A Transplant Entrepreneur Tells All

A Trans­plant Entre­pre­neur Tells All

Inter­view by Katie Eggers, Pho­tographs by Louisa Podlich

With eyes of steel, a heart of gold and a mind of his own, Ice­landic trans­plant Björgvin Sævars­son is best known for cofound­ing Ele­ment 6 Media, the Twin Cities’ green­est adver­tis­ing agency. He has since expanded into man­age­ment con­sult­ing, design­ing sus­tain­abil­ity pro­grams for com­pa­nies in the U.S. and abroad. A ser­ial entre­pre­neur whose ven­tures have suc­ceeded despite being at odds with tra­di­tional cor­po­rate cul­ture, he has proven that telling the truth, keep­ing employ­ees happy and putting a pre­mium on sus­tain­abil­ity does not make a busi­ness less profitable.

 

Peo­ple in the Twin Cities know you as the co-founder of Ele­ment 6 Media, one of the more buzzed-about start-ups here in town in recent years. You and your Dutch busi­ness part­ner brought green adver­tise­ment to the next level by using nat­ural mate­ri­als to carry your mes­sage. Tell me about some of the cool things you have done.

For Fresh Energy, we did a snow stamp­ing cam­paign, one of the few that we did here in the Twin Cities. We did snow imprints in the streets of Min­neapo­lis, and by the end of the week, we had reached over ten mil­lion peo­ple. Online videos of it went viral twice. It was not the final ad that reached the most impres­sions, but the making-of. Peo­ple were inter­act­ing with us when we were mak­ing snow murals or draw­ing some­thing the size of a foot­ball field into the sand. That’s where peo­ple com­ment. They came with their smart­phones, and they were mak­ing up songs about the brand.

You are a trans­plant from overseas—what was start­ing a busi­ness in Min­nesota like? Was it a big struggle?

To be honest—yes. In our expe­ri­ence, the adver­tis­ing indus­try is full of bad cul­ture. Every­body is using each other, and you never knew whether you had peo­ple. They use you for infor­ma­tion, for draft­ing ideas and cam­paigns, and as soon as you deliver, it goes into a black hole. You never hear back from them, and before you know it, you see your ideas used else­where. But as a small busi­ness, what are you going to do? In my expe­ri­ence, the indus­try doesn’t have a whole lot of pro­fes­sional cour­tesy. That makes it harder for a small com­pany to start out. There were so many times where we were just guessing—that’s not very efficient.

So how did you make it through your first year?

Over half of the requests for pro­pos­als and the actual work came out of Europe even though we did no mar­ket­ing there. They were just so much fur­ther ahead in the sus­tain­abil­ity realm. I hate to say it, because it goes against a pop­u­lar Amer­i­can belief, but peo­ple here are very risk-averse. They use the tool­box they know and that they are famil­iar with. They are very afraid of going out of that com­fort zone. Cor­po­rate cul­ture, and espe­cially the adver­tis­ing cul­ture, doesn’t reward you for think­ing dif­fer­ently, for tak­ing a chance. It doesn’t reward risk, not even cal­cu­lated risk. Peo­ple are not allowed to be cre­ative, and that’s why the indus­try is stag­nant. It’s cul­ture that keeps repeat­ing itself—advertisement is so bor­ing. When do you ever see adver­tise­ment that sticks out and that you really notice? They keep bom­bard­ing you with one sin­gle mes­sage: Buy, buy, buy. When you watch TV for some time, you see the same com­mer­cial repeated over and over again, just with a dif­fer­ent brand. That’s why con­sumers are always on defense.

I wasn’t going to run a busi­ness unless I could pay a human salary.”

I expected a tale about the dif­fi­culty of start­ing out in a for­eign coun­try, and here you are shar­ing your expe­ri­ence with an indus­try that the Twin Cities are usu­ally pretty proud of. But it doesn’t seem like you are just talk­ing about Minnesota.

Oh, no! I believe Amer­i­cans are ready for a much big­ger adver­tis­ing tool­box. It is hard to find artis­tic, deeper-level adver­tis­ing. In Europe, you see an entire com­mer­cial on tele­vi­sion for a full minute, and you never see the brand. And it works! I believe it could work in Amer­ica, too. But peo­ple are afraid to use it, and the few believ­ers have a hard time sell­ing it. Most adver­tise­ment is tire­some and exhaust­ing, and quite frankly, I hate it. And I want to change it. But that’s not enough when the mar­ket isn’t ready for it. If you want to intro­duce some­thing that is new—being a trail­blazer, essentially—well, it sounds fancy, but it’s extremely hard work. There is noth­ing fancy about it.

