A 2-Part Interview in Tageszeiger
1st Part of a 2-Part Interview with Mathias Morgenthaler on Saturday December 19, 2015
Original version in German: “Mit 16 schwor ich mir, dass ich nie meine Träume verrate”
2nd Part of a 2-Part Interview with Mathias Morgenthaler on Saturday 26 December 2015
Original version in German: “Es ist deine Entscheidung, ob du Grosses erreichen willst”
“At 16 I promised myself not to compromise my dreams”
Sigrun Gudjonsdottir, business coach for female entrepreneurs.
She let herself be talked out of her first dream jobs but then in a tailoring course Sigrun met women who hadn’t made their dreams come true, and promised herself to do better. The Icelander studied architecture, learned programming, and became a CEO of a software company. In the first part of the interview she tells us where her courage comes from and how she is inspired by Björk.
Sigrun, you are very successful with coaching and online seminars for women and helping your clients turn their passion into profits. Are women more hesitant when it comes to earning money with their passion?
SIGRUN: Yes, I make that experience. Men have no hesitation to say: “This course costs $2,000, I’m an expert.” Women tend to agonize over whether $500 is not too much. That is humility in the wrong place. The digitization of all areas of life offers women excellent opportunities to build a business without having to go to an office every day. I work mostly out of my home office in Switzerland with a computer, a microphone and a camera. Three months a year I live in Iceland, sometimes I’m in Dubai or Los Angeles. For the thousands of entrepreneurs who attend my webinars, it makes no difference.
How did it happen that you specialized in helping women develop good business models?
That’s the question of the “Why” which one often understands only much later in life. A few years ago I would have said: It was a series of coincidences. But that’s only half the story. There’s always a “Why” that drives us. For me a childhood experience set the course: I started 13 years old to sew clothes. At the age of 16, I wanted to be more professional. So I visited an evening course, right after school, with a known dressmaker. I was the only one under 40 years and was shocked what kind of conversations the older women were having. All had said goodbye to their dreams and gave seemingly good reasons: marriage, family, children, boss etc. I promised myself during this course that I would never let that happen to me; I would never look for excuses because I wasn’t brave enough to make my dreams come true. It is not fate that plays a trick on us, it’s mostly our own fears.
Was this the decisive experience, as you later got into the IT industry and courageously sought the top job?
There are always many pieces in the puzzle. One is my nationality. I remember it well, as in 1980 Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was elected as the president of Iceland. She was the first democratically elected female head of state in the world, only nine years after women were allowed to vote in Switzerland. My mother and I went to the house of the newly elected President on that day, to congratulate her. And I thought: If this woman can lead our country, then I can also achieve anything I want. And then of course Björk, the singer. She inspires me to this day. Without her I would not have dared to make my first name my brand name.
Did you know early on that you wanted to pursue a business career?
No, as a child I wanted to be an author. I was incredibly proud, when my first story I had written as a six-year-old, was read on national radio. When I was telling stories I was in my own world and quite in my element, but soon I let myself be convinced that this was not a real job and I couldn’t make a living as an author. Then I wanted to be a teacher – but shortly afterwards, the teachers went on strike, because they could not live on their wages. This was another dream job gone. My dreams were not strong enough then to withstand the advice from grownups and the negative voices in my head. Finally at the age of 11 I became passionate about designing houses. I knew I wanted to be an architect. During a vacation in Freiburg I promised to come back 9 years and study architecture.
And did you keep that promise?
Yes, at the age of 20, I moved to Freiburg, learned German for a year and then studied architecture in Karlsruhe. The vision of the 11-year-old had been strong enough to get me through nine years. In contrast, my vision of wanting to work as an architect after my studies faded slowly away. I worked in architecture offices during my semester breaks. There, two things became clear to me: that this is a very volatile business; and that most of the work doesn’t have much to do with creativity. This was at the end of the nineties and I luckily discovered a new passion that completely spelled me: the Internet. I was blown away, did my thesis at the faculty for computer science and received a scholarship for a postgraduate degree at the ETH in Zurich. Already then, 15 years ago, we had a 3D printer. It was as big as a classroom and could print miniature houses.
Why did you not stay at the ETH?
I returned back to Iceland for family reasons and found an employment in a startup. While others simply did their job, I bugged my boss with questions such as: Where does our revenue come from? And why can’t some of our programmers program? It was the end of the Internet bubble, and shortly afterwards the company was almost broke, and I without a job. I then took an entrepreneur course, toyed with the idea of independence, but finally took a job in a 20-employee software company. Again, I had bad luck: Exactly one year later the company was sold and I was worried that the new owner would hire a boss who would be too involved. I remembered the stories from the sewing course and thought: What if I would apply for the CEO position? There were immediately voices that called it a completely crazy idea – female voices in my environment and the voices in my head. The men on the other hand encouraged me [and my sister].
And you got the job?
I wrote a two-page memo, and then heard nothing for three weeks. During this time, the negative voices became increasingly louder. Then I took one day off from work and exactly on that day the investor visited our company. I was able to figure out his phone number, gathered all my courage, called him and asked him for an interview. He appeared 30 min later with his lawyer – two weeks later I had the job. Had I not made such an effort to ask for the job, no one would have had the idea to ask me.
