At least once a year, Spotify CEO and co-founder Daniel Ek visits Brussels, as it’s the home of the European Union and a hugely important market for Spotify. Another motivation to be in Brussels is his drive to stimulate entrepreneurship. How do we create more great companies in Europe? What’s lacking and how do we try to fix those issues? And how do we get politicians to think about what Daniel believes to be the lifeblood of the future of Europe?
He took time out of his busy schedule to visit our Brussels campus and share his views and some entrepreneurial lessons with our Masters and MBA students. He’s convinced that they are the generation who can tackle issues such as climate change, food shortages, new types of sustainable living, and energy production. And he believes that innovation and entrepreneurship are the vital tools to do so, with Europe having all the raw ingredients that just need to be put together.
During his recent visit to Brussels, Spotify CEO and co-founder Daniel Ek took time out of his busy schedule to visit our Brussels campus and share his views and some entrepreneurial lessons with our Masters and MBA students. He was interviewed by our Dean Marion Debruyne and answered questions from students.
These are the five takeaways from his talk with our Dean, Marion Debruyne, followed by questions from the students.
1/ Entrepreneurship and innovation are about mindset, not magic
Most entrepreneurs are not mythical creatures or big visionaries who are able to predict the future. Entrepreneurship and innovation are almost never about a completely new concept, product or service. They’re about putting two or more existing things together in a new way. And about having an infinite mindset combined with some naivety that you can create something that was not possible before. To turn your vision into reality, you need a willingness to explore and put yourself out there. Since not everyone will instantly buy into your idea, you must be willing to be misunderstood and to stand out, which is psychologically uncomfortable, as we are group creatures who naturally seek to belong. That infinite mindset – which is very different from the more traditional business perspective of a zero-sum game – will also help you to grow and keep on growing your business. If you don’t grasp the opportunities that arise, then someone else will.
2/ The value of a company is the sum of all the problems previously solved
At its core, a business is not about creating value for you as an entrepreneur, but about serving others and helping them to solve their problems. So the real question is: what problem are you passionate about and want to devote your time, energy and skills to? Then you need to get to the root of that problem by asking the question “Why (not)?” over and over again. The product or service you offer is at the intersection of problems and solutions. Coming up with ideas is not the hardest part. It’s how you do it by uniquely and creatively rectifying problems with solutions that add value for the people you serve. Spotify helps make a sustainable living for artists by fighting piracy whilst delivering a great customer experience to have all of the world’s music available at your fingertips. Founding a company is the best thing you can do in society, as the goal of what you are creating is solving a problem. And if you’re also passionate about that problem, not only will it be an exciting and rewarding journey, but also a fun one.
3/ Get ready to step onto an emotional rollercoaster
Much like life itself, entrepreneurship is not a linear path. You will have ups, but also many downs. Unfortunately, neither society nor the business community likes to talk much about the lows. When you’re building your company, there will be many times where you’ll feel like you won’t make it, that it’s not possible, and you might even want to give up. But instead of packing your bags, you need to go back to the drawing board. By taking a few steps backwards, you’ll come up with different solutions to overcome obstacles step by step. It also helps to surround yourself with more experienced people who can act as a sounding board during times of doubt.
4/ Overcoming the funding hurdle is all about making use of your entrepreneurial superpower
As a founder of a company, you need to figure out a path from here to there by breaking down your vision into concrete and actionable steps that are affordable, instead of looking for the total amount of funding you would need. Don’t try to solve the whole problem in one go: look for the largest unknown variable, isolate it and focus intensely on that first maybe even tiny step that could take you in the right direction. Ignore all the rest and try to set a milestone for that first step. The superpower of entrepreneurship is breaking down a vision into here and there. And if you can break down a problem into variables, there will be funding available.
5/ The only durable competitive advantages are speed, adaptability and resilience
Usually, a market starts out very small, but once competitors start noticing you have developed something amazing, they will enter the market by addressing the same need. One way to fend off that competition is by constructing a unique moat or other defence system that no-one can compete with, such as IP. Large companies are really good at optimising what they already do, but problems and needs change over time. A more durable way to ultimately outrun the competition is to just run faster. As a leader, you relentlessly need to focus on keeping the pace going. You need passionate people on board and have to keep them challenged. Just as in the sports world, you need to be able to put the right team on the field according to the specific circumstances and competition. And they need to be able to try, fail and try again. Having processes that support this is not enough. You need to build a culture of resilience where failure is accepted. Culture really does eat strategy for breakfast.