What I learned from my first startup

I joined my first startup in the summer of 2000. Not a good year for tech, but nevertheless a highly ambitious and inspirational group called NST. NST, or Nordic Speech Technology, was developing next generation speech recognition software and human-machine interaction via speech. Today, most know this as Siri.

At the time, this was truly groundbreaking stuff.

I got hired – while still running through school – to “be a business analyst”.  To NST, that meant work on strategy analysis and business planning. My job was something like;

– Lead strategy analysis for emerging technologies in speech technologies. 
– Write strategy analysis for advanced human-computer interaction market, industry and business opportunities. 
– Develop business plans for startup technology firm.

Still today, a pretty cool job by itself. Only difference. Today I have very different tools and I would do the job radically different. Radically.

On the very first day of the job, this was early June 2000, I was shown my office. Turns out, I would be sharing with two slightly older guys, just about to finish their Master’s degree in industrial economics. As I introduced myself and we got talking, I explained the job ahead of me.

“oh, cool”, one of the Industrial economics guys, cried out.
What he said next has stuck with me ever since.
“Which strategy tool will you be using? Porter’s, Pestel or SWOT?”

My reply at the time, “I haven’t decided yet’’.

The honest answer, however, was I had no idea. None.
At the time, I hadn’t done a single class on strategy. I hadn’t learned a single one of these tools, or any other for that matter. I was just coming off my first year bachelor studies in business & marketing, and all the strategy stuff would be in the third year.

But, with unlimited confidence in my own ability, I figured, how hard can it be?

So, I sat down, opened Google.com and typed “Strategy”.

The following weeks were spent digging into the available strategy literature available online some 13 years ago. I learned tons. The SWOT grew as my insight deepened. The PESTEL got more and more detailed. Porter’s Five Forces analysis revealed  the overly reliance of a single software supplier, should that company fold, NST would be left without their core technology platform; which of course happened a few years later.

But, all through this, a growing band among us, agreed that we needed “…something else”. Building a company like NST, with 250 highly skilled professionals, should be like building a true knowledge-driven company. Nestled among the Norwegian mountains at Voss (primarily a ski and extreme sports resort), NST management had managed to attract Professors of linguistics, highly advanced IT programmers from large European cities and of course, a number of IT programmers from Norwegian Universities. A hi-tech hub in the middle of a mountain village.

But the tools and the fundamental ideas behind the company were not. We were still left with industrial management principles and strategy tools made for large, established companies. As a Norwegian tech-startup, we were groping in the dark.

Later that summer, we came across two books. First, Ole Udsholt, brought back Lars Kolind’s book, “Vidensamfundet” (the knowledge society). A bit later we came across Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dillemma”. Combined, these two books sparked a very different discussion with Ole, Thomas Bilgram and others at NST. These two works held fundamentally different ideas for a company like NST.

But still, something was missing. Over the coming year (I worked at NST until August 2001), we were searching for a viable business model. We were searching for customers. We were searching for revenue streams. But, in reality we were not. In reality we were so obsessed with getting the technology to work. On developing and expanding our technology base. All through 2001 we failed at market and customer development. We failed at running experiments and we failed at iterate and pivoting as we failed fast to learn more.

A few years later, the company ran out of funds and shut down, after having blown through some$50 million dollar. But the technology worked fine…


Looking back, it’s easy to blame a number of reasons for the demise of NST. But one thing is clear. The board, the management, the business development team and me as a “business analyst”, we did not have the right tools for the job. We were trying to build a hi-tech startup using the wrong mind-set and the wrong tools.


Today we celebrate, yes, celebrate, the May issue of the Harvard Business Review. It’s dedicated to Entrepreneurship. Steve Blank’s “Why the lean startup changes everything” is an excellent piece of work.  Blank, Eric Ries, Alexander Osterwalder are three of the front-runners in the lean startup movement. For years they’ve been working to develop new tools and new ideas for building better startups.  Steve Blank shares his own reflections in When hell froze over.

Today, Elisbeth and I are developing Strategy Tools for the Next Generation. We firmly believe we need new strategy tools for the future.The next generation of leaders, entrepreneurs, risk takers and pirates need new tools to master strategic innovation.We’re also fortunate to  be a part of a larger movement in Norway, around the Startup Weekeend. A fantastic event, network and startup energizer.


Tonight we jump on the plane to Berlin for the Business Design Summit where 250 visionary leaders come together to share, learn and develop the next series of hands-on, business tool.

None of this, of course, will change anything for NST. But our ambition is helping the future entreprenuers, risk takers and pirates develop wildly successful start-ups or internal ventures. To do this, we need radically different tools than the SWOT, The PESTEL and Porter’s.

They exist. And you can start by reading the most recent HBR issue.

What I learned from my first startup

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