I am a Norwegian tech entrepreneur, living on planes and in airports, but based in Nairobi with my family.
My life changed beyond recognition in 2002 when, straight out of college, I landed in Nairobi for what was supposed to be a one-year internship. Since then, I have kept traveling back and forth on the African continent, and in the world in general. During those years, I have also lived in Lagos in Nigeria, and was about to move to Kinshasa in 2015. The whole story began in 1977 though.
I grew up in Orkanger, south of Trondheim in Norway. I was only a small kid then, but I have some very fond memories of the place.
At the age of 9, I moved to Nesodden, the place which really defines me.
Nesodden is a peninsula across the fjord from Oslo, reliant on the 25-minute ferry ride linking it to the city. Surrounded by water, and to a large extent covered by forest, this is basically a 62 km2 suburb with a population of only 16,000.
When my father landed a diplomatic job in Brussels in 1988, I was once again on the move. Those almost five years at the in the EU capital city ignited my passion for travel. Most of Western Europe was a short car ride away, and we were exploring the countries in the “neighborhood” almost every weekend. This was before Schengen, and the ability to skip queues at borders was a privilege we used for what it was worth.
For the first year and a half, I went to the Scandinavian School of Brussels. I kept learning French keenly, and eventually decided to move on to Lycée Français de Belgique. That was another life-changing decision I never regretted!
The Lycée Français system is far more learning intensive, and also more widely recognised for its quality than the public schools in the Scandinavian countries. The system is tough, for sure, but also inspiring. When we moved back to Norway in 1993, I stuck with the decision from three years earlier, and continued at Lycée Français d’Oslo.
Moving back to Norway from Brussels when the country was at the cusp of a referendum about EU membership, I threw myself into the campaign with a passion. I was the local chair of Europeisk Ungdom, the pro-EU youth movement at Nesodden during the campaign. Locally, we got more than 60%, but the country as a whole narrowly voted the wrong way, and is yet to correct that mistake. To date, I remain an unapologetic Euro-federalist.
Military Service at Andøya
Norway had, and still has mandatory military service for all men. At least in theory. Getting away is quite easy for those who don’t want to serve, but I wanted to! Military service is only mandatory for one year, and while complaints are expected, I enjoyed the experience. After a two-month boot camp at tthe Værnes Air Force Base, I got my deployment at Andøya Airport, as Security Police.
Andøya is primarily known for whales and northern lights, and for almost triggering WW3 in 1995, the year before I served, when a weather research rocket was misfired into Russian territory. A more-than-slightly inebriated Boris Yeltsin mistook the incident for a surprise nuclear attack from NATO, and later went on TV saying he had had his finger on the nuclear button. My months at Andøya were not exactly that action packed. It was certainly an exciting experience, in a spectacularly beautiful natural scenery, though.
After finishing my year in green clothes, it was time to think about my future. I had never really doubted that I wanted to go to business school, so the choice was easy.
BI Norwegian Business School is one of two major business colleges in Norway. They are locked in a perennial competition about international rankings, the most recognized professors, etc. BI is by far the most international one, though.
Siviløkonom, or Master of Business and Economics, is the flagship degree from BI. Norway transitioned to the international system of Bachelor/Master/PhD almost two decades ago. The siviløkonom title was so deeply ingrained that it is still in use, as a Norwegian term for the Master of Business and Economics title.
During my years in college, I played an active role in the student community, as a journalist in the student newspaper, Inside, and later as Head of IT of the whole student union. I was also a in the International Committee, and of the Yearbook Committee (yes, those dreaded pictures coming back to haunt you. Blame me! 😆)
Towards the end of my years at BI, I was craving an opportunity to expand my horizons again. Getting away from Norway wasn’t enough. I wanted to try something in a non-Western country!
The next big opportunity!
The opportunity came almost out of the blue. The local chapter of AIESEC was one of the most active committees under the student union. When they announced an internship opportunity in Kenya, co-sponsored by the Norwegian Peace Corps (now known as Norec), I didn’t have to think twice! Most of my friends thought I was crazy, as everyone else was busy landing the typical jobs most business school graduates yearn for. Not me! I landed it, and I was set for the greatest adventure of my life: the one which is still ongoing!
