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Interview with Johan Attby, CEO, FishBrain AB

Johan Attby, Founder, FishBrain AB
"Entrepreneurs should put a lot more responsibilities on board members and not be afraid doing so. If the board is only for corp gov and you reporting to them you’ve failed".

Bio (First-Person)

(Find Johan on LinkedIn)

I’m a serial entrepreneur with a passion for building game changing businesses. I founded the software company Tific and I took it all the way from an idea and raising venture capital to a highly profitable company with a rapidly growing international customer base. In the spring of 2011 I orchestrated a successful exit when the company was acquired.

Now I’m co-founder & CEO of FishBrain which is the world’s fastest growing mobile app & social network for the world’s biggest hobby – sport fishing.

Awarded “Founder of the year” in Sweden by Nordic Startup Awards in 2015.

I’m also investor in, advisor to and board member at early stage hi-tech companies and I’m a frequent speaker on entrepreneurship and startups.

I’ve lived in Silicon Valley and Boston and I have extensive networks (hi-tech and VC) both in the US and in the Nordics.

Specialties: Entrepreneurship, innovation, strategy, corporate development, venture capital, business development, M&A, early stage management, bringing Swedish hi-tech companies to the US

Interview

All startups have to go through a “second birth”, from founder-oriented to process-oriented after receiving the first funding round, and it’s no news that most founding teams gets replaced with new management chosen by their VCs. What are the key skills both a founder and the company must develop to thrive and survive the growth-stage?

It’s absolutely critical for founders to constantly learn super fast and adopt to the new phase to grow and scale with the company. Not everyone can do this and do it fast enough and they have to be replaced. Smart entrepreneurs also bring in people that can complement themselves. Part of growing is to learn how to delegate which is hard for all founders but that’s the only way to scale. But don’t do the mistake of hiring for the next phase! Hire people that can add value to the company right now but can scale with the company.

How do you retain and grow your top performers? Just equity and financial incentives, or other aspects like culture, respect, emotional incentives?

By giving them more responsibility and complete ownership and accountability of their work. Then they thrive! But their success should not be at the expense of the teams’ success so you have to strike the right balance. A culture with divas doesn’t scale and easily become very political and dysfunctional. As long as the company is growing it’s easy to retain people including the top performers. The problem is when it’s not and that’s when you have to look into what drives them, which is different for all people, and what you can do to meet what they are looking for. But don’t stretch things too far. All people are replaceable, even top performers!

What are the biggest tension points you have with the top performers? Things like compensation? Disagreement on roles and tasks? Others?

Two things: 1) The strategic direction for the company. They would like to be heard in the process of deciding on that and most they don’t like if the company is going in another direction that they want. 2) Underperformers! Top performers are allergic to people that don’t perform and it can drive them nuts if it’s not dealt with in the organisation (which it should!).

It’s no news starting a company is an emotionally intense process. Rejection. Stress. Burnout. Conflicts. What techniques do you use to manage yourself and keep high output with a long-term view?

Exercise is critical for me to reduce stress levels and sleeping well. After an intense mountain bike ride or heavy lifting at the gym I not only feel a lot better but it also clears my thinking and I come up with new ideas and how to deal with problems a lot easier (and often these ideas come while I’m exercising. There’s nothing like work-life balance for a founder. If you cannot accept that you shouldn’t start a company. But don’t let it go too far. I’ve significantly reduced the number of friends I meet with but I have deeper relationships with the ones I’ve kept and I always prioritise family.

What makes a good board member to you? What are some common pitfalls board members make and what are some attitudes that make them valuable assets to you?

Just like the management team you need to have board members that can add value to the phase you’re in right now and have the bandwidth to do so. This is often a challenge since Don’t be afraid to replace board members as you grow and they no longer add value (which can be easier said than done).

Entrepreneurs should put a lot more responsibilities on board members and not be afraid doing so. If the board is only for corp gov and you reporting to them you’ve failed. Good board members should be supportive of the business. Of course they should challenge the CEO, but in a constructive way and they should always be thinking about how they can help the company.

Key Lessons from Johan

  • Delegate, but don’t hire for the next phase. As a founder, it’s tempting to hire people with experience on bigger scales when you’re going through the “second birth”. Don’t do this. Hire people that work at your current level of scale and that can grow to the next one. Many employees in startups have failed because they company didn’t grow enough to reach the size they would be useful at for years;
  • Put responsibility on your board members and don’t be afraid to use them. A board where the CEO just reports is a failed board. Know what you want from board members and don’t be afraid to ask for it. Don’t be afraid to replace board members who aren’t being useful anymore (easier said than done, as Johan points out);
  • Bad times are when top performers stand out from the others. When things are going great, everybody succeeds. When things are going bad is when top performers that aren’t a 100% fit can start leaving – and that’s when you have to figure who is driven by what;

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