Nurturing Entrepreneurship in Copenhagen
Cofounder at Future Five
Kasper Hulthin comes from a long line of entrepreneurs making their mark on the Danish business landscape. His great-grandfather invented a type of plough, which started a family business that his grandfather and father took over the next century. Inspired by the family's rich entrepreneurial history and the wish to improve the world for the generations to come, Kasper founded Future Five, a venture capital firm looking to develop pioneering ideas in the climate, food and educational sectors. That wasn't, however, his first entrepreneurial adventure.
Starting his entrepreneurial journey as a serial founder in Copenhagen, Kasper has been through a fascinating tale of ups and downs. After studying at Copenhagen Business School, he founded a company with a friend, which experienced both success and setbacks. However, the financial crash of 2008 dealt a blow to their company, prompting him to explore other opportunities. Fate led him to cross paths with the founders of Podio (Jon Froda, Anders Pollas and Andreas Haugstrup Pedersen), and he joined them in building the now-renowned collaboration platform back in 2009.
"I guess I just always wanted to start on my own," he says. As a student, he tried to decide what to do once university was over and asked different people for advice. "I kept asking, What should I do? And depending on who you ask, you get a different answer. At the end, I deleted all my emails about job offers and thought, Why am I not asking myself this question? And that was pretty simple."
At that time, his entrepreneurial journey was only starting. Now, fifteen years later, he says that his best decision was to start his first business, and the second best was to close it. The experience with his first startup taught him to align his business with emerging trends, and this proved crucial to the success of subsequent ventures. Additionally, he emphasizes the significance of getting the small things right in a business, even if they may seem tedious. "I've learned a lot, and you do get better along the way if you apply the learnings from your mistakes," he says. "But I'm still making mistakes. It's funny because the excitement of creating something never goes away."
I’ve learned a lot, and you do get better along the way if you apply the learnings from your mistakes.
Reflecting on his businesses, Kasper highlights the importance of timing: his first business closed its doors in 2008, mostly due to the financial crash, but also because it was an analog business at a time when the world was increasingly turning to digital solutions. Podio, however, was more aligned to the zeitgeist: it was one of the first collaboration platforms in the software as a service (SaaS) area. "Nowadays we have Slack and Notion and whatever, but we built Podio before that, when people still had FTP drives and emails on servers,” he says. “We had help because the 2010s were about Google, Facebook, the other movements that were going on. When we moved on to build Peakon, we also hit the timing quite well."
Peakon was founded in 2015 with Phil Chambers, Christian Holm and Daniel Rogers. The initial mission was to create a company they actually wanted to work for, and so the employee-engagement platform was born. "No one had touched HR for ten years. Then, suddenly, people realized that we needed to make HR more data-driven and in real-time," he says. "Obviously we weren't the only ones, but it drove the market forward. It gets a lot easier if you want to surf inwards, not outwards, right?" Peakon was acquired by Workday in March 2021, and he credits timing for part of its success.
"I wouldn't want to be the new people now," he says. Now that it’s relatively easy to start a company, he sees small windows of opportunity to create winning business in selected industries, but the competition is tough. "Over time, of course, you get better at spotting these opportunities."
The other secret ingredient to building a successful business? Kasper is a strong believer in getting even the small things right. He recalls his previous experience in a furniture company: "People wanted to acquire it, but our partner jumped out of the deal at the last minute and wanted to take it all himself. It ended badly. It's not fun to talk to lawyers or do policies or whatever, but business is business, and you need to do the small things right, even the boring ones." No entrepreneur wants to fall into the spiral of thinking if only we had done this or that. His advice, he points out, comes from bitter experience: "I'm not trying to be smart for you. One of the reasons Peakon went well was because we did the small things right. There was no magic around it."
If you have a big enough vision, you can attract the best people in the world. So it comes back to what you dare to believe in.
Looking at another Peakon example, entrepreneurs can find one of the final pieces to building a successful business: the critical role of people. He urges aspiring entrepreneurs to be ambitious when choosing their team, emphasizing the power of a shared vision to attract top talent. "I also ended up with businesses that didn't work out because we lacked the right people, which is, obviously, the biggest cliche of all," he says. "But if you have a big enough vision, you can attract the best people in the world. So it comes back to what you dare to believe in." And those believers don't necessarily need to be the young and eager enthusiasts of startups and new work. "Maybe it's just because I'm getting older, but I think there's something to be said about experience. People matter, but be really ambitious with your team." Hiring new team members for their potential might be good, but experience should be louder.
Throughout our talk, it became evident why Copenhagen holds a special place in the heart of our serial founder: all of his businesses started in the Danish capital. The city's unique combination of a high quality of life, a flat and direct working culture, and efficient digital infrastructure creates a nurturing environment for startups. "I don't think you find anywhere easier in terms of digitalization. Copenhagen is very efficient, with a low transaction cost, and it’s a nice place to be. One of the amazing reasons why we stayed here is that Denmark is quite unique in terms of developers: high-skilled and with high loyalty compared to other places at more reasonable costs. Not to mention that our school system teaches people to think critically and be creative. It's kind of how the system works."
For young entrepreneurs looking to start their journey, Kasper's advice is simple: enjoy the journey. It has taken the founder ten years to understand the meaning of that sentence, and he is quick to admit that he rarely listens to his own advice. "I do think I can enjoy the journey a bit better now," he says, noting that success lies not only in the destination but also in embracing the challenges and joys along the way. "I don't want to sound old, but I've been doing this for fifteen years. There's definitely been a mental shift. In the beginning, it is just you, and you fight with your nails and teeth. You work all day, all night. I don't see that happening anymore.” There's effort in building a business, yes, but it doesn't need to be one hundred hours a week. There might be sacrifices along the way, but there's also a middle ground. "You can work hard and still enjoy it, even if that balance is hard to find."
With Copenhagen's thriving ecosystem and an unwavering entrepreneurial spirit, the city continues to foster the growth of innovative startups, ensuring a bright future for generations of entrepreneurs to come. With a big mind and an enjoyable journey, Copenhagen can hold a lot of opportunities, not only for Kasper but other entrepreneurs as well. "We've never been a Danish business, neither Podio nor Peakon. For growth startups, Denmark is an amazing place to build from, but your vision needs to be global. That's not a problem. You can easily connect to the rest of the world from here."
[Flash Q & A]
At what age did you start your first company?
What are your top work essentials?
The usuals: laptop and phone.
What are your most used apps?
The best thing is the regular phone, old school.
Greatest skill as an entrepreneur?
I’m a people person, and I like to see people in organizations grow.
Where to go when you need to do some creative thinking:
The Frederiksberg and Søndermarken Gardens are amazing. It takes about an hour to walk the entire length.
Favorite coffee shop:
My favorite little joint is a place called Cadence.
Favorite weekend activity:
A trip to Louisiana if the weather is nice, combined with sitting outside with friends and a drink.
One thing you need to get when you arrive in Denmark:
A CPR number (Danish ID number). The most significant invention ever.
One thing to watch out for:
Bikes as you step out of the taxi.