Linn Tagesson: “Starting a company is not glamorous”

Starting a company is not glamorous. Be sure you know what you are getting yourself into. This is the truth that everyone needs to understand: starting your own business means fixing toilets, working 15 hours a day for 7 days a week, and making the wrong decisions many many times. In the end, the upsides […]

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Starting a company is not glamorous. Be sure you know what you are getting yourself into. This is the truth that everyone needs to understand: starting your own business means fixing toilets, working 15 hours a day for 7 days a week, and making the wrong decisions many many times. In the end, the upsides outweigh the downsides but don’t think you can start your own company without 110% commitment.

As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Linn Tagesson the Co-Founder and Chief Culture Officer of the Babyshop Group, a company that she founded with Marcus Tagesson in 2006.

In her role as CCO, Tagesson leads the group’s human resources operations, which tends to hundreds of employees in Sweden, Norway and the UK, and has been instrumental in creating the unique culture that has helped the Group to grow from a small, family-owned business into one of Europe’s largest premium and luxury retailers for children. It is a culture that has become known to promote workplace diversity, which has contributed to the group successfully maintaining its goal of 50–50 gender parity in top management. Tagesson, who picked up her business skill-set at a young age under the mentorship of her entrepreneurial grandfather Curt Enström, is determined to make Babyshop a leading player within children’s fashion worldwide, and has played a pivotal role in heading and developing the Group’s key departments — from Customer Services to In-House Brands. She has also been actively involved in the Group’s growth strategy, including the 2014 acquisition of Alex and Alexa in the UK, and the 2015 purchase of Babyshop in Norway, which added 15 physical stores to the Group. Tagesson led the overhaul of the Norwegian operations, and can largely be credited for the successful rebranding of the Group’s local activities. Her contribution to building up and expanding the Group’s fashion business within the evolving e-commerce sector has also resulted in Babyshop winning a string of honors throughout the years, including Marketing of the Year at the Mobile Awards, the E-Commerce of the Year at the Retail Awards, The Best Online Fashion Boutique for Children’s Clothing at the Habit Fashion Awards, and the E-Commerce of the Year at the Nordic E-Commerce Summit. Since 2009, Tagesson serves on the Board of Directors of Swedish real estate group Notar. She is also a board member for the Swedish Digital Traders Association. She is regularly invited to speak at conferences and co-hosted the Nordic E-Commerce Summit in 2014. In 2019 Tagesson spoke on the Center Stage on Websummit with 20 000 people in the audience. Tagesson holds a Bachelor in Journalism from Södra Vätterbygdens Folkhögskola, and worked as an editor and presenter at national broadcaster SBS radio prior to founding Babyshop. She also has a Diploma in Political Science from Stockholm University.

She and her husband, Marcus Tagesson, reside with their two daughters on the island of Lidingö in Stockholm.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Linn! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Actually, the only thing I was sure about as a child was that I was NOT going to be an entrepreneur when I grew up. I saw my parents struggling with the family business and my brother and I almost knew our babysitters better than our own parents growing up. I remember calling them by their first names instead of “mom” and “dad” until I was at least 12 years old. So at least I knew that I didn’t want to have that kind of job!

My grandfather had started the company from scratch and my entire family worked in it when I was growing up. It was on the Swedish Stock Market and he had hundreds of employees. He has always been the “saint” of the family because he started his own successful business, and my family members have all been very proud to carry the same last name as him.

But I guess despite the hard work my family was doing during my youth, I became curious in the end. I wanted to see how hard it really was to start and run your own business, and see if I could do the same thing. Today Babyshop Group is bigger than my grandfather’s company.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Our ambition has always been to be big. Otherwise we wouldn’t have started. To get the (Sweden) domain was crucial for starting the company. We really believed that the name was key. In 2010, we went after the domain. No idea why, but General Electric (GE) owned the domain at the time. We acquired the domain through a domain broker and we managed to buy the domain for 100,000 dollars! If I remember correctly, the purchase was noted in an American newspaper as the most expensive domain bought that year. The price of the domain was almost half of our turnover; at the time, the board strictly vetoed the deal, so we took a loan on my apartment and did it anyway. By getting the domain we believed that our future would be bright and there would be no barriers to going global.

Turns out — buying this domain was the most important decision we have made in the history of Babyshop. It was then that our sales started to take off. Even from the first day we launched the domain, we saw sales from across the globe, and our international expansion has been key to our success.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In our first buying meeting, we were only 24 and 25 years old, with no experience in either children or eCommerce. We didn’t know anything about the kids’ clothing sizes or what parents were willing to pay. What we did know was that the products on the market were not focused on fashion. So we bought what we thought was cool and looked good, but not always very practical. The suppliers said it was interesting to watch us in the buying process because we picked what everyone else didn’t.

In the end, this worked for us. We had things no one had seen before, and new parents who thought like us bought the cool stuff. Our mistake was our success.

OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

For me, it has not been a planned career path. It has just been the result of our company’s development. Important to say though is that you constantly need to develop yourself to succeed as the company grows. I think that has been the biggest challenge but also the biggest reward when you see that the team is developing through your leadership.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

The most important difference is that the business starts and ends with you. You have complete responsibility for the result that you and your team are able to achieve. It’s up to you to make sure things happen and that you equip your team with the right tools and structure for success.

