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Kate Vale: Why I love the start-up environment

Joining a start-up can be a career gamble, but Kate Vale has hit the jackpot twice. She was the first employee in Australia for both Google in 2002 and the online music streaming service Spotify in 2011.

Google is now an online advertising powerhouse, but it was a different story when Vale joined. In 2002 the company’s annual revenue was just US$440 million – healthy, but a mere blip compared to the more than US$66 billion it turned over last year. Swedish-born Spotify, which launched in 2008, has gone on to become the biggest thing in legal music streaming globally.

“I love the start-up environment,” Vale admits. “I have been very lucky to have landed a role in businesses that were in their infancy. And I love that I can build a culture and hire staff around me.”

From HR to the world of start-ups

It’s a long way from where Vale started her career, as a human resources manager for Gadens Lawyers in Melbourne. She got her first taste of the digital start-up community when she worked with Australia’s pioneering internet service provider OzEmail in 1998 as a sales manager, before joining the short-lived online search company LookSmart as its NSW manager.

From there she made the leap to Google to head sales and operations in Australia and New Zealand. While many saw it as a risk, her time at LookSmart gave Vale insight into Google’s business model.

“I’m not a risk taker,” Vale says. “With my hand on my heart, I knew that Google was going to be successful, and I knew that Spotify was going to be successful.

“Four years into Spotify, we are probably more successful than I ever thought we would be. I knew that we were going to revolutionise the way people listen to music.”

I love the start-up environment…I love that I can build a culture and hire staff around me.

Vale says part of the enjoyment in being Spotify’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand has come from teaching the market about a new service.

“When I started at Google a lot of people hadn’t even heard of it,” she explains. “I have been incredibly lucky, because I do have an HR background. I spent a lot of time early on in my career hiring people, and building a team to go out and educate was thrilling.

“And again, at Spotify, streaming music was so new to Australia when we launched, and there were only one or two players in the market.”

Building bridges in the music industry

Building Spotify’s Australian business has also meant building bridges in an industry whose revenue has been decimated by illegal online file sharing.

Spotify itself has been criticised for the seemingly small revenues it passes along to artists, with performers including Taylor Swift and Thom Yorke (from Radiohead) refusing to join the service. Initially, chart-topping singer Adele also withheld her new album, 25, from Spotify.

Convincing both the recording labels and musicians that Spotify is part of the solution, not an additional problem, has been one of Vale’s key tasks. She points to declines in music piracy that have accompanied Spotify’s launch here.

“We are becoming more and more important to their business, and in fact won an ARIA award this year for Best Digital Service in Australia,” Vale says. “After nine years of [Apple’s] iTunes winning, that has to be some indication of our importance to the industry.”

Taking on board roles

With digital delivery now transforming a sweep of industries, Vale is broadening her experience, and her influence, by taking board positions with Bastion Collective, a communications strategist, and Tourism Tasmania and Tourism Australia. She sees this as part of a trend for traditional organisations to call on people with skills forged in the digital age.

“When you look at Tourism Australia and also Tourism Tasmania, both of them are marketing organisations,” Vale says. “And it’s important if you are a marketing organisation to have someone who understands digital. And on both of those boards I am pretty much the only digital expert and native.

“And it is amazing. I love those board roles because I am contributing something no-one else on the board knows about, and you really feel your value in situations like that.”

With Spotify having successfully disrupted the music industry, Vale is acutely aware of how quickly incumbent players can fall prey to new entrants.

“The market changes so quickly, and products change ever so quickly,” Vale says. “We’re in a highly competitive market, so staying ahead of the competition is so important for us. And that’s why it is so important to give people the ability to contribute to the business, and that is why your team is so important.”

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