The story so far

Roosevelt Finlayson (of the Festival in the Workplace) called me from the Bahamas yesterday to catch up. During our talk we discussed my future plans (among many other things) and he challenged me to document the process I’m currently going through. That’s a great idea and what better place to do it than right here on the blog.

And what better way to start than by telling the story so far. So here it is, the story of the geek who:

  • Co-Founded a very different kind of IT-company
  • Went from trying to grok tech to trying to grok people
  • Left IT and found his calling
  • Founded possibly the world’s strangest company/organisation/movement
  • Gave 3 years of his life to make people happy at work
  • Worked for free for 3 years, and calls at i huge success :o)
  • Is now leaving this project and has no idea what’s next

I used to be a geek. A serious geek. We’re talking bad hair, ugly metal-frame glasses and rudimentary social skills. After graduating with a masters in IT back in 1994, I worked as a developer and consultant and then co-founded an IT consultancy called Enterprise Systems together with some fellow geeks in 1997.

When we started the company we had one huge advantage: We didn’t know how. The three founders (myself, Patrik Helenius and Martin Broch Pedersen) were all happy geeks with absolutely no idea of how to run a business. We did have some pretty good notions of how NOT to do it from previous jobs, but mostly we had a passion for doing it RIGHT – whatever that means. This mostly kept us from doing “business as usual”, and freed us to try untraditional approaches.

And we succeeded. In Enterprise Systems:

  • We had no managers
  • People did excellent work
  • We made major decisions together, democratically
  • We made good money (not obscene, just good :o)
  • We had fun
  • All employees became co-owners
  • People didn’t work too much – 40 hrs a week or less
  • Leadership changed hands dynamically

When we created ES, my focus was mainly on the technical, nerdy side of the business, but that began to change. I took some courses and read some books and discovered that I had a deep passion and even some talent for the human side of the business. For facilitating processes and decisions. For creating fun. For doing things differently.

In late 2002 we sold our company to Tieto Enator (a huge Scandinavian IT company). I decided at that time to leave the IT business to do something else – though I had absolutely no idea what that something else would be. I gave myself some time off, where I purposely did NOT think about what was next. I did not read any job ads or send out any applications, I just gave myself some time.

And suddenly the answer came to me. I can still remember the very moment: I was lying on the grass by the Copenhagen harbour swimming pool, when the idea struck me, that what I would work with was Happiness at work. My next thought was, of course, “Yeah, great. Happiness at work. So what, what am I going to about that?”. The answer to that question was a little longer in the making :o)

I spent some months fleshing out the concepts and ideas, and arrived at some basic guidelines:

  • Happiness at work is the next crucial challenge for business
  • This would not be MY company, it would be a cross between a consultancy and a grassroots movement
  • We would not seek public funding – we would make our own money
  • The work would be Open Souce, sharing all results openly

Would it work? I had no idea. Basically, this was an experiment on every level. Untried products, new company, totally untested way of organizing people, etc… Working with this level of uncertainty, what drove me and allowed me to do it anyway was my commitment to the basic concept of happiness at work.

I basically decided, that I would rather do this and fail, than not do it. Obviously, I would prefer to do it and succeed, but I totally accepted the idea, that this whole creation might crash and burn.

It didn’t. Far from it. Now, 3 years later we can look back on:

  • 2 excellent conferences on happiness at work
  • A customer list that most consultancies can only dream of. Lego, PriceWaterhouseCoopers,
  • DaimlerChrysler, Novo, Danisco and many, many others, big and small, private and public.

  • An impressive list of products: Speaches, workshops, games. All co-created by many people.
  • Many people have given of their time and creativity
  • Constant, steady growth

I believe that we have helped put happiness at work on the agenda in Denmark. 3 years ago, very few people took the concept seriously, and if they did they talked more about “employee satisfaction” which is quite different.

