Economic downturn made him a successful inventor

Gustav Söderström: KTH Alumnus of the Year 2019

Published May 13, 2019

He graduated from KTH not long after the dot.com bubble burst in 2000 and it was “impossible to get a permanent job”.
“I had no intention of becoming an entrepreneur. I wanted to be an engineer. So it was a blessing in disguise in a way,” says Söderström, Chief Product Officer at Spotify and newly crowned Alumnus of the Year at KTH.

While working at Telia Research in 2003, Söderström created the technology that would become the predecessor to Snapchat and WhatsApp.

“But when I was about to start working that same year, there was pretty much an employment freeze everywhere, so I was forced to start my own business,” he explains.

“Smartphones had just started being developed, but everyone in the industry had lost hope after the IT crash, and all projects had been put on ice. Then I had the idea of being able to build apps directly into a phone, completely independently of the operator…

Söderström started his company Kenet Works (that was later bought by Yahoo) together with a group of friends and students from KTH, and it all went from there. He went by way of Yahoo to Spotify, that then had 35 employees. Today he is Chief Product Officer at Spotify that now has over 3,500 employees.

“It was a depressing time on the job market when I graduated, but having said that, it was good timing to realise visions. When times are good, it can be difficult getting hold of talent. A big plus with an economic downturn is that many people are in the same boat – it’s easier to find clever people prepared to join a start-up.”

What advice would you give anyone worried about new requirements on today’s job market and are maybe unsure about starting their own business?

“Bear in mind that the idea of job security is something that is drummed into our heads today. However, this has proved to be not entirely the case, even at big companies. Running your own business is about being able to make your own decisions, and your enterprise can also often be combined with an ordinary job.”

In parallel with his job at Spotify over the past ten years, Söderström has also been an active investor in and advisor to a number of start-ups. Including 13th Lab, an IT company that was bought by Facebook for 200 million in 2014.

Watch Söderström’s MIT lecture "A brief history of Spotify"

What’s your take on digital development in Sweden compared to other countries?
“All countries are facing the same challenges: society in general has overconfidence in technology being able to solve all problems. But technology can also create problems, such as when social networks make people feel ill. And we also need to combat technophobia at the same time.”

Have you created rules for your own children at home when it comes to screen time?
“Yes, I view a time limit as a tool. Obviously, you can spent too much time in front of a screen, and you can become a slave to technology by becoming dependent on spell checkers for example, but having said that, it is important not to become blindly focused on screen time itself. There is so much that is constructive on screens.”

What visions do you have for digitalisation of the future?
“There’s a great deal of fascinating developments in progress within the area of AI, artificial intelligence, linked to psychology and biology.

“Philosophy is also starting to come back as a big research area, for two reasons: Firstly because society is becoming increasingly secularised and we humans need standards and rules of life to keep to. And secondly, because humanity is facing major ethical questions concerning self-driving cars, for example.”

You say you are “moving sharply against technophobia”. What do you mean by this?
“That we must continue to be techno optimists. A positive view of developments in the world is important. The only way is forwards.

Katarina Ahlfort
Photo: Spotify Newsroom

About Gustav Söderström, his own studies and training

• Age: 42
• Education: KTH MSc, Electro Engineering, Data Communications, aug 1997-feb 2003
• In the news as: KTH Alumnus of the Year 2019
• Family: Wife and two children, 11 and 8.
• Title: Chief Product Officer at Spotify (Chief Research & Development Officer)
• Background: Founded Kenet Works with a group of friends and students from KTH, that was bought by Yahoo in 2006. Worked at Spotify since 2009. Involved in smaller start-up companies, including AR company 13th Lab, that was bought by Facebook for 200 million in 2014.
• Leisure interests and lifelong learning: My interest in technology has meant I am always learning something new. I take free internet course at universities around the world on weekends and evenings. I have studied machine learning via lectures and lab work from MIT and Stanford on YouTube. Recommended!
• Brain training: Running and martial arts. “You don’t need any equipment or have to book a time to go running, and it has important psychological effects: research has proved that running for 45 minutes three times a week has the same effect as taking anti-depressants. Martial arts also trains your brain, in the same way as playing chess.”

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Last changed: May 13, 2019