Who Can Stand a Backseat Driver?

CEOs and Founders: How to Manage the Ride

In 2012, Johan Nilsson took over as CEO of Swedish CRM challenger Upsales, recruited by the founder Daniel Wikberg. During Nilsson’s five years as CEO, the company grew by 30 per cent year on year. Remaining hugely innovative and profitable, the company today has a turnover of 60 million SEK. But what went on behind the scenes between Founder and CEO? This is their story. 

 

 Daniel Wikberg & Johan Nilsson

 

When did you start working together?

Daniel: Johan Nilsson joined the company in 2010 after seven years at the global appliances manufacturer Electrolux. A friend told me that Johan was looking for a more dynamic and entrepreneurial company. Johan and I negotiated a deal where he would invest some money and become a partner and start off as VP of Sales, then later in 2012 become CEO.

Johan: Daniel said it would be hugely different from my experience at Electrolux. ”It’s not going to be what you think it will be”. It sounded motivational and a bit hair-raising. It did turn out to be completely different. It was action stations from day one: meeting bigwig customers in the morning and hurrying back to help new staff in the support team.

 

How did it feel to step down from your position?

Daniel: I imagined that I could work on some new projects, live my life the way I wanted, and function as an advisor/chairman and everything would be great! This was my first painful mistake. I had founded Upsales and identified with it. I just couldn’t let go.

 

Johan: In small companies, you don’t get rid of old tasks just because you become CEO. The sales budget was still on me as a former sales manager. At the same time, we recruited heavily and built several new departments. We quickly realised we needed some middle managers and luckily we had trained some very talented staff that could take leadership roles.

 

So what happened?

Daniel: I became the sales manager. One week I was leading the Monday meeting as CEO, then the next week I reported as sales manager to our new CEO Johan at that meeting.

 

Johan: And the week after that, Daniel is sitting with me at the board meeting (then in the capacity of the principal owner) and asks me why sales figures are low. We laughed. Staff wondered what Daniel would do in the end, because he didn't leave the CEO position to be Sales Manager forever. But we were busy and had growth goals and lots of work to do.

 

How many jobs were Daniel holding down?

 

Johan: For a while, Daniel was the sales manager, then CPO, then manager of our subsidiary salesboard.com, then responsible for launching our Advertising product Engage. Daniel has always been in charge of the technology side. It was not easy for Daniel to step back.

 

Daniel: After a year, I moved out of our offices and worked from another location. Until then, I was always asked about every small issue because that was the way it used to be. It was a transitional phase.

 

Johan: It took a while before customers realised that I was the CEO. Daniel was regarded as ”Mr Upsales”, but it was not essential that everyone in the market should know it immediately.

 

What was the real reason for switching roles?

Johan: I am inspired by taking responsibility within many areas and keep track of the bigger picture. The challenge triggered me as well as customers highly regard the company.

 

Daniel: I needed a break from 80-hour weeks and all the non-core stuff we had been doing the last few years.

 

Johan: Our viewpoints coincided. We always had high ambitions and believed in what we could achieve. We could challenge Microsoft and Salesforce and the rest of the big competitors in our market.

 

Daniel: I had forgotten what made the company successful in the first place. Johan reminded me of that. He spent his first weeks visiting existing and potential clients to get an understanding of why our customers want to work with us. After a few weeks, he sounded like a melody on repeat telling me what a great product we had. "We have an awesome product", "I can't believe we are not ten times bigger", "The clients f*cking love us!". Losing focus had also made me lose my self-confidence and belief in our offering. Johan restored that.

 

And this insight made you focus on core business?

Johan: Exactly. Six months after I joined the company we sold the telemarketing business and shut down the event and training business.

 

Daniel: This again made us a one hundred per cent software company, and we could direct all our efforts into building great software for sales and marketing professionals. The journey could begin.

 

Leading a growing tech company with competitors from all over the world comes with challenges. How did you cope with your different roles?

Daniel: I founded Upsales 15 years ago when I was 22 years old. I worked day and night out of my small apartment together with my partner who was studying engineering at Linköping University. We didn't have a grand vision about changing the world; we just wanted to create great sales and marketing software and run our own business. If you work round the clock with your product, you get a track record about every product and technology decision made from day one. You understand the exact strengths and weaknesses of the organisation. It’s both a blessing and a curse when hiring a CEO for a small growing company. I think we made it work very well, but I can also see it wasn’t always easy for Johan with me around the office so much of the time.

 

"My role was not to tinker with the engine; it was to put fuel in it." - Johan

 

Johan: I looked at Upsales’ offering from the customer's viewpoint, and that feedback had to reach the developers. I became more interested and knowledgeable about the technology. But I wouldn’t have managed without a CTO. My role was not to tinker with the engine; it was to put fuel in it.

 

And the dynamics worked well?