Kenya was in election mode, as the dictator of the past 23 years, Daniel arap Moi, was stepping down. The mood was upbeat. Everywhere, people were chanting “yote yawezekana bila Moi” (everything is possible without Moi). After the transition, the country exploded in optimism, as the new president, Mwai Kibaki, launched sweeping reforms to rebuild infrastructure, and get the economy back on track.
I was fresh from college, and feeling adventurous. The world was at my feet! At first, I was seconded from AIESEC to 3Mice, the pioneer in web development in East Africa. That didn’t work out, so I switched my secondment to the Kenya Investment Authority, the government agency promoting Kenya to international investors.
Being in Kenya through that disruptive time was a life-changing experience. I could literally see the country changing by the day. My passion for travel was stronger than ever. I never missed an opportunity to travel, and explore Kenya and East Africa!
After successfully completing my first year, I wanted to stay on. There were not many well-paid jobs for a young Norwegian with a fresh Masters degree, though. The job offers I got, were less lucrative than my just-concluded, government-sponsored internship. The best way to find a job, was to create it.
Consulting business in Nairobi
I went back to Norway for two months, to chase consultancy projects. That worked almost surprisingly well, as Africa had started appearing on the radars of at least some companies already then. I had a starting point for my business in Africa! Using the contacts I had in Norway and Kenya, I was able to land and deliver a range of projects over the next two years, with a lot traveling involved (did I mention, I love traveling? 😉).
Most of the projects were small, though, and I realised that to play in the big league, I needed a few years of experience from Norway or another European country. So eventually, I moved back, and started on the daunting task of finding something tech-related with a focus on Africa.
At first, I was doing B2B commission sales for a telephony company, just to keep me going while looking for something. After a few months, I landed an international sales job in a weird, but innovative startup called IPDrum, a pre-smartphone Skype-to-phone bridge solution which had gained some notable press coverage at the time. The product was quirky, but the only one at the time offering a solution wildly in demand: The possibility to make cheap, international mobile calls! I spent one year successfully building their distribution channels based on presentations and prototypes. Unfortunately, perennial product issues made it an ever more uphill task. I always promised my former boss never to say that, but 12 years later, with the company no longer around, I assume that must be ok now!
So exactly one year after joining IPDrum, I started in Vyke Communications, in charge of all their African markets.
Vyke was a Norwegian startup also offering cheap mobile calls, but with a different technology, and good traction. They were on the London Stock Exchange, and on the front pages of Norwegian business newspapers. Having just landed a massive funding round, they were a vibrant place to work. The founders certainly didn’t hold back on perks like the best phones, team building trips to five star hotels in Cannes, and sumptuous company wining and dining!
Vyke had a huge marketing budget for their flagship product, a PC-to-Phone app with the cheapest calling rates, where users would buy credit online with their cards. Of course, the flagship product, touted in the press and in their annual reports, represented maybe 1-2% of their revenues. The real business was cash calling products, which we sold through distributors in Africa and the Middle East. Less fancy than the high-tech-ish app advertised on buses and taxis in London, but lucrative as hell!
Our most prized assets were distributors in immigrant communities, where people made a lot of international calls. Our target countries were those where operators still charged exorbitant rates. Basically authoritarian countries with telecom monopolies. None of those countries had consumer protection laws or authorities who cared about the rights of low-income immigrants being ripped off by mobile operators. Our relationships with operators and regulatory authorities were hardly cordial, to say the least. The fact that many operators tried to block services like ours, made our main markets accessible only to a few, with crazy margins for those of us who succeeded.
Since 2008, I had been in touch with a Norwegian inventor based in Kenya. Jon Bøhmer had developed a range of innovative off-grid solar energy products, and was working to get a business up and running. Bøhmer was was something of a D-list celebrity in Norway, with notable previous successes in entrepreneurship. That made his project something worth considering. He needed funding for his project, though, and wasn’t ready for a commercial launch yet.
Kyoto Energy had potential to become commercially viable. It could also have a tremendous impact on the livelihoods of the rural poor. Bøhmer’s track record made it plausible, albeit risky. When Bøhmer won the Financial Times Climate Change Challenge in 2009, his project gained further traction. Our dialogue intensified.
