This post is the first in our new Founders’ Story series from Zendesk co-founders Mikkel Svane, Morten Primdahl, and Alexander Aghassipour. You can read more of Zendesk’s founding story in the new book Startupland: How Three Guys Risked Everything to Turn an Idea Into a Global Business, available December 8.
What’s the next startup hotbed? So goes this perennial debate on the Interwebs. New cities are constantly being thrown into the ring: San Diego! Denver! Dallas! Portland! Seattle! Everywhere from Oklahoma to Omaha, Miami to Memphis makes the cut, and cities ranging from Bangalore to Boulder, Toronto to Tel Aviv are being touted as better than Silicon Valley and San Francisco.
And although this anti-Silicon Valley sentiment and contrarian approach certainly scores a lot of headlines, for many, the old-school vote always prevails. The San Francisco Bay Area is still unmatched because of a confluence of things that come together here: the history; the talent; the university system; the community of investors; and the weather. (Never, never underestimate the allure of our unique Bay Area climate.)
I agree. Wholeheartedly. But what often gets overlooked—what can’t be found anywhere else in the world and what makes the Bay Area truly unique—is the inimitable mindset. This is what makes the Bay Area untouchable as the startup capital of the world.
Seven years ago I started Zendesk with two friends in a fifth-floor, walk-up Copenhagen apartment where we sat at a desk made out of a door and there weren’t enough comfortable chairs. We were all in our mid- to late-thirties and were concerned time was running out to do something we really wanted to do. We felt that we needed to make a change before it was too late.
I can’t really say we aimed to start a company, because at that time we weren’t aiming to start a company. Our ambition was not to hire a lot of people, or build a big office, or go public one day, we were just pursuing an idea. We came from the chaotic world of customer support, we knew its many flaws, and we thought we could make it better with software that was nice to look at and easy to use.
Perhaps we didn’t “dream big” because we were never taught to. We did not come from a world that valued BHAGs. We were taught to be satisfied with what we had. And as Danes, we had a lot to be satisfied with—there are many good reasons why Denmark is the country with the happiest people in the world. There’s free health care and free schools, low unemployment, and a true sense of security. Everyone lives less than a 15 minute walk from a park, enjoys time outside, and with so little value placed on job status, there’s little pressure to work hard—with everything taken care of, there’s little need to make a lot of money.
But this lifestyle is not only the result of the socio-economic system. Scandinavians grow up with the “Law of Jante,” a mentality that urges people to be modest. From a young age, we are taught, “Don’t be more than you are; don’t think you are better than anyone.” Unlike American culture, Danish culture does not prize being exceptional—instead it promotes a mindset that it’s better to be like everyone else.
That clearly didn’t promote a culture of entrepreneurialism. Starting a company from nothing is so effing hard. In Denmark there was no incentive to work that bloody hard and no rewards for doing something different and no system to support this alternate route. Denmark simply doesn’t have the necessary infrastructures in place to support a burgeoning startup. There is not the same kind of talent—neither in volume or in deep experience. There is not the same access to capital. (There is no access to real risk-friendly capital.)
We knew we could not grow Zendesk to what it was meant to be if we stayed in Copenhagen. As we worked so many hours in that loft and saw the product take off with customers, we wanted more for ourselves and our little startup venture. Somewhere along the way, we caught American Dream Fever and the TechCrunch Bug.
We decided to relocate to America for a better chance. We started off in Boston, where our investors, Charles River Ventures, were then based. We found people who helped us build this company, and who are still with us, but we knew we would soon be leaving for San Francisco, where other investors were and where we could truly scale the company.
On trips to the West, I saw how different it was. And yes, it was the office space, outfitted and ready for move-in, the fantastic talent, and the glorious weather, but it was something else, something harder to quantify. Something more intangible. It was a feeling. A true sense of belonging.
Those on the West Coast were so willing to take on risk and accept starting all over. There’s much more mobility than elsewhere, and there’s less nostalgia about where you are and what you have. Sometimes it’s almost brutal, the willingness to slash everything and start again. But that is how big things are built and great things are done. Kill your darlings. Clean slate. Rinse. Reboot.
Think about the privilege of finding out what you’re good at in life and then doing that and then living in a place that is created for people like you where the whole ecosystem is for people like you—a place where you and the team that you build around you are the center of the universe.
It took no time before San Francisco became my entire world. Its energy meshed with our own disruptive aspirations, and its signature quirkiness was often in line with our own. And it was a beautiful place to live. And maybe my accent and awe still gives me away as an outsider, but for me there’s no debate and there can never be a replacement—in Startupland I found home.
Just getting on the path to Startupland yourself? Try Inbox by Zendesk
Attending the Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco on Dec. 10? Don’t miss Mikkel’s talk: Getting Closer to Your Customers in Startupland