Stay true to what you stand for. Do not let yourself be pushed over because a bigger company pushes you. Stay true to the values you have within the company in everything you do. I believe this is absolutely crucial. This might lead to a longer time period to gain “success,” but when you finally achieve it, it will be long lasting.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jens Petter.
Jens Petter Wilhelmsen, CEO of Sweet Tech AS, the Norwegian company that designed and developed the Handy™, a revolutionary sex toy for the growing sex tech trend that uses the power of technology and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity capabilities.
Jens Petter has a background in Management Consulting and Corporate Finance. After a concussion that put him on a sick leave for over a year, he realized that he needed to make some changes in his life. He always had an entrepreneur within him and jumped at the opportunity to work for Handy. This suited his wish to do something completely different and allowed him to put his skills to the test.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have a financial background with MCs in Finance and Accounting from Copenhagen Business School. I’ve always had an entrepreneur within me, from selling ice cubes to self tanning products, but along with the education I turned more towards the corporate life.
I worked in several financial positions before I ended up as a Management Consultant in Arkwright Consulting in Oslo, where I worked for 4 years with the last two within Corporate Finance. This is where I met the co-founder of Sweet Tech, the company behind the Handy, Nicolay Bang. I facilitated the sale of his company, just before I got a concussion. During my sick leave I got a lot of time to think — and I realized that I needed to do something completely different.
One day Nicolay called me and asked what I was doing at that time, with an ambition of potentially doing something together. He had just sold his previous company and was looking for new opportunities to pursue. I was a bit skeptical to “lock” myself at that stage, but we ended up renting an office space in Oslo to look at interesting opportunities to work with.
We met a lot of people, and by coincidence I reached out to Alexander Bjørkmann, the engineer behind the Handy, based on a tip from a friend of mine telling me that this guy just quit his job to become an entrepreneur. In our first talk, Alexander actually told me about the idea he was trying to pitch; a mastu*b*tion machine. My first reaction was that this was too far from what I wanted to work with, but after some thinking we wanted to meet up with Alexander. (Luckily!)
In our meeting Alexander presented his thoughts and journey so far, and by the end of the meeting Nicolay said “Alexander, we want to work with you, and if that involves making a mastu*b*tion machine, we’ll do it”. This was of course because we realized that we had complimentary skills, and really fulfilled each other.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Well, the initial meeting gained the interest — but we decided that we needed to do a thorough market research in order to decide whether to do it or not. We defined a three month period where we conducted a deep market analysis of all the competitors and products available in the market. We tested them, evaluated them and read reviews about them.
After the initial market research, we started to define a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) to develop, where we understood the core of what the product should be capable of — and then we printed the first version of the Handy. I remember it clearly, January 2018 in a cafe in Oslo where I was handed over the first prototype of Handy to test.
I went straight back home, settled in and tested it. Remember, this was a squared box with the PCB (electronics) outside of the machine and a lot of tweaking. However, the feeling was undisputable! I was totally blown away and immediately reached out to Alexander and Nicolay giving a big thumbs up! And this was the official start of Sweet Tech and the development of Handy as we know it today.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My grandfather is an entrepreneur, my father wanted to be one and my brother seeked a life outside what we can call the “normal life”. My father died in 2014 with leukemia and my brother was psychotic which ended in him taking his own life in December 2017. In other words, a lot of different factors sort of pushed me towards not structuring my life for others, but for me.
To see my grandfather’s stamina working with his own projects and company at late 80s, my father’s deeper wish to be an entrepreneur but dying too early and my brother’s inspiring mindset that ended tragically, all have definitely pushed me in a direction to live life as I see it fit me and to push boundaries. Add on a concussion to all of the above, and you find a pretty determined person eager to make a difference on several arenas. And why not? Should I limit myself in my fear of what other people think or expect of me? Take the chances you get in life, embrace the challenges that you are faced with and allow yourself to be scared. We are all human and what really matters is that you are happy with the choices you make.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Inclusiveness, in everything we do. You have to remember that I come from a homogeneous industry where we all wore suits and ties, all with the same background and grades. Little or no room to actually stand out which I have come to believe is a limitation!
At Sweet Tech, we embrace diversity and different backgrounds, and we understand that this is crucial if we want to succeed in the mission we are on. I believe we are around 10 nationalities in a company of 25 people — which is just awesome! This means that each and every one represents a different background. From Indonesia, Mexico, India to Jordan, we all have different approaches to solve the challenges we are up against.
Inclusiveness is also represented in how our community looks at us. We have a large following of active members both on Reddit and Discord. We talk with our customers, we engage and we learn from them. We want to design products that are inclusive to all and that facilitates the latest technology. And, we are here for the long term, not a fly on the wall.
