What Does Serendipity Have to Do with Entrepreneurship?

9 min read
14 Nov 2023

Interview with
Anjali Bhatnagar,
CEO and Founder at Tørn

After completing her bachelor in physics from the University of Delhi, she had wanted to continue her studies abroad, with the US as her first choice, but an acquaintance working at the University of Oslo suggested she apply there, as he was enjoying his experience as a guest professor at the university. “And maybe it was destiny or something, but I applied and got a full scholarship, which I depended on because I didn’t have the resources to finance it myself,” she says. As her master’s became a PhD, she started learning Norwegian and, out of her own interest, took extra courses on Norwegian society and history. “Things happen like that when you move to a new country at a very young age. I had a Norwegian boyfriend, then we got married. It’s a regular story. From the very first instance, I’ve always felt at home in Oslo, so I stayed. It does not happen to everybody; it depends on who you are as a person…. Sometimes things just fall into place.”

After finishing her PhD, Anjali moved into corporate life. For almost 20 years, she worked with technology and product development in several international companies, including Telenor, a Norwegian majority state-owned multinational telecommunications company; Geodata, a technology company that develops geographic information systems software; Creuna, the leading customer-experience agency in the Nordic region; Halogen, one of Norway’s leading design consultancies; and Design Without Borders, an independent nonprofit foundation creating solutions to challenges in the developing world. As she stepped down as CEO at Design Without Borders in 2016, she wanted to take a break and figure out what she really wanted to do next. “Throughout the years, the feeling that I wanted to work on something of my own had been growing,” she says. “I didn’t have an idea of what it would be, but working in product, concept and technology development for twenty years really gives you the best practices on these topics. I wanted to build something of my own with those learnings.”

Her interest in second-hand clothing led her to founding her first company in 2016, SoBo Community, bringing new marketplace concepts for sustainable fashion consumption. With sustainability as mission, she developed a couple of marketplace concepts to optimize precious resource usage, including Something Borrowed, a fashion rental network, and Parampara, an online marketplace collecting the best vintage fashion stores from all over the Europe. “You have an idea to start with and then you see the feasibility and viability of that idea,” she says. “And then you see, okay, your idea was not supposed to work in its original form. Then you change it and you change it and you change it to adjust to the market conditions and how mature the market is.” At the end of 2019, SoBo was operating in six countries and had an investor and several suppliers, but it lacked the sales volume to make it profitable. “It didn’t scale,” she says. “Marketplaces are only supposed to work if you get a lot of supply and a lot of users in a short time. I had never worked in fashion before. I learned a lot about what it takes for marketplaces to work, what questions I should have been asking, which problems I am solving, and so on. After almost three years, I took it down with a very heavy heart.” Anjali assumed her entrepreneurial journey was done and prepared to go back to employment.

While job hunting, she read an article in an Oslo newspaper about the waste generated by the building and construction industries. “Again, serendipity,” she says. The article was about the amount of waste connected to surplus or deadstock, which led to a lightbulb moment. “At that point, I had a fully functional marketplace. I had the know-hows. My hypothesis was that a retailer with a deadstock has a potential buyer but does not have access to that buyer. If we make all deadstock and surplus available in one place, it will make it easier to connect sellers with potential buyers. Maybe this could be the solution to solve the waste problem? I was almost signing a new job contract, but I managed to put it on hold and gave myself three months to develop the concept. If I was able to create a prototype and sell it in that time, I would continue.” Otherwise, she didn’t want to carry on with the uncertainty and hard work that entrepreneurship could bring. 

Anjali Bhatnagar — photo by Stephanie Sikkes

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.

The result was Tørn, a new concept she has now been running since 2020. “I signed up an agreement with a retailer chain in Norway three months after I got the idea, and it took off from there.” At Tørn, customers can find all types of building and DIY materials that supply stores would otherwise have not been able to sell. Since it is surplus or deadstock, the goods are available for purchase for a fraction of the price and avoid waste at the same time.

