Meet the entrepreneur who kick-started Denmark's start-up scene

Q&A: The co-founder and CEO of the customer service software firm on how he developed a billion dollar Danish company.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 01 Jul 2016

Mikkel Svane started Zendesk in a loft in Copenhagen with Morten Primdahl and Alex Aghassipour in 2007. It creates customer service software for businesses - offering a web-based help desk to give companies a simpler way to manage incoming requests from customers. 

The Danish company now has over 1,400 employees and 75,000 customers across 150 countries. It's worth over $1bn and is listed on the NYSE. And it's not ten-years-old yet.

The founders' previous experience was in the customer service software industry, and seeing it as clunky and complicated, the team set out to 'democratise customer service software' to make it easier to use and available to any business.

MT caught up with Svane to find out what's next on the horizon and how Denmark's entrepreneur scene has moved on since he launched the business (Zendesk moved to Silicon Valley in 2009 after a $6m series B funding round).

Have you always been entrepreneurial?

I founded a handful of other companies before Zendesk, including my very first start-up for creating 3D Magic Eye images that were popular in the 1990s. Each gave me unique challenges that helped me build Zendesk into what it is today. For me, being an entrepreneur is all about the journey and not the destination. It’s the thrill of creating something new with a like-minded group of people and building it into something that in many ways takes on a life of its own.

When did you realise you were onto something special?

When we launched, we won quite a few customers almost immediately, and they found us from all over the world (the very first was an Irish company, Cubic Telecom). Even though they all seemed like different businesses, they all needed a service like ours. We soon realised that the product had universal reach.

What was the process of getting listed like?

It's distracting. It takes up so much mental capacity you end up almost incapable of thinking about anything else. There are so many new people to coordinate: bankers, lawyers, auditors. Although the process strengthens the company in many different ways, it’s also a big diversion from running your business. People tell you all sorts of things. We were told not to list, that it was the wrong time - because of turmoil in the market in early 2014. But eventually you have to do what you think is right. We had a successful IPO, and being public has led to more discipline within the company and more recognition in the market. It helped us show a new set of potential customers that we’re here for the long-term.

Are today's customers becoming more difficult?

Customers today are more empowered than ever before. In many cases, they know more about a company’s products than the customer service representative they’re contacting because of all of the information available to consumers on Google and social media. At the same time, customers now have a louder voice. They can immediately share both a good or bad experience with their friends through social media and mobile. The result is that businesses have to focus more on responsiveness, transparency and in building trust with their customers than ever before.

Has Denmark’s entrepreneurial scene changed much in recent years?

Times were different in 2007 when we founded Zendesk in Copenhagen. We could not raise any money in Copenhagen, and there was little to no start-up community. We were in many ways a curiosity. So we had to go elsewhere, to get closer to investors and also to our customers. These days the ecosystem in Copenhagen is fantastic. There’s a growing and more thriving community of start-ups, and investors are more open to investing in start-ups there. Nonetheless, Copenhagen is still a small place. Depending on your business, you may still need to look elsewhere when it comes time to really scale and grow the business.

Zendesk's co-founder and CEO Mikkel Svane

Any start-ups we should keep an eye out for?

We started working with an interesting Copenhagen start-up called Be My Eyes recently. They’ve created an app that lets blind people contact a network of sighted volunteers for help. The company represents a new generation of start-ups that is putting social responsibility at the core of the company at its founding.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

We’re expanding beyond support to address customer relationships more broadly because we think the relationship between businesses and customers is changing dramatically. Zendesk was built upon a simple idea: make customer service software that’s easy to use and accessible to everyone. The company has expanded on that idea, and now offers a growing family of products  that work together.

Last year we acquired the Montpellier, France-based company behind BIME Analytics. This was significant for us as a business because we believe that data is the new currency in business and customer relationships. Organisations that not only have critical data, but also know how to bring it all together and make sense of it are going to better understand their customers and, ultimately, win and keep more of them for a lifetime.

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