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Ankit Desai

Ankit’s tenacity shines through. On his toes and ready to spring into action, he seizes whatever comes his way. He is brave, keen, and quick with an overwhelming courage to try. Fluent in seven languages, Ankit is not only an excellent communicator; he is also an expert listener. He graciously credits those who have inspired him as he perfects the fine art of turning advice into opportunity.

“I was born in Mumbai, India, 31 years ago, growing up with both my parents and my grandparents in the same house. Dad worked in banking and Mom was a flight attendant with Air India. She was away 20 days every month, so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. As the only child with “two sets of parents”, I was completely spoiled with love.”

Growing up in Mumbai was like an assault on the senses in the most beautiful way.

“The audio is astounding: the birds chirping, the horns honking, the animated chitchat of neighbors at the bazaar. The color, noise, and organized chaos is like the racing pulse of an Olympic sprinter. Despite teeming with 20 million people, cars, and rickshaws all vying for space on this little peninsula, my neighborhood still somehow retained a small-town charm. One time I left my grandmother’s watch (on which I had spent a decent portion of my salary) in the hands of a street vendor to repair. He did, and returned it to me in a week. That’s just how things are.”

Ankit’s parents’ story is one of upward mobility: they are well educated, worked really hard, and saved their money. Ankit admires his grandmother who still works as a dance teacher, at 82 years old. His paternal grandfather worked in accounting and finance, so Ankit says she’s always been the creative one in the family.

“I couldn’t have had a better foundation. Many times, it was just Mom and me: jetting off to Hong Kong, Italy, London or Chicago. She always put my wishes first. When I was 13, she flew me to Spain to see a Real Madrid game. She worked the entire flight to London, flew to Madrid, saw the game, and flew back to India the next day, working the entire flight again! In retrospect, I realize the incredible things they did for me.”

Planes were Ankit’s biggest passion. He read the Encyclopedia of Aircraft and knew all the specifications by heart. His mom instilled in him the desire to explore.

“When I was fourteen, I started at an international school. This was my first step to moving abroad. My path was clear. At 16, I passed several tests to become a private pilot; however, I didn’t pass the more stringent ones to fly commercially. My family knew my dreams were shattered.”

Ankit was disappointed but not defeated.

“I decided that if I couldn’t fly planes, I would build them instead. I was accepted to study Rocket Science in the Aerospace Engineering program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. But from day one, I knew it wasn’t for me. I was seventeen and didn’t have the foundation in math and physics. I was so young and so far from home that I felt completely alone in this crisis of faith. In Daytona Beach, you’re basically handicapped without a car, so I would walk by myself 45 minutes to a restaurant.”

“One day, my communications professor, Stephen Ziegler pulled over and picked me up. And that conversation changed my life. He thought I was a great writer and wanted me to switch to communications. He wrote a beautiful letter about me asking for financial aid. He was the first of the many mentors I had in my life. He gave me the courage to admit that things just weren’t working out...”

Ankit moved home to India the next week.

“I spent six months planning my next move. What could be as far away from Florida as possible but still not home? I relocated to Cannes to study Communications at the SKEMA Business School.”

“Out of respect for my parents and what they were sacrificing financially, I focused on school-work and graduated with a Bachelors in Communications.”

Ankit started at the University of Georgia in 2011.

“Athens, Georgia is a very progressive city with a rich music tradition; it also has the most bars per square mile in America. I was in the Phi Kappa Theta fraternity and the US college experience was just like in the movies!”

Ankit graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Broadcast Journalism, specializing in Advertising and New Media. He considered universities in Boston and Stockholm, but he was afraid graduate school would mean another $200,000 for his parents. During a trip to Sweden, he emailed Dr. Hans Kjellberg at the Stockholm School of Economics who invited Ankit into the school. Ankit was so impressed.

“I immediately started researching international grants, applying through the Swedish Institute. I wrote three letters explaining how the world and I would benefit from my studies in Sweden. During my last semester in Georgia, I read that I had got into the Stockholm School of Economics and received a scholarship. I stood there in the hallway outside my class, crying. That was a very defining moment for me.”

Ankit remembers his first day at SSE and Hans congratulating him on being accepted.

