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The people behind Marathon: Meet our co-founder Chris Tholén

David Henriksson

4 mars 2024

Chris Tholén reflects on his fascinating journey spanning from the vibrant tech-hub of San Francisco and Silicon Valley to the creation of Marathon Software.

It’s time for the second interview in our series “Meet the people behind Marathon” (read our earlier interview with board member Mikael Tarnawski-Berlin here). In the following interview, Chris sheds light on his experiences in software development and entrepreneurship, including the successful sale of Bandpage - a music-tech startup he co-founded which was sold to Google. Today, he works completely dedicated with tech advisory and software development for our B2B software companies. 

Let’s get to know Chris: 

David: Hello Chris! Tell us a little bit about yourself, who is Chris Tholén?

Chris: Hi David, pleasure to be here!

At heart, I identify as a software engineer. I take great pleasure in problem solving and seeing products come to life, especially when working with great people as a team making a large impact. Over time this has led me to focus more and more on the process and how we can collaborate in the best possible way.

Beyond work, music gives me energy, yoga keeps me stable, and co-creation provides meaning.

David: Walk us through the journey of starting, scaling and selling a company to Google. How did you end up in San Francisco co-founding Bandpage? 

Chris: Me and my best friend moved to San Francisco to do our master’s thesis after studying at Chalmers in Gothenburg, and long story short, I ended up working in this vibrant city for the next decade.

My first job at an early mobile social media startup lasted two years, and after that I had a desire to make products for musicians. Me and my co-founder J started BandPage in 2009 to help musicians market themselves online, in essence a SaaS B2B2C self-serve marketing platform specialized on the music industry - connecting it to consumer technology platforms like Facebook, Youtube, Spotify, etc.

We developed the company for six years, the first year with no money and ultimately ten people working out of my small living room in a collective. The second year we experienced rapid growth, becoming the largest non-game on Facebook and for a while adding 1M+ music fans to the platform per week. This led to three funding rounds in one year, totalling over $19M.

The money enabled us to recruit an amazing executive team, my co-workers then now enjoy titles like CMO at Twitch and EVP & GM Salesforce. I am incredibly grateful for being mentored by these titans of industry.

One day Facebook cut us off by “reclaiming their real estate”, reducing our traffic by 90% in one month. We pivoted and developed an API platform play and the first two-sided experience marketplace for the music industry. Ultimately we had over 500k musicians globally using our platform, including 98% of the top 10k.

In the end we needed more consumer listening data to develop the most interesting services, meaning we had to become or merge with a streaming service. In the end we became a proud part of Google Music, under the brand YouTube Music. Working there was one of my greatest, humbling, and most rewarding experiences professionally, ultimately leading a team of 50+ senior engineers developing the next generation data management system for everything Google knows about music and related data globally.

David: What initially sparked your interest in software investments and your main focus on B2B SaaS companies? Why is this an interesting sector to work with?

Chris: I have always been interested in software, investments, and entrepreneurship. What I like with B2B is that you build stronger and more long term relationships with your customers. SaaS appeals to me in the sense that it’s a service which is always there, always on, and always up to date - the ideal tool. I Particularly enjoy niche B2B SaaS products since you really have to understand the particulars of the users and thereby enabling you to provide the best possible service.

David: A significant aspect for companies partnering with Marathon is the ability to choose the level of support they need. Could you elaborate on how this works and why it's designed in such a way?

Chris: Marathon's scalability rests on decentralization and implementation of best practices. Sometimes a company has the right team in place and may need very little support, or it can be enough with coaching an executive an hour a week to help them optimize their processes.

In other cases the company might lack entire functions entirely, like for example a CTO. Then we can help by taking on that role for 6-12 months and implement best practices across a whole department, paving the way for recruiting a qualified permanent replacement.

Beyond this, we can always help with specific projects, and we always encourage the companies in our group to network and draw inspiration from each other.

David: How has your background in software engineering and development (and not coming from a finance or investment career) shaped your approach when identifying and investing in promising B2B software companies? 

Chris: It helps me complement Johan and Richard by being able to deeply understand the technology of potential investments, from the development and prioritization process all the way down to infrastructure automation strategies and data architecture. This in turn ultimately dictates future development speed - a key aspect in any software business.

David: How did you meet with Richard Treffner and Johan Hazelius - the other two co-founders of Marathon? Why do you think the three of you got together so well so you decided to start investing in B2B software companies together? 

Chris: Me and Richard met while studying at Chalmers, we both worked at a student consulting firm called Chalmers Technology Consultants (CTK). It was our first real brush with entrepreneurship and we had a lot of fun developing and growing that business. Once I moved back to Sweden from California me and Richard got back in touch and discussed a number of exciting business plans. He introduced me to Johan, and about a year later we made our first investment together!

We share the love of entrepreneurship and figuring out how to scale and optimize businesses, but in addition to that we also share a lot of values like honesty, transparency, and efficiency - making it fun and easy to collaborate. I think all three of us had been on different journeys all leading us to invest in software companies before, and once we met and started talking seriously about our ideas it was clear that we should build something massive together.

David: What are your main responsibilities here at Marathon Software? What does your typical day look like working with developing our companies?

Chris: My responsibility is that Product and Technology works well and continuously improves across all our companies, from ensuring that we have the best team in place, to implementing cybersecurity policies, and setting up leadership forums for exchanging ideas between technology executives.

Currently I work part-time at a newly acquired business as CTO and Product Owner focused on improving their product development and release processes. Beyond that I am coaching five executives weekly in growing their talents, and my main priority for Marathon as a whole right now is to level up our cybersecurity at all our businesses.

David: When collaborating with software development companies at Marathon, what are the most common challenges these companies typically face? Are there specific areas where you've quickly witnessed significant improvements when providing support to a company?

Chris: I’d say the most common challenge is hiring, an area where we can bring a lot of perspective and expertise. Hiring a great team is a difficult long term project with many struggles. Luckily I spent a lot of time recruiting in Silicon Valley during boom years, where competition is many times greater than in Sweden and every amazing candidate had five job offers in hand.

From becoming an attractive employer to finding the right candidates and making sure they choose us and stay for a long time, Marathon can provide the required expertise.

David: A critical aspect to consider when developing B2B software is cybersecurity. How do you perceive the current level of IT security in these companies, and what measures do you believe could yield the most rewarding quick improvements?

Chris: Our level of cybersecurity is good and always improving. The first thing we do when acquiring a company is to make sure they have a solid corporate security policy, ensuring that devices, files, accounts, and password security meet high and consistent standards.

David: And now - to our final question: with an impressive background and experience among the world's best software developers, what insights have you gained from these experiences, and how do you apply that knowledge when assisting companies here at Marathon?

Chris: Focus. Nothing matters more than figuring out what we should focus on and doing that well. Spending several months on a project which turned out not to be very important is the biggest possible waste of resources in a tech company.

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