How I did it #2
The London-based music company lets people host gigs in intimate spaces around the world. Co-founder Rafe Offer shares the challenges of scaling the company.
In May this year, Sofar Sounds celebrated its tenth birthday by announcing a $25m investment round – this followed $6m from Octopus Ventures and Virgin Group back in 2016. But co-founder Rafe Offer says in 2009 he had no idea where he and his friends’ idea for intimate live gigs would lead. Over 20,000 events later, what started in a north London flat has become a movement reaching more than 1 million fans in 430 cities.
‘You’ve got to be really passionate to get something off the ground, and incredibly single-minded, because you’re constantly encountering obstacles,’ Offer says. And Sofar’s obstacles were large. For one, Offer says it was difficult convincing musicians to play stripped-back sets in private living rooms alongside other acts – without announcing who was playing in advance. ‘There was no precedent for it, so it took a while to build credibility.’
Sofar’s growth speaks for itself, but what’s been particularly interesting is how a community of volunteers and hosts have spearheaded the expansion. With the company’s full-time headcount still under 100 people, most events around the world are organised by their wider community. Offer says growing a brand this way has involved ‘an interesting balance between giving people a playbook on how to build this thing and also empowering them’. He notes that over 80% of Sofar’s new hires have come from this community of volunteers as ‘it’s such a great way to get to know each other before making that commitment’.
As it’s scaled, the company has placed importance on educating and reminding people about its values. ‘Early on, we defined our mission and stuck to it: “We’re creating space where music matters.” It’s simple, memorable and speaks to fans and musicians alike.’ They’ve also also developed four ‘rocks’ – things that stay true at any of their events, no matter where it’s being held.
‘As we grew, we would meet people interested in starting a Sofar in their city over Skype or Zoom. And we’d say, “Here are the broad guidelines, but pay close attention to these rocks. Beyond that, be free – go create something local and beautiful.”’
This is essentially how the company grew so quickly. Offer remembers the day he heard about the latest billing in a city he couldn’t pronounce: ‘We’re in Yekaterinburg now… really?!’
The recent funding has given the company the resources to better help artists and fans connect in a meaningful way. Offer says the funding philosophy was to find investors who were patient, in it for the long game and who cared about helping musicians. ‘Because if you don’t get that,’ he says, ‘it will quickly start to erode your culture’. Revenue growth has been strongest in the 25+ cities in which the business has full-time employees, and there are also plans to experiment with new formats and to enhance the tech that helps fans and musicians connect.
“Ten years on, people are still just as excited before a gig. I think it’s the sense of being just about to discover something new.”
Offer reckons the company has tapped into something much deeper than just a gig platform: ‘Mystery and intrigue – I think it’s just endlessly exciting to human beings. The intrigue of not knowing. Ten years on, people are still just as excited before a gig. I think it’s the sense of being just about to discover something new.’