Growing with the Ecosystem
Founder and CEO at Nyby
Since 2002, Fredrik Gulowsen has founded three companies and two non-governmental organizations (NGOs), not to mention establishing a vocational training program in Central Asia, participating in several fundraising campaigns and managing two global market entries. The experienced founder comes from a time before the French word “entrepreneur” was freely used. Over two decades ago, Norwegians would use the word "inventor." "This was before it was cool and hip to be an entrepreneur," he says. "It was almost embarrassing to tell other people that we were like inventors. The ecosystem was happening behind closed curtains, and people focused on patents – everyone believed patents were the way to success. It was a strange thing to be."
In reality, however, the identity and labels are not important to Fredrik. "For me, and most people I work with, it's about solving problems. That might mean building a product or starting a company to solve that problem, and then you become an inventor, entrepreneur, businessman, or whatever. Or a social entrepreneur, a tech entrepreneur. Why do we need to label it? The important part is the problem we're solving." The first problem he was focused on solving was to improve the conditions of street children in Kyrgyzstan by focusing on vocational education with an NGO called Solidarity Norway Kyrgyzstan. As a cofounder and managing director between 2002 and 2006, he raised US$2 million through the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, implementing projects with the United Nations Development Programme before handing over the program to Kyrgyz authorities. He also cofounded Utdanningshjelpen, an NGO raising capital to provide education for children in Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique and Ethiopia; and Oda (formerly known as Kolonial), Norway’s leading online grocery store), an online grocery platform from 2011, years before the pandemic boosted services like Flink, a German on-demand delivery service; not to mention Evacuaid AS, a production and development company supplying safety appliances to fire brigades, offshore facilities, mines and heavy industries; and Skyfall Ventures, a Norwegian early stage investment firm. Today, his focus is on Nyby, founded in 2015, a task-sharing platform that enables healthcare employees to free up time and get more support by sharing tasks across departments and organizations.
Certainly, there must be a secret to founding so many successful companies? For him, the most important thing is to try and kill any ideas before you have the chance to fall in love with them. "I spent at least seven years on what was a niche idea and not big enough to justify a whole company or even that much time. We were only looking at the positives and were afraid of the reasons not to go ahead with it. But in hindsight, my cofounder and I could have asked the killer questions before. Why would this not be possible? If the idea passes that test, it's a robust one, and you can work with it."
Sometimes, you can't ask users what they want. If you're working on something new, they might not know that they want it. Sometimes, we put too much effort on topics that are not important.
Many founders fall in love with their idea, and Fredrik believes that there is a lot of power in great schemes, "but the idea is maybe five percent compared to the ninety-five percent of the execution. And if you are the type of person that gets ideas on how to solve problems then you will not just get one idea, you will get many ideas throughout your life," he says. The best strategy is to kill the bad ideas so you can spend time on ideas that are good. "When you try to kill them and they die, then you open up space for new ideas and a more robust concept. Building a company, selling a product, it's a struggle, a lot of work. You have to work on something you can't not do."
That was the case with Nyby, which translates to “new village” in Norwegian. After a personal loss, Fredrik was reflecting on how the carer model is organized in Europe, and on the pressure on the healthcare system with the demographic changes. He considered it in light of his political-science background, and he wondered why healthcare was organized in silos. "We have this sector under serious pressure,” he says, “and at the same time, more people without jobs or suffering from loneliness. These are huge societal challenges, but they are treated as separate problems. But what we do is to enable organizations to work together through collaboration networks. By connecting the problems instead of isolating them, different sectors can help each other to solve more issues, more effectively. We're mission-oriented, not just a tech company. We want to solve a problem, and we need tech for that. And we don't forget we have a profit target in order to attract investors and to scale."