You know, peo­ple are going to judge us pretty harshly. They hear that you are from Ice­land, and they might know that I am from Ger­many, and they may wonder—why don’t they just go back home?

Because we have both made this coun­try our home. And like all immi­grants before, we want to be use­ful by mak­ing a pos­i­tive change. But the fact of the mat­ter remains: this is an Amer­i­can prob­lem. The econ­omy doesn’t help, and there is not enough staff. The aver­age worker prob­a­bly receives one hun­dred emails a day; of course they can’t all be answered. So the pro­fes­sional cour­tesy suf­fers. When you have the infor­ma­tion you need, you run with it.

You must have also had some pos­i­tive experiences.

Yes, of course. Plenty! One of the most mem­o­rable is when we worked with Gen­eral Mills and their Green Giant brand. They are a giant cor­po­ra­tion, and to be per­fectly hon­est, I was not expect­ing much. But it was very friendly and extremely pro­fes­sional. They have a gen­uinely pos­i­tive busi­ness cul­ture. Of course, I have been able to work with great peo­ple once the busi­ness was estab­lished, but the road to get­ting there was cut­throat. My busi­ness part­ner almost lost his mind. But you know, it is what it is. When you allow your­self to become just like every­body else, that’s where you lose it all. Peo­ple every­where have great tal­ents, but in order to fully develop them, they should be able to keep their integrity and do busi­ness the way they do business—and not suf­fer from extreme micro-management from the employer.

Could you expand on that?

Some­body who man­ages peo­ple and has decision-making power should be some­body with integrity, not some­one lost in the title of his busi­ness card. As soon as you give away fancy titles, peo­ple tend to become some­thing they are not. Let’s say there is this per­son. Let’s have it be a woman because women need to work harder to prove them­selves. She is happy in her job and every­body loves her. She does well, and she is being rewarded with a pro­mo­tion. But it may not be nat­ural for her to man­age other peo­ple, and all of a sud­den, she is out of her com­fort zone. So her col­leagues start dis­lik­ing her, and she might take on a mean atti­tude and come home at night unhappy. Most of the time she doesn’t really make that much more money, but her qual­ity of life went down the drain. A nat­ural leader, on the other hand, is approach­able and nat­u­rally able to man­age these kinds of respon­si­bil­i­ties. I really believe that if you stay true to your nature, regard­less of what it says on your busi­ness card, you will do well. Because before any­thing else, we are all human. But you often lose that in busi­ness. Every­body looks the same, so it comes down to the titles.

The stan­dard assump­tions of cor­po­rate busi­ness cul­ture really don’t seem to be your thing.

How could it? Every­thing is so stakeholder-driven, and peo­ple pay too much respect to money and power instead of the human value. It’s a very tough cul­ture. We pun­ish our­selves very hard for fail­ing if we don’t meet the corporation’s goals. The argu­ment I usu­ally make is that Amer­i­can cor­po­ra­tions are busy mak­ing annual or quar­terly reports look good for the stake­hold­ers, while else­where in the world, they don’t have that pres­sure. I think that is at the source of why so many peo­ple are unhappy at work. It’s unnat­ural pres­sure on the employ­ees. What we should really ask our­selves is this: We have an enor­mous wealth in our company—how do we build it long-term? Com­pa­nies that value a return on an invest­ment only in terms of money will fail. There is a new way of think­ing and doing in smaller com­pa­nies, and I believe they will even­tu­ally take over. It’s a gen­er­a­tional change. The move­ment is strong enough to change busi­ness culture.

There seems to be a strong sense of mutual mis­ap­pre­hen­sion between Euro­pean and Amer­i­can busi­ness­peo­ple and their respec­tive cul­tures. As a Euro­pean in the U.S., it is hard not to scratch your head when you see that cor­po­ra­tions have done a hell of a good job mak­ing their work­ers take pride in being the hardest-working peo­ple in the world while simul­ta­ne­ously cut­ting all the rewards that make work­ing hard worth­while in the first place. Many Amer­i­cans see Euro­peans as a bunch of social­ist slack­ers, but there is another side of the coin. Euro­peans won­der why Amer­i­cans spend so much time chitchat­ting at the water cooler and send­ing point­less follow-up emails.

Well, I’ll just say that I never see my Euro­pean friends on Face­book or Twit­ter dur­ing work hours.

I think in Ger­many, we still have a lot of jobs where your boss expects you to get your work done in an eight-hour day. When you chron­i­cally hang around the office longer, the boss will start to won­der if you have a prob­lem with effi­ciently man­ag­ing your time. And it’s easy to focus on the job when you are guar­an­teed vaca­tion, sick days, and pay for over­time. When you don’t get any of these rewards but are expected to put in twelve-hour days nev­er­the­less, you’ll stop car­ing about your job. Why shouldn’t you? Your employer obvi­ously doesn’t care about you. So you allow your­self a lit­tle more Face­book time.

