Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Daniel Ek (@eldsjal), the founder, chief executive officer, and chairman of the board of directors of Spotify, the world’s most popular audio streaming subscription service, with 320M users, including 144M subscribers, across 92 markets.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss, and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. My guest today is none other than Daniel Ek. Who is Daniel? Daniel is the founder, chief executive officer, and chairman of the board of directors of Spotify, most of you have heard of it, the world’s most popular audio streaming subscription service with roughly 320 million users, including 144 million or so subscribers across 92 markets. Daniel, welcome to the show.
Daniel Ek: Thank you so much for having me.
Tim Ferriss: I thought we would start with a word I have never known how to pronounce, and it is your Twitter handle, @E-L-D-S-J-A-L. Could you please explain what this is?
Daniel Ek: Yeah, sure. The Swedish pronunciation is eldsjäl. It’s a very special Swedish word. I actually don’t think that the word exists in English or any other language, but it’s basically—The direct translation is, “A fiery soul,” and it means someone who’s intensely passionate about something and is there and the good and the bad times and perseveres. That’s basically kind of what the name implies. You usually find it in the Greenpeace movement 20 years ago, or you find it when someone’s passionately fighting the local government somewhere. Those are usually those types of people, and it just always resonated with me.
Tim Ferriss: Is that one of your favorite words with the connotations of it? Was it a nickname given to you? How did it end up your Twitter handle? Was it a reminder to yourself?
Daniel Ek: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How did it end up?
Daniel Ek: Yeah, Honestly, it was really more of a reminder to myself and an ode to a younger me because I was often called that because whatever the issues were that I was passionate about, people saw that passion a mile away, and they always saw me advocating for this long before I realized I was going to be an entrepreneur and long before I realized I would start Spotify. It kind of just felt like a very fitting name for who I am, and it’s just kind of been a part of my identity and a part of the things that I tend to get involved with. They all kind of share that characteristic.
Tim Ferriss: I’m not even going to try to pronounce it, and I’m so glad I didn’t try, but—
Daniel Ek: Yeah. It’s no problem.
Tim Ferriss: —how do you say it, one more time?
Daniel Ek: Eldsjäl.
Tim Ferriss: Eldsjäl. I’m not going to get too—
Daniel Ek: That’s actually pretty good.
Tim Ferriss: Thanks.
Daniel Ek: That’s actually pretty good.
Tim Ferriss: It would usually have an umlaut over the A. Is that right, the two dots?
Daniel Ek: Yes. That’s correct. It’s a very, very Swedish word.
Tim Ferriss: Now, you indicated that it’s a word that doesn’t really have a corollary in English, and there are lots of words in different languages like saudade in Brazilian Portuguese or, I should say, in Portuguese. It doesn’t really exist in English. Are there any other words in Swedish that you care for that come to mind that just don’t have a good equivalent in English?
Daniel Ek: Well, there’s actually a number of them. Another one of my favorites is a word called lagom. it’s a word we use internally at Spotify quite a lot, actually. Lagom in Sweden is—I think the best translation I could give is it’s just about right. It’s not too much, and it’s not too little. It kind of, I think, encapsulates the Swedish spirit more maybe than anything else. In Sweden, it’s very much a culture of you shouldn’t stand out. You’re part of a collective being, and the best thing you can be in the Swedish society is being lagom, just about right, not too much and not too little. That’s kind of what every Swede aspires to be, which feels crazy if you’re an American because that’s about individuality and expressing yourself and don’t be afraid to kind of take space, but it’s completely opposite in the Swedish society.
Tim Ferriss: In the context of Spotify, is lagom, I’m butchering that, but trying my best, is that for a minimal viable product? Is it for launching? In what context does that word get used in the company?
Daniel Ek: Yeah. I think it’s more around our culture. We have in Spotify these two kind of distinct, different cultures or subcultures as part of it. It’s the American part, which is a very, very large part of Spotify today, and very inspiring to me too. I’m clearly Swedish, and people can hear it on my accent, but I’ve spent most of my time probably for the last 20 years involved in things related to America. I know more than most foreigners about US politics, sports, everything that’s going on there too. The Spotify culture is kind of a hybrid between the two, but if you’re an American and you encounter the Swedish culture, it’s going to feel incredibly foreign. It’s one of those things that we use internally to explain why there’s some euphemisms or things that we do in the culture.
Then it tends to be the Swedish side, or the lagom side of the company. For me personally, this has kind of always been the internal conflict because I’ve never wanted to confine myself to this lagom, but I have certain traits of it, for sure, especially by US standards. You asked me about sort of my nickname on Twitter too. My favorite quote probably above all is the George Bernard Shaw quote, the reasonable man and the unreasonable man. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that.
Tim Ferriss: Sure. Fits himself to the world versus fitting the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. Am I getting that—
Daniel Ek: Correct. Yeah. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Daniel Ek: Now think about the Swedish conformist society where everyone’s supposed to be the same, and then you have me coming into this society, basically wanting to be the unreasonable man. You kind of see the clash. While there’s still certain aspects of it that I like, the fact that it’s about a collective teamwork. It’s not about the individual. It’s about meritocracy in the sense that everyone can have a voice. All of those things are very important to me and very, I think, Swedish values as well. Spotify is really kind of—its roots is in the mix between Swedish and American, and then it’s kind of evolved to being distinctly Spotify.
Tim Ferriss: Well, it sounds like your personal story too. I’d be super curious to hear if you came out of the womb as a fire soul and being half or maybe 70 percent rugged individualist or if you were somehow encouraged to develop in that way, because even in the United States, there will be people listening who are perhaps in a conservative family. I don’t mean politically speaking, but a family where they’re not encouraged to stand out or they’re encouraged to follow the rules to go to high school, college, get a job, get married, have two kids, and follow a script of some type, even though I think it’s less pressure perhaps or expectation than you’d find in some parts of Scandinavia or a place like Japan. Did this just come to you innately or was it cultivated in some way?
Daniel Ek: I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think the best I could say is I don’t think that there’s anything distinct in the culture. Some have the immigrant background where they had to fight for everything to begin with. Therefore, that was kind of a part of their story and who they were. I grew up in very much a working class family. My mom worked in a daycare center. My stepdad was a car mechanic. No one I knew was an entrepreneur around me, so that certainly wasn’t something to aspire to. But what I do think my parents gave me that it was incredibly important, and I think it’s certainly been a trait that I’ve been able to find with a lot of the entrepreneurs that are in my generation too, is a lot of psychological safety.
What my parents did do very often was allow me to explore things, allow me to sit in and be part of grown-up conversations and not relegated just to the kids’ table and allow me to indulge curiosity, trying to answer the questions, even admitting that they may not know the answer, trying to help me find sources that can help me find information that then satisfied my curiosity. I think a lot of that then created that drive from just that safety I always felt. It’s actually, I think, super interesting when you think about this European society model versus the American one, and I’m not taking sides, but I think a lot about the American model is clearly—it’s the necessity that creates the hunger, sort of the fact that you have to strive and should strive for betterment, and if you don’t try to work hard and so on, you will not do well in society.