There are several stories where our integrity has been challenged but, due to the above, we have been able to stand up for ourselves even though we are small compared to our competitors. The more we grow and the more partners we have, we will always be challenged — but we stand true to our values and are not interested in short term wins.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am happy you define us as a successful company! However, we have a long way to go until I will use the same definition. When sex toys for people with penises is accepted and the subject is spoken more freely around, then I will say that we are a successful company (as long as we were part of creating that change).
For me, this journey so far has opened up my eyes to be more inclusive and open minded both in my everyday work in dealing with challenges, but also in terms of the team we develop. We need a variety of people with different skill sets and backgrounds. I try to be more open minded, put a face on the subject and hopefully normalize it gradually. Start with the small things in our everyday life, and hopefully gain bigger traction along the way.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Inclusive — Involve the team and stakeholders in decisions that are being made. Do not think you know it all. Gather information from parties with different opinions so that you get the complete picture. An example of this was when we gradually made decision of focusing on what we know best by removing hosted pornography from our website. That took us a long time to decide, and it was challenging as I was the biggest defender of building up a subscription based service associated with the Handy. My rationale at that time was that we needed to build up a cash flow from the online business in order to survive, as it is challenging to find investors that are willing to invest in what we define as “vice companies.” However, we reversed that strategic direction after a six weeks intense evaluation talking with possible investors, banks, institutions in Norway, branding experts, shareholders, team members, leader group, friends and family. We came to the conclusion that we should focus on providing the best hardware and technology to our customers and did not need to bring the pornography in to the equation as it would just steal our focus on what we defined as the company’s core business.
- Overview — Spend time reading, thinking and specific metrics to ensure that the company health is good. I am a doer and I define a good work day by the number of tasks I have been able to complete. At least I used to. The ability to transform from being detail oriented in everything I did to shift focus into maintaining the overview is crucial. This is what matters, and as long as we move in a direction that we believe in it will all work out. I used to be too tied up to the weekly development of sales, when what we should do is to believe in our work and be true to it. We decided to have a “clean up shop period” from April to May where all departments went through the “backlog” and paused everything else. We needed to get the complete overview of what we wanted to do to ensure a top quality customer experience before we continued with anything else. Operations, finance, marketing and development each had their “clean up” tasks, where the weekly sales figures were less important.
- Real — Don’t fake it, be a fellow human being. If you fake it, you will fall through. We need the emotions internally and externally. Celebrate when things move in our way, reflect when they don’t. This is so important working within sex tech. As I will fall through in my argumentation if I do not believe in what we are doing, on a personal level. From talking in podcasts to other interviews, it needs to be real.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
When we first launched Handy, we didn’t get the response we wanted to in terms of sales and traction. It was only Alexander and myself trying to get the word out but failing miserably in things like Google ads setup. I had no clue what I was doing so we started talking with industry players that had been in the game for the long run. We were told that we would never be able to do this ourselves and needed to partner up with someone bigger. We lost complete confidence in ourselves and this led us into a track where we looked at partners to buy the company, sharing too much information and in the end ended up not getting a deal done.
Even though the advice turned out to be a total failure and in many ways we shouldn’t have followed it, I am glad we did. When we realized that none of the tracks would materialize, we got so frustrated and we turned that frustration into something good. We completely turned the company layout upside down and started the jet engine. This, in the end, led to a strong partnership with the wholesale company we have today and kick started the process of building this company up from the scratch.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
There are so many things I have faced since the very beginning. We basically dealt with everything in the first 2+ years. The biggest challenge was the constant insecurity when it came to spending money. Every cost from the office to IP, had to be evaluated thoroughly and it was hard to spend money on things that we couldn’t see the result of right away.
Another thing was the transition from working in corporate to starting a company working within sex-tech. For me, it was a challenge to expand my comfort zone amongst friends, family, and ex-colleagues and business associates — “is this guy really going from a career in finance to make sex toys?” I had to work on this on a personal level. This is why we worked in stealth mode for the first two years, as we understood that we had to make the best product and ensure the highest possibility for success before we went full throttle. Luckily, no one has questioned my choices (at least to my face) and my biggest supporters were my family, with my mother in the front. Even my grandmother loves what we are doing and follows us on Instagram as she sees the deeper value of helping people and generating more openness on the subject.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
We stayed true to what we believed, and believed in. We were convinced that this was something that could help people in many ways. Mastu*b*tion isn’t talked about much, it is associated with taboos and a bit of shame. Why is it this way? We didn’t get any education or introduction to mastu*b*tion, nor sexual understanding growing up. It is an awkward subject that people are afraid of talking about. The world needs more openness around the subject — it is about time. This drove us to continue. We believed that the combination of fantastic hardware and high-tech software would drive change. That ultimately puts us in a position where we, as a company, can take the lead in education, openness and ensuring that the fundamental needs of every human being are being covered.
