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Exclusive: Spotify CEO Daniel Ek on Apple, Facebook, Netflix–and the future

date Oct 10, 2018
reading time 7 mins
category interview

Innovation is collaboration

I haven’t done a lot of these interviews because I don’t believe Spotify is about any one individual. I don’t want to diminish my role, but in almost all innovations, it’s the collaboration of the team that creates something in a creative process that’s hard to capture. What often happens, people simplify the process and put it on one person who then looks like they’re some sort of demigod, infallible, up until the moment when they’re not and then the whole world collapses. I have some strengths but I have a lot of weaknesses, too. I wanted you to hear that directly from me.

Revenue model and trust

In streaming, you get paid every time someone plays your song. If you can’t trust that the numbers are accurate, how are we going to have a continuous relationship? We’ve been very forthcoming with the industry, always kept our word. We’re super dependent on having the labels, the artists, and the songwriters like what we do—”like” is not the right word—but accept what we do, agree with the direction that we’re heading, and license us their content.

Bigger mission for musicians

The public perception is that Netflix and Spotify are very similar. No, not really. Both are consumer subscription businesses, in media, but that’s where the similarities end. Our company mission is to have more than a million artists to be able to live off of their art.

Evolving ideas

It wasn’t like Spotify was this amazing idea from day one. The idea has evolved. The best analogy I can give, it’s like you’re on an airplane at 60,000 feet, so you look down on the ground, and it’s all blurry, right? You might see there’s a city there, but you don’t know anything about the people that are there. But the closer you get, the more resolution you get. You see that vision. When people say, I knew this exactly, it’s complete horseshit. The most important thing is to be honest that things will evolve. It’s just part of life.

Evolving customers

Consumers are waking up and asking very different questions than just a few years ago, particularly of consumer tech companies. What does this company do with my data? What kind of brands do I associate with? And ultimately some of these companies, certainly not Spotify, but they are making so much money at a time when society as a whole is struggling, and how can we reconcile that? Shouldn’t we hold them then accountable to a higher standard than just to do the minimum of what the law says? I’m not trying to debate the ethics of what’s right and wrong. I’m just simply trying to say, those are the questions that society right now is asking.

Your responsibility when building with technology

Every time you have a piece of technology come out, people will use it for good and for bad. I can’t speak for all the others, but I have a responsibility to do more than what I’m doing. Maybe this comes back to the Swedish roots, like you’re not supposed to be a billionaire in your thirties. You’re not supposed to be the zero point zero one percent. No matter what it is you’ve accomplished.

Fast changing nature of job

You have a number of years when you perform a job, and then your tour is over, and it’s time for you to think about what the next step is. I describe them as missions. You may have the same title, but you don’t have the same job more than two years, and the more honest we are about that, the better it is.

Discipline, organisation and prioritisation

I’m really organized. I don’t do social calls. For so many people, you’re beholden to this social thing, if I don’t show up, someone is going to be sad. 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’s just means that I’m focusing on something.


I also write out what my daily, weekly, monthly goals are, and every evening I check how I’m doing. And then I just over allocate my time [to match the goals]. People think that creativity is this free spirit that has no boundaries. No, actually the most creative people in the world schedule their creativity.

Changing culture

It’s super important as a leader to talk about what the culture is and force positive and negative examples continuously. One thing I hate: People who ask, how do we keep our culture. It’s horseshit. The culture will change. Every person that leaves, every person that joins, there’s change. The question is, what change do we like and what change do we not? What are the things we will embrace?

Process more than decisions

When a company doubles in size, it halves in productivity; when a city doubles in size, it doubles productivity. Why is that? Society has all these norms, this built-up heritage of how people relate, and that makes it easier to get things get up and running. When you look at startups, those rules aren’t clear, and in many cases the leaders may not have actually come together in a forum to discuss it all. The process is more important than the actual decisions.


But someone once pointed out to me, the greatest people through history–you know, Gandhi, John Lennon, Jesus – what do all these people have in common? They all got murdered. The irony is that despite the positive impact they had on the world, they had an equal amount of dissent. And that’s human progress. You cannot achieve progress without being controversial.


Did I ever believe that we are going to be alone [in providing it]? No. And that’s fine. Competition really drives development. Apple is one of the biggest companies, incredibly successful in a lot of things. But everything we do all day, all night is about providing a platform for musicians and fans around the world. We have thousands of people who are focused [on that], and I believe that ultimately that focus, that clarity is the difference between the average and the really, really good.

Dual leadership for business and product?

I don’t mean that in a condescending way. I think Sheryl’s doing an amazing job, she’s an amazing leader, I’ve learned a ton from her. But you don’t need to run the business in order to run the product. Obviously they talk a lot, and I’m not suggesting that they don’t work closely together. But it’s a setup which works incredibly well for them. But if you look at an Airbnb, at an Uber, and at Spotify, the business is the product. Take Uber for example: The product is the customers’ experience. So much of the actual business is optimizing the price, so you get enormous demand and you can utilize drivers in the perfect way. Airbnb, it’s very similar: managing supply and demand.

Take bets in smaller number of areas

One of my big mistakes was I adopted the thousand flowers bloom strategy. I believe in decentralized decision making. So I allowed a lot of things to happen without much involvement, just general context setting. We started hundreds of projects, but we didn’t finish a lot of them. For many of them, my analysis ended up being it’s the right thing to do, but it’s the wrong time to do it. The sequencing was off. Plus we didn’t have the resources to fully do 100 projects at once. Now we have 10 bets going at any time, never any more. About 40, 50% of the company’s resources are on those things. I manage the big bets.

Busier after going public

I don’t think I fully appreciated how much of your product roadmap gets impacted by going public: There’s so much plumbing you have to fix. Now it feels like we’re finally now getting back to focusing all of our resources and all of our attention on building things for our customers.