Martin Hauge: A letter to my younger CEO self

15th July 2019

Martin Hauge has achieved great success as both a CEO/entrepreneur and an investor. In his early entrepreneurial years, he co-founded Creuna, which is now the largest digital agency in the Nordics. Following 15 years of operational experience starting, building and selling companies, he and three partners developed Creandum, best known for its investments in Vivino, Spotify and iZettle, into one of the most successful VC funds in the Nordic region. We are very proud to have him as Chairman of Frog Capital and the advice he gives in his letter is characteristic of what we strive to do to support businesses in the crucial Scale-Up phase.

Dear Martin,

You’ve been working as a consultant for a few years and you’ve finally realised that the corporate life isn’t for you. Despite what you think, it isn’t too late to start your own business.

You still remember your first taste of entrepreneurship; when you set up your own business with a friend, supporting companies in severe need of a turnaround with financial and management advice. Yes, you’ve been a CEO before (and you made a good profit out of the sale of that software house). But this time will be very different, so remember the following:

  1. Learn as much as you can about the finance market before raising funding
  2. Explore different types of investors
  3. Find an investor who can contribute with more than money

As a young founder, what you really need is coaching:

  • How do you build a management team?
  • Which markets should you go for?
  • Is your business model really sustainable?

That’s what a scale-up CEO really needs!

Here are a few things you will need to know when setting up your next two businesses:

Build relationships with investors long before you need the money

Lack of cash is one of the main reasons why startups fail. You need to understand finance and have a strong investor network to make sure you can raise funding on favourable terms. Angel investors and VC’s like to invest in companies they have known for a long time so that they feel confident they will deliver on expectations. Go and see investors and build relationships with them, while remembering the importance of taking on investors who can offer you mentorship as well as money. Then, the best thing you can do is to under-promise and over-deliver. It is important to always provide a moderate estimate of how you expect the business to perform. Then you can come back in three months and tell them you’ve done even better than anticipated. Investors lose faith in entrepreneurs who make sky-high offers and then are not able to deliver on them. Don’t give into pressure to over-promise.

Timing really is everything

The timing in the market for your content management company, Interaction Design, will prove to be very favourable. Your depth of expertise in this area and state-of-the-art technology will be unmatched in the Nordics, bringing solid revenue and profit. This success will spur you on to found Creuna with your partner, building on what you and your team created at Interaction Design. But don’t think this is going to be a walk in the park. In 2001, the market will be struggling after the 2000 crash – in Silicon Valley they call these conditions The Valley of Death. Growing a business in such a tough market will feel a lot like catching a falling knife. You will survive – and Creuna will eventually become the market leader in the Nordics – but the early 2000’s will be a difficult time. In the future, you will advise entrepreneurs to always ensure there is a market for their product first. Building a market costs a lot of money and takes a long time – if you have no competitors, then most probably you have no market.

Balance your need for talent with what you are able to offer

Your best hires will be fundamental to your success, so do your best to retain them. These often tend to be the people you hired in the very early stages of the business. When people will see that you have a great idea and traction in the market, many of them will leave very good jobs to join you so they need to be rewarded handsomely for this. Ownership shares are a valuable instrument for motivating these high performers. Successfully scaling is all about this recruitment power – your ability as an organisation to hire the right people to get the best results. Honest communication when things aren’t working is also the key. Most of the time, when someone isn’t performing well, they will feel it too. They may be better suited to a different position. Take the time to sit down with them and come up with a solution together. Say something like: “This isn’t working. You are not happy in your role and we are not happy with you being in this role. What shall we do?”. Communicate openly and often then a transition can happen quite smoothly.

*

Over your career, you will invest in over 100 different companies. There will be moments where you judge the market opportunity and the management team correctly and they become a great success. And there will be many times where you didn’t spot the business’s potential. As an investor and as a CEO, you will see that you learn much more from your failures than from your successes. Seek mentorship as early as you can and then share your own experiences with other CEO’s. Many CEO’s experience the same challenges while growing their business so having that network of support is important.

You have a great path ahead of you, so take my advice. But mostly, remember to enjoy every part of the journey.

Yours,

Martin (your future self)