Early Entrepreneurship and Self-care
CEO of Nordic Makers & Cofounder of Blue Lobster
Nima Tisdall might be young (she was featured on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2021), but her CV is of a well-seasoned entrepreneur. Along with Christine Hebert, she founded Blue Lobster in 2019, a digital marketplace that allows restaurants to source sustainable seafood directly from fishermen, making the process more sustainable and transparent. With a passion for impact innovation, advancing research commercialization, and forging strong connections among the Nordic startup hubs, she's also the CEO of Nordic Makers, a seed-stage venture capital investor fostering startup-ecosystem growth in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland.
Her accolades don't stop with these two jobs, however. She was recognized as one of the one hundred most influential women in Denmark by Berlingske, a Danish national daily newspaper. Nima is also actively involved in several influential boards within the innovation and startup realms, including positions at With Purpose, a startup school fostering female entrepreneurs, and the Green Development and Demonstration Program (GUDP), a substantial annual fund supporting green technology in agriculture and fisheries. She is also a Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative (YTILI) alumni, an initiative by the US State Department that fosters connections between startup ecosystems in Europe and the US.
To complete her impressive experience, Nima is also a Europe Leader at the Obama Foundation, a nonprofit organization on a mission to inspire, empower and connect people to change their world, and a member of the World Economic Forum.
Her success doesn't mean her entrepreneurial journey at Blue Lobster didn't have any obstacles. "There were two main challenges," she says. "The pandemic was one. Since most of Blue Lobster's clients were in the restaurant industry, it was a challenging phase. And on top of that, we're talking about an industry that's quite old school, quite traditional. There was a lot of resistance from people who didn't want the market to change." The pushback came from the fishing and the wholesale industry, who felt threatened by the independence and empowerment that Blue Lobster offered fishermen.
There are lots of small networks like pitch nights or Friday bar hangouts. Figure out where things are happening and mingle!
And what about having a non-EU cofounder? "Christine is American, and we had to undergo a lengthy visa application process. We got it in the end, and we know people have struggled more than we did. It's an additional stress factor. The Danish system is not welcoming to non-EU citizens, which was a challenge. I do see a lot of non-Nordic entrepreneurs, though." Nima believes that people who emigrate are incredibly entrepreneurial and that the courage of daring to move to a new country creates a strong base for entrepreneurship, but there are some cultural challenges they might encounter in the Nordic ecosystem. "Not speaking the language can be difficult, but it doesn't have to be limiting,” she says. “I think the social aspect can be more challenging, as Nordic countries are very kind but not necessarily friendly. Brace yourself for some bluntness." She also suggests looking for some social support outside of work life. "There are lots of small networks like pitch nights or Friday bar hangouts. Figure out where things are happening and mingle!"
Blue Lobster's more significant challenges came after the early stage, when they were ready to grow. "Broadly speaking, the Danish ecosystem seems to lack some ambition. We don't necessarily think international from the beginning; we don't focus on scaling the company to be global quickly. We had to go abroad for later fundraising rounds because of that. By not focusing on global growth, we can sometimes reinforce a conservative business-building mindset."
"Europe doesn't have a huge consumer market like the US," she says. "We have to realize and figure that out, if we're going to build companies in Europe that will be as big as the ones coming out in China and the US. Then we need to understand that our market is significantly smaller, at least nationally." By thinking of going internationally earlier in a startup’s growth, it's possible to keep up with the growing pace of these huge markets.
That desire to change the ambition and business mindset within the Nordic countries helped Nima to focus on her second job at Nordic Makers. (She's still involved with Blue Lobster, within the advisory board.) "My motivation for joining Nordic Makers was primarily personal. I had given Blue Lobster all I could, from a personal perspective, and was interested in exploring the ecosystem in-depth." Nima is an entrepreneur who enjoys wearing many hats and is happy juggling many projects at once. "The idea of being able to work with many startups through investment was just really exciting to me."
That's also the reason behind her work with so many other institutions supporting founders and entrepreneurs in Europe and the US. "At least in Denmark, we have a very open ecosystem and people are happy to give advice. Sometimes, you can get the answers to your questions just by asking someone who is an expert in a particular field." Through her work with Nordic Makers, With Purpose, and as part of the Obama Foundation, she can thoroughly support entrepreneurs across different development stages. "People fear going out and talking about their idea because they fear it will get stolen. And that rarely happens because people don't have the energy to go out and execute your idea," she says. "For entrepreneurs, the most important thing is to get started. Just get into it. Many people get stuck in the planning phase for too long. They're planning and planning and planning…, but you're only learning about your business once you've started executing."
Speak to people smarter than you, and get the customer side right and the sales right from an early stage. We're in the business of business.
Her other tips include talking to people who complement your skills and who know about topics that you might lack knowledge in. "The quicker you can find out what your weak points are, the faster you'll go out and fill those gaps as quickly as possible." And if you are not sure how to fill them, ask someone as soon as possible. "Surround yourself with people who can help you, and don't be scared of asking questions and sharing your ideas with people who know more than you. I know these things are obvious, but I see a lot of entrepreneurs shying away from this." But in the business of building businesses, it's about getting things done and keeping your purpose close to your heart. "I love building companies that have a bigger purpose than just profit, but having said that, every startup does need to earn money. In the impact area, I see people getting stuck between a charity and a business. At the end of the day, you need a core business model that actually works." If entrepreneurs make sure they're building something their customers want, adding value throughout the experience, Nima strongly believes that they can go far from the beginning.
"There's a high level of trust in Denmark," she says. In fact, it's one of her favorite things about working in the Nordic area. "People generally have good intentions and also assume other people have good intentions." The result? Transparent, frank conversations she enjoys being part of. "The trusting culture is a highlight for me." Copenhagen is a city that really wants entrepreneurs, which will guarantee that there are a lot of cheerleaders throughout the journey.
However, being a passionate entrepreneur is not an excuse to let go of your own well being. "The biggest lesson I take with me is to ensure that I really take care of myself,” she says. “There was a time when I thought if I worked really hard all the time, that would be good for the company." She no longer believes that self-sacrifice is good for the business. She now focuses on being well rested in order to do her best work, as it gives her the brainspace to be creative and think about her projects with some distance. “Self care has become a lot more important. Especially as a first time founder, it was difficult to realize that in the beginning. I just couldn't see it. I loved working, I loved my job, and I didn't really want to spend much time doing anything else. But a good work-life balance, at the end of the day, is the best thing for the company. You will lose that balance at some points, and that's OK too."
Nima is currently writing a book about founders and mental health, interviewing around forty entrepreneurs from Copenhagen about their trajectories. "We really glorify entrepreneurs. We haven't accepted that failure is going to be a large part of success," she says, and that can create a frightening environment for first-time founders and put pressure on the ecosystem in general. "In Denmark, we need to work on accepting that people are going to lose money in the pursuit of making money."
[Flash Q & A]
Biggest entrepreneurial lesson?
To ensure that I really take care of myself outside of work.
Anything by Malcolm Gladwell.
What are your most-used apps?
Airtable and Google Suite.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
Remember that how you spend your days is how you spend your life.
What’s your greatest skill?
Favorite place for a business meeting / on-the-go lunch:
Il Buco for meetings and Mums for on the go.
Favorite weekend activity:
Trying to enjoy Copenhagen as if I wasn’t from here.
One thing you need to get when you arrive in Denmark:
Bakery stuff. I love romkugler.
Favorite coffee shop:
Sidecar for brunch at weekends.
The David Collection and Friday Bars at Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK).