Trust everyone!

Interview with Theis Søndergaard

Theis Søndergaard (Denmark) is co-founder of Vivino—the world’s most used wine app. He has been an entrepreneur since 2002, when he co-founded the software company BullGuard.

October 27th, 2020   |    By: Jonathan Low

The following is a piece of really bad advice. If you follow it, there’s a large risk that you’ll be cheated, deceived, run over, and on the whole look like an idiot. I’d regret that, of course. But it is also really bad advice to urge good people to become entrepreneurs, as it’s almost dead certain you’ll fail. So if you nevertheless have taken the chance and thrown yourself into a new adventure, you may just as well place all your jetons on red and follow my advice: Trust everyone.

Trust is a mirror.

In 2002, I was a young, newly trained journalist with a blank CV and without much chance of a job in that branch. I, therefore, chose to change direction, and I called Morten Lund, a well-known Danish entrepreneur (co-founder of Skype), and asked if I could be his assistant. I’d worked a little for Morten while I was studying and I knew that he was always involved in crazy stuff. He said yes, and I subsequently worked around the clock for DKK 10,000 a month—moonlighting. We agreed that I owned 5% of all the projects he launched. That was our verbal agreement, and I never asked to have it in writing. It wasn’t a deliberate choice, but I trusted (and trust) Morten 100%, so why waste time on it?

A year later, we worked together on building up BullGuard, which has since grown to 100 staff, DKK 120 million in turnover, and with me as CTO. It was a fantastic journey for me, and it even gave me a little nest egg that allowed me to move on to the next adventure, Vivino.

Could this have happened had I insisted on a written agreement? Perhaps. But trust works both ways; when you display trust, your partner’s trust in you also grows, as does the wish to work closely together. BullGuard would quite definitely never have become a success without our close and trusting collaboration. Good marriages start with love, and nothing kills love faster than spend- ing your first date dealing with paperwork. Talk things through and make agreements, that’s OK, but if you don’t trust your partner instinctively, find someone else.

Trust is oil.

If your business is an engine, trust is the oil, the lubricant you need to keep it running. Everything works more quickly when you display trust, and speed is decisive when you’re an entrepreneur. Make your agreements by email and in your own words, and make it snappy. Otherwise, you’ll spend vital time, money, and not least concern about uncovering risks unnecessarily. You already have 100 fundamental risks with your startup: Does your product work? Is your idea good? Have you chosen the right partner? and so on. Focus on the large challenges and deal with the problems as they arise.

At Vivino, we collaborated from the start with a small Swiss business, Kooaba, which we used for image recognition. The partnership was completely essential for ensuring our product worked; if they decided to close down their machine, nothing would work in Vivino. We had no contract with them for a long time, only an email; and when we finally, after a year, spent time making a contract, it was only two pages and most likely didn’t cover many vital aspects. But we’d met Herbert and his partners several times and we trusted them.

When, a few years later, we raised money at Balderton Capital, their lawyers went through all our contracts (there weren’t that many…) and said to us in dismay, If you read your homemade contract with Kooaba in a certain way, you could get the impression that Kooaba owned vital parts of Vivino. We should immediately make a new contract with Kooaba; indeed, if we didn’t, then Balderton Capital would definitely not invest in us. We objected: Herbert would never think like that; it was absurd legalese. But we had to capitulate and make a new, 20-page contract. The point is, however, that we didn’t need to do it until the time when we had the money and resources to do it and after we and Kooaba had established mutual trust.

Today, we’re still using Kooaba for image recognition and Herbert has never cheated us. But now they’ve been bought by a large American company, so we’ll surely have a new and even longer contract… Groan!

Trust is a growth hormone.

The easiest way to make a person 5 cm higher is to give her a task and tell her that you trust her completely to do it. If you display trust, everyone around you will grow, and the motivation for helping you will grow as well. In my first business, BullGuard, it was difficult for me to trust the people around me to carry out their tasks without my help. Believing in my own genius, there could be no doubt that I could do things better. The result was an organization that didn’t scale up, employees who didn’t grow, and a worn-out boss (me) on the edge of a stress-provoked breakdown. Luckily, I learned to let go and display trust, in time.

During my working life, I have been the direct manager of about 200 people. They have an employment contract that states they must work 37 hours a week. I have never ever logged the hours of any employee, nor have I asked whether their day working at home was efficient. We run a business, not a kindergarten. Yes, for sure, some of them use the opportunity to relax once in a while, but that’s OK; when you build a business together, you’re running a marathon, not a 100 m sprint. You can choose to use your time on controls, or you can choose trust and release enormous resources among yourself and your employees to create value. If you trust that your employees want the best for you and your business, you increase the chance that they will—by a factor of 10.

Trust is luck.

One usually says that even the best idea, the best team, the best execution cannot succeed without a bit—or a lot—of luck. That’s true, but luck can be cultivated because trust and luck are two sides of the same coin. No one’s become a millionaire in the lottery without having bought lottery tickets.

Once I had a consultation with a business psychologist, who fell off his chair when he saw the results of my personality test. It did say that I was a perfectionist, and with my work life, it should have given me serious stress a long time ago. His test was undoubtedly correct, I do have plenty of perfectionistic traits, but I also trust blindly in my own luck. And if you do that, it’s that much harder to be stressed, because—no matter how hard the odds are against me, how great the amount of pressure of work is—I can’t imagine that it won’t be successful in one way or another. And funnily enough, it nearly always is. An additional piece of advice is to work hard; golfers have much more luck the more they train.

Have I been cheated? Has my trust been abused? Absolutely, and most certainly more times than I am aware of. Suppliers have over-invoiced, partners have gone back on their word, employees have lied. That’s part of life. But if, as a starting point, you trust that your fellow beings have good intentions, then it’s my experience that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s true enough; trust me.

THE BEST WAY TO FIND OUT IF YOU CAN TRUST SOMEBODY IS TO TRUST THEM.

— Ernest Hemingway

About the Author

Jonathan Low

This article was done by the Danish serial entrepreneur Jonathan Low. Low is based in Scandinavia but has traveled the world interviewing and talking to some of the leading entrepreneurs and innovators on the planet. The article is part of this journey.

Jonathan Low is the founder of 5 tech-companies and the author of two #1 bestsellers about entrepreneurship and marketing. He is also a public speaker at events in both Europe and the US.

Currently, he is the co-founder and CEO of JumpStory transforming the image industry online. JumpStory has experienced massive growth during the last year and has expanded from nothing to customers in more than 135 countries. Major media like Forbes, Entrepreneur.com, The Next Web, etc. have named JumpStory Netflix of images.

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