Interestingly, both Tørn and SoBo address similar issues in different industries, but one quickly became more successful than the other. “I think you need to address problems that are big enough and important enough for many. And all that learning from one failed startup came handy, because I didn’t make the same mistakes again. Of course, we have made new mistakes.” But, she notes, this is part of the process: having new problems to consider and new challenges too. “The fashion industry is already struggling at many fronts. In the building and DIY industry, the surplus and deadstock for a retailer may constitute as much as eight percent of their inventory, and this is an industry that sells for nearly sixty billion kroner yearly just in Norway.” That’s around fifty million euros in market value. “It makes sense, in this industry, to have a middle player like Tørn. In second-hand fashion industry, transaction sizes are small, margins are not enough for new players to take part in value creation, and there is too much competition with many traditional players. I wasn’t aware of a lot of these mechanisms. In startup journeys, timing plays a big part. A lot of things have to come together at the same time.”

Since the beginning, Tørn’s focus was on the sellers. “If we get supply in, we are able to sell it. It goes fast because of the quality of goods and very good deals.” She notes that the design and development is focused on making the experience for sellers effortless. “We work on getting insights from our users, understand the problems and opportunities, and build prototypes to test functions early on. This way, we ensure that every function we develop has an impact for our customers and therefore on our business. It’s very agile,” she says, before apologizing for the buzzword. “We also invested in data collection, analytics and business intelligence for predicting the impact and effect we could expect.”

Scaling up a startup naturally comes with an unusual dose of uncertainty and pressure, but previous experience can make dealing with anxiety a lot easier. “I went into entrepreneurship at a grown-up stage, and that means I have an established habit of not really worrying about things that I don’t have control over,” she says. “I have become a lot better at noticing the signs of exhaustion.” 

Make this work for your customers, design a solution to work as effortlessly as possible. Because if it becomes an effort, suppliers may start throwing materials away instead of selling them.

To Anjali, painting is one of the ways she takes time off and recharges herself from long workdays or stress. “It’s something I recently took up again. I have a little studio at home that I go back to. Reading and writing also help me to condense my ideas, to take things out of my head.” She publishes some of those writing on Medium. She also makes sure to be social with loved ones, spending quality time with friends and family. 

People, she says, are crucial to building a good company. “I have been a solopreneur, but with Tørn, I was able to build a team very quickly. That’s my advice for other founders: connect with people that you can talk to when you have things to discuss. MESH, in Oslo, was very helpful to me when I was working with SoBo, but I don’t have the time I did before.” Now, however, she relies on a network built throughout her almost three-decade-long career. “I have such a long background behind me. I know people in all kind of industries and fields that I now can reach out to. I’m really fortunate with that.” And to give back, Anjali frequently connects to newcomers to the city and the ecosystem. She is happy to listen to their ideas or worries, and to offer advice. “It’s a very open community, and you can always rely that people will accept your request to meet or simply talk to.”

After thirty years in the Norwegian capital, it’s safe to say that Anjali is still in love with the city. “You can walk through the whole city in a couple of hours. You can access the sea, the forest, the river, the hills…. It’s very scenic and vibrant. So much has changed since I moved to Norway; it became a lot more international, and the cultural scene is thriving. You can always find new paths to explore, even if you’ve been here for three decades. It’s a type of familiarity that I really love. At heart, I feel more Norwegian than Indian.”

Anjali Bhatnagar — Photo by Stephanie Sikkes

[Flash Q & A]

What's your favorite book?
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Do you have a favorite podcast?
Adam Grant's Work Life.

What is your most used app?
LinkedIn and Slack.

What do you do every day to get ready for work?
Writing for 15 minutes.

‍[City Recommendations]

What's your favorite place to do some creative thinking?
A walk along the Akers river. You can make that walk as long as possible, from half an hour to three hours. 

Do you have a favorite museum?
The new National Museum. It has a good historical and classic collection and great contemporary exhibitions as well. 

Do you have a favorite coffee shop?
I have many. I like to keep exploring new ones. I like Sentralen because it's close by and there's a lovely startup vibe.

What restaurants would you recommend?
On the lower range, a Thai café at Bislet called Tasty Thai. On the more of the medium range, a Szechuan restaurant called Dinner. And on the more high-end side, Les Benjamin, a French bistro.