Shawnigan Career Alumni Interview: Peter (Pete) Beeney ’95
Peter (Pete) Beeney ’95 (Copeman’s) took time talk with Rhodri Samuel and Harriet Klumper ’09 (Renfrew) as part of an ongoing series featuring the stories that make up the legacy of Shawnigan alumni. As our ongoing Career Alumni feature, Pete shared his post-Shawnigan journey which led him to the UK and subsequently to a company that was at the time in it’s infancy but has since become a household name: Spotify.
Building on his success in Marketing and Global Partnerships, Pete has made the exciting career move back across the Atlantic to become Vice President, Global Agency Partnerships at the Washington Post.
RS: Could you give us an idea of what you’ve done since you left Shawnigan?
PB: My career path has been meandering to say the very least. When I left Shawnigan I took a gap year and used that time to apply to US and British Universities while living with my sister in London. Tuition was considerably less for overseas students to attend British Universities, strangely, than it was to go to a domestic university in the US at the time.
I gained entry to University College London, and I think that my experience at Shawnigan was really formative for taking that leap as Shawnigan was quite some distance away from where I was raised in the Bay Area in Northern California. I don’t think I would have had the courage to do the same thing again, at that age in my life, had I not already had the experience attending Shawnigan. So off to UCL I went.
That led me into the advertising world because I found myself in a position where I needed to get a job, I had no financial support, and university had finished. It was either get a job or go home. So I started my career at a company who still exists called Future Publishing, and they were started by a British Entrepreneur called Chris Anderson–who has since gone on to be the founder of TED– whose innovation was cover-mounting CDs and video game cartridges onto the front of magazines. I moved on to an outdoor advertising business who were the first business in the UK to have the electronic billboards that we now see all over the world. I had control of our digital advertising network, all of our outdoor signage. We had a lot of excess inventory so I started a program which approached small businesses that could never afford to advertise on our network, bartering ad space for their products and services. Obviously at a much smaller rate.
That brought me into contact with two entrepreneurs who started their own business, they were the world’s first online bespoke tailoring company. I was fascinated by their business. I realized that I had sleepwalked through the first ten years of my career by chasing a wage, and that if I was going to do something about it this was probably the time. So I wrote a corporate sales strategy and said “I’ll jump ship and do this for you guys” and thankfully they agreed.
So I worked with them trying to just work out how to scale that business. That was probably the best stage of my career from a just raw learning standpoint, because I didn’t know anything about suits, I hadn’t a clue, so I had to really learn a lot in that stage of my career.
But I had always really been into music. When I was in the magazine publishing game, one of the magazines I had helped to launch was a music magazine, and they started talking to me about this cool piece of software out of Sweden called Spotify. Nobody had heard of it. I got a code to access it–back then you had to be invited–and was one of the first people that were able to go and play around with this piece of software. Almost immediately I thought, this has the potential to change music distribution.
Then I got really really lucky. Somebody I had worked for in the advertising business became Spotify’s first Vice President for the European region, and I basically said to him, “you know me, I love the company, we know each other really well. Whatever it is I have to do to join Spotify at that early stage I’ll do it.” That’s how I ended up at Spotify. I believe there were 400 or so employees at the time most of which were in Sweden, and they had just launched in America. I spent seven and a half years watching, and contributing to, scaling that business up to be what I think we all expected it to be, but no one else outside of the company thought it could be.
The problem I faced at Spotify was: when a company goes from 400 employees that no one has heard of, to being a household name in 150 countries around the world in the space of 7 years, you work more or less for four different companies. There is the early stage group, then there’s the fast-growth startup group, then the scale-up group, then there’s the public company group. As it grows, the culture changes over and over again. Which meant constant change in terms of how the organization was structured, so it was difficult to make that next step up in such a flat hierarchy. Then I had this opportunity at the Washington Post, to move to another stage of seniority in my career, and I jumped at it.
HK: I think it is really indicative of how much of a household name Spotify is that Rhod walked in the other day, and shared excitedly with the office: “I was listening to the most wonderful playlist on Spotify!” So I have to ask Pete, what is your go-to Spotify Mix?
PB: I have one playlist that has the most followers, and I think that was for no other reason that in the early days, the algorithm boosted employee’s own playlists, and for some reason that one got the treatment. It went up to a couple of thousand, but it wasn’t my favourite.
Playlist curation is what attracted me to the platform in the first place, when I was first toying around with it in its early stages as a program, as a piece of software, I would find myself going down these rabbit holes where I would have open in one window Spotify, and in the other it would be Google. I would find some genre like afrobeat, and then I would start going down some wikipedia rabbit hole of who’s related to what artist, and I would go and listen and build all these playlists.
So some of my playlists would be built on genres. I had this playlist I really liked called “Sunset Strip ‘76“. It was essentially an adult-oriented rock or “yacht rock” playlist, that I had conjured up in the idea of: if you were driving in Southern California in this year or era, what’s likely to be on the radio.