My ways of overcoming these challenges in hard times consist of meditation, coaching and physical training. Meditation enables my head to calm down, my coach helps me sort my thoughts to focus on what’s important and the physical training helps me level out and start fresh.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Well, I am an emotional guy. High highs and low lows. With time, I have learned how to handle the swing in emotions and what I need to do when things do not go my way. If I have highs, I am extremely productive and get motivated. If something good is happening I strive to celebrate it properly — which is something I have really missed during COVID times!
If I have lows, I might need a couple of days to let it sync in and reflect about it, but then I move to fixing mode. That means that all my efforts go into dealing with the challenge and I do not take no for an answer. It just needs to be fixed, regardless if it is “impossible” there is always ways to work around to fix whatever is wrong. Pick up the phone and hunt for the solution — and with consistent push you will figure out how to solve it.
But most importantly, never give up. Regardless of the situation you end up in — giving up is never an option.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
This is a difficult question to answer directly as it depends on so many factors. We built the first part of the company bootstrapping. We used our own savings, didn’t take salaries and were cautious about what we spent money on. But at some point, we realized that if we were going to have any success in building this company with the ambitions we have, we needed to raise more capital.
This ensured that we were on the spot. If we failed, we would have lost our savings. The feeling of having to eat oatmeal to save money, not to go on vacations like we used to and to limit all everyday expenses put us in a sharpened mode. This secured shareholder value and maximised the upside. In addition to this, to raise capital for a sex toy isn’t straight forward, we need to do things twice as good compared to other “normal” startups. Now, when we have proved that we could do it, it is much easier to raise capital and attract partners that we want to include.
We waited until we had this proof to show and, up until that point, we funded the company by ourselves and with money borrowed from crowdfunding sources for production. And going forward, we are dependent on raising money in order to scale the organization further.
So, depending on the case and the level of capital intensiveness, bootstrapping might be a good solution to begin with, but along with higher ambitions there will be a time where growth capital is required. Especially in a world when things move fast. What might be an advantage today, might not be tomorrow. To ensure this advantage, we need innovation and new developments; and this is capital intensive!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
Well, this is an interesting one. In Norway, the Government always encourages people to start businesses. My take on this is NOT TO DO IT! I don’t mean that sincerely, but it is important that one understands the rollercoaster that the person enters if they decide on that path. My naive attitude towards building a hardware and software company was of course crucial in starting this — and this is good. If I knew what we had to deal with before I began, I am not sure my motivation would be the same; but hey, that’s what’s so thrilling about this as well.
- Cost control and priorities is essential. Keep track of costs at all times; liquidity is crucial and the understanding of working capital is essential for being able to build a company. Especially in a capital intensive case, such as hardware, you basically need to fund the production yourself and then wait another two months before you can start selling the products. And this must be done in a way where you ensure shareholder value; when should we raise money to do whatever it is that we want to do. Should we develop this, have this marketing campaign, invest in this, hire this person and so on. To always have cost control and keep track of priorities is for me an absolute key. Ever since we started production, we worked towards doubling the volume every time we had a new production batch. We did this in order to lower the unit cost, as you can imagine, we did not produce significant volumes in the beginning. So we borrowed 350,000 dollars through a crowdfunding company in Norway where the loan was given by hundreds of private individuals. Due to the cost of the loan, we set a down payment of six months, to ensure that we kept focus and pressure on me (as the CEO and CFO). The cost control and priorities in what we spent money on over the next 5–6 months were crucial for us to survive and this enabled us to prove — even further — that what we were working with was something exciting. So when we ran our first external capital raise, I was sure that the timing was right and that the processes we had gained by having cost control and priorities in order would benefit us going forward.
- Do not base the decisions on hypotheses. This is just crucial. It does not matter what you think or believe. You need to base your decisions on data driven analysis. Test hypothesis with A/B testing, if it is marketing, development or other strategic business decisions. We have developed our leadership meetings over the last nine months, starting with a lot of beliefs and less data, ending up with a pure data driven decision structure. One big discussion we had internally was the logistical setup. We have structured the logistics with several warehouses, and a big argument between the co-founder and myself was whether or not to ship everything from China, in order to lower the capital binding and account for errors. This was basically a discussion leading to a lot of frustration for both parties, until we managed to really dig into the data and create an analysis showing us clearly how to do it. So, instead of discussing what we thought, we should have spent the energy on doing the analysis in order to make a factual decision.