It’s very important to have no or little prestige as a leader, and stay humble. You need to constantly evaluate your own performance and have a close ear to the rest of the organization so you know when it’s time to step up and be the better version of yourself.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

Seeing people develop and grow in the company and reaching the results we set out to achieve. Seeing crazy ideas become reality and achieve something great. The best is when a totally new idea becomes reality although no one has ever tried it before. Like when we developed a proprietary product recommendation system that outperformed our expensive external system! Or when we built a fully automated warehouse with robots picking the orders. Recently we implemented a packaging machine that reduces empty space in our delivery boxes from 50% air to no air (which means less unused packaging material)! Through our innovations, we are delivering a better customer experience, reducing costs, and making giant steps towards more sustainable eCommerce.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

The feeling that you are sometimes alone with tough decisions and responsibility.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

That being a CEO or executive is a glamorous job. It is not. Building a company with a 100 M dollars+ annual turnover from scratch is hard work. I have done everything from building racks in the warehouse to investor pitches. There is no room for glory or prestige. You have to be prepared to do anything.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

According to me, nothing. Our Fashion/Tech Company has 70% women in the workforce. Of course I have met a few older men with more conservative/traditional thinking that didn’t take me seriously because I was young (back in the days) or a woman. But when I’m being doubted, I turn on my “fighting spirit” superpower. I take their negatives and make them my positives; I love being an underdog.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I had no idea what to expect. I was young and didn’t have any related experience. I had only a few jobs before, working as a busser in a bar and as a newscaster. So, this was very different from previous jobs, but I loved it because I was doing it for me.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

To be competitive is key, but I also believe it’s a strength to be interested in people. To listen to your team and understand their needs. We have a flat organization where everyone is treated with the same level of respect no matter where in the organization you work. It’s good leadership and makes people feel valuable. I also think you have to lead by example.

I also think being clear in your communication and leaving no room for misunderstanding helps a lot. Say it even though it might be hard to do and also remember to give positive feedback when someone has done something well.

Dare to be brave and speak the ideas you have even though they might sound a bit bold or crazy. A bad idea is better than no idea.

A person who will not succeed is a person who thinks s/he is the smartest person in the room, and is not open to hearing from others and learning new things. It’s more important now than ever to develop and be open to feedback from both senior and junior team members.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be yourself, trust your competence, dare to speak out and say what you think. Ask when you don’t understand. If you don’t get it, others probably don’t either, and the one to ask the question is the boldest.

Don’t pretend to be someone you are not.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Marcus, my husband, and co-founder/CEO of the company is that person. We have accomplished this amazing journey together and carried each other in our different ups and downs. We have always decided together whose project/time/task is the most important for the company — and the the other one has to pick up the kids. (*laughs*)

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

This is one of the most important questions that should be top of all minds in a company. Everywhere from the board to executives and colleagues need to have this in mind to be a relevant company that will survive long term.

Although we have a lot of things left to accomplish and we should never settle regarding this question, I am proud that our workforce is made up of 70% women in the company, especially since we’re a tech company and that we have over 50 nationalities in the business. This has not been a dedicated strategy, but it’s the result of a company culture that truly empowers people.

We truly seek to have sustainability as part of our core values. We have a vegetarian food policy when it comes to any food bought on the company dollar. We take active efforts to reduce business flights. We have a fur free policy when it comes to our assortment. When it comes to production, we want to lead the way with our own proprietary brands; we’ve made changes to our production to reduce our carbon footprint, while ensuring good conditions and living wages for factory workers. With the position that we have, we are now pushing our suppliers in the same direction.

We have also worked with charity organizations since day one, from donations to children’s hospitals and orphanages, to partnering with Wildhood Foundation to protect endangered animals from poaching. We believe all people and companies have a responsibility to build a better tomorrow.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Actually, I am quite happy not knowing what I was getting myself into (*laughs*).

But here are some tips for anyone getting started:

  1. Starting a company is not glamorous. Be sure you know what you are getting yourself into. This is the truth that everyone needs to understand: starting your own business means fixing toilets, working 15 hours a day for 7 days a week, and making the wrong decisions many many times. In the end, the upsides outweigh the downsides but don’t think you can start your own company without 110% commitment.
  2. Make sure to surround yourself with people that give you energy because you will most certainly need it. If you find a co-founder or someone to bear some of the burden, it’s higher likelihood that you will have a better and more successful journey.
  3. Learn how to be a good negotiator because that’s something you need the entire way. When you are starting to be uncomfortable with your demands in a negotiation, that’s when you need to push it one more step to know that you negotiated to the right level.
  4. Don’t take no for an answer if you strongly believe that it’s the wrong decision; sometimes you need to trust your gut feeling and just go for it.
  5. Always plan for the unexpected. The only certainty in running your own business is that things will change and you need to be prepared.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would like to change all the egoism in the world. That would be helpful for many of the world’s challenges that we see today. If we become more accepting and understanding, we will also come together and find solutions on everything from poverty, to climate changes, to social injustices.

But we have to do it together. No one can do it all, but we can all do something.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Pippi Longstocking is a Swedish role model (especially for many young girls!) because of her strength and independence. I really like her famous saying, “I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that”. That quote has been relevant to me in so many ways and especially when you start your own company where everything is new.

We are very 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Ellen DeGeneres. She is fun, strong, and she’s had a lot of factors working against her, but she took control of her destiny to success. She also uses her influential position to drive positive change for the world. I would love to be on her show!

I would like to meet Ashley Graham. She is an inspiration, confidence booster, and body positivity icon for all women. Just check out her Instagram. You can see her working out, hosting shows, and rocking high heels — all while pregnant! Women like Ashley will speed up equality between men and women in the world. I saw she just became a mother — congratulations from the Babyshop family!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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