Johan: The advantages of working next to the founder are apparent, he is help for everything. But it can weigh you down. Sometimes we were working to grow the company together in partnership. Sometimes we were working as founder and employed CEO. It might have been a bit more clear cut, but I don’t know exactly how we could have achieved that.

 

Daniel: Maybe we should have chosen one way: either to work as a team or with a conventional CEO role. Now it was a little in between, and it could be counterproductive for Johan to work in this way. I realise that now. We had no proper discussion about this; the focus was on growing the company.

 

Upsales grew, and so did its reputation. How did that happen?

Johan: Upsales has strengthened its brand position further. Many respect it. It stands for something I like. Innovative, simple and pragmatic. No highflying corporate bullshit and no slow, inflexible software. Customers and team members are ambassadors. We have also fostered talented people in the company. If you have worked at Upsales, you are highly sought after in the labour market.

 

Daniel: The five years with Johan as CEO were very successful. We grew strong. Came even closer to customers and matured as an employer. I am of course biased, but it is a fact that we are very popular with staff and customers.

 

And then Daniel took over as CEO again. Why?

Daniel: Last year I received a $40 million offer for the business, one that I spent a lot of time considering. I finally decided to turn it down, since I see a potential to grow the business ten times in the coming three to five years. It also made me want to step back in as CEO to keep my hands on the helm, to be as involved as possible.

Johan: After eight years together, it's also natural to try something new. As Daniel became more clear about what he wanted to do, I felt it was the right time to go. I decided to start a new SaaS-business called Startdeliver. Startdeliver is the software I wished I had at Upsales – a tool for measuring, improving and engaging users and customers as a SaaS-vendor.

 

"In particular, we increased focus and structure, found exactly what we want to do with our business." - Daniel

 

Daniel: Today, I am in the right place as CEO. I have learned a lot from working close to Johan, also about myself. I have a different and maybe more healthy relation to Upsales. Today we are more mature as a company and organisation. A vital learning experience is that I now have made some changes in the organisation which can be noticed in the financial results. What's interesting is that Johan probably would have made the same moves if it wasn’t for me being around so much. Today the management team is more extensive, which makes the company even stronger. A new CFO and CIO, roles we didn’t have before. It also allows me to combine my work and family life. In particular, we increased focus and structure, found exactly what we want to do with our business. 

 

Any bad memories?

Daniel: All those irritating comments! "How does it feel not being CEO anymore" or the more frequent: "Must be nice not having to work anymore". I believe there are a lot of misunderstandings about how, and why people should or should not be CEOs of their own companies. To be honest, I often felt low. Johan had nothing to do with this. Johan is a close friend, adviser and partner, and the company grew and became stronger under his leadership. But Upsales is my creation. I was often worried.

 

"I believe there are a lot of misunderstandings about how, and why people should or should not be CEOs of their own companies." - Daniel

 

Johan: You can reach goals in different ways. I sometimes had one path in mind and Daniel another, where both ways would have worked on their own. It can become a Catch 22-situation if they are mixed. I think we managed this challenge quite well, but I also believe it held us back in some ways.

 

What would keep you awake at night?

Daniel: As an entrepreneur, there is no scenario where you are 100% happy with a CEO in your own company. The general thing is that nobody will do things exactly the way you think they ought to be done. You think they are doing it wrong, but it's just different. Over time I let go a little, although I never managed to relax. I was often worried.

Johan: Oh, I could go on and on about the worries I had! The most frustrating thing was how fast a month could go by when you were not meeting your sales target. Especially when you had promised a rebound. But there were, of course, more things on my mind: staff not performing, downtime, client churn and so on.

 

But also a sense of achievement?

Johan: If you do the small things in the right way every day and every week and every month, you get a considerable impact over time. That is a nice memory of the journey. You overestimate what you can do in a year, but underestimate what can happen in five years. If you do the right things continuously, the results will come. It often takes a bit longer, but always doing the right things a bit better, recruiting and developing people and having more folks to do it. Daniel is very good at giving feedback, and I've learned from it. Nowadays I can quickly spot a bad trend in someone and have learned to motivate with ease.

 

Daniel: We made several strategically crucial decisions. These ideas came because I had time to think while Upsales was zooming along with commander Johan inspiring the organisation. Johan has meant a lot for me and the company's growth. He has also made me grow as a person. Growing from a basement to almost 50 employees has been my real life MBA. Everyone who knows me knows that I am an avid reader of business books. I have read extensively on the subject, often testing what works at the office. My understanding has deepened over the last five years. Peter Drucker famously said the CEO is both composer and conductor. I agree. And it takes time learning how to conduct an orchestra. What he didn't say was that instruments and notes and players continuously change. 

 

What about your friendship?

Daniel: We are the best of friends. We are also doing business with Johan’s company Startdeliver that is very useful for us.

 

Johan: Yes, we are great friends. The experience I got from working with Daniel and Upsales is priceless and has been a massive part of my development.