Have you ever thought “What does it take to make it in Silicon Valley”, “How do they do it”, “Are their challenges different than ours”, and “Why even go to San Francisco to make your dream come true ..is it really worth it?”.
Here is Torsten Kolind’s journey from Copenhagen to San Francisco.
Started in Denmark
What later became the success of YouNoodle started eleven years back in 2006 through to 2008. Torsten Kolind was working as the CEO of Venture Cup in Copenhagen, Denmark. Venture Cup was at the time running competitions for startups. They were selecting the best ones for investors and other interested candidates.
“What I realised, was that there must be something interesting in that data”.
As you evaluate startups with a lot of different experts, you realise that the data turns into an outcome, from where you will be able to tell which startups will become successful.
At that time, Venture Cup did not have any system to easily handle all this information. In collaboration with external developers, they had a management system built. “That was the first time I was involved in building something similar to what later became YouNoodle”.
At a conference held by MIT in Trondheim, Norway, Kolind met a startup who called their business Facebook for entrepreneurs, which was a broader and more global version of the management system Kolind previously had been a part of creating for Venture Cup.
This startup was based out of San Francisco. Kolind was quickly impressed by the backing they had secured. They had received funding from Peter Thiel from Facebook and Max Levchin from PayPal, among others. All big names in the tech industry.
Coming to San Francisco
The young startup kept in contact and it did not take long before Kolind was asked to come work for them in their San Francisco office.
For 1 ½ years, Kolind worked for the startup learning all about the do's and don'ts in the startup ecosystem of San Francisco.
In 2010 Kolind and Rebeca Eun Young Hwang, co-founder of the startup, started YouNoodle together. They were both deeply passionate about the global startup world. With Hwang coming from Argentina and Kolind from Denmark, both were very interested in how they could help startups from outside Silicon Valley enter its ecosystem.
Their first product was a management platform for entrepreneurial competitions.
“We built our first product in-house. And the reason we could build it, was because I had the experience of building a previous version in Venture Cup”. Kolind explained.
They went live with the first version of the management platform in 2011, having started a year earlier.
Initially, no one was paying to use the management system, Kolind explained. Nevertheless, with a bit of seed funding and Hwang’s good contacts they were off to a good start.
Hwang was a former student at Stanford and at the time of the launch she was a part of the Stanford Entrepreneurship Club. As a result, that was where they started.
Getting the Danish Venture Cup on board proved much harder, despite the fact that YouNoodle was completely free. They kept their focus on universities. Stanford was soon followed by a number of other universities also running startup competitions on YouNoodle.
The cultural difference truly goes to show that it did not matter if Stanford was using the system or not. Venture Cup was not “biting”.
Here was a new product, that could help them in new and better ways, but it was not perfect. It did not do 100% of what Venture Cup needed it to do. “This idea of compromising is very much against the Nordic psyche - which is hilarious!” Kolind said with a smile on his face. He understands that it is not personal. Danish businesses are just often more conservative.
He then went on to explain the contrasting attitudes in the U.S. In America, speed is everything. Can you build it? And is it ready tomorrow?
Not having done the moves themselves, YouNoodle’s customers now encourage the team to charge money for their product. They said, “This is infrastructure. We need to know that you guys are not going to shut down tomorrow. So we want to contract with you. We will pay you, so you guarantee us that this thing works”.
The team was amazed that the customers themselves had asked to pay for the product. “This is not just fun and games, people actually want our product”.
For 6-12 months YouNoodle was giving the product out for free before they started doing contracts and getting paid.
Growing the business
What started as a spinoff, of a company that pivoted, now eight years later has itself pivoted two major times, in order to fit the changing markets. They had to redo the management platform three times. Improving the code, implementing new ways of compiling and simply creating new and better features to the management system.
YouNoodle is now working with governments and foundations everywhere, and in particular with the Chilean government for the past 5 years.
A recent case
The Chilean government were eager to be part of the global entrepreneurial scene. The government wanted to create economic development in Chile. They were particularly interested in creating it through the startup ecosystem. They wanted entrepreneurial people to come to Chile, work on their idea and inspire the local people. Help change their mind-set to a more entrepreneurial one.
Startup Chile has today affected more than 150 000 Chilean entrepreneurs. 1 400 startups have been part of the program. These startups have a combined value of well over 1 billion dollars. It is a massive success story for Chile, and for YouNoodle to have been part of it.
Other than working for the Chilean government, YouNoodle today works with a lot of bigger corporations. Finding them startups they can co-create products with.
The Chile example is by now well known, and has been widely studied across governments around the world. France has been inspired and is now doing ‘The French Tech Ticket’ which YouNoodle, naturally, have also been a part of for the past two years.
Over the years there has been an opportunity to do something similar in Scandinavia. However, the countries remain sceptical about fully embracing the global startup ecosystem, despite pilot programs such as Startup Denmark, which lacks both the financial support and soft landing for startups accepted.
What is next?
“It took a while to get out of the ‘startup-mode’
YouNoodle is today an infrastructure company. Other businesses are depending on us, to keep the business a success. You have a responsibility. So you better do your job well. And you can’t just pivot into something else just because you feel like it”. Kolind explained.
And this steady mindset and hard work have paid off. Today, YouNoodle has over 800 different programs on the platform. Every quarter, more than 10 000 new startups are evaluated on the platform. YouNoodle has an army of 19 000 experts who have provided 2.5 million data points on the platform.
“So, I am definitely continuing the company! And I have definitely stopped calling it a startup!” Kolind said while laughing.
It has been seven years of an absolutely amazing ride. Tons of mistakes were made. We could have been where we are today in just four years, with the knowledge we have today. “I would definitely do it all over again! And I would definitely not do it the same way!” says Torsten Kolind, CEO of YouNoodle.
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