Øyvind Reed is the 40-year-old CEO of Norway-based video-meetings platform, Whereby. The digital platform (think Zoom and add hygge) has been around since 2018, but Øyvind has been a tech entrepreneur for more than ten years. In that decade he’s learned many lessons – including how to build a tech start-up in America and compete in the same space as Microsoft, Google and Zoom. So, we asked this pioneering Norwegian CEO to take a timeout from his day job battling Silicon Valley’s finest and share his best insights. But first, a brief background on the company he runs…
2018-2019: Launch to $1m revenue
2019-2020: 120% growth and 25 employees
2020-2021: 500% growth and 80 employees and counting…
Whereby was previously called Appear.in – a video-meetings platform created in 2013 by an incubator within Norwegian telecommunications company, Telenor. In December 2017, Appear.in was acquired by Videonor – a video-conferencing company that Øyvind and several co-founders launched in 2010. In 2018, Videonor relaunched Appear.in as Whereby. It has gone from strength to strength ever since.
1: Invest as much as you can in tech
“I came to tech entrepreneurship by chance. I started my career selling fishing equipment on Norway’s west coast but in 2010 some friends approached me to help launch a company called Videonor. Would I run the sales operation? I agreed and went through all the scary stuff that joining a start-up entails – massive pay cut, colossal risk, lots of uncertainty. I became CEO in the first year and have been a tech CEO ever since.
“The Videonor experience was interesting. The company arrived long before Zoom and other big players, so the concept – cloud-based video conferencing – was excellent and ahead of its time. Videonor took everything to a new level, and the company grew fast in its first two years. But then we saw that we hadn’t invested enough in technology. And when the likes of Zoom came along with their vast cash reserves, we quickly got left behind. So in hindsight, we under-delivered on our promise to keep investing heavily in our technology.
“That is why I’m so excited about Whereby – we’re not making that mistake again.”
2: Execute as fast as possible
“In 2011, I moved to Boston, USA, and stayed for four years to build Videonor. It was exhilarating. The pace of execution in the US tech sector is incredible – everything happens so fast. As a result, you create much greater momentum and energy. By comparison, Europe and Scandinavia – and I’m generalising here – has a ‘let’s wait until tomorrow’ culture. But working in the US taught me that speed of execution is vital if you want to succeed in tech.”
3: Pay it forward
“The second thing I learned in America is the power of sharing. The US tech community is fantastic at sharing its networks and experiences. Maybe they felt sorry for me because I was a European on their turf, but people couldn’t do enough to help. The Americans call it ‘paying it forward’. If you get a great connection or piece of information, pass it on – spread the kindness. I love that idea because it has so much potential. If you can help someone avoid the same mistakes you’ve made and introduce them to brilliant contacts and ideas, that’s massive for everyone. It builds a bigger and stronger ecosystem.”
4: Articulate an ambitious, exciting vision
“The third big lesson I learned in Boston is the importance of having a bold, inspirational vision. In Norway and Denmark, we have something called the Law of Jante. It says you shouldn’t think that you are above anyone else; you should live within your box and not venture outside; you should not be a pioneer. The Law of Jante is so engrained in Scandinavians that it can be difficult for us to talk about ambitious visions. So it becomes difficult to say: ‘We want to create a huge, brilliant company that provides the best video calls in the world.’ Saying that in Scandinavia is hard; saying that in the US is a given. And in Boston I saw how articulating a powerful vision attracts likeminded, talented, ambitious people. They want to buy into it.
“And while formulating your vision you should not underestimate your market’s potential. That’s a common mistake because people tend to focus on the status quo. But don’t forget that you can change the status quo. If you build something unique and exciting, then the existing shape of the market becomes irrelevant. You also have to be the primary believer in what you’re building because plenty of smart people will say: ‘I don’t believe in what you’re doing’. But you have to live with that and say: ‘Well, OK, but I do. Let’s go.’”
5: Retain balance
“However, I will add one important caveat. While chasing your big vision, I believe you have to find balance. In the US, some work-life balance elements are skewed and, in my opinion, not sustainable. So, yes, articulate a big, bold, ambitious vision but make sure you are ethical, balanced and mindful in your approach to making it happen.”
6: Find your unique angle
“In tech, solving the customer’s problem is your priority. That must drive you all the time. So, at Whereby we constantly ask: ‘What is it that users feel they are not getting from Microsoft, Zoom or Google?’ Next, we consider how we can help those users to become successful on our platform. Ease of use is vital. Also, we know that people are looking for a video-meetings platform that’s different from the others.
“So, at Whereby we try to create feelings of ease and relaxation in our users. That’s how we stand out. There are many tech tools out there that overload their customers with features and scream at them to be more productive. We believe in simplicity and minimalism. In part, that stems from our company ethos. We love the idea of harmony and balance, so we’ve found a point of difference that feels natural to us.”
7: Start with the ‘trust battery’ fully charged at 100%
“The only way to build a successful tech company is, I believe, by leading with trust. In other words, don’t start with the ‘trust battery’ at zero and charge it up. Start with it fully charged at 100%. Then it’s up to everyone to make sure it stays at that level.
“Trust is so important because to succeed everyone must get the chance to drive forward, make decisions and fulfil their potential. In the past year I’ve had to become more hands-off to allow the company to evolve. To do that I’ve had to regularly remind myself that we’ve hired some great people who know what the next step should be ten times better than I do. As a leader that’s scary because you are moving away from your comfort zone. But it’s essential.”
8: Resilience is always required
“It’s a cliché but true that you need extreme resilience as a tech entrepreneur because you will – without a doubt – be hit in the face more times than you can count. You have to brush it off each time and say: ‘New day, new opportunity’. That was something I learned in my former sales career.
“Also, don’t listen to all the bullsh*t out there. Don’t pick up chatter from Twitter and think: ‘This is exactly how it’s going to be’. You have to learn from others but you must also trust your gut and your ability to build something incredible.”
Whereby is an exciting tech company on a hyper-fast growth trajectory. Its CEO is reacting to the lessons he’s absorbed over the past decade and he’s achieving – alongside his team – inspiring results. By sharing his insights with us here, he’s putting the powerful idea of ‘paying it forward’ into action – using his experience to assist you and thereby helping to build a more robust business ecosystem for all. There are many nuggets here – several applicable to all businesses, not just tech start-ups – but perhaps the most inspirational is point four. As a Norwegian brought up to respect the Law of Jante, it is particularly challenging for this CEO to articulate a big, bold, ambitious vision and shout it from the rooftops. However, his travels and experiences – particularly in the US – have shown him just how important it is to have such a vision. And when doubters question your vision – as they inevitably will – just remember: “You’re just going to have to live with that and say: ‘OK fine. Let’s go.’
Whereby has set sail. Let’s see how far it can get…