How in the world did six unexperienced guys aged 21-24 start a company without any financial backing, which in eight years has become a leading player in its field and with 150 employees in Sweden, Korea and the US, having contributed to over 350 million mobile phones from Samsung, Motorola, Nokia, and Sony Ericsson?&#xA0;
I wish I could tell you it was skill, but having done the journey I think I'd have to be honest and tell you that we have had plenty of luck. I'll take you through the story and the three things I have would do if I started another company.
TAT was founded by accident to be honest. We had worked together for years in different hobby projects and in 2001 we worked part time for a mobile gaming company in parallel with university studies. When that company decided to "step up the value chain" and stop developing games we realized that we would be spread for the wind like dandelion seeds - employed by the Sony Ericsson:s of the region. Massive organizations. Regular office hours. And a boss to disagree with. Not working together in a small team. No more quick-and-dirty projects.&#xA0;
I think we sought to create a youth recreation centre for our age, more than a company. But we had to fill it with meaning. So we tried to find projects - we found a couple - one was creating the special effects for a Swedish movie, another an arts project, and a third consultancy for a local mobile imaging company; Scalado. We realized getting the money as employees would end up as a lot of tax and little computer equipment, so starting a company would actually be a great idea. This was kind of the best outcome we could envision: that we would have lots of computer equipment, and then eventually maybe getting employed. And even if we planned to start multiple companies in the smaller groups we were, all were scared of the administrative work of having companies of our own. So we ended up reluctantly bolting ourselves together and starting one company: The Astonishing Tribe. More like a hobby project than a company. But we did have a business plan - even if I would more call it a mantra today - "we do stuff we are passionate about". The coming two years we focused the company on one thing: Mobile User interfaces. Since that was most fun, and least fighting over the invoices with customers.
I think this was one of our biggest assets - following our passion. But, being passionate about an idea, does not mean you like working with it. I'll give you an example. I was very close to starting an online wine community with the founder of Ocean Observations, Sofia Svanteson, back in 2006, but after writing the whole business plan together and meeting the first VC I realized that I was passionate about the product, it would recommend wine to people over the world based on what wine they had taken pictures of with their mobile phone and rated, but the problem was that I was going to be the CTO, responsible for development, or something similar, as I was the technical of Sofia and I, and I liked more working with customers and with possibilities than with actually building things.&#xA0;
Our second "intelligent company strategy" was that we wanted to spend our time having fun. Doing work we liked doing, and avoiding work we disliked. Luckily we were different, so one guy's hell was the other's cup of tea.&#xA0;So - at TAT we chased what we loved doing - and one of the results was that we recruited our bosses - since we didn't like being bosses. We got a CFO early on, since economics and structure wasn't our bag, a CTO next year, since we had no experience of the mobile industry, then two years later someone who drove sales, since haggling over legal texts or money drove us crazy, then in 2007 a CEO, since we realized we all woke up super-stressed every day over the responsibility. I'll remind you that we had no funding, so each of these recruitments demanded us to grow the company's revenues so we could pay their salaries. It is thanks to these people that TAT is a respectable and reliable employer, supplier, and company, and not just a fun place to work.
So my first advice is to find passion, some skill and work with what you love.
One of our first meetings with the mobile industry was when a friend called from Sony Ericsson in late 2002. They had just released one of their first color screen models, and drawing all that graphics to the screen was not a fun task for the processor. Our friend knew that mustering out cinematic experiences from computers and game consoles had been a hobby for two of the founders since the mid 90:s. We had kind of said that we didn't want to work with mobile phones after working with the mobile gaming company. But what the hey! We sat nights and weekends until the day for the meeting - we had prepared four devices with crazy stuff. And we had bought lunch baguettes for our last money for the Sony Ericsson managers. Frankly -I think anyone advising a company like that would probably had said that it was too early to meet that kind of customer. But I think our bold move was right - TAT's success is built upon showing prototypes too early for customers.
Early 2004 we were in discussions with Samsung. But they were hesitant that we would cater them and not just be a vassal to Sony Ericsson. So they asked us to bring our best show to their CEO. And the meeting was set to ... southern Israel. We were excited enough to meet Samsung's top management and didn't really need that Egypt and Isreal had some quarrel at the time. After a tumultuous trip we found ourselves armed with demo phones and a presentation outside the meeting room. The door opened and we walked in. The table had twelve managers and the CEO. All looking quite stern. My co-founder and I thanked for letting us present, plugged in the beamer and started the powerpoint. The CEO stood up and more or less shouted: "Stop! Show me the phones." Armed with unique selling points, advantages, software architectures, smart titles, and well selected pictures... and a handful of phones. The boss was invulnerable to powerpoint. And wanted to try for himself. A couple of sweaty minutes later he took my co-founder by the shoulders and asked "who is the best phone manufacturer in the world?". A small "Samsung" left my friend's lips. And we were out. With a nod from the Vice President of Sourcing that he would get back to us to get a draft of the agreement.&#xA0;
So my second advice is to build prototypes and meet customers too early.
But building TAT has not been a "vie en rose". We used to say in 2003 that Saturdays and Sundays were the best days to work, because no customers called or emailed. And just as you know when working with carpenters or plumbers - things take at least twice the time and cost four times as much. Building TAT has so far been four times as much work as I could ever had expected.&#xA0;
And we have lost battles over the years. I think I have learnt the hard way that "a fast no is better than a slow maybe". We worked with the biggest possible customer for us in 2005: Symbian. They were the gatekeeper to getting into Nokia, the biggest of the phone manufacturers and the crown of the industry at the time. But there was one caveat. They had found a consultancy company that was willing to offer the same thing that our product did, and according to the British lawyer "for a 70th of the price". We fought hard to get the deal. But this time the way of proving ourselves was all but a cinematic experience. It was a "statement of work". A document trying to describe in text how we were better than competition, that we were reliable, that we could deliver on time, and most of all: that we could fill out documents. And boy did we spend time filling out documents. We spent over a million swedish krona worth of time, and for a company of our size that was putting a lot at risk. And we lost the deal. That was the first time I saw any of my co-founders shed tears over work.
I think few understand how lonely it is to found a company. All these people look like strong heroes; Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Ingvar Kamprad. But I promise you they also have bad Monday mornings, are late too meetings, have customers who shout at them. And make them cry. Maybe not now, but getting to where they are. And being alone here is not an option. I often joke about my five founders as my five wives - every decision has to be checked with every single one, and they seldom agree. But just as spouses they provide support and comfort.
So, if I would start another company I would co-found it with people I can celebrate with, fight with, but also cry with, people who work hard and don&#x2019;t give up.
I hope you have enjoyed the story. To sum up the three things I have learned: 1. Find passion and some skill. Work with what you love doing. 2. Prototype your way to what the customers will pay for, and leave perfection by the door 3. Co-found with people who have the chance to become your best friends. &#xA0; Thank you
TEDxMalmoe: The three things I would do if I started another company
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