The European one is more like, “No, there’s a base level of security. Everyone should have food on their table. Everyone should have a house to live in. Everyone should be able to afford the clothes and things like that.” It may not be the nicest clothes, but that kind of level of security exists there. Education is free, and healthcare is free, so none of those things are things you have to work hard for. I’ve thought long and hard about that. Obviously, I think there’s situations where one leads to a different outcome that may be beneficial in both models, but in particular, one of the big things I think is—I think the reason why Sweden, for instance, have so many talented songwriters and musicians that are doing so well comes exactly from that. Music education in Sweden is free.
If you want to try to make a living as a musician, you know that the base is taken care of, meaning you can be on welfare for a period of time, and that’s an okay situation for a period of time while you go for your dreams. Because music education is free, everyone can afford to do that and can follow their curiosity where it takes you. There’s just inherently different structures. I think it for various personality types leads to different outcomes, but for me, I’m not sure I would have done so well if I was forced by society to early on prove my worth. I’ve been more of a tinkerer, a wanderer, and because I felt the safety, I felt that I could think bigger and try new things because honestly the consequences of failing were minimal.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that is, I think, a really important both philosophical and structural difference that you’re pointing out in certainly a lot of Europe compared to the US, and I could see arguments for both fostering entrepreneurship, certainly the arts, I think, moreso in Europe for the reasons that you mentioned. You have kids. How are you thinking about raising your kids, if you’re open to discussing it, with respect to providing enough safety net, that they feel they can experiment and tinker, but not so much safety net that they feel—or not so much cushion, perhaps, that they feel they can just stare at the wall and watch paint dry?
Daniel Ek: Yeah. I don’t know that I’ve figured it out or that I have a magic recipe. I’m still very much early in that evolution. My kids are five and seven, but what I do try to pass on is I believe in fostering creativity and safety. That’s the two principles that is incredibly important in my household. But in order to do that, I actually believe in constraints. This is an important part because I feel like one of the greatest things in my day job today is I get to meet some of the most creative people in the world, in their various fields, including of course music and arts, but the interesting thing for me, when you think about creativity, is most people associate it with unstructured thinking and unfettered just—they do whatever they feel like doing.
But some of the most creative people that I know are actually incredibly almost scripted in their creativity, in their approach, in their process, and how they approach their creativity. I think in that polarity between the structured and the unstructured, there’s so much value. What I try to do is I try to provide those clear boundaries, if you will, with my kids when it comes to things like how much time they can sit in front of a TV or an iPad, how you behave towards other people, regardless of where they come from, so a lot of sort of values, principles, “Even if you’re five, let’s make your own bed,” kind of thing, so that kind of structure around you, but then at the same time, almost Montessori-style work with them on evolving their passions, “What are they interested in following along their journey?” and nudge them in various ways just to discover their own creativity, discover their own interests and passion.
I have no idea where it ultimately will lead to, but my hope is that it creates a way for them where they feel the psychological safety to pursue their own path in life independently of mine because I think that’s the most important part is they are their own individuals. I have no idea ultimately where they want to take life and what ultimate passions that they have, but I feel very strongly that it shouldn’t be my vision of what their lives should be that should be the dictating factor there. That’s at least something I’ve observed, feeling that from friends and growing up, that that’s been important to me to not do to my kids.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. Yeah. I can only imagine since I don’t have kids myself, but watching the emergent development of these personalities and observing all the different influences, hopefully some of which, or most of which, are positive, shape them into their own individual selves. I’d love to ask you about—I don’t know if influences would be the right word, but books specifically might because my listeners often enjoy hearing about books since they might not have access to some of the people who have influenced you, but they may have equal access to books. You were kind enough to be one of the featured profiles in my last book, Tribe of Mentors. There was a question about the books you’ve given most as a gift and why, or what books have greatly influenced your life, and I’d like to talk about two of them. The first one is a book I have not personally read. It’s Black Box Thinking, subtitle, The Surprising Truth About Success by, and I may get this last name wrong, but Matthew Syed, S-Y-E-D. I would love for you to just describe how you came across this book, why you find it interesting.
Daniel Ek: Wow. It’s funny. I should say I read probably north of 60 or 70 books a year, so I oftentimes—
Tim Ferriss: That’s a lot of books!
Daniel Ek: Yeah. I often don’t remember exactly how I come in contact with things. It’s almost like a serendipitous process where I buy a book because someone usually recommended it and me hearing maybe a minute or two about it, and then I probably shouldn’t admit this, but then it often lies on my coffee table for a while. It’s when I have curiosity or boredom, whichever one hits the first, that I tend to delve into that book. Sometimes I finish it straight away because it kind of fits my mental state, and sometimes it is more of a sort of journey where I may start it, I may not finish it, and then come back even the next day or next week or next month. It’s a process.
Specifically to this book, I’ve always been fascinated with decision-making and thinking and what kind of biases and cognitive tricks that ends up happening in your mind as you approach different situations. I’m fascinated by the fact that you and I may even be experiencing this conversation entirely differently with entirely different perspectives and entirely different agendas. What I felt with was that Matthew articulated some pretty useful frameworks for how to approach thinking, how to approach situations, “What are good feedback loops for thinking? What are good sort of mental models, if you will, to approach decision-making?” and therefore, it’s been one of the more recommended books for me.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned, I can’t remember the exact word, frameworks or toolkits. I know you’re also a fan of Charlie Munger and Poor Charlie’s Almanack. We don’t have to spend too much time on that because I think a lot of people will recognize that book, but it seems to me, based on the next book I’m going to mention, which is The Alchemist, that toolkits alone are not sufficient, necessary but not sufficient, if you want to achieve some degree of success. You also have to implement and persevere. Right?
Daniel Ek: Right.
Tim Ferriss: This is where the driving spirit comes in. I’ll just read this paragraph really quickly because I think it provides some context. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and this is your words, feel free to fact check if need be, but, “I spent an inspiring evening with Paulo in Switzerland around the time we were launching Spotify in Brazil. It was fascinating to talk to him about how this book came to be such a hit. He never backed down, and he allowed people to read it for free in order to then boost sales, much like how Spotify’s freemium model was perceived in the early days.”
As you allude to here, because I’ve had Paulo on the podcast, a lot of people only think of The Alchemist as this gigantic, mega, international phenomenon selling 50 million or 75 million, 100 million, who knows what the number of copies is now, but it was rejected repeatedly in the beginning. I’ll segue from this to something else in a minute, but could you speak to what impact that had on you, whether it’s the book or just the conversation about the book with Paulo?
Daniel Ek: Well, I think I’m so inspired by people who are thinking on different wavelengths than yourself. For me, Paulo has certainly been one of those individuals. I tend to draw myself to where I feel comfortable, which is around logic, reason, the engineering mindset, but there’s a big part of myself and where I come from too. I come from a music family where music and emotions and feelings are inherently, incredibly important too. Paulo for me represents not the free spirit but more spirituality, but in a way where he can reason about it, he can talk about it, and the big takeaways I’ve had is thinking about, for me, two very profound concepts, which are probably self-explanatory to most people, but it’s really this notion of time and this notion of energy. When I think about those two things, time is the one commodity we can never get more of, and energy is your state of being in the present time.
