Stephan F. Ekbergh is a Swedish entrepreneur best known for his pioneering work in the online travel industry. He is the Founder of Travelstart, one of the biggest online travel agencies in the emerging global markets, that has a web-presence in multiple countries in Africa as well as Middle East and Asia.
My Definition Of Success | I used to be a professional DJ for 10 years. I was super picky about the places I worked at because I had my own type of music which didn’t depend on the charts. I got my groove from the NY scene and later what happened in Chicago and elsewhere. To me it was important to play what I liked and what got me going. Many places hated my guts because they didn’t understand my music, but the hip places, they loved me. Doing what I love to do and getting people to pay for that and dance their butts off – that defined my success back then.
Later I think success for me was taking basically nothing and making something that people like to the degree that they are willing to pay for it. Nowadays it’s the same but with people. Taking basically anyone and making them fly. That excites me. But at the end its about the same thing – doing what I love, getting people to pay for it, making people dance, making people happy – dance is a shortcut to happiness and its effects are largely underestimated and not properly understood.
I Am Driven By | I think everyone is driven to a degree by something they need to prove – to themselves, their parents, the school teacher, the bullies, friends, enemies and what have you. I believe these are negative drivers but need to be satisfied by something tangible like wealth or fame or winning one way or the other. What drove me in the early days was simply: independence and doing what seemed to matter to me. In the process I also wanted to kill some demons meaning all those who didn’t believe in me, bad school grades and unhealthy inferiority complex. Later it became a financial thing: first to provide for the family, then buying the dream house and the dream toys. What drives me now is completely different. I now want to build something awesome and in the process change people, build careers, mentor entrepreneurs and touch people on a big scale and hopefully learn lots. I haven’t cracked it yet though and I’m far from where I want to be. Learning hurts and requires discipline
The Difference Between Good And Great | Its simply focus. Truly great people are terribly focused which is an asset that I don’t have. But if you look at truly successful people they often have/had miserable lives, Michael Jackson, Lance Armstrong, Woody Allen and on and on. For me balance is everything, and I agree with Oprah who said that “you can have everything in life, not just all at once”. I have a wise friend who says that most people never take time to figure out what they want in life, what truly make them happy. I don’t have one thing that makes me happy. I want all of it and I want the balance. I want the life, the imprint on the world around me and the career and the financial reward and if I can achieve this on my own terms then I’m happy and I am great – In my own book.
A Key Talent | I like to say there are two traits and then two relationships that have served and formed me.
First, I have always been quite a bit naïve; it’s a great quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuitable you are to do what you’re about to do. I have been naïve in believing that you could build a multibillion rand company with no external capital when you’re up against well-funded players. I’ve been naïve in believing I could create superstars out of people with no school or natural ability, I’ve been naïve in trying to build ‘kick-ass’ technology solutions with very little means and on and on. The second trait is perseverance which is a great replacement for talent. Talent is overrated anyway. If you train twice as hard for twice as long with as your peers and if you constantly move your endgame forward, your chances grow exponentially. Naivety and perseverance have served me well.
I also have two special relationships that have carried and formed me over the years. First is my relationship with Jesus. I came to know him when I was 30 and it turned my upside down and still does, when and if I listen, which I should do more of. Early years of my company I spent more time in the office toilet on my knees asking for advice and pleading for mercy, because I had no clue how to do stuff. I try to live according to the ways of Jesus, but fail often. But he is my real hero and role model in everything.
The second relationship is my wife, she’s quiet and has always been at home with our children but she knows me and can tell right from wrong. When it came to all major decisions in life she was always the one who knew best, when I had no clue. She encouraged me to start Travelstart, she was the driving force behind the family decision to move to South Africa, how to raise our girls and many other things where she ran the initiatives. After 23 years we still love to hang out together.
My journey is very different from most people’s, but if I would condense it down to some simple life lessons I would say that following your heart, resisting following the crowd, daring to resist ‘general’ knowledge and ‘best practice’ are always good ones.
Don’t play it safe or you will get safe results with low yield.
Choose life! Life is more than work; life is relationships, health, romance, exploration. Most “entrepreneurs” end up living a life as a slave to investors, crazy meeting schedules, demanding staff and customers and its completely the opposite what they were after in the first place.
Whatever you do you don’t give up. Count the costs and make sure your spouse is with you all the way and just go for it.
Make sure you get to know your weakness and strength and play those against each other.
Fight your demons and remember your biggest obstacle is not the world around you; it’s you and your own inability.