Helping municipalities, hospitals and large healthcare organizations enable task sharing, Nyby supports the healthcare sector in creating collaboration networks to manage underutilized resources in unemployment offices and a shortage of workers. "With an aging population and not enough healthcare workers, the healthcare system can enter a crisis such as the UK's, where the welfare states pull back, resulting in poor services and a lack of staff. The likely scenario is that the gap will be filled with paid services for the rich. The backbone of the Nordics and Europe has been universal healthcare, and in order to achieve that, we need to think totally differently and involve more people in healthcare. We can use this demographic shift to become a better society where everyone can contribute to improving healthcare. We can move from scarcity to abundance. This is why it's such an important decade to show examples of how we can think abundance and network effects."
In the seven years since its founding, Nyby has had a fantastic reception: the public-sector clients were able to prepay several thousands to participate in the development of the product. At the time, there wasn't even a prototype available, just a PowerPoint presentation. But that doesn't mean that there weren't challenges. "There's a distance between the applause and the contracts," he says. "You could call it founder anxiety, but it’s also citizen anxiety because I'm so frustrated about the disconnection in the public sector. It's so slow. It's a huge sector, extremely important, especially in the Nordics, because it's such a huge part of our economy. The fact that it is slow-moving is disturbing to me. It takes a lot of grit from our team and our customers to continue working."
With lean startups, you test something, and if it doesn't work, you test something else. That kills the passion. It's also three times more expensive and takes longer to succeed.
For a long time, the team held their expectations for a faster process, but experience has led them to acknowledge the slow pace as part of the industry and adapted their operation to fit with the public sector buy-in timing. "This means larger contracts and building up consultancy and service design as a beachhead for selling the software. We need to work together with these large organizations, acknowledging the complexity of what we do and how complex it is for them. It's about being partners on strategy and tactics and technology rather than simply online technology."
His successful companies and NGOs show the evolution of the Norwegian startup system. When he started, back in 2002, the Oslo ecosystem couldn't have been more different, with the "inventors" keeping their ideas safe behind closed doors, protecting their future patents. "The dynamics, including in the investor market, was different. The knowledge about founding a company was different too. Before we hit the stage the ecosystem is at now, there was a middle phase when it was cool to be an entrepreneur, which was great because it attracted a lot of people to the city. But some of those people just wanted the lifestyle of entrepreneurship; they thought it would be freeing…when really, it's a lot of hard work. Now, we're focusing on keeping the cash flow positive, which is a necessary wake-up call after the bloating economy we experienced for some years."
The evolution of the Oslo ecosystem, especially in the past five to ten years, has increasingly helped him become a fan of the Norwegian capital. "Norway has become a lot more continental. Better food, more culture, more interesting people, more immigration, more openness. Socially, it's fantastic: it has low inequality, which makes it very safe. And we're so close to nature, so close to the ocean. On the other hand, it's still embarrassing how narrow-minded many Norwegian companies are when it comes to requirements such as speaking Norwegian. But I think we are moving the right direction." His most recent venture is as a founding member of the Oslo branch of the Conduit, a collaborative community committed to creating a just, prosperous and sustainable future. With entrepreneurs, investors, creatives, business leaders, activists, civil-society leaders and policymakers as members, it reinforces Fredrik's mission-oriented passion and highlights Norway's strength in sustaining positive impact. Oslo’s ecosystem, once behind secretive curtains, is now open to collaboration, regardless of the label, promising to solve some of our society's most pressing issues.
[Flash Q & A]
How old were you when you started your first company?
I was 21.
What are your favorite books?
Give and Take by Adam Grant and Zero to One by Blake Masters and Peter Thiel.
Most used app?
What do you do every day to get ready for work?
I drink lots of water.
What restaurant would you recommend?
Punjab Tandoori, especially in the summer.
What's your favorite coffee shop?
Babbo Collective, very close to where I live.
What's your favorite thing to do on the weekend?
I have a sailboat, so I like going sailing. Or simply to have no plans and invite myself to my friends' places.
What's the one thing every newcomer in Oslo needs to get?
What's the one thing newcomers should be aware of before they get to Oslo?
Many people think that Norwegians are closed-off and don't want to do small talk. But it's not like that; they just don't start it. If you just start saying “hello” or “wow, the bus is late” or whatever, many Norwegians will love it and will talk back.