For me, I used to be just—honestly, I was not in a great shape. I weighed probably 40 or 50 pounds more than what I weigh now. I didn’t work out. I was working 100-hour work weeks. I looked at other people that weren’t working as hard as I was and was discouraged by that and just thought, “They could never make it, and they don’t understand what what’s needed to ” Reading the book, talking to Paulo, I think, started a process within me. It didn’t culminate at that point, but it culminated years later. But it started a process about thinking about the spirituality, thinking about the energy side of things. Where I am today, which is vastly different, I still constantly work on myself, but I think a lot more about balancing energy in my everyday life and overall. You can’t really balance it, but it’s about finding enough things to do that gives you positive energy and finding—we all have to do things that take energy as well, but even during a day, make sure that if you have a few things that you know will take energy from you, balance it out by adding a few things that will add energy to your life. And try to find those things that constantly do that. Those are things which are kind of unintuitive takeaways from the book, I would say. But the book, for me, represents more of a kind of inner process that it started rather than the very specific part. And we’re all on a journey. I think that’s the kind of big takeaway from the book. And finding out what that journey is and thinking about it bigger than just what our financial goals are or what our career goals are or the next week or next month. And think about it in a broader perspective with energy, with life. For me, it has been sort of a big catalyst.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s talk more about things that give positive energy. And I suppose part of that would be rebuilding or refining the machine in which we all live, right? The physical body. And you mentioned that you used to weigh something like 40 pounds more than you do today. A lot of people struggle to lose weight. What finally ended up working for you? Or what made the difference in terms of getting you at least started in successfully losing weight?
Daniel Ek: Yeah. Honestly, it was easy and it was hard in that inherently, I was trying to do things in the past. And actually, like many people, I was successful for a period of time. And then I kind of went back to my old ways and then I started eating poorly again, not sleeping well enough, stressing more, et cetera. And then quickly, weight gain followed. And where it kind of clicked and changes, I realized that I needed to actually change my life and change my habits. And the only way to do that would to do it sustainably with things that I actually enjoyed doing. And what I learned in it was that I didn’t think much about training, I didn’t think it was that interesting. I didn’t think that—I thought I’d needed to be on a treadmill for an hour a day, sweating like a pig and hating every moment of it, and that’s training. I didn’t think it was for me.
And what I realized instead was finding those small enjoyments. When you start the process, I didn’t then go to the gym every single day. I started going maybe two days a week and made it a pattern. And I really made an effort to try to make every single time enjoyable in whatever way. So the things I really didn’t enjoy, I tried to skip. But it didn’t lean away from the sort of pain of training, but more kind of trying to do the things that I actually thought was fun and more interesting. And then the two days turned to three and then three turned to four. And then as I was doing that, I started seeing some results. But I always thought about, “Can I keep this? Can I keep this going?” It wasn’t going to be a one time kind of shift.
And then what happens is once you start doing that and you start enjoying it, then you start realizing, “Well, I’m not actually accomplishing my goals unless I also shift my diet.” All right. Well, what are the things there that I truly enjoy? And I learned there was a number of things in my diet that I was doing that I actually didn’t need and didn’t even care all that much by removing. And it could be all the smallest things like I used to have milk in my coffee. But in all honesty, I don’t really think it makes a huge difference to have milk or not. But if you have three or four cups a day, it adds up. And I used to take the elevator, not the stairs. But I actually kind of enjoy taking the stairs. So it was just a creature of habit. Now I mostly take the stairs. And so it’s these small micro things that then eventually kind of added up.
But more importantly, in the end, despite the process, what I realized is that it made myself more sustainable. It made it so that I had more energy. And the energy, I could actually make myself more productive in my everyday life, whether that was work or whether that was relationships to friends, or even as a father to my children, all of it had a profound impact.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for sharing all that. This highlights so many, I think, extremely important takeaways for a lot of folks who struggle with weight loss. Number one is that the small things seem small in isolation, but when you add them together, like the milk in the coffee, they can actually have a really significant impact. And I know people who’ve lost five to 10 pounds in a given month just by removing the milk from their coffee. It sounds absurd, but I’ve seen it over and over again because the milk is so insulinogenic, it really has quite a disproportionate impact. And the importance also of adherence, right? In so much as the best program doesn’t matter, whether it’s losing weight, learning how to code, or anything else, if you can’t stick with it long enough for it to achieve the desired effect and to sustain it.
So those little tweaks really, cumulatively can have a huge impact. I’d like to come back to the 100 hours a week, when you were working 100 hours a week. You continue to work very hard. And that is, I think, certainly a defining characteristic. But even more so for me, it seems like one of your defining characteristics is the ability to focus and prioritize focusing. And you mentioned earlier that a lot of the most creative people in the world schedule their creativity. I mean, this is true across the board, right? Whether it’s Jerry Seinfeld or certain musicians I’ve spoken with say the most consistently creative people have rules and structures and constraints. So it seems like you’ve done something very much the same to box out time to focus. And I just want to perhaps give an example of what your schedule might look like.
And I want you to correct this if it’s changed, but this is from The Observer Effect. And the question was about the schedule in the morning. And here’s how it goes. I’ll just read a few lines. “So this will sound incredibly lazy compared to some leaders. I wake up at around 6:30 in the morning and spend some time with my kids and wife. At 7:30, I go work out. At 8:30, I go for a walk–even in the winter. I’ve found this is often where I do my best thinking. At 9:30, I read for thirty minutes to an hour. Sometimes I read the news, but you’ll also find an ever-rotating stack of books in my office, next to my bed, on tables around the house. Books on history, leadership, biographies. It’s a pretty eclectic mix–much like my taste in music. Finally, my ‘work’ day really starts at 10:30.” Does your schedule still look pretty similar to this, or has it changed?
Daniel Ek: No, it’s pretty similar. Actually, today I started at 11:00 a.m. was my first kind of thing. So I ended up getting 30 minutes longer than I anticipated. But yeah, I mean, this is pretty much my everyday life. And I think Paul Graham of Y Combinator fame said a few years ago, he penned this paper that was kind of an aha moment for me about meeting schedule or maker’s schedule, how different they are. And it was like something kind of resonated deeply with me. And I think a lot of people think they have to be in the meeting schedule all the time, and that that is what’s required to be an effective leader. Where in reality, I think you can kind of be an effective leader no matter what your style is, but it has to be true to you so that you can unlock your own sort of superpowers.
And in general, I would say most people don’t stop enough and think hard enough about their priorities and focusing on the problems that are the most worthwhile for them to try to solve. And they more operate on a kind of first-come, first-serve basis when it comes to their time. So it pretty much is the way my current schedule works too. And I often don’t take more than three or maybe four things that I do on each and every day. And I try to be very, very sort of tough on saying no, which isn’t always the most fun thing to do, I will say. But it also means, as a factor, that I tend to get more stuff done of the things that truly matter in a given day. And more time to think about other things as well than perhaps a normal kind of CEO in a normal kind of 9:00 to 5:00 or 9:00 to 7:00 gig, whatever they end up doing.
Tim Ferriss: And I want to give an example of one question that might, I don’t want to say surprise people, but be noticeably lacking from the mindscape of a lot of people from day to day. And this is the question of what your role is at a given meeting. What is my role? And I’ve read about your contemplation of this question. But when you go into a meeting, what different roles might you have? And why is it important to be clear beforehand on what your role is?
