Why This Founder Stepped Down From Leading His Company He Built for a Billion Users to Help Entrepreneurs Sail
Johan Brand lives on one boat and often works on another. In fact, when I met him on Monday afternoon, he'd just finished a video call on the EntrepreneurShipOne, docked off an Oslo fjord.
For Brand, the founder of behavior-design company We Are Human and Kahoot!, a Norwegian educational tech company that just reached a billion users this March, a boat isn’t just an important part of having grown up in a seafaring community like Norway; it’s a metaphor for business.
Sailing, says Brand, teaches teamwork and is invaluable for changing perspectives and guiding new behaviors. It’s a connection Brand learned from his father, a boat designer and business consultant, and an important part of how he built culture at Kahoot!
Brand left day-to-day operations at Kahoot! this spring and is now focusing on growing other startups through his mostly self-funded platform, EntrepreneurShipOne. Launched last year the pay-it-forward platform for new startups docks near key events and brings key people from the tech community together. Meanwhile, the ship partners with new companies in the Nordic startup community to help them with visibility, such as Blueeye Robotics, a company perfecting its one-of-a-kind arctic-tested underwater drone.
“It’s a different way to think about marketing. You dock the boat, have a few drinks on land, and all of a sudden, you have an event,” says Brand. “It’s not the usual tent you put up.”
Of course, the boat is first and foremost a floating metaphor. Brand took even that idea a little further by converting this 1986 X99 yacht from diesel to electric. The move was intended not just to showcase the potential of new technologies but to underscore how this boat works with -- and not against -- the elements.
Brand has plans to grow this platform and add more boats, possibly transforming into a co-working space on the water. This week, we caught up with Brand on the EntrepreneurShipOne to talk more about sailing’s lessons -- and what they can teach anyone about business.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Entrepreneur: Tell us more about this connection between sailing and business -- and how did you made this connection?
Brand: My dad was a consultant and an investor as well. He was also trained as a designer of boats. He used sailing analogies a lot for the way he talked about doing business. With sailing, you're taking the wind and harnessing it, and you're doing something about it -- you're getting on your course. When I started my companies I used the sailboat as a team building exercise.
Entrepreneur: What did those workshops look like?
Brand: I’d fly guys over from the UK [when I was building Kahoot! In England]. We'd all get on board here and I'd figure out who’d do what -- and who could teach what. Even if you know nothing [about sailing] you know something. For instance, one of our designers was a helicopter pilot. I had him take the navigation and teach the others. By the end of the day, he was the master, but then everyone else knew a little about navigation, too. Another guy was a kickboxer, but he'd also sailed a little bit before, so he looked after the rudder. Sailing out from the fjord, we got hit quite hard by the weather that day, but they all learned how to sail -- and mainly from each other.
Entrepreneur: How was this helpful at Kahoot!?
Brand: We’d translate that into the traditional work. If you're the main programmer, you also learn support. And because you know that sector, your own work improves. Having transferrable skills is so important in entrepreneurship -- understanding a job even if you're not doing it, having that empathy for what’s needed to get a job done. I use the boat to get people to understand that you don't have the be the best at what's going on in your company, but you need to understand it so that you can empathize with it.
Entrepreneur: You could just teach these lessons in the office. How is a sailboat especially powerful?
Brand: Another man I know helps leaders find meaning by walking in the mountains. It's about being faced with nature on your own. What you can get from sailing is this idea where you can't beat the wind. You can learn to sail with it. You can go upwind. The better you get with it, the more patience you have.
It's like boxing, as well. You can't get aggressive. The best boxers are really calm. If you get aggressive, then you fail. It's the same with sailing. You can't get angry with nature. You need to just ride it out. I think for a lot of team building, a lot of entrepreneurship, you learn to work with the forces at play.
Entrepreneur: What else can it teach?
Brand: Great entrepreneurs have to pick where they think they'll have the most impact for their skillset. It's the same with sailing. I constantly read the ocean and try to get people to understand when the wind is coming and when it's going to rain. It's the same with business. You need to understand the climate, to read the shifts, to know what's going on. And I think that has a lot to do with just awareness and perception. I honestly think that I have that because I learned that [sailing]. When people get trained on that they transfer it to life.
Entrepreneur: How do you apply that reading of the climate to a traditional office to move something forward?
Brand: At We Are Human, where we created Kahoot!, [the office] was on the ground floor of a building in East London where the windows faced the street and kids walked to school. Instead of being in an ivory tower at the top of a building, you're on the floor. You've very much immersed yourself in the world you're trying to help. So, if it's about getting disadvantaged kids to engage with technology, then you need to put yourself in that environment. I spend a lot of time reading how people feel, so we all really get [the problems we’re solving]. It's hard to design solutions for an environment you don't understand.
Entrepreneur: How does that impact how you lead your team?
Brand: A lot of designers, they're very particular --- they're not the biggest risk takers. So, they're not the ones you expose to the riskiest side of the business. You try and protect them. Same with the boat. You put those who love thrills and excitement where they can take chances. As a leader, you have to be sensitive to the world around you.
Entrepreneur: Does resilience factor in?
Brand: We are a seafaring country. We are often on our boats. This boat is completely self-sustainable. It generates power when it sails. The propeller spins, like a windmill, and puts energy back into the boat. The only thing you can't harness is the water from the rains. It's what understanding what sustainability really is; it's not magic.
A lot of companies, they look outside themselves to find solutions for everything. As entrepreneurs, you find you can usually make it work. If the sail rips on this boat, you can make it work. A company is the same. These are things that are hard to understand, but if I put people on the boat, they get it. People get more solution oriented. They're more likely to say, "Ok, I don't need to buy something new." I can work smarter this way or that way. There's this idea that by working with less you have more.
Entrepreneur: For folks who don't have a fjord or a boat at the ready, what can they do to get into that headspace?
Brand: It's about changing people's perspectives and getting people more comfortable with uncertainty. So many people don't do that. They walk the same way to work. If you want to have a new thought, change your way to work. You will have a new thought, I guarantee it. Take the back stairs to your office. If you always drink coffee, try a tea. You'll get new ideas. That's what happens on the boat -- you're constantly changing your environment, you're constantly changing your perspective. It’s about behavioral change -- finding something small that anyone can do.