And cul­tur­ally, I think, Euro­peans have an eas­ier time using work as a social out­let. The hier­ar­chies are much flat­ter. The bosses and the rest of the crew are hav­ing lunch together, talk­ing, human to human. I know this hap­pens here too, but in Europe, that’s a norm.

So when you have dif­fi­cul­ties nav­i­gat­ing cor­po­rate cul­ture, the best solu­tion is start­ing your own business?

Peo­ple have to be care­ful with start-ups. The con­cept has been glo­ri­fied. Peo­ple love the word entre­pre­neur, but God, there is noth­ing fancy about being one. It’s hard work. It’s work­ing in mud up to your eye­balls, most of the time.

Ele­ment 6 Media wasn’t the first busi­ness you started. What came before?

When I moved here in the late nineties, I was offered a job after an intern­ship. But I have never once in my life gone the straight route. I turned it down because I knew I would just get com­fort­able with a pay­check. So I fig­ured, let’s get used to not hav­ing a pay­check every month. And I started a busi­ness. I founded an import-export busi­ness of organic food prod­uct, which at the time was a great mar­ket to start out in. We imported organic, chemical-free food from Europe, Asia and South Amer­ica. And we raised grass-fed beef here in Min­nesota that we intro­duced to upscale stores, such as Lunds and Kowalski’s Mar­kets. But you know what? We didn’t have to do a lot of adver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing. Our busi­ness had a nat­ural pull, and there were two rea­sons for that. First, we always remained hon­est with our clients, and sec­ondly, our employ­ees were happy. I paid them a min­i­mum of thirty per­cent more than the mar­ket rate. I wasn’t going to run a busi­ness unless I could pay a human salary. Never did any­one leave with­out say­ing, “Could I do any­thing else before I leave?” I had to say, “Get out of here.” Dur­ing the four years that I was with my com­pany, not one employee ever called in sick. They would show up sick, and I had to drive them home. We pro­duced with fif­teen employ­ees what my com­peti­tors did with thirty-five. That’s the kind of energy there was. It had a pull, and not a push. I didn’t have to sell; the cus­tomers came to us. I did that with every busi­ness I started since.

That sounds too good to be true.

Well, we really had to fight the U.S. food indus­try and the big dis­trib­u­tors. They were out to kill me, business-wise.

Really?

I was pro­cess­ing in a plant in Owa­tonna, and part of the pro­duc­tion line was owned by one of the largest dis­tri­b­u­tion com­pa­nies in the U.S. All of a sud­den, I got a phone call from the pro­cess­ing plant. The guys were good friends, and we had always done great busi­ness. They said, “Björgvin, we can’t process your meats any­more unless we raise the price. The other dis­tri­b­u­tion com­pany will pull their machin­ery.” That got me out of that busi­ness for a while.

But you bounced back from that?

Yes—I never sug­ar­coated the truth when our clients asked how we were doing, but they kept com­ing back. But the next hit came in 2001. After 9/11, I lost every­thing. I should have been bank­rupt. I had food prod­ucts stuck at air­ports all over the coun­try dur­ing the busiest time of the year.

What hap­pened?

Well, I lost almost $300,000, which was a really big pain for a small busi­ness. I was only in my sec­ond year, and I didn’t have insur­ance. Nobody wanted to insure a guy with a thick accent who was not a cit­i­zen. It was tough: I had lit­er­ally lost it all. For the next two years, I worked my butt off. I paid my sup­pli­ers what­ever I could, and I was always hon­est about my sit­u­a­tion. And even though I owed them money, they kept ship­ping prod­ucts! I think it was because they knew I was hon­est. They took the risk with me, and that’s very rare, espe­cially in inter­na­tional busi­ness. My clients, includ­ing Lunds and Byerly’s, saw this. They saw how the com­pe­ti­tion went about busi­ness the way they knew, which was full of white lies. Whereas I would just say, “I don’t have fresh prod­uct right now because I couldn’t get it into the coun­try.” Then they real­ized: This guy is actu­ally telling the truth. He is not tak­ing stuff out of his freezer, sell­ing it as fresh. While I paid the short-term price, I won out long-term. Lunds and Byerly’s came to me, and they offered me an exclu­sive seafood con­tract. I didn’t even have to ask them for it. That was a gigan­tic con­tract, and then oth­ers fol­lowed suit. Many of the top hotels in the coun­try came to us.

And you think all of this was due to your busi­ness culture?