Daniel Ek: Well, so if we actually take a step back and we think about work for a moment and we think about work for knowledge workers, because it’s clearly different, the reality is a lot of knowledge workers that work in companies, most of the work that they’re doing is done in meetings. Some of us do some actual other work too, but a lot of it ends up being in meetings. And it’s surprising to me that we spend as little time as we do on actually thinking about the meetings we’re having, if they’re productive, if they’re worthwhile, and if they’re delivering on what the ambition was. And I can only say that when you survey people, they tend to, when you ask if the meeting was effective or not, most people actually say that meetings are wasteful. And yet we see more and more and more of it. And so I like to think that a huge point of optimization can be done by designing better meetings for people.
And early on, it started with my own sort process at Spotify, not just thinking about how much time we were wasting, but frankly, in a meeting, what I found myself many times in was maybe meeting a person in the company that had done a tremendous job putting together a presentation of some kind. And if I put myself in that person’s shoe, and this is a person that may get a meeting with me maybe once, maybe twice during their entire career at Spotify, and for that person, it could be the chance to get noticed for a future promotion, it could be the chance to have something that fundamentally changes their career. And so, it oftentimes, what ended up happening was the person came in and they ran through a PowerPoint that someone had sent me the night before. I had already read it. And they, in verbatim, read the entire thing. And then in the end, there would be a short period of time, usually less than 10 percent of the meeting was spent on that, of us discussing what the next steps would be.
And again, I understand why this happens. Because again, the person that’s presenting this has all the incentives to kind of show off the good work that they’re doing and want to seem very competent and realize that a lot is on the line, et cetera. And instead, what I find is that quite often, we haven’t been intentful about why the meeting exists to begin with. And in this case, if it’s recognition we want to give, I’m sure there could have been a better way we could have done that. And we should have been clear that we were having a review meeting about the progress of a certain area, and it should have been clear too that this person is an amazing individual and that we should all try to give constructive criticism. But then in the end, also give feedback, positive feedback as well, because we want to make sure this person feels valued.
But oftentimes, all of that context doesn’t exist. And so my role in that meeting could sometimes be just being that person who says that kind thing. But I realized, more often than not, that I to prep the people on how to do meetings and set it up. I do read the meeting material beforehand. I prefer spending only five minutes in the beginning rereading the material or the person reading a summary out of it and states the reason for the meeting up front. And then we can spend more time talking about were these the right questions? Should we have considered something else? And what are the appropriate next steps?
But you can be an approver, you can be consulted, you can be informed in a meeting. And I think many people always think that if you’re the CEO, your job is always to be the approver in the meeting. But I find if you have a great team, that’s not at all the role that you should have. You should be sometimes the person who’s only consulted about what they’re doing as an FYI. Sometimes you can be the person who just isn’t the decider because there’s someone more competent making that decision. But you could be a person who is the sounding board where you can bounce ideas off. If we’re thinking aggressive enough, if we’re thinking roughly in this dimension. Should we invest a lot? Should we invest a little in that decision? And all those things are highly contextual and your role in those meetings could be very different depending on all those variables. And being clear and upfront about that meetings can have different forms, I think, has profoundly changed how I look at meetings, and I think a lot of people at Spotify too.
Tim Ferriss: And I want to mention the URL of Paul Graham’s essay that you gave note to just a bit earlier for people who are interested because this also had quite an impact on me. Paul Graham has a lot of fantastic essays, and they’re short for people who are worried that this is going to be 50 pages. It’s probably a two-page read. But paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html. And you can just search “maker’s schedule.” And has profound implications for anyone who seeks to create in any way, whether it’s in a company or as a creative professional like an artist, for instance, I think it’s just an outstanding essay.
And I’d like to hop next to an annual cadence. So I’ve read about you sitting down with everyone on your leadership team once per year and doing a mental closing of the year. What went well, what went poorly. And specifically, in addition to that, is this what you want to do for the next two years? And I’ll just quote, this is from Fast Company. If they decide not to, “It’s not personal. It’s not because of poor performance. At this level, it’s never about that. It’s about future performance.” So I find this very interesting, but I’d love for you to flesh out some of the details. Do you still do a mental closing of the year using some type of format like this?
Daniel Ek: Yeah, we do. And I’m actually right about, I’m writing my reviews at the moment for all of my employees. And I’m going to start, not all my employees, all my direct reports, and I’ll start talking to them about it in the next week or two. So it’s still very much sort of top of mind for what we do. And maybe I can just kind of say what the genesis is of that. And this is—
Tim Ferriss: Please.
Daniel Ek: Yeah, this is kind of inspired by Reid Hoffman’s tour of duties concept. Because I was thinking about my own journey at Spotify and a lot of times, the easy way to say it is I’ve had the same job for 14 years. But obviously, my job looks nothing like it from the beginning because in a startup, it’s very different than running a public company with a global presence, et cetera, et cetera. And so when I summarize that and I think about it, and part of the reason why I’m still excited about the job I’m doing every day and not just the company is because I’m probably on my eighth job at Spotify. And what I came to realize is that part of the reason why the tenure of people at companies end up being relatively short, certainly in Silicon Valley and a lot of tech companies, is that this job journey when you deal with startups is it doesn’t always confirm to better titles. Sometimes you retain the same title, but in reality, your job looks very different.
And I don’t think we’re clear enough, especially in startup environments, which are incredibly fast growing. If you think about a company that’s growing 100 percent per year, and you fast forward three or four years down the future, it is impossibly the same company and it is impossibly so that your job could be exactly the same as it was a few years earlier. And most people aren’t clear about that. So they just assume that because the person used to do the job that they’d be perfectly happy continuing to doing that job. And circumstances obviously change no matter if you make changes or just by virtue of growth.
That I started calling it out explicitly by just kind of mental marking and saying, “We should try, as a leadership team, to see around corners and try to predict what does the future company look like?” When Spotify was a thousand-person company, I said to the team, “In the next journey, we’ll be five to 10,000 people.” And everyone could buy into that. But then we started aligning on what are things going to have to look like for that then if we are a 5,000-person company? What are the sort of things that have to change? What are some of the things that will change even for your role? And you realize, as an example, if you’re a leader of 10 people versus 1,000 people, your job is so different because you’re leader of individual contributors in the first instance, and in the latter instance, you’re a leader of leaders.
And your primary job is almost around communication, clarity, consistency, and designing scalable ways of interacting with all of these people and scalable processes. It sounds more boring than what it is, but the point is that it’s so different. And I think you need to be clear about that because we just think about the role and the title and think, “Well, sure. It ought to be the same.” But I feel like when people are disgruntled about the company changing, it’s because they haven’t realized that their job changed as well. And if it didn’t, that role and that person would hold back the entire company, which is obviously unacceptable.
And so I talked to the employees at that time, because there are some people who love the startup phase, but they don’t like when you’re in the mature phase and you have to focus on efficiency, which is the kind of key metric when you are more of a mature company. And the reality is, even though I kind of stereotype it and make it sound like it’s one or the other, the reality is in a larger company, if done right, every single thing in the company varies between these stages, where it’s startup, where it’s scale up, and where it’s mature. And you go back and forth between those different stages in every company and every team, and it’s going to be highly sort of contextually relevant. And the type of leadership you need to have for that situation is very, very different. And there are very, very few leaders that can do all three. And no leader that I’m aware of that can do all three of them incredibly well. You can pass on a few of them, but not be amazing on all three of them.
