Not only is it one of the most exciting pieces of software in the music industry, but it’s also one of the most exciting places to work in the music industry.
Berlin-based success story Ableton takes us on a tour of their Berlin headquarters and tells us why they’re so famously secretive.
Ableton at a glance:
- Location: Prenzlauer Berg (close to Rosenthaler Platz) and Los Angeles
- Business: Music software (and recently hardware)
- Employees: 150 and growing
- Language: Anything goes, mostly English
- Perks: Free concert & club tickets, cheap organic lunch, table tennis and table football
- Perfect for: Music lovers
Whenever you see a musician performing with a laptop, you can pretty much assume they’re using Ableton Live. Fifteen years ago this year, Live was the first mainstream piece of software to take computers out of the studio and onto the stage. Today, Ableton’s trademark combination of editing and looping has since become the hottest product in electronic music scene.
Both audio workstation and musical instrument, Ableton Live is what makes it possible for musicians to build an entire stage performance around a laptop.
Spanning across three different buildings on Schönhauser Allee on the border of Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte, Ableton’s headquarters are a reminder of the humble facades of Berlin’s tech scene. In stark contrast to the corporate branding of Silicon Valley offices, most of Berlin’s startups have blended into the urban landscape of old apartment blocks and factories without marking their territory.
Table tennis, concert tickets and organic lunches
Ableton’s head of PR, Olaf Bohn takes me through various floors, meeting rooms, music rooms and departments of Ableton, through Ableton’s auditorium for launch parties and music events, past rooms with table football and table tennis sets, while carefully making a detour around the development area, strictly off-limits for non-employees.
As we walk past one of Ableton’s kitchens fitted with large barista-standard espresso machines, an employee comes up to thank Olaf for the Berghain guestlist spots last weekend. “No problem. What did you think of the sound system?” he asks her, making it sound as if a night in Berghain was a field trip for Ableton.
That’s one of the many perks of working at Ableton, Olaf tells me. He lists off various local clubs and upcoming concerts. “Ableton employees just need to send them an email and they normally get free tickets.”
Table tennis, espresso machine and sofas in the Ableton offices in Berlin. Ⓒ Software & Support Media
It’s impressive that Ableton can offer these benefits like an in-house organic lunch menu and free language classes without becoming a cult-like workplace where employees pay for their perks in overtime.
„These days every tech company has table tennis or yoga classes or a terrace with a barbecue. I think what really matters is the people,“ Ableton’s COO and CFO Jan Bohl tells me.
Both both the company’s staff and its image make a distinctly international impression. Unlike Berlin-based rival Native Instruments, which gives its products German-sounding names, being German is not a selling point for Ableton. “Most people wouldn’t know Ableton is a German company,” says Jan. “It happens that the company was founded here though.” And although Ableton was founded in Berlin by Gerhard Behles, a member of Berlin’s vibrant techno scene, 90% of Ableton’s revenue comes from abroad.
The progression of packaging boxes from Live 1 through 9, displayed in the Ableton offices Ⓒ Software & Support Media
In recent years, Ableton has expanded from software to hardware, allowing musicians to perform with their hands and not with a computer mouse. “What customers want more and more are turnkey solutions.” says Jan. “That means software and hardware from one vendor. Integration is what they care about.” Like Apple, Google and recently Facebook, Ableton, too, is moving towards an integrated, holistic approach to software and hardware.
And the results have been spectacular for Ableton: Push was one of the hottest products in the music tech world in 2013 and Ableton had the “luxury”, as Jan puts it, of not having enough units in stock to meet the overwhelming demand.
“We’re a bit like Apple when it comes to secrecy.”
Given the level of secrecy with which Ableton guards its future releases, I could count myself lucky to be setting foot inside the Ableton office in Berlin.
Ableton’s head of development Friedemann Schautz tells me Ableton’s secrecy policy is about more than just keeping their ideas safe from rival software companies. “We’re a bit like Apple when it comes to secrecy. Of course you don’t want to tell the competition too much. But even more so, you don’t want to create expectations for customers.”
Few other companies can claim such a strong relationship with its base of users, thanks in part to a customer care team that makes up nearly a third of Ableton’s staff.
“Ableton wants to learn from artists and how they use the product. And artists also like to exchange with us,” says Olaf, who also handles artist relations. That’s why a host of well-known musicians like Richie Hawtin, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the band Radiohead have all made visits to Ableton’s offices in Prenzlauer Berg.
One of Ableton’s many music rooms packed full of gear.
Ⓒ Software & Support Media
But why the big secret? Why is there no mention of big names likes these on ableton.com? Because Ableton doesn’t want to scare away its artists with corporate contracts. “‘Here sign this and wear the Ableton T-shirt.’ That’s not how we want to deal with our users,” says Olaf, while showing me a room filled with music equipment and blinking lights, where many artists have come to show the team how they make use of Ableton in their music.
“We prefer to wait until the artist is ready to talk about how they use Ableton because they have reached a skill level with our instruments that creates a personal excitement which they want to share.”
What’s it like to get recruited by Ableton?
The development office is out-of-bounds for press, but Friedemann was able to give me an insight into what it’s like to get hired as a developer. In the first of five rounds, you’ll have to complete one of four programming challenges that Ableton sends you. Then if you make a good impression at the preliminary getting-to-know-each-other talk (“usually via Skype because our developers come from all over the world”), Ableton will invite you to take part in three sessions at the office.
In the first session, Ableton will show you an actual bug that the company once had in their software. The second is a peer-programming session, where the applicant completes a second of the four tasks they were sent per email. Then before a lunch with some team members, there’s a final classic interview.
Do you need to love music to make it past all these hurdles? “It’s not very important, but it’s very common” says Friedemann, himself an amateur musician. “I have a hard time to think of anyone who has no relation to music. But for daily tasks at Ableton it’s actually not that important.”
Using the software software development framework Scrum, Ableton’s developers work mostly in teams, usually for half a year on a particular feature. “Take Live 9 for example. We added a feature for using two monitors. So we had a team of six or seven people focussing on nothing but this feature for an extended period of time. It could be half a year, or two years.”
The Ableton offices in Berlin above the former location of White Trash Fast Food. Ⓒ Software & Support Media
One thing that strikes me about Ableton is their appreciation of the email. Many companies underestimate the impact of a missing word, an unclear structure or putting the wrong person in CC. „You have to treat your co-workers like a customer,” explains Jan. “They deserve emails that are clear and structured. That’s why we created a set of guidelines on ‘How to write an email’.”
The future of Ableton
I know I won’t get an answer, but I ask anyway: “What is Ableton working on at the moment?”
No matter who I talk to, I always get a polite, individual version of “Sorry, I can’t disclose that information.” Jan and Friedemann give me a few hints however.
Yes, Ableton is working on Live 10, Jan confirms, and hints at another “big bang release” like with Live 9, where hardware and software will continue to be integrated. According to Friedemann, Ableton is “staying focused on [its] core competences, so we don’t plan to expand in various directions. But we’re definitely working on some exciting new stuff…” he says, just as our time runs out.