Then there are millions of other things to think about such as, knowing your industry better than your competition, paying your bills on time, always being honest, having a safety net of friends when you crash, hiring the right people and bla bla but you can read about that everywhere.
Principles I Live By | There are many rules that we all know: Treating people like you want to be treated – Golden rule. Karma, what goes around comes around etc.
But last couple of year I have been working and meditating on the spoken word. The Bible says that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” I believe that the words we speak will be an asset or a liability. It will be one or the other. I think we have the ability to bless and curse and speak into life or death. What does this mean? It means you and I have the ability to create the world around us by the way we speak.
Critical Skills I Develop | During my 10 year tenure as a DJ I learned how to read people. In those days I had to read the whole crowd to know what the moods where so I could make them happy and get them up on the floor. After some years I knew exactly what was going on. I knew who was going home with whom, just by look at the crowd. I knew who was happy (not many!) and who was not.
I have used this over the years in selling, in marketing, in presentations. The needs in the business world are the same. People want to know they’re ok and they want a bit of hope in their work and their relationships.
I know how most people are doing in my company by just walking around in the office. I often know when girls are pregnant even before they know it. I know when people are going to resign before they know it.
Some people call it gut feeling or intuition. I think this can be trained and you just have to be sensitive enough, because as much as I’m right often I can sometimes be completely out there. Also having this kind of intuition can be like a double-edged sword. For instance when you have a colleague who cannot perform. I can see his qualities and gifts, I know they are there, but I cannot for my life release them because somehow they have blockers, often mental. You finally have to let them go and you know the anguish they are going through and you feel the same thing, while you know that they really should be able to fly and do this easily. That’s a nightmare.
Lessons I Have Learnt | There are many, many, but let’s talk about money and mistakes.
Money: I must have heard hundreds of times from aspiring entrepreneurs that they need more money to do this and that. I started Travelstart with 25.000 USD, with that I needed to support a family with 4 kids and start a tech company. I did almost a hundred investors presentations, apparently all bad because I didn’t manage to raise a single dollar. We were up against local and international competition with tens of millions of dollars. We managed to beat all of them through cunning tricks and fierce execution and my most charming ways to get suppliers to extend credit lines and give us advance payments. I believe we were at our best when we, as a company, had nothing but drive. As years have gone we have made lots of money but somehow I don’t think we necessarily got better.
Mistakes: People always talk about how to avoid mistakes, risk assessments, not doing the same mistakes more than once etc. etc. But when you are up against big competition you should be more worried about making fewer mistakes than others. I call it velodrome biking. You can do well staying behind your competition waiting for their stupid mistakes. So you don’t need to be smarter just a bit less stupid than others. Stupidity mostly happens when: there are many investors involved, when big money is involved, when a merger happens, when management changes. When they over-reach and want too much.
Travelstart would not have been where we are today if my global competition weren’t doing all the mistakes they have been doing.
Dealing With Doubt | In 1990 I had built up a quite substantial business. But it grew so big, so fast that I started to get scared and, instead of believing that we were doing fantastic, I was gripped with fear what would happen if I failed. I was thinking all the time, this is too good to be true, this can’t last. I thought that every day. So I sold 91%, too cheap, too fast, to the largest real estate company in Sweden at the time. They had tens of billions of cash in the bank. A year and a half later they went bankrupt and dragged me and all subsidiaries with them and I lost everything. That was a turning point for me. I realized that my negative thoughts dragged the company down – not the real estate bankruptcy.
I somehow connected the dots of thoughts – actions – results.
I was also coached by a Swedish friend, Ola Ahlvarsson,, on how to actively resist negative thoughts which had a profound impact on me.
I count my blessings. I think back over the years of how things have just exceeded my expectations. I rarely mess with fear and doubt any longer. I have learnt to doubt my fears and believe in my dreams.
The Meaning Of Life | Do something that really interests you, something you preferably love. Do it with people who are your complete opposite. Don’t focus on getting rich. People whose main interest is money are dead boring. If you want to build wealth do it slowly, bit by bit, and once you have it, then figure out a way to give a big portion away.
Remember that money is a really important thing in life and it’s full of life – like a grain of wheat. You must always use money as ‘seed’ for something new and better. If you co-operate the right way with money it will come your way, harder and faster than you know.
Try to make the world a bit better and safer. Help the poor, the sick, support the things that eradicate injustice and plagues.
The Legacy I Would Like To Leave | I would love to touch as many people as possible with hope and encouragement with the message that they (we) are unique and joy will be found only when entering into one’s true destiny. That means exploring your talents and taking risks.