- Stay true to what you stand for. Do not let yourself be pushed over because a bigger company pushes you. Stay true to the values you have within the company in everything you do. I believe this is absolutely crucial. This might lead to a longer time period to gain “success,” but when you finally achieve it, it will be long lasting. We have had several companies trying to bully us. Either through patent disputes, to cooperate with or not, and what partners to promote. Every single time, we have stayed true to ourselves and our values. We do not copy or try to steal innovation from others, so the patent claim was solved. We do not pick our partners based on what someone tells us to do or not to do, whoever aligns with our business ethics we will partner up with -especially, if we see a value ad to our customers. Finally, we do not promote partners unless they provide a premium product to our customers. Period.
- Have patience and follow your strategy. Things take time (TTT). I am a doer and want things to be done yesterday. This is one of the biggest learnings I’ve had as a CEO — be patient. Take time to ensure that the quality of the work is premium and consistent. Nothing is done overnight, but with consistent work over time. One example is my previous focus on measuring our success on sales data week over week. I gradually learned that there is no point in focusing on short term wins, by boosting marketing campaigns and doing “black hat” marketing. We need to do consistent work over time to gain credibility among our customers. One step at the time, and building brick by brick in everything we do. There are so many elements that need to be in place for a company to grow; team, financing, production, development of hardware and software, operations, marketing and processes. All of this must be aligned and move in the same direction. Stay true to your strategy and make sure that you have patience to let the processes materialize.
- Accept that you cannot know the answer to everything. For me this is crucial. How should you structure the financing? When should you hire the next team member, and for what role? What campaigns should we run? What should our branding look like? How should we determine our strategy? I can go on forever. You need to understand that experts are there for a reason, and you need to accept that you do not know the answer to everything. We have used consultants for the last year on different occasions and I have leveraged my network in finance. We engaged scale-up consultants which has given us a tremendous value and ran a complete strategy process that they facilitated. The result was a direction that we built out further and now every week we have strategy meetings where we update the leadership group to ensure that we are on target. Additionally, I have used my network in finance numerous occasions; from the funding we raised to the overall strategic direction to focus on our core competence. Build your decision making on advice from people smarter than you within the subject in addition to the data driven analysis; in everything you do.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
To be honest, I try to do things properly and consistently, and spend too much time looking at the mistakes other CEOs and founders have made; except when talking about being humble and open to opinions that differ from yours.
But you have the classical example when founders look for partners or investors, and they choose their partners based on who is willing to pay the most for that stake. This I have seen several times, especially when industrial investors value the investment to a higher pricing relative to the financial investors. It is then tempting for the founders to accept the industrial one — but this might not be the right move. There are several cases in Norway with such an industrial investor basically deteriorating value over time after they have been able to invest, as the founders have been blinded by the pre money valuation. We will not base our investing partners on who’s providing the highest valuation, but on what value they can bring to the table.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
I have always worked extreme hours. I never had dinner back home and normally I took a taxi home after 10:00pm. No difference with working in a startup in terms of hour but the difference is that now I work for something I truly believe in.
To handle this, it is important to listen to your body. I have mentioned it before, but I have talked to a coach and a psychologist for nearly 12 years now. I have had my fair share of downturns throughout my life that I have needed to deal with and this has taught me that it is just as important to take care of your mind as it is with your physical body.
Also, I have become better at understanding that I need thinking time; where I do not necessarily produce anything, I just reflect. These breaks are becoming more important the bigger the company becomes. Combine this with healthy food, workouts, meditation, coach or psychologist and a supportive partner, the opportunities are endless. Remember it is not a sprint, it is a long marathon.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
What we are doing now! Bringing a taboo topic up and in the open. We want people to explore their own sexuality and not to forget about it, and give everyone a chance to fulfill their sexual needs. There is a stigma associated with male sex toys, and why is this? Shouldn’t we all be allowed to experience improved and better orgasms? Learn new ways in how we interpret pleasure? I believe this is a movement and we are in the middle of it. If we succeed in our mission, I am sure it will lead to a better world and bring so much good to so many people.
It is about time to leave the old fashion thinking behind and welcome new and innovative ways to experience pleasure.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
That must be Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. That book Shoe Dog is just amazing and an inspiration for not giving up. It is such an amazing story about logistics, intercultural differences and determination in a time where the world was not set up in the way it is today. Truly impressive.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They can of course follow Handy on social media (Instagram and Facebook). But if they want to follow the journey from a company perspective, I would recommend following Sweet Tech on LinkedIn where we post news that has a more business angle to the journey we are being part of.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!