Do you ever wonder what goes on in the mind of an entrepreneur? How about an entrepreneur who has made millions? We met with Danish entrepreneur Kasper Hulthin and gained an insight into the journey of one of Denmark’s most successful businessmen.
Starting with failure
In 2009, Hulthin was busy with his own startup, working out of a basement in Vesterbro, Copenhagen, when the company folded.
Following the demise of his company, Hulthin was pitched to by Jon Froda and Anders Pollas. Froda and Pollas were working on a startup of their own, which would soon become Podio. They hoped to convince him to move into their own basement office across the road, and join them as a co-founder.
“It took me a couple of months to decide on it, but eventually I was a bit like, either this is going to go down really quickly, or up really quickly”.
Hulthin saw that things were going to happen, but he was not sure which way it would go for the startup. He smiles as he recollects, “I was right in that assumption, but luckily it was on the upside.”
Podio is a cloud-based management and communication system. Users of the system can choose the application that best suits their needs, or even build their own from the tools provided.
The concept of Podio was simple. Give the power back to the people doing the job. Make a work-flow tool that was so flexible, and very easy for anyone to use. Hulthin delivered a well-rehearsed pitch as he described the “super flexible system built to accommodate your needs”.
Investment from Tommy Ahlers
Hulthin joined Podio in Autumn 2009, which by then had expanded to include Andreas Haugstrup Pedersen and Thomas Madsen-Mygdal. Just one year later the team were successful in securing an investment of $500 000 from Danish entrepreneur Tommy Ahlers. Ahlers did not only invest capital, he also joined the Podio team as CEO, bringing both experience and expertise to the young company.
Hulthin described this investment as “a big, pivotal moment for Podio”. When asked about how he felt about Ahlers taking on the CEO role, his opinion was very matter-of-fact. “[Ahlers] not only came with a little bit of money, he came with a lot of experience.” The respect was evident in his voice as he recalled how “[Ahlers] had the guts to go back into a basement and start all over”. He went on to point out that Ahlers’ involvement “put the bar a lot higher” for the company. “We were four guys in a small basement, and then [he] comes in with a lot of experience”.
Their own ambitions were always high, though, with goals of creating a global business.
“It was always an aim … and actually, when we were just four [Danish] guys in the basement…we did every writing, every communication in English because we knew that one day we would have to hire a team that were non-Danes, who would have to read what was going on. So we quite deliberately, kind of from day one, saw it as a global business.”
Now that they had money, they were able to be more selective in who they hired next. This is where Hulthin explained that they were no longer in survival mode, “the quality of everything stepped up quite a bit”.
Although securing the monetary investment had clear advantages, Hulthin said pointedly that it was “not just money but also the ambition level” which increased.
It seems clear that Hulthin placed a high value on hiring the right people, with a strong focus on finding the perfect match for the company. He explains that the aim was no longer to hire just another software developer, but “trying to find the best CTO we could find in Europe”.
Launch in San Francisco
Podio never wanted to be seen as the European version of an American company, so it was important to them to enter the U.S. market as soon as they were able.
It took them less than a year. By March 2011 Hulthin and the Podio team, which now numbered around 15 employees, we ready to launch Podio in the U.S.
A temporary, pop-up store
Hulthin became more animated as he talks about the planned launch.
“If we are building software for the people, how can we try and mix that in with actually doing a launch?”
He smiled as he explained the “completely crazy idea” that they had. For the launch, they decided to create a physical app store, that is, an actual physical location where people can walk in and get help with building apps.
He remembers it as “a fun journey”, despite all the obstacles the team faced on the way.
The launch was to be in San Francisco. In order to achieve their goal, they hired an agency to help them set up the store. Hulthin and Froda had arrived in San Francisco first. The plan was to collaborate with the agency and ensure that everything was ready for the launch in three days. However, upon their arrival, they learned that the agency was backing out, having set up nothing.
Hulthin described the situation they were in, “We had the shell of a store”.
With the rest of the team arriving in a few days, plus many invited guests, Hulthin and Froda were faced with a nightmarish scenario. Their approach? Looking very pleased with himself, Hulthin let out a laugh,
“We did what Scandinavian businesses do best. We rented a big truck and went to IKEA”.
“We bought half of IKEA” he giggled.
With sheer determination and a positive attitude, they pulled it off, and the store was ready in time for the launch on Thursday 24 March 2011.
A less-than-ideal location
Their choice of location for the pop-up store was perhaps a little ill-informed. Looking back, Hulthin remembered that they were not so familiar with the San Francisco area, and had actually chosen a location away from the more commercial districts. The store was located on Sixth Street, a place considered by locals to be a less-safe area of town.
