Believe it or not, SoundCloud started out as any other tech startup. A small team of determined innovators came together from different disciplines to create something new and disrupt an industry. Today, SoundCloud is the world’s largest music and audio platform that lets you discover a diverse range of music from the biggest name artists to breakthrough tracks.
If there is one person who can tell you how SoundCloud came about and grew from a handful of people to a team of 300+ spread across Berlin, London, New York and San Francisco – it is definitely David Noël. David was among SoundCloud’s first beta users and also first team members. As Vice President of Community, he built a team of 25 community specialists and helped to create the platform that now engages over 175 million unique users each month. In his current role as Head of Internal Communications, David is on a mission to ensure everyone at the company is informed, connected and engaged at all times.
We caught up with David at SoundCloud’s Berlin headquarters to chat about the company’s early days, growth and evolution.
You’re one of the SoundClouders, who was hired back in the early days of the company. Could you tell us the story?
I first bumped into our Chief Technology Officer Eric Wahlforss at a TechCrunch meetup in Berlin. This was back in 2008, when things started to speed up in Berlin after the first startup boom. Eric and I connected at the meetup while I was demoing a browser-based audio production tool for the company I was working with at the time. We bonded over our shared interests of music, communities and tech. Over the following months, we continued to run into each other at events, and at some point along the way, Eric introduced me to Alex. By that time, SoundCloud had raised its first financing round and was ready to hire. The first position they were hiring for was my initial role, Community Manager and Evangelist.
What did you know about the company when you joined?
I knew SoundCloud because I was a beta user in a closed beta group. Music has always been the common thread in my life and I could instantly feel how SoundCloud’s early product would be of great value to music and audio artists of any genre. I was really drawn to SoundCloud because the product was beautifully designed. I loved that it was very social and dynamic, putting creators first; everything was designed primarily for creators to share their work and connect with others. There was nothing like that out there at the time, Myspace didn’t even come close.
How did you experience the company's growth?
I guess you don’t really experience growth while it happens, it catches up with you later. That’s when you look back and realize you had just gone through an inflection point that, at times, can feel painful. It’s a time when your team is growing so fast it feels like your office space is shrinking. When you don’t have enough desks and meeting rooms to accommodate everyone. When recruiters have to sit on the stairs making interview calls. When new people join the company and there’s no orientation other than “Oh hey, welcome! Here’s a desk and a computer, let’s do this!”.
According to the Dunbar number, there’s a limit to the amount of people whom you can socially interact with and whose names you can remember. That number is 150, and I can clearly recall crossing that milestone. That was the moment I realized we have more people, but we also have more structure in place to support them. Every time a new person entered the company, they contributed to the company culture. It’s been great to experience the evolution.
How did growth shape the company culture?
At the early stages of any new business, many aspects are still being shaped and the lack of structure attracts a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mindset. Those who are uncomfortable with change and working in a fast-paced environment may find it difficult to keep up with a new, agile company. You have to be passionate about solving problems – often outside of your immediate responsibility – to help co-create the company.
I think culture is the manifestation of the company’s values in everyday life. In other words, it breaks down to three things: people, values and behaviors. When you walk into an office, you feel something. You notice how the space is designed, how people interact with each other, guided by their joint values and beliefs. Our five core values – purpose, level-up, celebrate, open and remarkable – are key drivers that shape and cultivate our culture. We want to incorporate our values into all of our structures, systems and processes – often called rituals.
How has your role evolved over time?
I started out as a Community Manager and Evangelist. At first, I had no idea what that meant, but reading through the bullet points of the job description, it sounded like a great challenge and a role I could grow into. Alex and Eric handled all communication with our community before I joined the company, so this task was handed over to me by them directly. I guess losing direct touch with the community and giving this task to a newbie can be a scary thing for a founder, but it was incredible to have their trust.
My job was to understand the platform’s growing community: its members, their needs, motivations, pain points, aspirations and the things that moved them. I became an active member of that community as it helped me share their stories and spread the word about SoundCloud internally and externally. Back then, very few people knew about SoundCloud. We had to set up a blog, newsletters, social channels, organize meetups, manage community support, speak at conferences, advocate for the community internally, do proactive outreach and manage crisis communication, amongst many other tasks.
From there, my job was to ensure tactical work happened and balance it with creating a vision and strategy for the team. I learned that, in order to scale, some of the things I was doing at that point would need to be organized differently in the future. That’s when we started hiring more community managers and support specialists. The next thing I knew, I was leading a team of 20+ people, something I had never done before.
From one day to the next you had to manage a team of 20+ people. How did you learn to become a leader?
It’s a good question whether you can learn to lead. I believe you can, and the best way to learn is by practice. I truly feel that great leaders have a fire inside that enables them to activate the best in people.
What’s your current mission?
In 2013 SoundCloud created the Internal Communications function, which I lead, as a way of streamlining our communication methods to an ever expanding team, across different time zones. Our focus is to ensure that every team member has access to the communication tools they need, that information flows well between teams and most importantly, that people receive the support and help that they need in order to be effective communicators.
Our team’s mission is to ensure people feel informed, connected and engaged. In order to achieve this, myself and another team member manage company-wide meetings and announcements and execute internal communication plans. We also coach and partner with executives, senior leaders, and managers, and manage internal comms channels and content production.
Are you in charge of internal communications globally?
It’s a global function, but we operate under a distributed model, so communication doesn’t necessarily have to go through us. We create the platform, which consists of tools, guidance, and processes. This then empowers the team to communicate regardless of their location, may it be Berlin, San Francisco, New York or London.
How did you grow personally in the past seven years?
I’ve learned many different things over the years but one key learning really stands out. I now know how to let go and entrust someone else with the execution of a task. When you care about something so deeply, it’s hard to detach yourself from it. When growing a company, it’s important to learn when to put trust in others so they can carry the legacy. This was one of the most difficult things for me to learn, and I’m glad I did.
You’ve recently taken a 3-month sabbatical. What was your motivation?
When I decided to take a break, I had been with the company for six years. We had gone on a very exciting but also challenging journey. I felt tired and couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t creating great results for the company. It felt scary to admit this to myself but I realized that taking some time out was the best for me. It was important that I reconnect with myself and find new sources of energy, creativity and inspiration. My hope was if I did, I could come back and add more value to the company.
What’s your advice for those working in a fast-paced work environment, trying to avoid burnout?
It’s important to honor time off. To integrate sabbatical-like moments into your life. To find ways to keep your mind and body healthy in ways that work for you. It’s tempting to stay in the “grind” and convince yourself this is the most important aspect when trying to progress in your career, but in the end it’s not good for you, or beneficial for the company.
If you decide to take some extended time off after a few years, the way you design your sabbatical is totally up to you. Some people travel, some stay at home, while others spend the time volunteering. The most important thing is to step out of your comfort zone and start paying attention to your body and mind. The rest follows.
It’s okay to pause and slow down. It appears that being busy is the new normal and it almost feels like when we’re busy it means we exist. However, it’s not sustainable 100% of the time. From time to time we need to disconnect from people and things in order to reflect.