Yes, but not because I am par­tic­u­larly smart or special—I don’t have an agenda, and I am not a tree hug­ger. Just by doing some­thing that is very log­i­cal and that is the right thing. A lot of peo­ple have unlearned this: to be green, for real. You nat­u­rally develop an attrac­tion. In my busi­nesses, noth­ing was made more com­pli­cated than it was. My employ­ees didn’t have titles. And we didn’t need sales­peo­ple, because the dri­vers and deliv­ery guys did all the work. My food busi­ness grew almost a mil­lion dol­lars a month in my last year. But it’s hard to sell this idea to the clas­sic spread­sheet viewer. At the time, I didn’t know how to sell it to investors, and I went through a lot of strug­gle. They took the busi­ness, and I went elsewhere.

Your investors took it? So you lost it all, again?

Yes. Early on, I was very naïve, and they cer­tainly took advan­tage of me. I took on investors while I was pay­ing my employ­ees thirty per­cent over mar­ket rate. Once they came on board, they cut salaries, fired peo­ple, and I left. Hav­ing grown up in Ice­land, I wasn’t a nat­ural in a cut­throat world. When I go back home, nobody ever asks what I do for a liv­ing. Nobody cares. You do mar­ket­ing, or you run a busi­ness, what­ever. But they care about every­thing else. Are you happy? Are you hav­ing a good time at work? This cul­ture stayed with me through­out my entre­pre­neur­ial life, and although I had a very prof­itable busi­ness, the investors didn’t see it that way. Investors often look through a dif­fer­ent lens than the founder. Their val­ues are com­pletely dif­fer­ent, at least until they reach a cer­tain age. There are two types of investors. There are the younger ones, those under sixty, usu­ally, and the younger they are, the more they need to prove them­selves. What’s the best way to do this? It’s to say, “I screwed these peo­ple and made money for us.” Then the rest of them will say, “Oh, he cares about money, that’s good. We’ll keep this guy and he will go up very quickly.” After I lost my first com­pany to investors, I got into the busi­ness myself, and I got deep into merg­ers and acqui­si­tions. There, you see how some invest­ment bankers and equity com­pa­nies go about mak­ing their money. But I have always known—and I have been able to prove it sev­eral times with my own businesses—that there is a way to make even more money while keep­ing employ­ees happy.

What about the other types of investors—you said there are two types?

The older ones? They have already proven them­selves, and they see that there is another way. They are com­fort­able; they have a big house and a sec­ond house some­where else. They made a liv­ing for them­selves. Now it’s time for them to show gen­eros­ity and help some­one else. And you know what? Nobody wants to help the bad guy. Peo­ple want to help the good guy. So for me, in the long run, those peo­ple are fun to work with. That’s where a lot of oppor­tu­ni­ties are.

The good­will of a com­pany has it’s own attraction.”

Today’s busi­ness cul­ture is chang­ing with the arrival of Mil­len­ni­als in the work­force. If you look twenty years ahead, do you think they will have brought a more infor­mal and col­lab­o­ra­tive spirit to invest­ment culture?

Hon­estly, I don’t know. I don’t think that things are actu­ally going to change that much. Money will keep get­ting into fewer and fewer hands. We know that’s been hap­pen­ing and that income inequal­ity will only increase, with many more peo­ple in poverty. At that point, it almost won’t even mat­ter who is in power. Money goes where money is. It’s very hard to fight that power. Besides, I don’t think our cul­ture is mature enough to want to change.

You don’t sound very optimistic.

No; we are miss­ing the big pic­ture. I have had the priv­i­lege to be able to design sus­tain­abil­ity pro­grams for coun­tries from dif­fer­ent parts of the globe, and wher­ever you are, even in the U.S., there are two resources that are impor­tant to healthy com­mu­ni­ties. It’s water and elec­tric­ity. When you don’t have these resources, you won’t only have more poverty, but you will have big prob­lems in for­eign pol­icy down the road. But as a cul­ture, we reward short-term think­ing. For exam­ple, some of my recent projects had to do with bio­fu­els in the U.S. Do you know how much water it takes to grow bio­fu­els? Not only are we using valu­able water, but we are also putting chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers into the ground to grow these fuels, and it all goes directly into the water. We’ll keep doing this until one day we can’t take a shower or have a glass of water. Then we’ll spend half a tril­lion dol­lars to fix the problem.

In Part 2 of our inter­view, Björgvin explains why telling the truth at all times can make a busi­ness more prof­itable, why parochial com­pe­ti­tion is hold­ing the Mid­west back from reach­ing its full poten­tial and why Lute­fisk has noth­ing on the Ice­landic del­i­cacy of rot­ten shark.

Read Part 2 of this inter­view in Thirty Two’s Fall Issue

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