Tim Ferriss: So a few things that I want to underscore for folks, I feel like I’m the Kindle highlighter of these conversations as we go, but that’s okay. I try to be useful. The first is for people who don’t recognize Reid Hoffman, he is the co-founder of LinkedIn and was the firefighter in chief or nicknamed such by Peter Thiel when at PayPal, and has done many, many other things. And the tour of duty concept people can read more about also in Harvard Business Review if they just search Reid Hoffman and tour of duty.
You mentioned a few minutes ago how very often your role as CEO is not the decider in chief in every meeting, right? And if you’ve done things well, that there will be many decisions made perhaps in consultation with you, but you can’t scale to 5,000 employees with everything running through Daniel. What do you view as your most important jobs? For some CEOs, it’s recruiting top talent. For others, it’s long-term, long-term product vision. In your mind, what are the absolute critical functions, if you could only choose a few, that you need to fulfill and that you focus on?
Daniel Ek: Yeah, I actually, one of the sort of biggest realization for me the last few years is that I’m not sure. The obvious thing would be to say you can’t scale and do 5,000 persons’ jobs. And that’s obviously true. But I do think that there are bottom up companies and top down companies, and both can be incredibly successful. You don’t have to look further than looking at someone like Elon Musk to know that he is intimately involved in a million different details in the company. And how he managed to do that and how he managed to scale, it’s beyond me. I’m very impressed by it, but I also know I couldn’t do that and it’s not my philosophy. And so I think I just wanted to start by saying I think the leadership style that you ultimately have has to be authentic to who you are. And I think a lot of us take so much inspiration from leaders, including myself, by the way, where we often try to maybe copy some one specific thing that they’re doing without understanding all the underlying mechanics perfectly well.
And so I don’t want to sort of say, “This is what you need to do as a leader,” because I think that there are many different leadership styles that can be incredibly successful. But I can talk about what is important to me as a leader in Spotify and the culture that we have. And there, I am not a person that knows everything about everything. I am much more of a generalist, but I try to pride myself instead these days about trying to be a decent communicator about—and almost like an editor of our vision. Because I feel like you have to provide constraints to the organization, otherwise you have these thousand flowers bloom and let’s throw things against the wall and see what sticks.
And the editor position in that and it’s almost always back to purpose, like why are we doing things? Why does it matter, how does this ladder up to the mission and being the constant sort of guardrail against that? And then the second part I find is when you’re dealing with a larger company, the important part is we all get complacent. This is true, I just walked through—I’ve been having a cold, no COVID, but like a cold. And I was just starting to work out again a few days ago. And I notice with myself that I became complacent, like I didn’t really go 100 percent into this, and I was trying to self-justify why I wasn’t, and all of those things. And I realized, no, no, no, Dan, you’re taking the easy way out.
And instead it ended up being that I kind of stuck out 30 minutes longer, and had probably one of the most amazing training sets I’ve had in probably six months. And the point being is that’s the role these days that I often have to play. I have to be the one who sets the bar for the organization, try to adapt the bar for the talent that we bring in, the bar for the ideas. Because complacency is so easy to get to. And I don’t know exactly why it is, but I just feel like we’re all built that way, that we want to take the easy way out. And so part of this is to do the right thing even if it’s not the easy way out, and consistently just kind of pushing the organization to do that, and raise the bar.
So I play that part, too, in many parts of the organization, while almost being the personal coach, I would say, which is the third role that I’m playing, because I kind of look at my role as to enable other people to do the best work of their careers. And what I’ve learned in that process is that we’re all highly unique individuals, and what motivates me may be entirely different than what motivates you. And so to try to find out what psychological barriers you have, what tensions in your life you may have in order to try to unlock that is something that I spend a good amount of time on. And we’ve touched upon some of these things already, which is I kind of almost start with trying to find out how you prioritize your time. Because I find most people don’t prioritize their time particularly well. And in unlocking that, you then have to—when you start prioritizing it you start thinking about what is important to you to prioritize.
And this isn’t just work, by the way, this is in many cases I play that role for people in their private lives, too, if they want to have more time for their kids, or they want to pursue a hobby, or they want to do X and Y and they feel like they’re torn because they’re right in between work obligations and private obligations and those types of things. And I know it sounds like pretty crazy to talk about that level of detail, but for me, if I can do that for some of my leaders that in many cases have a thousand plus people under them and they feel more inspired by that, they’re going to inspire hundreds if not thousands of people to do better and perhaps they’ll pay it forward too and we can start unlocking more and more of that in the organization.
That’s kind of my view of what great leadership looks like in a company like Spotify. But I am so fascinated by other leaders and how they make it work in their cultures. And I try to be a great student of other companies, especially other company’s cultures and the reason why it enables them to do things differently than perhaps what we at Spotify do.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s grab an exhibit that we can put under the microscope just for a second, because I know you and I both know Tobi, CEO of Shopify, not to be confused with Spotify, but man, to say those two in the same sentence quickly is still challenging for me even though I have known both companies for so long. How would you say you—how are you and Tobi different, or how are the cultures different? You can approach this any way you like, but in what ways that come to mind are the two of you different, because at surface level a lot of folks who don’t know either of you personally would say, “Well, they’re both deeply analytical, they have extremely strong computer science backgrounds,” and that’s kind of where the comparison might end.
But how would you describe how you’re most similar, most different, or just looking at approach.
Daniel Ek: Yeah. No, Tobi and Shopify is obviously a very inspirational company, too. I would actually say we’re more similar than different. And the similarity is—and I’ve found that with some companies, by the way, like another one is like Mike Cannon-Brookes and Atlassian, Australian company. I don’t know, but a theory I have is that all of us had to do a lot of first principle thinking, and what I mean by first principle thinking, by not being in Silicon Valley and by not learning as much from osmosis of just the Google and Facebook and those types of cultures, we have kind of developed a different culture compared to the standard Silicon Valley type cultures.
And so in that regard, I think it’s similar, and I think Canada, just like Europe, is more kind of similar in the holistic thinking about sort of the collective rather than individualism, and there’s a lot of deep rooted things. And Tobi, by the way, is German from the beginning too, which is more akin to the Swedish side. So there’s a lot of similarities between sort of philosophy, upbringing, and those types of things, too.
I think in so the regards that we’re different, besides obviously the products and the markets that we serve, I do think it comes down to just the way perhaps we think about sort of talent and the development of talent. And again, I don’t want to sort of—I don’t know Shopify’s culture intimately enough to kind of pass any remarks, but I can say at Spotify one of the big things is the thing we just talked about, which is we instead of tours of duties, we call it internally missions. And every person at Spotify has a mission for about two years. And in particular on my leadership team, we don’t make any qualms about the fact that things don’t change, or that you’ll have your job for eternity. You’ll have your job for a mission, and then you and I will discuss what the next mission ought to be. And perhaps it fits with your skills and where you want to go, or maybe it doesn’t.
And this is a big difference, so when I look at my leadership team and certainly the extended one, we’ve actually shifted our leadership team to a great extent. And my sense by looking at Tobi has been that they’ve kept it a little bit more stable than what we’ve done. And by the way, there’s no pro or cons with both models, both models work. And if anything I would say I’m probably a little bit more envious of the stable side. I like soccer and the coaches that I like the most are the ones that develop young players and stay with them and bring them to their full potential. But I also realize that if I were a coach, I’d be more about someone who brings in the sports team analogy where you bring in a lot of super talents and get them to work well together.