And here’s a funny thing: I haven’t gotten a single solitary cent out off it. The project has made a lot of money, but I decided to work for free. Other people in the project are getting paid for their work (and some also choose to work for free), but I consider this my gift to the world. This is something I had just the right combination of talent and passion to do.

Two things made this possible: First of all I made some money when we sold ES. It didn’t make me a millionaire, but it did give me some economic freedom. Secondly, my girlfriend Patricia and I live cheaply in a small appartment and have very few fixed expenses. If that hadn’t been the case the money would have run out long ago. As it is, I have enough for maybe 6-9 months before I need to get a steady income.

And it’s been totally worth it. I wish every worker could try what I’ve tried: A couple of years where your not controlled by the need to bring home a salary, but can let yourself be guided by:

  • What’s fun
  • What’s interesting
  • What’ll let you meet cool people
  • What’s new

I have given my time (working full time on this for the last 3 years) and I have gotten so much out of it, particularly:

  • Knowledge
  • Growth
  • Friends
  • The pleasure of giving

Not to mention frustration. I don’t know about you, but when I work on something like this, where I have no idea if it’ll work, I get doubt-attacks. Suddenly the thought comes into my head that “this’ll never work, what the hell am I doing? This is all an illusion, I’m just bluffing people, and what we’re doing doesn’t really work”.

The first time this happened, just a few months into the project, it was crippling. For a couple of days I was just ready to throw in the towel and go look for a “real job”. And then it passed, and started believing again. The doubt-attacks return regularly, but now I know that:

  • They are part of the process
  • They pass
  • The only way to avoid them is to work on something that I know in advance will suceed. And that would be booooooring :o)

So it’s not all fun and games making people happy at work. But it’s totally worth it.

And then last summer, I got this feeling in my stomach: It’s time to move on. There’s something else I could be creating. Some new project is waiting for me. I mulled it over, and then made the decision to honor this intuitive feeling. I’ve had them before and ignored them, only to regret not having listened.

I announced my decision to the rest of the project, and set a deadline: January 1st 2006, I’d be outta here. Since then we’ve been working to pass on everything I know to Mette and Mette who will be running the show after I quit.

And what’s next? I truly do not know. First I want to create the same kind of empty space that I had after I left Enterprise Systems, so I have not been seeking out new ventures. Something will come to me. I have about a million ideas, I just haven’t committed myself to any of them. One idea (or several) will come out of the void I’m creating for myself.

If you have any cool ideas, I’d love to hear them – send me a mail or comment below.

28 thoughts on “The story so far”

  1. A wonderful story that passes on a lot of courage and wisdom – I think. I am looking forward – as always – to see what nothingnes you see in the void ;-)

  2. I stumbled upon this webpage from a link off a page a friend gave me. I think your story is wonderful. It takes a certain kind of person to be able to do that. Congratulations.

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  4. Alexander:

    We are truly kindred spirits! I’m going to add you to my blogroll because you have a lot of things everyone needs to hear! Thank you for being brave enough to listen to your life. The world is a better place because you are you!!

    I read your comment on my blog just now … AFTER I wrote the latest entry. It’s almost as if we have the same message. What a coincidence – NOT! I understand much better now how the universe works.

    I wish you all the best – and I’d love to keep in touch!


  5. Ok what next — weave your happiness concept more deeply with ‘right livelyhood’ and triple bottom line! Help businesses become a ALL positive transformational force for solving issues and facing the sustainability challenges of the next century!

    For what good is a motivated workforce when its impact is destructive?

  6. I like that angle, cityzenjane. In fact, I believe that:
    1) People can’t really be happy, unless their work makes the world a little better somehow. And they certainly can’t, if they’re actively doing bad.
    2) Happy people naturally gravitate towards doing good, When you feel good, you do good.

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  8. Thanks for sharing!

    It’s important that you can look back on things and be happy about them, believing in your vision is essential for succes, as this guy points out. If you think you have something good, go for it with all your heart, but also, try to discover the weak points of your plan. And, always make sure you have a backdoor, something you can fall back on when things go totally wrong.

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