“We had all the media covering our shop, and they didn’t even know what Podio was doing, but, because it was so odd…no-one would ever put anything on Sixth Street”.
They needed to build as much awareness of the launch as possible, so the whole team were out all morning, racing around the city handing out fliers, and visiting as many other companies as they could before the launch.
Hulthin lit up as he recalled, “Everyone was really confused about what these weird Danish people were doing here”.
The launch turned out to be a success, with over 400 people lined up outside for the opening of the temporary store. It could just as easily have gone the other way. With so many obstacles to overcome, it would have been understandable if they had not been successful.
Hulthin said confidently that the experience taught them all that “If you dare to really go all in then you can create a lot of noise”.
Building the Business
After the launch, there was a lot of interest from companies signing up to Podio. Suddenly there was a lot to do, and the team put their energy into maintaining the system and ensuring that nothing crashed as a result of the high level of interest.
Differences in the US
Hulthin looked knowledgeable as he expanded on the differences between doing business in The U.S. compared to what he was used to in Denmark. He noted that there is much more competition in the U.S. Yet, you are competing with some of the biggest companies on the planet. With this came new challenges, especially when hiring staff.
Hulthin explained in a very practical tone, how “loyalty is not exactly the same as what we experience in the Nordics”, as he described some of the many cultural differences. He added that the level of ambition is much higher in the U.S. than what people are used to in Scandinavia. “The philosophy in Silicon Valley is that everything can be done, it’s just a matter of doing it”.
Citrix buys Podio
In April 2012 Podio was bought by Citrix for a reported $53 million, an amount not refuted by Hulthin.
Podio had been picking up speed, touring around and placing themselves on the radar. Hulthin looks ponderous for a moment as he recounts how he and Froda were travelling all over the U.S., building up awareness and creating interest in Podio. Despite seeming fun at the time, he said that in hindsight it was “nightmarish”.
Hulthin insists that the aim was never purely to sell. “We didn’t build it to sell it. Ironically that’s probably why it became so valuable”.
They were keen for Podio to join a team, as opposed to simply gaining more investment. Before too long there was interest from Citrix. They really liked how Citrix worked, so when the offer came in they were more than happy to see the sale through.
After the Sale
For any entrepreneur, securing such a huge amount of money is a life-changing event. Hulthin smiled as he remembers the day the sale was announced. Practical again, he mentioned how he, Ahlers, Froda and Pollas were standing in their backyard having a discussion about things they still needed to do within Podio, and what was missing from the business.
Following the sale, Hulthin stayed with Podio for a further three years. “We didn’t sell it to get out of the company…we loved the company”.
After some time, he invested in two very different companies, a food business, Kost, and a football organisation, Tonsser. Food was already of an interest to him. He saw an opportunity to bring something new to Denmark, based on his experiences of food in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, football was not as obvious a choice. However, it was the dedication of the team at Tonsser, together with their determination to develop quickly, that finally led to him climbing on board.
Hulthin’s enthusiasm showed as he proclaimed “If there’s anything for me that defines a great entrepreneur it’s someone that can execute, like, that is the single most important thing.”
Eventually, it was time for Hulthin to move on from Citrix and Podio. “That bug had kind of started again, and we wanted to create something new”, he said with a smile.
Peakon, like Podio, has had a fast rate of growth. Ahlers was once again among the investors, though this time he did not take an active role in the company. Investment in the company has exceeded $30 million.
With these sorts of numbers, many other entrepreneurs might rest on their laurels, satisfied. Some would possibly even sell up and move on, to enjoy their new millionaire lifestyle. This is not the case for Hulthin. He said “For me…it’s my drive. I love building these things”.
Now that he is an established entrepreneur and a known success, he admits that finding funding for Peakon has been a somewhat easier process. “Obviously, you know, they didn’t come and knock on the door the first time I started my business”.
This time there was an additional focus on building the company. Hulthin keenly stated, “We want to build a company we actually want to work for…”. This has been a “guiding principle” for the founding of the business, and it was clear by Hulthin’s face that this principle is valued very highly.
Hulthin sighed as he talked of the recent trip the Peakon staff made to Berlin to celebrate beating all of their targets.
“Just seeing 100 people together, you step back a bit and it’s like ‘Wow, where did they all come from?’…that’s a fantastic feeling”.
For Hulthin, the motivation to continue is clear. He declared, simply, “We can see that we make a difference…and why wouldn’t we want to make a bigger difference?”
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