Project Description

Jan Bohl

CFO/COO, Ableton AG

After graduating from university in 1996, he worked as a consultant for PwC in Berlin. In 1999, he joined an early-stage start up called Ableton AG. He’s been its CFO/COO ever since and helped grow the company to an established player in the music software industry. 

  • How did you manage your studies and what was your first job? 

I did a double-diploma program with the TU Berlin and the ESCP in Paris. During my studies I always tried to get as much practical experience as possible. I was a working student at KPMG in Berlin. It was in auditing and really interesting because we did valuation projects for the German Treuhandanstalt (“trust agency”). That’s the agency that was responsible for the privatization of East German enterprises after the unification.

I also did internships in an industrial company, in consumer electronics and at Canal Plus, the French TV channel. I realized that I liked consulting because I was looking for a more generalist training after graduation. And eventually got my first job at Coopers & Lybrand, which later merged to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Ableton Live 9 – Product Preview
  • How was your first job as a consultant at PwC and why did you quit after four years?

For me, pursuing a career as a consultant in the beginning was really important because it prepared me for many challenges we faced later at Ableton AG. I was on a lot of different projects with many different clients. In the end, I was a senior manager and was able to get some leadership experience.

Though I never thought “One day, I’ll found a company!” that’s exactly what happened. In 1998/99, when the new market emerged and the first wave of Internet start-ups was rolling, all my colleagues were electrified. Everyone watched closely at what was happening and you saw the first consultants changing to start-ups. There was a lot of momentum. That’s when I started to talk to many people and eventually met the founders of Ableton.


  • How was the founding process of Ableton AG?

Ableton AG already existed when I joined them. Though I was on board early on, Gerhard Behles and Bernd Roggendorf already did the actual founding. Both worked at Native Instruments and had won a founder’s award in 1998. With the prize money they financed the founding in 1999 and I joined them the same year.

At that time, there was nothing but a PowerPoint presentation and the idea to develop music software that worked for live performances. There was no prototype, nothing. In the end, it was a few slides that I agreed to work for.

“Today, we’re at version 9 and musicians of all genres use our software”
  • How were the first years at Ableton?

Well, the three of us rented an apartment in Gipsstraße, Berlin Mitte and started to build our company from there. We worked extremely long. I still remember that for the first two years I rarely knew what day of the week it was. Time just flew by. It was a great feeling.

Overall, there was a spirit of optimism in Berlin, especially in Mitte. You had these “First Tuesday” networking events; where the Samwer brothers (Rocket Internet) fooled around for example. Lots of parties and the first major deals were made. So there was some sort of start-up scene already but a bit more underground than today. I thought it was super exciting.

We as Ableton however, were not thought of as revolutionary or the like. Because we did something that’s already been around since the 80s: music software.


  • So what did the market look like in the beginning of the new millennial?

Our segment is called DAW, which stands for digital audio workstations. Big players like Logic, Cubase and Pro Tools already served this market since the 80s. But we were a new generation.

We came with a new USP to the market, which wasn’t easy to establish. I’ll explain it quickly: The first generation was simply when digital devices replaced tape recorders. That was around the 80s. The next step was the manipulation of the digitalized material. Through filters, plugins, so you could mix it on your computer. This was the second generation lead by Logic, Cubase or Pro Tools.

Now, our innovation was the dismissal of the timeline. The timeline meant basically a linear view on a piece of music: You start it and then it runs from left to right until the end. You build the song and try to optimize it like in video editing.

We introduced a more intuitive approach called Session View. It allows you to put several sounds in your vertical and play around with it. There’s no start/stop button. It’s a much faster and more intuitive music making. In addition, our software was so stable that for the first time musicians actually dared to go on stage with it and play live.

The vertical session view and the stability were two great innovations but it took quite some time till the market really understood our new approach. Today, we’re at version 9 and musicians of all genres use our software. It’s established now.

“It became a pivotal moment because we said we’d still do it”
  • What was the development of Ableton from a business perspective? 

As mentioned, Ableton AG was founded with the price money of a founder’s award. We then collected roughly 500.000 German Mark (~250.000 EUR) in state support money. Along with this we also made a silent partnership with KfW banking group. All in all it was more than 750.000 EUR, which was enough to develop a prototype until the dot-com bubble burst.

In February 2000, we had negotiated term sheets with two VCs (venture capitalists) from Berlin for roughly 2.8 million EUR for 20% of the company. It was a large deal and we were just about to close it. But then the situation changed from one day to another. All of a sudden, the VCs said they want 40% of the company for the same investment! The valuation was cut in half over night. We were shocked.

But it was extremely important for our learning. It became a pivotal moment because we said we’d still do it: we closed the deal at the end of the year and it was enough to make us profitable, which we did in 2004. If we hadn’t done it we would have gotten no funding for months or years to come.

Eventually in 2006, the VCs exited. It was a good window for all of us: they said they don’t believe in the “big case” anymore and we had the chance to partner with a more strategic investor from the US. Our new investor was and still is a piece of luck because he’s invested for the long term and lets us run our company.  The management also got the chance to buy back parts of the shares from them, which we did.


  • And on an operational level, how was the development of Ableton?

So while all this investment activity was going on, we obviously built up the company. We built the structure of distribution, accounting, controlling, etc. We realized early on that we needed an expert and hired an Ex-McKinsey consultant in 2004. That was a heavy investment for us; he earned more than we did as executives. But it was valuable experience and shaped our HR policy: we hire few but highly talented people. Back then we were 40 people and we grew organically to over 200 people today.

“I’m the enabler for the rest of the company”
  • What’s your job at Ableton today?

I’m not involved anymore in micro managing the company. I work directly with four directors who manage the daily business and they do an amazing job. We leave them a lot of autonomy.

I’m more a coach or sparring partner who signals the rough course, sets goals. I’m the enabler for the rest of the company. The heart of Ableton is its product so I make sure that the developers and technicians have everything they need to develop a great product.

On the other hand, I keep a close eye on our bottom line: we want to make money at the end of the day. I’m the commercial consciousness of the company.


  • Any thoughts about leaving Ableton to tackle a new challenge?

No, not at all. Of course, over the years we’ve also had less exciting periods here. When the business stagnated. But I think it’s like life: you have ups and downs. Right now, I believe we’re in a new up period where a lot of new things come together. Growing the company from 200 to 400 people will be an exciting challenge. We are getting so much energy from every angle; it would be a waste to sell it now.

And it’s a lot of fun. Actually that’s the crucial point: I never though it would be possible to still have fun after 15 years in the same job. But that’s the secret of this company: It never gets boring.


  • What advice do you give young student’s today?

I recommend everyone to do small entrepreneurial experiments that don’t cost a lot of money. Instead of an internship at KPMG try out something new like founding an entrepreneurial company with a bunch of friends or an internship in a start-up.

It’s important to keep a certain learning mind-set. Once you graduate you’re not “done”; it’s when it all starts and you need to stay hungry. Constantly get to know new people, network. Especially when one is young it is important to be a bustler.


  • Thanks for sharing your story.