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The Profile Dossier: Daniel Ek, the No-Nonsense Founder Who Built a Creative Empire
“The value of a company is the sum of the problems you solve.”
In 2006, Daniel Ek was asking himself this seemingly impossible question: "What is better than free?"
At the time, online music piracy was thriving in Sweden. Thanks to government-mandated broadband, the country had one of the fastest internet speeds in the world, which allowed people to download music in seconds.
Music lovers were suddenly armed with something that was lethal to the record industry: fast, free access to stolen music. The second that Ek tried Napster, he was hooked. The world's music was suddenly at his fingertips — for free.
Napster eventually got shut down, but Ek knew that it would be impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. Something needed to exist that could be legal and free.
“I had this idea of the kind of product I wanted to see in the world: What if we can build something that makes it feel like you had all the world’s music on your hard drive? If we can create that feeling, we’ll have built something much better than piracy," he says.
He began thinking. In Sweden, internet was fast, but in the rest of the world, downloading illegal music could take significant chunks of time — sometimes up to an hour. What if he could offer something fast? He wanted the user to be able to press play and access the song immediately.
"I read in this book that the human brain takes about 200 milliseconds to perceive anything, like at all," he says. "I said to the engineering team, we gotta get this down to 200 milliseconds. At that time, that was 2006, that was considered crazy."
It needed to be fast, and it needed to be reliable. In other words, Ek knew he had to simultaneously earn the trust of listeners, musicians, and the entire embattled record industry.
"At the end of the day, it’s about trust and if you say what you’re going to do and then keep on doing that, you will do pretty well," he says.
Over the last 14 years, Ek has built Spotify into the world's leading audio platform. Even though his company wasn’t based in Silicon Valley, investors still poured a whopping $2.7 billion of funding into it. And then in April 2018, Spotify became the first large, high-profile company to pursue a direct listing of its shares. (Fun fact: By mistake, the NYSE hung the Swiss flag instead of the Swedish flag on Spotify's IPO day 💀)
Ek is one of the most interesting thinkers I've encountered because he's logical and creative. Here's a glimpse into the mind of a founder who built a tiny startup into a music streaming behemoth with 320 million users across 92 markets.
“We led with our conviction rather than [being] rational, because rational said it was impossible,” he says.
On building a creative empire: Ek is not your typical CEO. He likes to go on long walks that help him sharpen his thinking. He looks to Beyoncé for ideas on the creative process. He refuses to schedule more than three meetings per day. Ek, who is personally reserved but professionally ruthless, reveals his fresh approach to creativity and leadership.
On being ruthless about prioritizing his time: In this interview, Ek explains how he allocates his time. He's extremely intentional about every second of his day. "I don’t do social calls," he says. "I’m just pretty ruthless in prioritizing. What I tell my friends is, ‘I like to be invited, but I probably won’t come.’ The transparency helps. This is how I’m wired. It’s not a personal thing. It doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy your company. It just means that I’m focusing on something."
On how to harness your creativity: Ek believes in the power of creativity, but he doesn't believe in the power of creativity without restraint. "Most people associate creativity with unstructured thinking, but some of the most creative people I know are almost scripted in their approach and process," he says.
On building trust: Reid Hoffman opens this podcast episode with a simple formula: Trust = consistency + time. Trust is foundational, but it's a hard thing to build fast. In this fascinating conversation, Ek explains how he approached the wildly distrustful record industry. He told companies that he would take a painful short-term loss in exchange for the possibility of a long-term win in their favor. By de-risking the deal for the record industry, he was able to earn their trust.
On building a culture of experimentation: What is Ek's philosophy on cultivating an environment of innovation? "It's about a culture for allowing failures because you can't have a culture of experimentation if you don't allow failures to happen," he says. Here's how Ek fights complacency and encourages smart risk-taking.
On Europe's booming tech ecosystem: Ek says there are two things that Europe must cultivate in order to become an entrepreneurial hotbed: Access to capital and access to experience. Capital is becoming easier to get, but it's the experience factor that is lacking. "Silicon Valley still has a leg up on most of the world in having that experience because they simply have many, many decades of it," he says.
On his entrepreneurial playbook: In this interview from 2012, you get a glimpse inside Ek's mind at a point in time when Spotify was still evolving and figuring it out. Even though he started his first company at age 14, Ek explains that he's never really thought of himself as an entrepreneur. He didn't think he was starting "companies," rather, he saw himself as just working on a series of problems that needed to be solved.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Operate on a maker's schedule: Ek is the head of an organization that employs thousands of people. He's probably busier than most of us. Yet he typically starts working around 10 a.m. and he limits his calendar to only three or four meetings per day. This is based on Paul Graham's idea of a maker's schedule versus a manager's schedule. When you're operating on a manager's schedule, your calendar is littered with meetings. Makers, on the other hand, devote long chunks of time to work on creative problems. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day that allow them to work on longer-term, meatier initiatives.
Know the role you're playing: Before you enter any meeting, Ek suggests asking yourself: "What role am I playing?" As the CEO of Spotify, sometimes he's the approver while other times he's a thoughtful participant. He believes a productive meeting consists of three elements: 1) the desired outcome of the meeting is clear ahead of time; 2) the various options are clear, ideally ahead of time; and 3) the roles of the participants are crystal clear. Be intentional about how you're spending your time as a leader.
Approach every problem from first principles: Ek takes inspiration from Elon Musk when it comes to solving thorny problems. Here’s the mental model Ek learned from Musk: “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, like the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
Your leadership style is determined by your own perspective: Most leaders think of themselves at the top of a pyramid, and as a result, employ a top-down approach. Ek once heard the CEO of Scandinavian Airlines say that the right way to think about leadership is to flip that model. "You should invert the pyramid and envision yourself as the guy at the bottom," Ek says. "You are there to enable all the work being done. That's my mental image of what I'm here to do at Spotify."
The creative process requires variety and experimentation: Ek loves the media industry because it requires him to use his logical and creative mind. With Spotify, he found himself inspired by Beyoncé's creative process. When she records an album, she keeps four or five different studios running at the same time in one city. She uses different musicians, different producers, and she actually goes from room to room: brainstorming ideas, trying different things, working on different songs. Seeking out diverse perspectives, opinions, and experience is the key to unleashing your creative potential.
Find what gives you energy: There are things in your life that give you energy and others that take it. It's a continuous cycle, and if left unchecked, it could quickly lead to burnout. Ek often thinks about two things: time and energy. Time is something you can never get back, and energy is your state of being in the present time. So he's learned an important lesson: We all must do certain things that take energy, but Ek says we need to "balance it out by adding a few things that will add energy to your life."
Strive for lagom: 'Lagom' is a Swedish word that roughly translates to "just the right amount." It's a concept that has helped shape Spotify's internal culture. It's not about conforming and fitting in, but rather, Ek uses it to encourage collective teamwork. "It’s not about the individual," he says. "It’s about meritocracy in the sense that everyone can have a voice."
Make time to go on a long daily walk: Each day at 8:30 a.m, Ek goes on an hour-long walk, even in the winter. It's the most creative part of his day. "I’ve found this is often where I do my best thinking," he says. Research suggests that people’s most creative ideas strike when they’re not actively thinking about anything — that’s why walking, showering, running, meditating, or any sort of rote activity can spark inspiration.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“The value of a company is the sum of the problems you solve.”
“We believe that speed of iteration beats quality of iteration, which is why we’re not big on bureaucracy.”
"I'm not an inventor, I just want to make things better."
"At the end of the day, it’s about trust. If you say what you're going to do, and then keep on doing that — you'll do pretty well."