This interview is part of our new series of Growth Stories, in which we interview the founders and CEOs of 20 of the fastest growing startups in Europe. We asked them about their companies, their companies’ culture, and their lives, trying to understand how these factors play a role in achieving growth. The series is one of the initiatives that will build up to Tech 5 – the annual competition we organize in collaboration with Adyen.
Ola Sars (CEO of Soundtrack your Brand): “Working long hours is unprofessional and inefficient”
The first time I talk with Ola Sars – CEO and co-founder of Swedish startup Soundtrack your brand – is over the phone. It’s 4.30 pm and Ola is in Stockholm, walking to pick up his kids after school. “I try to finish at four PM at least three times per week,” he tells me. “We have only one life and family is more important than job.”
This doesn’t come as a surprise to me: preparing for the interview, I scrolled through Ola Sars’ LinkedIn profile, where he proudly defines “parental leave” as “managing the most important team ever.” Of course, that job is listed among a series of more traditional positions: a few years in consultancy, some experience in advertising, and then the big leap to the music industry. He launched Tonium Pacemaker and co-founded Beats Music, that he left 8 months before Apple’s acquisition. But for Ola Sars it was not enough. He saw that the streaming revolution was happening not just for consumers but also on the B2B side. That’s why in 2013, he teamed up with Andreas Liffgarden and Joel Brosjo to found ‘Soundtrack your Brand,’ basically a B2B version of Spotify. “The opportunity was easy to understand,” Ola tells me on the phone, “but the really difficult part is execution.”
After 4 years, SYB has taken off. It’s available in 102 countries worldwide and aims at becoming global leader in the segment. Last year, the company grew users and revenue between 300-400 percent. Its services run the gamut from plain licensing for small businesses (35$ a month) to curated soundtracks for high-profile customers that need a tailor-made solutions. “What we want to become, is the platform of choice for all brands, we want to give them the power of data in terms of understanding what music play when and where,” adds Ola. There’s not much time for more conversation: the SYB’s CEO arrives at his kids’ school and I leave him to his well-deserved family time.
After few days, I meet Ola face to face in Amsterdam. He’s in The Netherlands for a big music event where he’ll evangelize the public on the importance of background music for businesses. Sitting down in front of a coffee in a crowded bar, we chat about the reasons behind SYB’s impressive growth.
What do you do better than your competitors?
Background music has always been sold with a subscription model and our competitors are still serving thousands of CDs and satellite receivers. What we are building is software that doesn’t give you a playlist, but a service that brings you the right music at the right time. We’re the clear disruptors in this market. Additionally, we’re giving small businesses the opportunity to have alternatives to the illicit use of Spotify.
What are the main ingredients of SYB’s recipe for growth?
We’re a product company. We try to combine software, design, and science. The fundamental component of software is “scalability,” and it is intriguing to think about scalability as the main driver of trying to apply software to business. Then, there’s design, because without it you just don’t have great products. Finally, there are also very interesting scientific challenges in what we’re doing. For example, how can music help us be happier? We’ve been funding research in this sense. In all of this, our love for music is our red thread, our blood vein.
How do you fit into the bigger picture of the music market?
Music was a 35 billion dollar industry, then it plummeted to 11. Spotify and the streaming revolution have been driving the comeback since then, but background music is still largely untapped potential. An average retailer reaches around 700 to 1500 consumers per day and if you do the math, retail quickly becomes the world’s biggest music outlet. We just started to scrape the surface of this market.
What’s the role of Spotify in SYB?
They’re a passive shareholder [holding approximately 20%, ed.] and they’re planning to move more and more to the back scene. They’re a great partner!
Suddenly, music starts to play in the background of the bar we’re sitting. It’s an indistinct pop mixture. I can’t help but noticing it out loud.
It tells me that they don’t really care about their brand, that they are just another standard tourist cafe. We believe that soundtracks are fundamental for brands, because they communicate their…