In “Startupland”, Startup Life Is Full of Risk, but the Entrepreneurial Dream Is Possible

Creating and running a startup isn’t all glamour and glitz, although emerging technologies have made starting a business somewhat easier. But it’s not like it was straight out of a fictional Hollywood movie where there’s a happy ending involved — in most cases, this isn’t the case with companies in the real world. Many often shutter for various reasons, whether it’s because of a decrease in traction, lack of funding, or something else.

Needless to say, it’s certainly tough being an entrepreneur. You give up practically everything to follow your dream of creating something that could impact an industry or the world and it’s tough to think about the light at the end of the tunnel when you read everyday in the news about those fabled “Unicorn” startups or others making it big.

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This is Startupland, a place not limited by demographic, geographic, or ideology. It’s a state of mind that every entrepreneur ventures into willingly when they found a company and it’s also the title and subject of Mikkel Svane’s book that was recently published. This nearly 188-page book is certainly a worthwhile read for anyone interested in trying to have positive results for their startup. It’s partially a tale of the creation of Zendesk, a customer service management platform that went public in May 2014, the trials and tribulations it went through, and important life lessons and tips that Svane has chosen to impart on the readers of his book.

Earlier this year, I said that Startup Mixology: Tech Cocktail’s Guide to Building, Growing, & Celebrating Startups was a useful resource for entrepreneurs. And I still stand by it. However, Startupland is most definitely a welcome addition to that now-growing list. While the former was focused more on the tactical steps, the latter stands out as a useful resource straight from a founder’s mouth that highlights the growth and challenges he faced when building a company that would essentially have a definitive impact on the world of customer relationships. Put simply, the sub-title says it all: “How three guys risked everything to turn an idea into a global business.”

Beaten down but Zendesk remains

Throughout most of the book, Svane recounts just a fraction of the journey that he and his co-founders took to have a successful company, one with a market cap of $1.76 billion. This isn’t your typical Silicon Valley story — on the contrary, it’s an international tale where Svane, Alexander Aghassipour, and Morten Primdahl start out in much the same way as your typical entrepreneurs — finding a problem and industry prone for disruption. The trio endured building a startup, generating customer interest, and difficult decisions in securing funds for their endeavor — all from their homes in Denmark. Somehow they managed to overcome any and all obstacles ahead of them, all learning along the way without having the assistance of accelerators like Y Combinator, TechStars, or even the recognition in articles on TechCrunch.

Startupland is a narrative of Zendesk’s journey across the Atlantic Ocean to San Francisco and transformation into a public entity. Readers will find that it certainly wasn’t rainbows and butterflies for the company. Rather, Svane and his cohorts had to figure out how to onboard new employees, understand how to deal with investors and turn down deals, and essentially scale quickly and efficiently. As he said during TechCrunch Disrupt in Europe this year: “Being lucky is just so much work. As an early startup, there is no way around trying to open all the doors, and that’s exhausting work.”

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Candid accounts

Although the book is written by Svane and his co-author Carlye Adler, the narration reads almost like it’s a narration from How I Met Your Mother and I mean that in a good way. You can almost visualize yourself in Svane’s shoes as he navigates Zendesk from idea to IPO. There are quite a few times where chapters include anecdotes and other interesting tidbits that you may not have expected, such as this one where Primdahl was in disbelief that the company would soon have a thousand customers:

“That is completely ludicrous,” said Morten. When that happened, he promised, “I will run down the streets of Copenhagen naked.”

(Today, over fifty thousand customers later, we’re still waiting for Morten to streak the streets of Copenhagen.)

Each chapter is titled as if it was from an advice piece, but the content within each one is more a specific part of Zendesk’s history. As alluded to earlier, throughout Startupland, there are key tidbits and life lessons from Svane’s experience. But it’s not blatantly called out as “here are things you need to know” or anything like that — they’re noticeable but not blatantly in your face. Some of the lessons learned include:

  • How to ask your friends for money — and stay friends
  • Curbing anxiety: Unexpected business advice! How to get over a fear of flying and make business travel semi-palatable
  • Fostering your VC relationship
  • Hiring: Our unconventional (possibly illegal) hiring checklist
  • Road warriors: How to survive an IPO road show

These aren’t your typical how-to or self-help topics you might encounter…they’re things derived straight from Svane and Zendesk’s experience and rather poignant for him to share with the reader.

Believe in your dream

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In reading Startupland, I had a vision of Svane recounting his team’s efforts to realize the great American dream. But soon I became misguided because it can’t be an “American” dream, but rather any entrepreneur’s dream, regardless of where they’re from. This book affectionately recalls Zendesk’s efforts to continue to move forward amid obstacle after obstacle until it finally reached its ultimate conclusion: an initial public offering.

The foreward is excellently written by TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Tsotsis and she frames the book in a great light by ending her message with lyrics from Paul Simon’s song “America“:

Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together”
“I’ve got some real estate here in my bag”
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America

“Kathy” I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now”
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I’ve gone to look for America

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said “Be careful, his bowtie is really a camera”

“Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat”
“We smoked the last one an hour ago”
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

“Kathy, I’m lost” I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike
They’ve all gone to look for America
All gone to look for America
All gone to look for America

Svane’s point in his book is that no matter what, entrepreneurs must continue to believe in their ideas and be passionate about helping to change an industry or world. And it can be done no matter what — you don’t have to have a be in a “sexy” field or sector that you want to change, like Facebook or Twitter. Instead, the “unsexy” can be “sexy”. There’s always a need. And with that passion, entrepreneurs will be able to realize their dream — it may not be an “American” dream, but it’s a dream nonetheless…of achieving victory on that startup journey to create something successful and you’re proud of.

Photo credit: Image of Mikkel Svane via @Kmeron for LeWeb12 Conference @ Westminster Central Hall -London-; and photo of the Zendesk team at the New York Stock Exchange during its IPO via Mikkel Svane/Twitter.