So my own sort of mental image of who I want to be doesn’t always add up to the skills I have at the table as a leader, as well. And I suspect that there will be lots of differences between us just in the nuance between those two things.
Tim Ferriss: So many different departure points from that answer. So fertile ground, let’s start with one that is backtracking just a little bit. Actually, before we get there, we brought up, or I brought up biographies. Are there any particular biographies that really stand out for you?
Daniel Ek: Oh, there’s so many.
Tim Ferriss: For any reason.
Daniel Ek: Well there are so many. There is—oh, where do I begin. The Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci one is phenomenal.
Tim Ferriss: So good.
Daniel Ek: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So good.
Daniel Ek: Pablo Picasso’s biography, also amazing, I forget who the author was who wrote it, I think there’s maybe a few of them, but I read one that was just—just super, super interesting, talking about the creativity constraints, thinking—that was kind of where a lot of the boxes ticked for me. I’m a big fan of biographies. I’m a big fan of sort of unlocking yourself as you can hear, and working with yourself in order to kind of then take on the larger community goals or larger societal goals that you may have, but it has to start by managing yourself well. And then from there on you can manage others and you can manage other stakeholders as well.
So I learn a lot from biographies, for sure.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any—since you mentioned management, are there any particular books that have helped you in thinking about management? They don’t have to be books about management, per se, but do any come to mind?
Daniel Ek: Yeah, it all depends on where you are at the—
Tim Ferriss: Right, in the lifecycle.
Daniel Ek: Yeah, like early on as a manager there’s High Output Management by Andy Grove is fantastic. The Hard Things About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz is also really good for someone who’s first time journey and going through and kind of learning the basics. And there’s a number of others about goal setting, and about financial modeling, there’s a ton of them.
But these days the most inspiration I take from are leadership journeys more than the specific tools in the toolbox that you can have. And I find that is the single most challenging things, because as we talked about a little bit earlier, you have to make leadership personal. I was having a fascinating conversation with Matthew McConaughey just the other day, and we talked about how he makes the roles—the roles and characters he takes on, it has to be a part of himself. Because if it’s not, it’s never going to shine through and it’s never going to feel authentic. So it has to bring out that element of himself in that character in order to make it come alive.
And I think for me, that is when true leadership shines through as well. I’ll just kind of maybe share a personal anecdote, kind of an embarrassing, but still just to—
Tim Ferriss: Perfect.
Daniel Ek: Yeah. But to share a little bit more about my personal growth story. So early on, like many others, I modeled myself on being a product centric CEO, kind of Silicon Valley style, I should really be that. And I was looking at what are the best practices, what does Mark Zuckerberg, what does all of these other guys do? And it felt like one of the things that they were doing was that they were running the product review meeting every week, and they were doing it really well. And I had a great head of product, and I had a great product team, but I wanted to do the same thing because I kind of just picked up that’s what a great CEO should do, and I’m also a—I’m just as good as the CEOs of Silicon Valley, etc.
And I remember vividly one day where after one of these meetings and I get pushed aside by my head of product and then he basically said, “Look, I’ll just be very honest, no one enjoys the meetings that you’re having.” And I was like, “Well, why not?” And he’s like, “Well, because you’re not actually adding anything to the meeting.” And that was a very rough conversation, and my—honestly, my initial instinct was very defensive, I was like, “Well, these guys, they don’t understand anything, and I probably should hire a new head of product and I should do X and Y.” But I decided against that, and I decided to sleep on it. And I decided to test for a while, see okay, well, I’ll see how well they do if I don’t show up. And it turns out that they did incredibly well without me.
And what I learned in that process was I needed to figure out a way then to add value. And I realized that rather than deciding if the button needed to be green, or blue, or even if there needed to be a button at all, that’s not where I added value. Where I added value in that meeting was by sharing context that they may not be aware of rather than sort of pushing towards a decision of a particular kind. Or even it wasn’t about my preferences at all. But it was about sharing context so that they can make better decisions as a team.
And it’s not happened many times at Spotify, where I’ve had similar situations where I thought I was pretty—
Tim Ferriss: Sorry to interrupt Daniel, could you give an example of context that might be helpful in such a situation?
Daniel Ek: Yeah—
Tim Ferriss: Additional context.
Daniel Ek: Yeah, so let’s say you’re in a product review meeting, and you talk about what are the biggest problems we’re actually trying to solve for the customer in this end? And oftentimes it could be—it could’ve been like we actually find that half of the people in the first session don’t find a song that they really love. And so the context then that I could share in that, that’s the data, then the context I could share would be either if I’d had any insights from talking to other Silicon Valley CEOs or other people around what great ways to solve the problem could be. A context in itself could be why that’s a worthwhile problem to solve in the first place. Because we do lose half of them the first day, that means it’s kind of a funnel and it’s a leaky funnel. So that’s going to be a problem, because even if we’re only bringing in 5,000 users a day and two and a half thousand of them stay, that may not feel like much. But if we were bringing in 100,000 a day we’re going to lose 50,000 people a day. So this is a leaky boat and we need to try to fix it.
And that context can be incredibly valuable to share. And I was approaching this more from a control mindset. I thought I needed to control the prioritization of the product, and I realized instead I needed to share more context to enable them to make better prioritizations themselves. And that has been something as part of my journey now at Spotify, and that’s a development of myself. I’ve found myself now in many situations, very similar, where I thought I was pretty good at something and I realized that I run into someone who knows a lot more about the topic, and is a lot more skilled than I am at solving that problem. And so I’ve kind of then had to find out a new way to add value in that situation.
And that’s been a huge personal growth journey for myself, both to be able to keep up with the company, but then also realizing like—and not being insecure in those moments of time when I’ve effectively put myself out of work to find a new job, and try to find new ways to add value to the company.
Tim Ferriss: Returning to the two-year missions, I would love to know, maybe you can’t disclose it but if you can, that’d be great, do you have a two-year mission yourself? And/or what might a two year mission look like? Is it your mission is to do X by Y using Z? Is there a format to it and is it spelled out really clearly?
Daniel Ek: Yeah, it’s more an aspirational feeling oftentimes. Sometimes it’s very tangible, but sometimes it’s—or oftentimes I should say it’s more an aspirational feeling. What do I want to feel once I’ve accomplished or feel like I’m at this level? But I can talk about my last one because it’s probably the most tangible—
Tim Ferriss: Perfect.
Daniel Ek: And easy on. And that was just learn how to become a good public company CEO. I said good but not great because great will likely take time, but we went public about two years ago, and I knew I needed to be good. And so what are ways, what does a good public company CEO look like? What are skills that I currently don’t have today that I’ll likely have to develop? What are the rituals, habits, and processes to get me there? And then work myself backwards.
And that was a process that ended for me in 2019, so I kind of set the bar where I would start, call it a year and a half before going public, and then I was hoping—I didn’t anticipate it to be day one because I needed some real loop feedback from the real market. But I kind of finalized it by at least not obviously seeing that I wasn’t a decent one. And so now I’ve kind of moved on to my sort of next mission instead.
Tim Ferriss: Become a three Michelin star chef. That’s the new—
Daniel Ek: Yeah, that would be fun. My wife would certainly love that if I could do that, I’m a horrible chef.