One of the biggest real pitch changes in Spotify was Discovery. It became clear what Spotify’s differentiation was going to be from all the other streaming services like Apple Music and others that popped up. Discover Weekly was really amazing for me. When it started, we as employees got to use it first and it knew me really well. More fascinating was how well the algorithm understood me, and it was scary how predictable I was.
HK: Your software development team, those engineers that are writing that algorithm, they’re unbelievable. These algorithms that they write are intuitive to the point of – “are you reading my mind, Spotify?”
PB: Yeah, the thing that was really telling from my time at Spotify, was the level of talent, the depth of talent of some of the engineers. In particular in Sweden. I remember remarking to friends of mine that I always wanted to work at places where I felt like I was in the lowest percentile of intelligence, where I can ride the coat-tails of the very clever! It definitely felt that way at Spotify, that’s for sure.
RS: That’s where it came in, it was my sons who set me up with Spotify at home, and I think this is what I was telling Harriet. I was amazed – you know, I love songs in the seventies, and before you know it this computer was playing all of my and Gaynor’s favourite songs, with very little input from us!
PB: Yeah, it’s fascinating. And, the more people use the platform the better it gets. I got a pretty good view of how every time someone presses play and indicates what they like to listen to, that system just improves and improves and improves on aggregate.
RS: So can you explain to me what you do at the Washington Post? And what you did at Spotify?
PB: At Spotify my job was to build a global strategic partnership, so basically getting a deal done with what was, and still is, the largest advertising agency in the world at the time: WPP. My role was to broker a relationship with them, which was difficult at the time because they are a big scale company, they don’t necessarily want to pay attention to companies that aren’t also that scale themselves. We had to make the pitch directly to Sir Martin Sorrell who was considered to be the most fearsome man in the advertising business. So that was a stressful meeting, all the pleasantries were had between them and the senior management and then it’s like, “Okay Pete, what are you coming to sell?” That was a formative experience to say the least.
My role at the Washington Post is to run the team that will now do that for the Post. So that we will have the relationships with the C-Suite of all the major ad conglomerates. So I will be back on the plane probably not long after this all blows over. So where I only did it for WPP at Spotify, at the Post now it is my job to run that whole overall team that speaks to all the major agencies.
HK: Turning to your time at Shawnigan: is there a memory that sticks out for you?
PB: It’s funny, and you can never really know why something sticks out more than another, but I think it was the first time that I took a Laser out sailing. Back before there was the big boathouse and it was just a couple of rickety old planks of wood sticking out into the water. Even though I had grown up in one of the sailing capitals in the world, in Northern California, I really took to and enjoyed it at Shawnigan that first time pushing off in a little Laser on my own on the lake. Until then, as well as in the next two stages of my life, I had lived in a major city, so just the beautiful surroundings of the lake all of that seems to be my biggest standout memory.
RS: Are there any influences at Shawnigan that stick out, that might have pointed you in the direction you went?
PB: Yeah definitely, this is an easy one to answer. Graham Anderson was by far and away the standout teacher for me. I think for a number of reasons. One, I attended Shawnigan before Google existed, and he was Google. You could ask him pretty much any question and he had the answer for it. Moreover, he was very easy to knock off topic, which was great for someone like me who has a very short attention span and didn’t really want to pay attention. If I didn’t like what was in the curriculum, it was always very free-form with Mr. Anderson. I remember, as a fifteen year old boy being into ninjas, we could move him onto feudal Japan in history class and he would take that for an entire hour and was incredibly knowledgeable in it. He was the real standout teacher during my time there.
HK: What would your hopes be for Shawnigan?
PB: I think that maybe in all of the expansion and investment that goes into Shawnigan that it doesn’t completely lose the nice buffer between the world and Shawnigan. It felt intimate and small, I hope that feeling doesn’t get lost. The ability to look after the students was a function of that. That familial attitude that the school had was palpable, because it was small. You really felt it when you went up against Oak Bay in rugby and the school had a thousand students. We had a quarter of that. Being able to keep that sense of intimacy, I hope that that remains and continues.
HK: What would you share with young students thinking about their career?
HK: What would you share with young students thinking about their career?
PB: I think that something that I would have appreciated that most institutions, including Shawnigan, would be willing to be open about: it’s okay to not know what you want to do when you leave. I didn’t have some grand master plan but everything has worked out. There is this great pressure on everyone to “figure it out,” and I think that causes a real challenge for young people because that’s a big decision to make with not much by way of experience. I know enough people who are frustrated with the decisions they made because they had done it for money.
So I guess the advice is it’s alright to not know what you want to do when you leave school. It’s a perfectly fine position to be in, and does not mean you will be facing a life of destitution at the age of 17.
The interview featured in this article has been shortened for clarity and brevity.
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