Sissel Hansen: Building an entrepreneur's 'Lonely Planet' from the road

Sissel has been an entrepreneur since a young age. We discussed her story in greater depth, and how it’s led to her current project; Startup Guides. Looking for some inspiration? Look no further.

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Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and what it is that you do?

Sure. I am twenty-four years old, I live in Berlin and I founded Startup Guide in 2014, which now is Startup Everywhere, which I have with my partner Thomas who is based in Copenhagen. I am an entrepreneur by heart since I was really, really young. I never really played by the rules. I never really fit in to the frames. I think when I was around seventeen or eighteen, I realized that building my own stuff was the way for me to go, so I started my first company when I was seventeen years old and have not stopped doing it since then.

Luckily, today I run a company which help entrepreneurs as well. It’s a win-win situation.

That sounds awesome. So you’ve just been creating and innovating since a young age.

Yeah. I think I have always had the urge to create and build things and try to change the status quo a bit. I built a music stage in my local town, helped a friend in building a bar. I worked with mobile applications. Now I am into the publishing business. I have had a consultancy. So it’s basically everyday hustling, trying to have the freedom to do what you really like to do and are passionate about and trying to create a sustainable lifestyle that contains a life where you can basically do and live from what you’re most passionate about.

So how has all of this led into your current project, Startup Guides?

The Startup Guide is basically what we used to call it. It makes more sense when you say it’s the Lonely Planet of entrepreneurs. It came as an idea after I failed with my first business when I was twenty. It was like my first real business where I threw in some grant myself. We started building an app that was supposed to be for restaurants and cafes to order food and pay right away at the table. We built the product and everything worked super fine and then at the end of the day, our B2B customers, the bars and the buffets, they didn’t want to work with us.

It was kind of a knock in the head saying we have not done our homework enough, we didn’t ask all the stakeholders in the project and so on. After that experience, I lost all the money and then after I moved to Berlin. I had a question of, how could I have gotten this information, gotten this knowledge if it was not from any university, because I was never really the academia type.

So I was like, if I don’t want to go to university and I want to start a business, where can I get this information from? Where can I get the trusted information?

I moved to Berlin in 2012 and that’s the time where the boom was, where tons of companies and startups were starting up here. Many people came with the same urge to start a business or to work for a startup and many of these people had the same questions but there was also another question like, “Okay, how do we then start a business in the city?”

One thing is, mainly everybody speaks English but when it comes to the German language, the bureaucracy, the German culture, it’s very different, even from Denmark, which is half an hour by plane. So the main question is, where can I get the information from which is not from the academia path? The second one was, how do you then start a business in Berlin?

I think these two questions merged over two years in my head and they turned out to be the product that we now have today which is a book, The Startup Guide, the entrepreneurial handbook for each city. Our vision is to be in all the cities in the world that needs one so we can inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs and freelancers to work on their own projects, businesses and startups.

I know it can be difficult when you’re looking to start your own business. I’m sure this is a great help for many. Do you find it hard conducting the research for each new city and how do you go about doing this?

We partner with local people. We really believe that to make a trustworthy guidebook, you have to ask the best and that’s the locals. That’s the people who have worked there for many years. They understand the culture and the behaviors and the trends in the city. So we basically partner up with a local community partner to help us conduct the research and curate the startups, the founders, the different spaces, and all the different resources in the city.

Then we basically take it from there. We have a full production lined, we do the interviews, we hire local journalists and photographers. Then we have a production team in Berlin sitting and editing and designing and visualizing the book. We also print in Berlin and then we distribute from there. We have around 300 retailers worldwide today. We get the books around when they’re done.

Especially the research for the cities that we then choose… We look at different factors of, is it an upcoming city? Is it a city where there’s a lot of entrepreneurs coming and there is a lot of people interested in starting a business there, like we have been doing everything from London as a big tech capital? Like a little city in Norway called Trondheim, which is basically a no-man city but we realized after getting some traction from there that it is like a huge entrepreneurial hotspot — where they have one of the best universities in Europe for technology and tons of startups have actually been created from there. They haven’t moved since then but they were made there.

I think it is so interesting that we now have the opportunity to really go down in each city where the real innovation is actually happening because we don’t believe that it is happening in all the big capitals anymore. This is just where the money is and where the people go to get the funding. But the real innovation, the real idea is there’s growth and it’s growing from all the small cities around the world.

