Even those who decide to leave Sweden and to start a web company somewhere else in the world, like Alexander Ljung and Eric Wahlforss who created Berlin-based SoundCloud.

SoundCloud is a platform for DJs, artists and producers who like to connect with colleagues and friends and to present and discuss their latest tracks and releases. Founded in 2007, SoundCloud is now very close to one million registered users and has become a significant player in the digital music business.

At last week’s Next Conference in Berlin, I had the chance to talk to Alexander about why they left Stockholm to start SoundCloud, about the differences between Swedish and German web culture and about why it can be pretty difficult to be productive in a city like Berlin.

Hi Alexander. Spotify, one of the most talked-about music start-ups in the world, is based in Stockholm. How come you didn’t choose the Swedish capital for starting SoundCloud?
Since SoundCloud was part music platform and part social network, we didn’t want to launch the site only with our Swedish friends as the first registered members. So we thought it might be good to move to another city and to leverage the contacts we make there for creating an international platform from start. We had several cities in mind but in the end we chose Berlin, mainly because of the good music and club scene, but also since it was and still is affordable to live and work there.

How long did it take you and your co-founder Eric Wahlforss to plan the move to Berlin?
Actually less than a week. Everything went pretty quickly. In the beginning we stayed at and worked from friends apartments or cafes. It was really helpful that we already had some people in Berlin we knew, and a lawyer supported us with the administrative work.

What was the biggest challenge after you had started the company?
There was a lot of paper work and bureaucracy involved in starting the business, and in the beginning we had some trouble with our broadband operator – which can be a huge problem when you are running a web start-up. But otherwise, most things worked out fine. Berlin was a great choice, since we were so close to our main target group – DJs, producers, artists. We went out clubbing almost every weekend, tried to increase the size of our network and asked people on the dance floor to start using SoundCloud. That was fun.

What are the differences between the Swedish and German start-up scene?
I think everything is less centralized in Germany, since there are several big cities with strong web companies. This might also be the main disadvantage for the German market from a global perspective – what’s missing is a central hub where resources, talents and knowledge is concentrated. Another difference is that here in Germany there is much more secretiveness surrounding the web business. People don’t want to talk about what they are working on. And of course (corporate) people are a little bit formal. Something that a Swede has to get used to 🙂

Even after many years, Berlin is still extremely popular among young urban people from all over the world. Why is that?
The atmosphere and culture in Berlin is very unique. Since the costs for living are still low, people can afford to only work a few hours per week, and do the stuff they want the rest of the time. Some folks are like professional club goers. And the consequence is that people in the creative, media and Internet world are much more understanding and tolerant when someone comes to a meeting a little bit later, and with a hangover. Nevertheless, if you want to create a company, you have to work hard, which means that you need a lot of discipline here not to get tempted too often to enjoy the Berlin nightlife.

Still, some people say Berlin needs to become Europe’s Silicon Valley
It is definitely cheaper to start a company here than in most other cities. And recently many web start-ups are either moving to Berlin or launching here. So maybe one day Berlin will become an important European hub for Internet companies…

/Martin Weigert

Photo: Jyri Engeström