Editor's note: This interview has been recorded and published as part of a content project in collaboration with the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO).
Moving to a new country is always a challenge — and even more so when you're a startup founder who needs to take the company along. We've talked to Jelena Jansson, co-founder of Healstack, who was about to move from Malmo, Sweden to London, about the perceived startup climate in both locations and challenges a foreign founder may face in different parts of Europe. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Have you recently moved your company to another country or just have an opinion on how the ecosystems across Europe treat newcomers? Let us know in the comment section or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: First of all, what's Healstack?
A: Healstack is a body-positive health app that helps women overcome disorder eating. If you look at dieting and health apps in general, you will find that when you suffer from disorder eating you just can't diet.
Let's say you're overweight and you want to lose weight. You're going against yourself in a way because your mental health will deteriorate if you impose a restriction. What we are building now is an AI algorithm that will help women ditch restrictive dieting; we're making dieting more dynamic, but we're also nested in the body positivity segment. I would call it a health app, a body-positive community for women, and mental health support — all in one.
Q: When did you found the startup?
A: Officially, we started in 2018 but we've been building the concept and doing research for about 2-3 years. I used to suffer from binge eating disorder, so it was a very personal journey for me. I got stuck, I gained a lot of weight, and then at some point I thought, okay, I'm healthy now with food, but I'm also overweight — what do I do about that? I can't go on diet because I cannot follow the limit of 1,500 calories a day, it makes me feel bad.
My partner is a programmer, I worked in brand and marketing for a very long time — we both worked in the tech industry. And we started thinking, how do we break down the main barriers? We spent about three years researching the environment, the scene, and also the technology that is available. And then we incorporated last year in Sweden. He Swedish, I'm Croatian, and we'd stayed in Stockholm first for a while, and then we came to Malmo to join an incubator.
Q: So, why did you decide to move to London?
A: When you're a foreigner, there's always a harder entry point in a society, you have to take extra steps; and I think it's the same with startups, especially in Sweden. Many things here are based on recommendations and whom you know. It takes a really long walk to get in, to invest in relationships, to really build that trust; in places like London, due to its sheer size and economy, things move much faster. It's closer to our market as well.
Another reason why we decided to move is that we felt that Sweden — despite my partner being Swedish and me having lived here for a long time and knowing the environment — was very claustrophobic in a way. And I don't mean that in a negative way; it's a very positive society that enables entrepreneurship, but at the same time for certain groups of people it has a ceiling. Sweden's brand presents a very open and diverse picture, but behind the scenes, there are quite a few barriers. I think it's due to the size: Sweden is a small country, Stockholm is a small city, and the industry is also small. We also felt that most of our investor connections tended to be based in the UK.
Q: Why do you think it's like this?
A: I would say that London has been the headquarters of Europe for a long time in terms of big companies, even though Stockholm likes to say that it has the most unicorns per capita. I think it's much more about privilege and about the ability to actually raise a lot of financing in London, which pulls people in — and also creates communities.
For example, when we started reaching out to communities in London, we got a response right away; while we were in Sweden, it was really hard to penetrate. In London, there are people from everywhere, and that, I think, creates the perfect storm for things to happen.
Q: What kind of communities do you mean?
A: We have a couple of startup groups on WhatsApp — it's kind of silly, but those are really good. There is one that's run by Sarah Noeckel, founder of FemStreet — that was a really good starting point. And also there's another female community called Elpha by YCombinator. It helps women come together for entrepreneurship. I noticed that majority of people there are either American or from London, and then you have a little bit from Berlin, a little bit from Sweden, and so on. And you realise that the information gravitates in the direction of the UK.
At the same time, Healstack couldn't have happened in a city like London — mostly because we would have to work full-time to survive. In Sweden, we were able to allow ourselves to bootstrap for a year and invested €130,000 of our own money to build the product that we're going to release next month. We decided to take the lower entry point here in Sweden that doesn't cost as much and where we have a safety net. But now, when it's time to grow, you go with the heat is, where the pressure point is, where the pressure cooker is — and that's how we feel about London.
Q: How are you going to structure the move from the legal standpoint?
A: There are barriers, especially for a startup. Looks like Brexit is going to happen, and then the UK will probably impose some visa restrictions. This means that we need to go there before the restrictions come in force, because it's going to be very complex when you're self-funded. We have a Swedish company, we plan to keep it for a little bit, but we also need to enter the society in the UK because we will be permanently stationed there. That means that we will open a British company and eventually employ ourselves in it. We don't know what's going to happen then but we are not afraid; we can always go back.
Q: I'm really surprised that you're not worried about the perspective of Brexit.
A: I grew up in Croatia, which had a war, and the economy was messed up. I moved from the US in 2008 during the worst recession, so I'd lived for six or seven years in a really rocky economy with limited opportunities. And you know what — you still survive, that's the bottom line. It's about being agile and finding a way to support yourself.
I don't think it's necessarily about money, it's more about the mental state of people. People from my home country are quite negative, and it's not because they're bad people — it's because circumstances put them in there, and that could happen also in the UK, and that would be a shame.
But hey, it might work out differently, you never know. It might actually spark something. So I guess as long as you have a roof over your head, as long as you can find a certain type of job — you're good. When you hit the bottom, that's when it's a problem; but then if you have 10 friends who are struggling — you're struggling together, which is not as bad.