Okay, so where do you see the next biggest startup city being?

It’s hard to say. I think Lisbon has been one of the interesting cases to follow over the last couple of years, especially after the crisis. How they kind of turned the ship around, where they said, “Okay, the status quo is shit.” Either people go out and work for one or two euros an hour or they get a PhD or they could start their own business. They kind of created this culture of entrepreneurship that is not coming for their country and somehow, it actually created a lot of good frame for entrepreneurs to thrive and start.

Lisbon is one of the interesting cases. But of course, they also now have to mature and show that there is more and it’s just the early start and so on.

I think right now Europe is interesting because people have always said that the US is where it’s happening in terms of startups. I think Europe right now is showing that the innovation and the companies that come from here are so different and are so challenging in so many ways, with clean tech and health tech and all these really, really important industries.

That’s also why I’m so happy about the job we have. If you look into Europe right now, everything from Barcelona to Amsterdam and Zurich and even Vienna, they’re [now] known for being an entrepreneurial city. There are so many interesting startups happening everywhere. So I would say Europe right now.

Yeah, I think like you said, people are realizing that they don’t have to go to London or San Francisco anymore to join a startup or start their own. There are a lot smaller cities and countries as well where there’s a big growing scene. So I think that’s an interesting movement to follow. It must be interesting for you researching that as well.

Exactly. I think what is super interesting is basically that we believe that today you can start up everywhere. We also believe that you can work from everywhere, which makes it really, really nice to be an entrepreneur today. You can actually stay in your local city and build your company with an international team from everywhere. I think that’s also one of the advantages. We see it in Berlin and Copenhagen but I was also in Portugal for two weeks where I also worked from the countryside, in the middle of nowhere, which I was able to do.

Yeah. It is a great lifestyle, isn’t it?

It is.

How do you find it working in a distributed company?

It’s an interesting industry. I think some of the best things about working in this company and building this product has been creating something physical. A lot of people said to me when we started the project, “It’s a great idea but don’t do it in a book. There’s need for it but don’t do it in a book.” And I was always really firm that it should be in a book because first of all, I’m a big fan of books and on the other hand, there’s something about building a physical product, something you can see, you can smell, you can feel, something you can give away. I have always been a big part of the creative and design process because at the end of the day, this is what people see and what people hear as much as the concept and the design. So it’s super important that everything is high quality.

I think that’s one of the best things about working in this company — you’re creating something physical still in 2017.

I think there’s nothing wrong with that. I know books have moved online a bit more now. But I mean, even Amazon are opening a physical bookstore again next month. So there is still a big demand for a physical copy. People like to hold on to it, don’t they?

Yeah exactly, like you said. Basically, since 2014, the hard copy books have just been increasing the number of sales and the e-books have been decreasing. So everything, what people said, was that the book is dead and everybody is going to be electronic from now on, it’s not totally true. I definitely think that we will not sell as many books as before but I think it’s still something that’s valued a lot from the market. I think more and more people then prioritize to buy high quality content and products instead of buying a newspaper. They’d rather read that online and say, “Okay, I want a really high quality designed and conducted book.” It is a different experience no matter what you say.

I talked to a friend about that yesterday. When people take the effort to print something and really make a book, then it’s a little bit more respected for my side. I know I put so many hours into it. We don’t print things in the book that haven’t been read through millions of times, and haven’t been researched, and haven’t been talked over again and again because we know we only have one shot with it. If you just put something online, you can always change it. So it’s a little bit about respect, about the work that you actually do.

That’s why I still buy books, because I know that people have put a lot of effort into actually making it.

Yeah, sure. I respect that. I also respect that a lot of people told you to not do it in a book and you went against the grain and did it anyway. Was that quite challenging at first, going against everyone’s advice?

It’s always challenging to go against the waters but on the other hand, it’s also when it’s the most fun, when you actually succeed with it.

For me, it was when we printed the first book. We basically made the whole project for less than 15K. It was a dream come true. I didn’t actually believe at the time that we were going to have a sustainable business three years after but it was something that I have wanted to do for so long. Especially I think when you create a physical product and you have this feeling of… it’s a statement, it’s a huge thing.

So yeah, I definitely think that it’s good that we did it anyway.

Obviously, you’re a successful company because like you said, you’re still around. But what’s the kind of feedback that you get from people who read these books? Do you have any big success stories from new startups or anything like that?

