The below is an excerpt from Susanne Birgersdotter’s forthcoming book, Pivotal Moments. Birgersdotter is a Swedish serial entrepreneur, investor and global speaker. She is the founder of Stockholm App Lab, iGotcha SBDM Invest, Birgersdotter Innovate and Partner in 13a Studio.
As CEO of a game studio, I was very focused on the company. We kept making apps through Stockholm App Lab, but mostly for external clients. It wasn’t my priority at the time—the game was the most important thing. In October of 2014, I managed to get initial funding to setup the company and hire some people. For a brief moment, I was on cloud nine.
At the studio, we were developing our location-based Monopoly-style game. You would play using your phone on real streets with other people around you. Businesses and buildings became props in the background, and could attract potential clients. This was an idea that blended a number of concepts. A little bit of Second Life, a splash of Eve and a pinch of Sim City. But all in the spirit of Monopoly. The whole location-based concept was new—it was a smartphone functionality that was being used very little for games.
We had our Ukrainian developer and started looking for more people. Many wanted to work with games. But it was difficult to find people who had actual experience—who had developed games or somehow worked in the industry. The salary levels were high, since established companies were showering money over those with experience. We couldn’t compete on that level. But we kept looking for people, testing applicants, interviewing them and at the same time we were doing as much development work as we could. The company was in desperate need of an injection of capital.
I was constantly meeting with investors, basically commuting to New York, London and Oslo. But then I happened to meet an investor through a friend in Stockholm. He was super interested and had previous experience from the game industry. I knew that he hailed from a wealthy family. He wanted to invest in stock and signed up for $500,000. We spoke every day and met several times a week. He came into the office and met with the team, we were in close contact for about three to four months before I started realizing what was happening. I probably had a gut feeling about it for longer than that but blocked it out since we needed the money and many people had put their trust in me to make it happen with this investor. And since he was taking the entire stock offering, I stopped talking to other investors. This was something that I would bitterly regret. Because the money never came in. He had a bunch of strange excuses. A flat tire on the way to the bank, his kids were sick, the funds would be deposited tomorrow, and so on. This went on for several months.
Contrary to many other investors that I’ve dealt with, this guy was a very warm and likable person. He wanted to be on the team and took time out of his schedule to meet everyone involved in my company. He understood the concept better than most, both from a technical and business perspective. Always casual and nicely dressed, he seemed grounded and well-rounded.
When you’re dealing with investors, they often have the upper hand. You want something from them. Their money. But they don’t have to invest in you. There are so many businesses out there to place money in. You’re just one of many vying for their attention. So starting out with asking the investor if he or she actually has money would be to insult the person that you so desperately need. So I never asked.
I had met all kinds of investors, from board rooms on the 40th floor of American skyscrapers, successful entrepreneurs with money to spend, to retirees in Stockholm suburbs. They were all in it to make money, boost their fortunes to another level. None of them were game players and they were more interested in prospective numbers than the idea of the actual game. One of the most interesting groups consisted of a couple of guys from Silicon Valley. They were thirty-something and sent out to Sweden to find the next big thing. In our little office, one of them put his feet on the conference table and the other one was spinning in his chair, staring into the ceiling, all while asking questions about our bookkeeping. They wanted to know about churn, ROI, cost of acquisition, numbers we couldn’t possibly give them at this early stage. We were miles apart. And they refused to understand our new approach to the game market.
We also had one of Sweden’s most interesting startup investment groups come in. The first thing they said was that they wanted to do a complete due diligence on our company. Needless to say, things should be in order, but they showed little interest in the actual product or business plan. This team did put in some serious work though and this showed us how things were done in the big leagues.
As an entrepreneur, you have drive and passion to innovate. But perhaps you’re not a master of paperwork. Now, this turned out to be a real problem. We had always had some kind of administrative person to manage the books, and the secretary of the board also did his part. But then, of course, we had all the agreements—employee contracts, consulting agreements, rental agreements, and everything concerning domains, servers, equipment and so on. The list was long, and when this was supposed to be presented in a certain format for due diligence, it turned out to be quite challenging to get in order. We had to struggle to get it done. But this is an important lesson. Disorder can make a business collapse much quicker than you might think.