Tim Ferriss: Another time we can make some pasta together. The aspiration to become a good public company CEO, let’s use that just as a bit of fodder to explore how you then convert that into actions, right, because I would imagine you approached it in a pretty systematic fashion. I’m looking at a description of your goal setting, and I’ll just quote here from Fast Company, “I also write out what my daily, weekly, monthly goals are and every evening I check how I’m doing, and then I allocate my time,” then in parenthetical, “To match the goals.” When you have something like “become a good public company CEO,” but you could kind of fill in the blank with just about anything, how do you keep yourself on track? Do you break it down into micro tasks or practices just do you don’t get lost, as you mentioned, with lack of prioritizing?
Daniel Ek: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How did you approach that?
Daniel Ek: Yeah, I’ve actually started changing a bit about it because I realized the process was taking the overhead from the results, and I wasn’t enjoying it as much. So I’ve made the process somewhat simpler since that Fast Company article. So I think more about time and habits than necessarily looking at it daily or weekly. I still kind of review my goals for the days, but I no longer have a goal for the week. And I then kind of look more at it from a sort of quarterly basis and then semi annually nowadays, so it’s a little bit of a tweak just to not make it too much overhead.
But the way I approached that problem was just kind of being clear about what do I think—oftentimes I kind of think about it like my mental image is that of a city when I approach a problem. And a city from 40,000 feet above on an airplane looking down. And when you do that, you don’t see the contours, you just see a city. You have no idea what aspects of the city, like what’s the topography, you don’t understand where it’s dense, where it’s not dense, it just looks like a blob. And so the important part for me is I don’t know what I don’t know. So I always start by allocating enough time. So if something is important, I start allocating time towards it. And then I quickly try to spend enough time where I can get to what I call level two, which is when I’m more like 20,000 feet perspective, where I can start seeing the contours of the city. I can kind of work out that here’s the rough branches of the tree, so to speak. I can see the leaves. I can see the details. I can see all of those things, but I kind of have an idea of blocks to start diving into. And so, if you look at something like that, you’ll have to understand more about one block is understanding the constituents. In what way is a public market CEO different than a VC? It turns out that they’re quite different.
So understanding the motives, the motivations, understanding what different types of them exist, which one of them do I want to attract? Which one of them should I possibly even talk about not attracting? And speaking about the Jeff basis quotes, “You are the shareholder you deserve.” That kind of rings very true to me in the sense that should we, as a company, be part of the expectation setting as a public company. It’s very fashionable, for instance, in Silicon Valley, to not give guidance going forward, because you don’t care about the quarterly results.
I find it ironic because what it essentially says is that you don’t want to be part of the participation of the expectations that the market does on your company, but they’ll still have expectations. So the question is just if you want to participate in that expectation of setting or not. It’s not like you really have a choice that there won’t be an expectation. And so, after seeing those nuances, I realized that it was actually very important to me to be part of that expectation setting, because if I’m going to be beholden to something, I’d rather be beholden to something, which I was a part of informing them about rather than something that they just made up their mind all by themselves. And when you realize that, you realize that communication becomes super important as one of the skills.
And how do you, for someone who has a lot of optionality of their time, communicate succinctly what the company is? They’re not going to spend every waking moment of the company or their lives thinking about your company. They many times have other companies that they follow as well. So putting yourself in that mindset, starting to see the nuances, starting to see the blocks, then start to think about what habits can lead up to the skills that you desire and even the increasing the resolution, so to speak, of the image I just said about the city, so then see all the streets, see all those things, is super important for me as I think about a mission of mine. And even honestly, just learning about a subject that I’m interested in, I kind of use the same process over and over, which is that kind of the city mental model, or Elon Musk talks about it as the tree, the branches, to leaves, which was also kind of an inspirational thing that I took away from—I can’t remember, but it was one of his interviews probably a few years ago.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to give an example of communication and a quote that has been shared quite widely, but I think that it would be nice to have you just explain in brief the gist of it, what it means. And the quote is, “We believe that speed of iteration beats quality of iteration, which is why we’re not big on bureaucracy.” And I want to focus on the first part of that. Speed of iteration beats quality of iteration. Could you explain what that means?
Daniel Ek: Yeah. Again, when I evaluate success among a future leader at Spotify, or even someone who just joined the company, I look at the rate of their learning growth and I find that to be the best indicator for whether they will be long-term successful in their job at Spotify or not. And the gist of it is I think macro wise, first and foremost, that the world is changing just constantly and you have to adapt to that change. So I value agility and learning way more than I value the fact that you’re really good at your job and really good at doing a few things.
Now, the other aspects of that that I think is important is the notion not only about the world changing or any of that sort, but also perhaps maybe more of my own personality more than anything else. I love learning, first and foremost. And the second thing is I am not Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. I don’t just intuitively know what the world will look like, and I don’t think most people do. I think most people learn as they go. And so, if you create an environment where you can fail, that is transparent and where you’re allowed to iterate and learn on the job, you will create a learning organism that keeps getting better and better and better at hopefully a higher and higher pace than ever before.
And that, for me, as a culture, feels a lot more resilient than one that relies on someone having a godlike ability to see the future before anyone else sees it. I’ve never been that type of entrepreneur. I wouldn’t know where to begin in inventing the next iPhone. But I do know how to make something a bit better than it was yesterday. I do think that I know some things about the world, but I also know in that process, I’ll learn a lot of new things if I keep developing and iterating as I go along.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s hop to a completely different species of learning organism, and that is Brilliant Minds. What is Brilliant Minds and how did it start?
Daniel Ek: Oh yeah. So Brilliant Minds is a conference that I started together with Ash Pournouri, who was the manager of Avicii a few years back. And the genesis of the idea in all honesty started by Ash and I traveling around the world, many times off, often having to explain Sweden to people who’ve never been. And there are aspects, again, about the culture we talked about it in the beginning about some of the very, very distinct Swedish stuff. And then in some part, the quote, “The future’s here, just unevenly distributed,” also rings very true about Sweden. We had broadband in 1998. Part of the reason why I believe Spotify came to be was I saw the need for it probably earlier than others because I had 100 megabit broadband in 1998.
Tim Ferriss: That’s wild.
Daniel Ek: Yeah. And so, because there was nothing for me to do, I could only use file sharing services. And I realized that it was wrong, but it was a lot better than the alternative of going down to the video store, which only had about a half of the things that I actually wanted to see. So that kind of inspired me. And then later on, after starting a few companies then started Spotify. And so I wanted to bring Sweden to the rest of the world. And frankly, I wanted to bring the rest of the world to Sweden too and create kind of a two-way exchange straight.
And so we started this conference, which is kind of an unconference conference, where it’s very light, almost TED-style talks, 10-15 minutes long, lots and lots of music, lots and lots of time to interact with other people. And the focus is around creativity. And we bring people from music, from arts, we bring people from business and technology together and talk about what some of the larger problems in society exist today, and frankly try to inspire them to see if they can make a difference in some shape or form. It’s pretty small. It’s just a few hundred guests. And yeah, it’s been a fun, fun journey to see the relationships that’s been formed. And certainly, for Swedes, it’s been so valuable to be able to learn from some of the most creative and amazing individuals in the world. So I think it’s paying dividends in spades when it comes to Sweden.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve dedicated, as I understand it, this would be an understatement, but significant resources to funding and supporting, I suppose, predominantly moonshots in—is it across Europe? Is it specific to Sweden? How are you thinking about cultivating that ecosystem using your own resources?