Yeah. I think what is the most interesting thing is when people write us and say, “Thank you so much for this. It encouraged me to start my own business or take the next step to found a company or actually really go for it.”

I think a lot of the stories or the feedback we get is from individuals that have the urge to actually do it or not do it. I think the unique thing about our book is that we can create these really close relations to the reader and the people who it’s written about. It’s basically people like everybody else, not Steve Jobs, not Mark Zuckerberg, not one of these hot shots that is so far away from your reality. It’s like people from your own city that have just built a company.

I think that can be the trigger point where you can say, “Okay, if they can do it, I can do it.” It’s not the same to say, “Okay, he’s the person who built Microsoft.” He’s more far away from your reality than you are from the person who sits next to you in a co-working space.

So I think that’s the success story, when people actually have the inspiration or the urge from the book to start their own businesses afterwards.

So looking ahead, where else do you plan to write guides for in the future?

Right now we’re working on Paris, Amsterdam, Zurich and Helsinki. We’re also working on cities such as Moscow in Russia. We’re working on New York. We’re working on Montreal. We’re working on Singapore. The projects outside of here are taking more time. It’s a bit more effort to figure out what the strategy there is like. The plan for next year is we want to be in twenty-five cities, where twenty of them will be in Europe and we want to test three to five new markets within the next year to a half. If everything goes well, we will expand to one, two, three markets in 2018.

I think it’s really important that you are in the same time zone when you’re doing these really, really fast-paced production as we’re doing. We’re producing a book in three months so there’s a lot of communication between the local team and the headquarter team. That’s why we’re testing, some are longer distance, and hopefully in 2018, we’ll be able to set up some offices in the different new markets.

Has construction of these guides given you an absolute favorite city to work from?

That’s a hard question. I would say… I’m born in Denmark. I live most of my time in Berlin even if last year I had 200 travelling days. But one of my favorite places to be is definitely Portugal. My partner is from there and it’s a special place where we go when you want to reflect and work differently. I think when I’m in Berlin and Copenhagen and all other places, I’m always in meetings and I have tons of meetings during the whole day and it’s always quick-paced. When I’m there, I’m more in a reflective work mode and I’m more like trying to see things more from the helicopter and trying to go down in pace where you have a long lunch, a wine for lunch, you get a little bit tired afterwards and it’s okay because that’s the pace there.

So maybe not my favorite place to work, but my favorite place to be because I’m always working. So it’s my favorite place to be and to be a little bit reflective about what I do. There are places where you can go and you can work nonstop and there are places where you can go and work in your head but be more relaxed and that’s definitely Portugal. I’m a big, big fan of Lisbon.

Obviously, your favorite place to work from in Lisbon is Surf Office, right?

Yeah, for sure.

You have to say that, but there you go.

No, no. I was just there and every time I’m there and I have to work, I go to Peter’s place in Lisbon.

Cool. Nice one. And then final question is have you got any other cool projects in the works aside from Startup Guides?

Yeah. I’m always trying to work on different things. You have your company and your company takes up a huge amount of time, which it should, but I think it’s important to have other things to do as well. Maybe it’s not directly projects but like, I’m definitely trying to educate myself. I never really got an education. There’s definitely some times during my way as a business person, as a leader, as a CEO, where I really feel like, “Fuck, I’m lacking some information here. How do I get that?”

I’m very much the type of “learning by doing” but some of the other projects is basically trying to educate myself in different fields, trying to learn from the different people that have been focusing on the same processes. I try to read a lot, I try to see a lot of videos. I try to meet a lot of interesting people and take my time to sit and ask a lot of questions about that.

Then another project I have is also to build something in Portugal at some point, for entrepreneurs. Not a hostel or like Surf Office but a place where you can go to have these reflections because I think in a business life, you don’t have the time to always reflect about your decisions and your choices in life both privately and career-wise. I think it’s not always the question to just go on vacation. I think that you have to build some frames around that this reflection can happen. This is a little project that I’m playing around with — how can you create a place? And I have an idea that it should be in Portugal where you could actually enable people to have these moments of reflection about, “What the fuck are you doing?”

Those big questions in life, right?

Yeah, exactly.

Cool. That’s great, Sissel. Thank you very much. It was great to have you on the show. We look forward to seeing where else you’ll take Startup Guides.

Yeah, I will be looking forward as well.

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