Anyway, the ship was sinking and I was going down with it—my priority wasn’t to check signatures on documents in binders. But my advice today is to immediately make sure that you have someone in your team who loves to deal with audits and bookkeeping. It took us three weeks to get all the paperwork in order for the due diligence, and it still wasn’t enough for the prospective investors. I’m not sure if it was this disarray that was the problem, but I suspect that it was. I didn’t have things in good enough order.
Back to our main investor who was stalling and always came up with new excuses. I started to dig a bit deeper into his business dealings and background. Naturally, I should’ve done this at the outset. The investor will most likely do their due diligence on you. And you should do the same when it comes to them. Find out what they’ve invested in previously and where the money comes from.
Anyway, I found out that his house was mortgaged through the roof and that his father had bailed him out of many sticky situations. One day, he sent me a screenshot of a bank receipt. Wow! I was so relieved. Everything would be all right, despite all the delays! But then something strange happened. The money never came into our account… After a few days, I realized that the investor had sent us a forgery of a deposit receipt.
When I finally understood that he was never going to pay, it was like having the rug pulled out from underneath my feet. I had 14 people who needed to get paid and this was just before summer, which means vacation time in Sweden. I remember standing on the porch and it was like the anxiety hit me like a lightning spike, it went right through my body and everything started spinning, I was falling, falling down as if I had stepped out into an empty elevator shaft, I tried to reach out for something to grab onto but there was nothing… I felt like a fool, a complete failure. Once again, I was drowning because I had put my trust in the wrong person.
The next day, the board called me. They told me I had 48 hours to solve the problem. I even got an email in ALL CAPS from one of the directors. Who does that? And in my own company! I felt like it was my fault. I had to solve this mess.
A major question when it comes to creating companies and funding startups is where does your loyalty end, and when does capitalism have to take precedence? A passionate founder would go the extra mile, dig into their own pockets, slash personal expenses, empty bank accounts, mortgage the house… Those types of actions are almost always romanticized once the business has taken off and become successful. But there’s a downside to this that’s especially apparent when it comes to dealing with investors, and that is that you should not be the only one to carry the big burden. If you have a board of directors, they should also step up their game and help you. Now, in many cases, you have spent the money that you got and you’re somewhat ashamed of yourself for ending up in this situation. This gets in the way of your pragmatic reasoning. Or, it did for me, at least.
In the midst of all this, I was in severe pain. One evening, I took my computer and a bottle of wine and went to bed. After a glass or two, an idea suddenly came to me. Instead of acting like a victim, complain and beg for help, I had to be smarter. I had to tell the story that now, there was a unique opportunity to invest in one of the most exciting game companies out there. Because, think about it—who wants to invest in a company that’s going down the drain?
I was part of a female business network and decided to write an email to all of its members, telling them that they had a rare opportunity to invest in one of Sweden’s most interesting tech companies, which, on top of it all, was also run by a woman. I wrote the email, closed my eyes clicked send. Then I shut the lid of my computer, had another sip of wine and leaned back on the pillow.
After two minutes, my cell phone buzzed. Then it buzzed again. And again. And again. The emails kept coming in. Everyone wanted to invest. I had saved the company.
A small word of warning may be suitable here. Normally, group emails are annoying and it may scare people off. Don’t use email lists to contact potential investors. Contact everyone personally. Be persistent and systematic. But at this time, I didn’t have much of a choice so I disregarded the warnings and did it the way I had to. I trusted my gut feeling and I have kept trusting it ever since.
At that point, I also started to realize that this had never been my responsibility alone. The company was owned by shareholders, it had an elected board of directors. I needed to move focus from me to the company as its own independent entity. It wasn’t a one-woman show. People needed to step up and do their part.
While all this was happening, we kept working on the game. No time to rest now. We needed people with skills and we needed more knowledge. I had started a game company with a great idea, I had managed to get both the initial and the second investment, been able to keep the company running. But the challenge of finding skilled people remained.
Sometimes a failure will lead you to a better resolution. Don’t be afraid of failing, but try to always think outside of the box. Ask yourself: What untapped resources do I have? Who can I ask? Another important aspect of this is to get over the hurdle of self-consciousness and shyness. The fact is, business doesn’t care about your emotions. You must put the goal first. And remind yourself that you have many people depending on you—people who also care about your success.
You can pre-order a copy of Birgersdotter’s book Pivotal Moments at her website.