I helped him raise a soft loan through a philanthropic foundation to fund a commercial launch. The lender specifically earmarked the funds for my employment, and with that reassurance, I left my job in Vyke, and moved back to Kenya. Returning there felt like a great victory!
Unfortunately, the reality looked different on the ground. Bøhmer had forgotten to mention some “details”. For starters, his first products were stuck in Customs, and there was nothing to sell. The first months went into sorting out that mess. I eventually got the award-winning solar cookers out from the Mombasa Port, and cleared the solar torchlights through Customs. By then, Bøhmer had already burnt the entire loan I had secured for him. Bøhmer turned out notoriously unreliable, and my last attempts to save the situation, were in vain. I wasn’t ready to take any more chances, so I took Jon Bøhmer to court, and had his company liquidated!
A recruiter was looking for a regional sales director for Upstream, a Greek mobile technology company with a growing presence in Africa. The position was a perfect match for me, and the package was too good to resist. I guess it was meant to be. Nairobi it was, again!
I joined as the spearhead of Avyra, a subsidiary they used towards specific markets and target clients. From my base in Nairobi, I was their one-man army, building and managing C-level relationships with the mobile operators in the region.
In late 2012, Upstream was opening a new office in Lagos, the throbbing, pulsating megalopolis of West Africa. That became my task, so I moved to a city which at the time, few people would ever describe in positive terms. Of course, the negatives were grossly exaggerated. Lagos is a quite pleasant city: A thrill and a headache at the same time. It has its charm in the midst of all the madness. It is definitely an acquired taste, but one which keeps growing on you.
I retained a base both in Nairobi and Lagos, though, with the 5-hour flight becoming a big part of my life. When my daughter Sunniva announced her arrival, commuting across the continent started taking a toll on me. For all its goods and bads, Lagos wasn’t a place where I wanted to raise my child, though. And once again Nairobi it was! 🙂
An exciting business venture
While I was still based in Lagos, my friend Endre and I had launched a business project together in Nairobi. We had leased some budget apartments next to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, put in some budget furniture, and started marketing the venture online as a serviced apartments hotel. To make the value proposition totally unique, we also added free airport transfer. The traction beat even our most optimistic estimates, and we had full occupancy from the moment go!
We expanded, and were still at full occupancy. Looking for ways to expand further, we realised that our top competitive advantage was our grasp of online marketing. We knew something about, about which others in the market knew nothing. Our fastest expansion route, was to apply our online marketing expertise to other hotels.
As we began to onboard hotels on Expedia and Booking.com, we realized that the skills gap was even bigger than we had thought. Most hotels were actually struggling to receive and respond to inbound online bookings. To deal with that challenge, we set up a 24/7 customer service to handle guest inquiries on behalf of the hotels. We had become a combined virtual marketing department and central reservations desk for the hotels. As the business grew, I left Upstream, realising that major life goal of becoming a full time, self employed entrepreneur.
We started as a solution without a technology. A team of polish entrepreneurs in Nigeria had tried copying or business model while adding a technology. They had investor money, but hadn’t gotten the business model right. They found themselves having a great technology, while loosing money with every booking they got. After running out of cash, they approached us proposing a merger, then rushed out a press release the moment we had signed a letter of intent. In the meantime, we conducted a due diligence, and the result was not encouraging. So we pulled out. The Nigerian commercial entity of our merger partners collapsed almost instantly, while their Polish technology entity, which was separate, was up for grabs. That became a much smaller merger, and a match made in heaven.
First equity crowdfunding in Africa
Even with the best business models, scaling a startup requires money. In the beginning, we scaled strictly based on our cashflow. That was slow and tedious. In late 2017, we decided to raise some external money. Nobody had done an equity crowdfunding in Africa at the time, so we broke that barrier!
After yet another merger in 2018, and three international acquisitions, HotelOnline now works with 1,500 hotels in 18 countries. We could never have made it without the amazing team of people who made it all possible!
In the meantime, Sunniva has also gotten the world’s most amazing little sister, Ylva. She is actually trying to grab my iPhone as I am writing this! 😍!