I met Mik Strøyberg in Reykjavik during the Slush Play VR conference in October 2016. This was only a few months before his company Lemonsqueeze, a market expansion platform that helps European businesses establish their presence in the United States, was sold to Knotel for an undisclosed amount.
Strøyberg, who clearly took a page out of his own playbook, not only scaled, but sold his Brooklyn-based company.
I had a chance to speak with Mik to better understand how Nordic startups can make it across the pond and how to avoid the many pitfalls along the way.
Dennis Mitzner: You say you love building healthy companies – can you elaborate how your approach of building healthy companies is unique?
Mik Strøyberg: After dealing with 55+ companies including the ones I started myself, I believe a healthy setup creates dedicated employees and thereby a company drive. This is what every CEO wants, and needs, to reach success.
Through experience, I’ve learned the hard way that having a super solid foundation, with a crystal clear direction and a strong company DNA paves the way to implementing the right talent and lets them grow in their roles. It sounds old but the right people is everything. A healthy company is a company that delivers indisputable value to its clients and where the entire organisation knows the company DNA of why the company exists and where it’s going. When scaling into new markets, this is essential.
Lack of direction kills even the strongest. The ability to look two steps ahead and the capacity to involve employees and colleagues is crucial for a healthy company foundation in my optics. You can’t lead the way if you don’t know where you’re going. The same goes for your employees.
DM: How do you view the Danish startup ecosystem when compared to Sweden and other countries in the region?
MS: I feel like all the ecosystems in the Nordics are showing great progress. Also when it comes to helping each other out. The last 7 companies, – UK-based Takumi being the latest – came to us via the Danish ecosystem, referred by a person from another Nordic country.
This is a great trend and hopefully a sign of deeper and more understanding connections in the Nordic ecosystem as a unit.
The Danish start-up ecosystem has grown a lot over the last 5 years. When I started helping companies scale in the US, only a handful of people knew what an investor-deck, term-sheet, vesting period etc. meant. Today everyone knows all the lingo and thinks larger scale from the moment business is activated.
We’re looking beyond borders. The ambassador network (CEO/founders who already tried to scale a company abroad and succeeded) is crucial for any startup ecosystem. It creates belief and access to advice is extremely valuable.
From my experience with the Swedish startup ecosystem, they have the same expansion obstacles as the Danes, but because of their size (twice as many Swedes than Danes) they can grow bigger, before taking the next crucial steps. The Danes and Swedes are on the same path, and as more companies succeed, and show the way, the stronger the ecosystem becomes.
DM: How do you morph these ecosystems into one unit?
MS: First of all we need to think as a unit and beyond borders. Like you would do in the US. If a Danish company needs help it has a tendency to look for help among other Danish startups instead of across borders to other Nordic companies. When we start treating the Nordics as a “union” and a unit we will have more capacity, support and insight to move faster. Nordic investors also have a responsibility to help facilitate this movement and connect the companies in their portfolio who can benefit from each other.
DM: What do you identify as the biggest challenges facing Danish entrepreneurs in Denmark, considering that 70% close shop in the first 2 years.
MS: That number seems low. I think it’s impressive if 30% of the companies we start in Denmark are still actively operating after 2 years. In general, we don’t have enough companies paving the way. I think that’s our biggest challenge.
Basically we all need to stick together. We all need to find the inner patriot to support the “team”. We’re getting better and better at this but I also see that we’re afraid that others will do better than us and still keep our rolodex closed off and we are afraid of utilising our network. I fully understand why our mentality drives us towards a more closed of mindset (based on being from a small region) but that mindset keeps us in a small-country-state-of-mind. Again, we’re getting better and better!
DM: When creating a US entry plan for Nordic companies, tell us what are typical strengths and weaknesses of these companies? Are there specific cultural factors that play a role?
MS: A clear weakness for most companies is that they feel they have found the secret sauce in their home market and all they need to do is duplicate it overseas. Often that is not the case. The many different obstacles companies face in a new market, like the American market, are much different than the market they are used to in Europe. Different decision makers, laws, routines, setups, organisational hierarchy etc.
One of the promising companies we have been working with is Planday, an online employee scheduling software. Entering the US, Planday took the time to look at who the decision makers in a new market would be instead of assuming they would be the same as in the Nordics. We sat down with 10 potential clients to get a better view of the competitive scene as well as the barrier of entry and access. That saved lots of time, and thereby money, in the process of reaching market fit.
One thing the Nordics have going for them is a great reputation. In the US, Nordic companies are very liked and our way of doing business, both when it comes to employee handling and customer-centric product development, impresses many American companies and opens doors. It’s our decision if we want to enter.
DM: Is the insular thinking driven by arrogance?
MS: I think, for some, it’s more naivety and hope than arrogance. It’s like throwing a “Hail Mary” and keeping your fingers crossed. We hope that the audience and decision makers are the same and will react in the same way as in the home market. Sometimes they do – often they don’t.
DM: How should Nordic companies adjust their attitudes before entering the wildly competitive global marketplace?
MS: Entering a new market should be the same exercise as starting the company all over again. Closing the first 20 key clients and getting all the insights on what they are using, who else they are in contact with, how they see the pricing model, etc. is extremely useful when building the expansion plan. It’s the entrepreneurial way. Test the product, get to know the market and build your road map– an exercise the companies should do over and over again for each new market they lay their eyes on. Only a fool knows everything. A wise man knows how little he knows.
DM: Tell us about the main differences between US and Nordic/European mentalities in the startup world.
MS: From a New York POV, the startup scene is hard and relentless. I see entrepreneurs in New York who are creating something, not because of money, but because they have a burning desire to do it. Passionate and dedicated. I also see that in the Nordics but when your livelihood depends on your success (food on the table , etc.) you have another drive and dedication that isn’t just shits and giggles. In the Nordics, time and again, I see entrepreneurs who want to be entrepreneurs for the wrong reasons. They are going to struggle.
I also see the strong entrepreneurs in the Nordics. The once who have a solid plan, the right mindset, the go-getter attitude and the stamina and trust in their offering. Those I would put my money on any day.
DM: Would you say that the Nordic entrepreneurs are too content to really fight for their place in the sun?
MS: No, I wouldn’t say that. People can have a tendency to go for what they think is a new goldmine instead of where they find energy and are passionate.
DM: What’s next for Mik Strøyberg?
MS: First agenda item is to ensure that Knotel has a strong foundation and a scalable setup to continue conquering the world and an exciting high-speed exercise scaling up the team and efforts. Creating a new category winner takes time and dedication, but the Knotel team is stellar and very experienced so the journey will most likely be very fruitful and fun. Simultaneously, I’m so extremely fortunate to become a father for the second time soon. It doesn’t get bigger than that. The title “dad” is by far the most important title you can get in this world.