Daniel Ek: Yeah. So it’s a billion euros and it’s across Europe.
Tim Ferriss: That’s why I said an understatement.
Daniel Ek: Yeah. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a lot of commas.
Daniel Ek: Yeah. But truthfully, the number in itself isn’t the most important thing. And people actually ask me where I got the number from, and the number was the most uncomfortable thing I could imagine. And sometimes I work that way. I just put out a very sort of big, audacious, quantifiable thing. And I worked myself towards, okay, what does it have to look like? And what could we do with that as a constraint. And this very much ended up being that way. And the genesis of the thinking was actually quite multi-sided.
But when you look at Europe as an ecosystem for startups and technology, it is very much behind the most mature ecosystems in America. And the most obvious way to look at that is to say, if you look at Europe, it has about 400—it’s more than 400 million. Depending on how you look at it, it’s five to 700 million people with about the same GDP, if not more than USA. And yet, when you look at the most valuable companies, you can’t find a single company, with the exception of SAP, in the technology space that is worth more than a hundred billion that comes from Europe. And at the same time, you can find a number of them in the US. And not only that, nowadays you can even find a few trillion dollar companies as well.
And for me, that’s just unthinkable. Why would that be? You have every single core component necessary. The amount of engineers in Europe rivals the ones from the US. The amount of scientists we have in Europe easily rivals the one in the US. So all the sort of core ingredients are there, but it’s still not happening. And the goal really essentially is how can we leap frog the current development, which by the way, is heading in the right way, so it’s slowly getting better. And there are more and more entrepreneurs that are thinking bigger. There are more and more people that pursue entrepreneurship, which is fantastic to see. And there’s more and more capital that supports, and more and more experience in the ecosystems. All trends are in the right direction, but we’re still maybe 20 years behind.
And so the question then ends up being, is there a way we can leapfrog the evolution of the ecosystem? And is there a way where we, at the same time, can take on some of society’s largest issues and try to make a real dent in those types of issues? And that’s essentially the genesis of the moonshots and why I decided to dedicate a significant portion of my wealth to try to see if I can help make that happen for Europe, and for hopefully the world too. And yeah. And it’s just felt like a scary, big, audacious thing to try to pursue. And frankly, a lot better than just sitting on the money and not doing anything.
Tim Ferriss: Collecting marbles. Yeah.
Daniel Ek: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I agree with that. And it seems like some of the targets that certainly have implications for addressing very significant problems and meeting challenges and looking forward into the next 10, 20 years and beyond would include machine learning, biotechnology, material, sciences, energy. And that it’s very exciting to put the type of resources that you’re applying into those fields in Europe, to me, for a number of reasons.
And one we want to have time to get into today is to see how that vis-a-vis incentives, right? We were talking about Charlie Munger earlier. The attraction, retention of talent. And as I’ve seen with, say, Shopify in Ottawa, Canada, which is the last place people would expect, right? Maybe not the last place, but it’s not on the top three in mindshare for say startup communities, but because they are not subject, I suppose, somewhat similar to Duolingo and Pittsburgh also, to Facebook and Google and Apple trying to poach their engineers every second, right around the corner, they have some real competitive advantages. So it’ll be very exciting to see what type of, not just standing on equal ground can be created in Europe, but also advantages for people who happen to be located, or choose to locate themselves in Europe, so I commend what you’re doing.
Daniel Ek: Well, thank you. Yeah. It’s early days, but I feel like it’s one of those things where it’s either going to be very successful, or we will talk about all the lessons from the failure in a few years, hopefully when we do this again. But that’s kind of how I like to live in my life, by the way, I don’t like the safe lane. I prefer the uncomfortable lane where it either becomes big or you kind of go home. And yeah, it’s, I guess, the kind of very typical entrepreneurial spirit, but I’ve tried to remain naive enough to want to pursue those types of opportunities.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, I think naive might be one way to put it. I think agile and observant would be two other ways to put it because we’re not going to have time to really dig into the value of failure, but there’s a fetishizing of failure in Silicon Valley in some cases. But the reason that I think you are so capable in part of harnessing failure as the tinder for larger flames of success, is because of that commitment to learning organisms and constraints and review, that type of assessment, the mentality of two-year missions. I think that it’s this incredible sort of structure and system of habits that you’ve built around it that allows you to, again, impart converts effectively.
So we won’t have time to talk about the UFC. I’m sad about that. We won’t have time to talk about Alexander ‘The Mauler’ Gustafsson. And I really, at some point, want to talk to you about your interest in—
Daniel Ek: Yeah, I’d love to!
Tim Ferriss: So some other time. Some other time. Guitar, there are all these subjects that we won’t have time in this round one. So last question, or maybe second to last, and this question is sometimes a tough one, but we’ll throw it out there anyway. And that is, if you had a billboard, metaphorically speaking, to get a message, a quote, a question, an image, anything out to billions of people, noncommercial, what might you put on that billboard?
Daniel Ek: Oh, wow. I don’t know how I would find a way to write this a lot more marketable than the way I’m going to put it now so that it would resonate with more people. But I think the single biggest thing that’s striking to me right now with all the polarization on all the different issues that we’re facing is the words “Be kind; everyone is on their own journey.” And I’ve encountered so many faiths and life situations, certainly over the last nine months ago where I’ve learned so much. I learned about issues I didn’t even know existed. I learned about situations and the hardships, but also successes and happiness as well, so all of those different things. But what it kind of reminded me on is that we’re all on our own journey. We’re definitely not perfect. This part of why I wanted to talk a little bit about my own sort of journey and growth, because I don’t even know whether I would consider myself particularly good at anything.
And then, that’s actually a mental thing that I constantly struggle with because I constantly face people who I always find are smarter than me, deeper than me on various subjects and all of that stuff. But I think we’re all on journeys and we all have our own insecurities. We have all our own stuff that’s happening in our lives, and just to be mindful about that. Just be mindful about that we’re all going through things has created a lot of empathy for me and created a lot of understanding for me as I meet coworkers, as I meet people out in society as well. And yeah, it’s especially important as we sit now in our own homes and digitally type away on Twitter and other things, not thinking too much about whose feelings we may hurt or not, because we can’t read each other’s emotions. And so, yeah, be kind, everyone’s on their journey would be that.
Tim Ferriss: That’s, I think, the perfect way to wrap up. Daniel, fire soul, this has been a lot of fun. I really appreciate you carving out the time across time zones to have a wide ranging romp of a conversation that was very nonlinear. I appreciate you playing ball. Thank you so much.
Daniel Ek: Of course. Well, thank you so much for having me. This was a blast, so I hope to do it again some time.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that would be great. I’ve already had, I put R2, which is within highlighter around all these subjects that we didn’t get to just in case we do a round two, so we’ll have plenty for next time if we do. And how do you say it? Let’s say now in Swedish, is there something like tusen tack? How would you say?
Daniel Ek: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How would you say?
Daniel Ek: Tusen tack. Tusen tack.
Tim Ferriss: Tusen tack. Ah, yes, I still need to work on my vowels, but one word at a time. And really appreciate you being so open to so many questions. And to everyone listening, we will have links to everything discussed, ranging from Brilliant Minds to the books and everything in between in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, be kind and realize everyone is on their own journey.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.
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