“I was so touched that he remembered me! Then I go to class and in comes this dude who looks like he just walked out of the Foo Fighters with long hair and painted fingernails. He draws the chart of evolution on the board and says: ‘Why are you here?’ Dr. Micael Dahlen’s presentation was brilliant.”

“There was such a good mix of students. Many I met are some of my strongest bonds today. On my first day, I sat next to Rick Frenken from The Netherlands. Welcoming, opinionated, and funny: he went on to build a great career in financial technology while amassing a small 55 fortune in bitcoin. We are still great friends.”

“I think the stereotypes about SSE are so unfounded; I never felt excluded at all; in fact, people were interested in my life and, when I travelled home, they wanted to come too. I even organized a trip to India for a group of twenty of us. That was fantastic!”

From the very start, Ankit wanted to be an entrepreneur. His first app provided TV information, which he took to Dr. Christopher Rosenqvist, a Senior Research Fellow at SSE. Ankit then became course assistant for Managing Digital Transformation: a class Christopher taught at SSE with Professor Per Andersson.

“It was actually the best class I’ve ever taken. I helped organize a case-solving competition with the London Business School, involving leaders from different industries. I was also interning in digital strategy at Zodiak Media, so I was preparing the CEO of Universal Music in Nordic Europe, Per Sundin for his keynote. As I fastened the microphone to his collar, I casually told Per that, if I were in his position, I would change some things in the company: starting with targeted ads.”

Per was intrigued and invited Ankit to the office. What Universal really needed was what Ankit thought he could bring to the table; therefore, he declined two better paying internships, just so he could direct all of Universal’s digital marketing. Three months later, the general manager called asking why Ankit wasn’t at work.

“I told him my deal had ended. (I guess nobody realized I was only there for three months.) He quickly offered me a job and I returned to work full time while finishing my degree. I graduated from SSE with an MSc in Business and Management specializing in Marketing.”

It was 2014 and it was a really good time to be in music. Streaming as a business model was exploding and Scandinavian artists were taking over the world in the way Spotify was taking over the world: Avicii, Swedish House Mafia, Alesso ... I was in the right place at the right time: the only numbers guy in a very creative company.”

Data began pouring in from Spotify, and management turned to Ankit to make sense of it.

“We were probably the only people in the world looking at music consumption that way because we were one of the only ones who had access to it. I was working at the biggest company in the epicenter of the new world order. Somehow, I was one of the few that had the tools to do anything with it.”

Ankit started thinking about a new way of analyzing music consumption.

“We looked at how many people find a song and save it to a playlist, then we saw how ‘sticky’ the song is. Based on that: We could predict whether or not the song was going to be a hit.

And so, the first algorithm was born.”

“Universal wondered why artist Tove Lo was successful in most of Europe but not in the Nordics, which is her home. We took all of Spotify’s data, threw it against the wall, and isolated thirteen different kinds of listeners: everything from the over-35 dad that listens to the same rock albums every weekend to the alternative hipster who wants to be the first to find new music but moves on when it’s considered mainstream.”

“The problem in Sweden was there are just not enough hipsters, but having the cool kids approve it first is crucial for going into the mainstream. So, we had an idea: to match Tove Lo with DJ Alesso. Their interpolation of David Bowie’s Heroes climbed to number fifteen in the world! And this became our first fifteen minutes of fame.”

Ankit gained some visibility, so he started developing more algorithms. Universal had already signed Shawn Mendes: an unknown 16-year-old Canadian artist. Ankit pointed out how the data reacted so well, so Universal poured more resources into Shawn’s project.

With Ankit’s algorithms, they were the first in the world to make Shawn number one. And that was Ankit’s ticket to Hollywood.

“I moved to Los Angeles to do similar digital strategy at Capitol Records, but left after a year. I became so disillusioned by big company problems. Everything was so political.”

“A total of 70 percent of all music consumption in the world is between the three big music labels: Universal, Sony Music, and Warner, but they account for less than one percent of the five million songs that get released every year. We thought: There is probably some 17-year-old girl in Newfoundland or Indonesia making incredible music that the world is dying to hear, but the bridge to connect them just doesn’t exist.”

“The analog methods and the gatekeeper-driven 20th century major label model are so out-dated, so we developed technology that determines how people react to a certain song they like, then we measure if 10 million of the same kind of listener will also like it.”

