What makes Spotify CEO Daniel Ek unique? In his own words: “I’m relatively decent at most things, but not really great at anything,” he told me during an interview at Spotify’s New York City offices for Fast Company‘s September cover story on him and the company. “I can dabble enough where most people would say, ‘Oh, this guy is really good.” So what specifically is Ek “decent” at?
Ek played club soccer while growing up in one of Stockholm’s working-class neighborhoods, hung out with other budding jocks, but says, “I realized I wasn’t the best at it very early.” He didn’t have the drive–or the talent–of some others. “I remember one friend, he was at the soccer field alone every day, just working,” he recalls. That friend went on to play professionally, in Italy and briefly for the L.A. Galaxy. And this pal wasn’t the only one among Ek’s local crew to become what he calls “hyper successful” in sports: “I have two soccer pros, one basketball pro, and three hockey pros.”
When Scooter Braun, the music impresario who manages Justin Bieber, mentioned to Ek one day that Bieber was a whiz at Ping-Pong, Ek contended that he could take him.
It didn’t turn out that way. “When we visited Stockholm,” Braun recalls, “there was a Daniel-Justin tournament. And let’s just say that Daniel knows he’s not the best at Ping-Pong anymore.” (The score was reportedly 21-1.) When Bieber’s song “What Do You Mean” set records on the streaming service in its first week, Ek presented Bieber with a specially designed Golden Ping-Pong Paddle award.
“When I was 18 or 19, I actually tried to be a musician for a full year,” Ek says. He played lead guitar and spent some time in a tour bus. “The musicians that I was hanging out with, they were on the road all the time, and you were the second guitarist one day, lead guitarist another. Then all of a sudden, there was another guitarist who came along that played better than you. To get to the next level, you have to level yourself up a few degrees, and I just never made that commitment. So they stopped calling. That’s how it works in music.” He’s still wistful about the life he might have had as a rock star: “It’s a part of your identity, and to realize you’re not good enough, it’s tough.”
4. Computer programming
“For a while, I thought my identity was to be the best programmer,” Ek says. “But I learned that there were other people that just had better skill than me. Which was kind of a big defeat.” He took engineering classes at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology (the MIT of Sweden), but dropped out. He ended up recruiting from the Institute to build the tech team that created Spotify.
5. Video games
Ek loves playing FIFA, the video-soccer game made by Electronic Arts. He was the champion FIFA player at Spotify for a time, “but I haven’t played in the office for probably two, three years now.” He still plays at home, though. “It’s the one franchise I’ve played since, I think, 1993,” he says. “Every year I try it out for a couple weeks just to see what’s new.” An EA executive in Sweden often gets him a preview copy, “because he knows I love the game.”
He also has a custom-designed Playstation at home outfitted with the Spotify logo, a gift from Sony’s leadership.
Ek started designing websites for businesses while in high school, and as demand grew, he enticed a bunch of classmates to work for him. He ended up launching several tech businesses, but things got tight when the economy shifted in the early 2000s. “I almost went personally bankrupt,” he says, “but then through a series of coincidences more than anything else, the market turned and I was able to sell a few of them.”
That nest egg was what he used to launch Spotify, which he’s turned out to be more than “relatively decent” at running.