Editor’s note: Accel Partners’ Sonali De Rycker is publishing a series of blog posts on her Medium account this week to highlight the ‘Nordic way’ of building scale-ups. We liked it, so we’re republishing the interviews on Tech.eu.
Brave, bold, or even brash – founders need to be pretty fearless, but the line between audacity and arrogance is a thin one. We think there’s another way to do things, and we’ve actually seen it play out time and time again in the Nordics. The region is the source of some of the best and biggest tech businesses in Europe – its share of multi-billion-dollar exits is the highest in the world, relative to GDP.
What has been distinctive is the remarkable way they lead their teams, and we’ve had conversations with three of our founders to try and lift the lid on this very Nordic way of building billion-dollar tech businesses. Our second is with Lars Björk of Qlik.
Lars has steered Qlik as CEO for the past seventeen years – from its days as a tiny start-up in a science park in Sweden to becoming a world leader in business intelligence software. Qlik was purchased by a private equity firm in the summer of 2016 for $3bn, and has around 40,000 customers and offices in 26 countries. From the outside it might look like Lars has been the driving force behind Qlik’s growth, but Lars insists that his team deserves the credit.
– Bruce Golden and Sonali De Rycker
What made you build Qlik the way you did?
I believe in surrounding yourself with people who are better than you and getting out of the way. So the foundation of our culture is how you motivate people. You don’t do it with more money – that’s not the way in Sweden.
As Peter Drucker used to say, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ We’ve distilled Qlik’s approach to five key values. Some are what you’d expect: ‘challenge’, be willing to disrupt; and ‘move fast’, although that’s not the same as being sloppy. It’s okay to make mistakes, but you should get it right next time.
A third is about taking responsibility: we give people a lot of empowerment, but that also means you have to own your work. Four is this idea of being open and straightforward. It doesn’t mean you should be rude; but let’s just say a lot of people feel comfortable coming into my office and telling me what’s not working.
That’s the only way information can trickle to the top. I’ve never fired anyone for talking straight with me. I also don’t believe in micromanagement or second-guessing people. Once you’re doubting your team, it’s time to move on.
That brings me to the most important thing. Leadership, for me, is that you serve the team. And the team is the people who work for you. A lot of people worry they won’t be seen if they’re not out there in front. But when your people shine, they will shine on you.
When the VCs entered the picture, we saw something we’d never seen before: as the owners and operators, you owned relatively little of the company. In fact, you worked hard to spread the wealth around. Tell us more.
How big my stake is, as a percentage – that’s never mattered to me.
I’ve always thought the game was about making the pie as big as possible. It comes back to motivation. If I can get my team to be really energised, so they can go out of their way to make the company successful, I will be successful as well. I don’t think one guy by himself is strong – I couldn’t do this without people around me.
I meet a lot of egomaniacs in this industry, and they are so fulfilled with themselves, they honestly believe that they built their own business. A lot of people congratulate me for the company I’ve built, and I correct them – I didn’t build it, we built it.
It’s remarkable how few leaders realise that the more you let go of power, the more comfortably you sit in your seat. You should always try to surround yourself with people better than you, and build a self-playing piano. It’s a question of whether you want to be the best in class, or part of the best class.
How did you settle on your leadership style?
I’ve been shaped by growing up in a socialistic society. My parents were right-wing by Swedish standards – which of course meant they were still very left of Hillary Clinton.
But we’d always had a lively discussion at home, where everyone was included in the family dialogue. I also care about diversity. I travelled a lot as a kid, because my dad was an airline captain. And I have two sisters that are adopted from South Korea. So it’s always been natural to me that we might not have the same background but we’re part of the same family.
That goes to the strength of how we built Qlik too. It doesn’t matter where you come from if you’re given the right opportunities.
You joined Qlik in 2000. Let’s fast-forward to 2004, when you decided to take the business international. What happened?
We spotted an opportunity to partner with Accel, and decided to use our technology to go after the business intelligence market. We essentially took what had been a data services business and turned it into a product.
We’d come out of Sweden, we were expanding throughout Europe, and we were about to move to the US. Once we raised money, we grew from 90 to 190 people in a year. After that, we were doubling our sales every year for several years. The depth of Accel’s knowledge and relationships and the fact you got behind the new strategy was crucial. But we still made lots of mistakes.
There’s a bit of naivety coming out of a country like Sweden, where we thought, everyone is a decent person, everyone does what they say they’re going to.
What kind of mistakes did you make?
Honestly, we just hired too many people too quickly. After that, we put in place a core value interview, which we’re still very rigid on. We want to find out if that person sits there and talks about me, me, me, or do they want to talk about ‘we’ and how it’s going to enhance the team?
We also started Qlik Academy. I like to say we’re a global company with a Swedish soul. So we brought in every new employee for a week in Lund, in Sweden, where we started out, regardless of where they were in the world.
We wanted them to learn all about the culture, the products, and how to sell the products. But more importantly they met colleagues from many different countries and functions.
How does your philosophy of leadership translate into the way you run the business day-to- day?
I do a lot of town halls and video. People want authenticity, an unscripted sense of ‘this is how it is’. They don’t want to hear packaged BS. They can see that from a mile away.
I try to be transparent and share a bit about my private life – because how am I going to learn stuff from people, how are they going to feel comfortable with me, if I don’t share anything? Another thing I’ve done – mostly because I’ve had to – is ask questions.
A lot of the guys from the Valley don’t get this. I never locked myself in a room pretending to be strong. I believe in going out, making yourself vulnerable, being willing to engage people.
Just today, I did a listening forum, where we bring a dozen people together from lots of different sections. I can’t say anything for an hour; they can give me feedback, and I just take it in. I never push back, I never dismiss.
If I can play devil’s advocate, are there downsides to the Swedish way of doing things?
It’s not good to stand out in Sweden. We even have a word for it: jantelagen, which means no-one should act or think she’s better than anyone else.
The downside is that people can resent success. That’s profoundly different to America, where our sons went to school. You go to a kids’ sporting event in the US, and everyone gets a prize. The whole education system is built on individualism.
In Sweden, if anything, if you get ahead you’re held back so you don’t get too far above the average.
Other negatives? Well, there are times when some investors and colleagues might have wanted me to be a bit more decisive. I can make a decision, but I don’t have to make a decision. I love it if the team arrives at a view without me.
A few years ago, for example, we decided to launch a new product, and there were voices on the board that wanted us to cannibalise the existing business – to go after the market for cloud really aggressively, and push our customers to switch. I took a long time to decide to keep both products.
But this ended up being vital to our success, because it turned out many customers wanted to continue work with and expand the use of our existing product, while the new one served many new and unexpected needs – so the market for both was larger than we anticipated.
Over time investors appreciated what an unusual organism Qlik was, and how carefully you had to maintain its culture. We’d just never seen a movie like this before.
It was really a mutual learning process between me and the board – great leaders are great learners, as JFK said. You were key in helping us build a really strong sales organisation, because I felt some dissonance about the roughness that can come with that. And Accel has given me this tremendous life- long friendship with you, Bruce. I remember when Accel exited in 2011 after the IPO, and you said to me: ‘I’ll stay as long as you stay.’ True to your word, you were chair of the board, right up to when we went private last year.
Accel was drawn to Qlik because we believed in your approach; I think there was always a natural affinity in how our organisations do business.
To be honest, before we met you, I had this idea that American investors were tough as hell, but that I’d take them on for the sake of the company. I was proved totally wrong – it’s been an enormous opportunity for me to grow and learn. We clearly picked the right partners, as it could have gone in a totally different direction.