Ankit’s thought was simple: Instead of having artists send their demo tapes to companies, talent shows or competitions, why not turn everyone that listens to music into a talent scout for us.

“It was September 2017, and I went out for a beer with two of my SSE friends: both of whom are very successful in finance. I started telling them that I had built an algorithm that works and in which I really believed. A few hours later, Tobias calls me and says he pitched the idea to his boss who runs a hedge fund. I called and explained the algorithm; then he said: I can make ten calls and you will have the money you need by tomorrow. Of course, it didn’t go quite that easily; it took three months.”

Ankit is grateful their first investment round came through an SSE graduate with whom they are still close. He recalls one of the most vivid memories from that evening ...

“It was 11 o’clock and Tobias and I were doing projections on the revenue and final valuation. We were so tired and hungry. Everything is almost done when Tobias looks at me and says:

‘Man, this is not that good. This won’t make any money at all.’”

“I literally couldn’t feel my legs. This had been my dream for so long. I frantically start scanning the screen, trying to make sense of it all. Then I breathe in: ‘Wait Tobias, did you miss a zero here?”

All the company needed now was a name.

“I remembered meeting Per Sundin at SSE and discussing this new world order. He said: In order to survive in the 21st century, you have to be comfortable with chaos. Do you know what snafu stands for? He explained the old military acronym: Situation Normal All Fucked Up, which means something is bound to go wrong in every mission, so you just have to adapt. That was just a nice closing of the circle.”

Snafu’s first “office” consisted of three people meeting daily in the Scandic Hotel lobby in Stockholm. Now with fifteen employees in Stockholm and five in Los Angeles, the company has over 25 artists on the roster, who have been streamed over 75 million times. Snafu uses technology to find and develop tomorrow’s music superstars.

“Our technology gives artists superpowers; otherwise, how are you going to find this talented person in the middle of nowhere? They could upload their music onto YouTube, but how do you cut through the noise?”

Ankit would like to think that talent shines through, but it’s really only half the equation.

“Our algorithm scours Spotify, SoundCloud, YouTube, and every other platform. Then we look for anyone in the world who says: ‘This is a good song’ in a post, a tweet, a blog, etc. This triggers our algorithm into action ranking artists based on follower sentiment, song structure, and growth rate.”

“We score each song and predict who is going to be a star: usually, before the artists themselves even know. For example, there is a nineteen-year-old half Lebanese-half Ukrainian guy who has grown up in very modest circumstances in Beirut, teaching himself the guitar by playing Justin Bieber covers on YouTube. Our data indicated that he was underappreciated. So, we signed him and now he is on some of the biggest playlists on Spotify. Over the last year, he has single-handedly amassed a following of over a million fans – out of his own bedroom.”

Snafu’s algorithms can predict how much a given artist will earn over the next 18 months.

“We then offer the artists this money up front in exchange for acquiring a stake in their music, with the belief that our marketing, creative, and data expertise will grow its value even further. Profits are later shared equally with the artist. This is our way of helping artists who often don’t have any other way of getting known.”

Ankit would like to think they are doing things differently. He says he was lucky to have had good role models at important moments in his life and is grateful to his family for always supporting him wherever he went.

“I’m also very happy that I went to bat for a lot of the things I believed in because it’s more satisfying spiritually and intellectually to put in the work yourself and see the results that it brings.”

Professor Per Andersson introduced the concept of Big Data during Ankit’s first week at SSE, saying it was the way of the future. Ankit grabbed a hold of that concept and turned it into success. Call it serendipity; call it support: these seeds were planted along the way. But Ankit cultivated those opportunities all himself. Having an international company with offices on both sides of the Atlantic is a far cry from growing up in Mumbai.

“My hope is that I can inspire somebody too. My job was secure with Universal; I was the young kid doing the new stuff. But I always wanted to have my own ‘baby’ and my own name on the door. I don’t want to just do a good job; I want to set a new standard for how the music industry should work: I want to rewrite the rules in a way that’s transparent, fair, and better for those who are living their art.”

“If I can help make that happen, then I’ve achieved what I wanted. And that would be my greatest journey of all.”


Text: Karyn McGettigan