“It’s up to you to think big”
Sigrun Gudjonsdottir: From a CEO to a solo-entrepreneur.
As a business woman, Sigrun wanted to be a role model for other women and take on as much leadership responsibility as possible. Following a meeting with Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Renault-Nissan, she received a tempting offer – and renounced. But even as a solo-entrepreneur she’s pursuing big goals. The next one: 1 million dollars in revenue.
Sigrun, you promised yourself as 16-year-old not to betray your dreams. At 33 years you were a CEO of a software company. Did you do anything differently than your male predecessors?
SIGRUN: Yes, definitely. I gave, for example, many newcomers a chance, because they were motivated and resilient. Their gap of expertise was quickly closed. I encouraged programmers without qualifications to study and offered to pay for their studies. Basically I put my job in the foreground, never my ego or my status. So I hired an eleven-year-older university lecturer as a CTO to bring our company to a higher level. That I had to pay him more than me, was not a problem for me. Eleven months after I took over the loss-making company, we returned to profit. Next year, we grew by 40 percent.
Nevertheless, at the end you were made redundant – what happened there?
It was a very turbulent period. The investor who had bought our company and hired me as a CEO, trusted me to run a second company – one of the largest IT companies in Iceland. I saw quickly that the turnaround there would not be possible. So I returned to the smaller company and increased the profitability even further. At the same time, I pursued an MBA at London Business School. At some point we didn’t find enough programmers to grow the company further and the company was then sold on my recommendation. The new owners wanted me to enforce new labor contracts with significantly worse conditions. I refused to comply because I felt responsible to protect my employees, which resulted in me being fired. Then I moved to London and focused entirely on finishing my MBA …
… And then you were only an inch away from becoming a boss of a car brand?
Yes, it was one of those moments where I did something completely unconventional and was well rewarded. One of the guest speakers at London Business School was Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Renault-Nissan. He spoke about turnaround management, and after his talk, he was surrounded by young ambitious MBA students. I pulled together all my courage, went straight up to him and said to him. “Hey, I’m Sigrun and I have worked on turnarounds too”. That’s so Icelandic, we are not in awe of powerful people. Presumably it also helped that I was the only woman in the round. Anyway, he took time for me, asked me a few questions and then handed me his business card. A few weeks later he offered me to take responsibility for Nissan Sweden.
Why did you decline?
Fortunately in the meantime, I asked myself, if this was really the life I had in mind: to sit alone in Sweden and lead a car company. I had long dreamed of being in charge of a company with 500 or 1,000 employees. As a business woman I wanted to be a role model for other women, achieve something significant. But while I was in London I realized that my life was very biased towards professional achievement. It lacked variety, spiritual growth, meaning and partnership. This became clear to me in a seminar with the bestselling author and coach Tony Robbins. And as chance would have it, I sat there next to a man who later became my husband. So I moved to Switzerland instead of Sweden, without a CEO job, but with butterflies in my stomach.
Was that the start of your own business?
Not yet, I first joined management of a small Zurich-based company, but then my body striked. I had so much pain in my neck, shoulders and arms that I was unable to work for seven months. Later a period of unemployment followed. My applications remained without echo, probably because nobody wanted to hire a woman with four Master’s degrees and 10 years of CEO experience. So I was on my own, with lots of ideas, but no clear business plan. Finally, out of frustration, I began to blog in September 2013. My first blog posts were not thought through but more of a reflection of my situation. The number of hits on my contributions jumped so quickly into the air, that it soon became clear: that I’ve hit a nerve. The question of how to transform your passion into a business, occupies many women.
And have you in the meantime found an answer to this question?
I soon realized that I could more easily help others, than myself. One day I put a button on my website:. “One hour online coaching: $180″ When the button was clicked for the first time I was electrified – it was the most important signal for me that it can work. Later I extended my offering to six and twelve sessions coaching, but before that I developed a one-week online course. Because I wasn’t sure, how well it would work, I ran it for the first time for free with 134 participants. The feedback was so euphoric that I raised the price successively: first to $97, then to $147 and finally to $297 dollars. In July 2014 I started with weekly webinars. On my webinars I show entrepreneurs how they can grow their business and acquire clients through social media, Facebook ads, and targeted list-building. In only 18 months I have ran 64 webinars with thousands of participants.
As a solo-entrepreneur you don’t lack ambition. Where are you going next?
This year I’ll double my turnover from last year, in 2016 it will be half a million dollars. The goal is clear: 1 million dollars in revenue and then eventually an appearance on Oprah’s talk show. I could slow down now and be proud of what I have already achieved. But I like to put myself under pressure, take risks and set myself aspirational goals. Accordingly, I meet people with predominantly own companies and big ambitions. This has a big impact. You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with [Jim Rohn]. It’s your decision whether you remain small and complain about it or if you want to achieve great things. My motto is: “Be Inspired. Think Big. Take Action”. It’s important that you don’t have the illusion that you can do all of this on your own. In a phase when I didn’t have much revenue yet, I invested in business coaching. There I learned to sell my services better and only to do things where I can make a real the difference. For everything else, I have my three assistants in England, Canada and Portland (USA).