Your passport to Startupland

Published December 8, 2014
Last modified December 8, 2014

Ever wondered what it’s like to start your own business? The journey from idea to startup to successful business is long and treacherous. But it makes such a great story that Zendesk founder and CEO Mikkel Svane sat down with author Carlye Adler to co-write a book about it.

Startupland, the founding story of Zendesk, officially hits the shelves (both real and virtual) today. Written from Mikkel’s perspective, Startupland is a behind-the-scenes look at how three guys risked everything to turn an idea into a global business.

Through the journey from Copenhagen to Boston to San Francisco, Mikkel shares lessons learned from the highs and lows of building a company from the ground up.

Here are a few excerpts from Startupland highlighting the very early days of Zendesk to whet your appetite before you get your hands on a copy of the book.


In the idealistic “honeymoon” phase, it wasn’t about building a business, it was about Mikkel and his friends Alexander Aghassipour and Morten Primdahl working together to build a great product.

"In the earliest months—those days in my apartment, the initial time in Alex’s loft—it was all about innovation and inspiration. Everything was a blank slate. Anything was possible. It was a pretty great time.

But soon the honeymoon ends. The idea becomes a reality, and you discover that even though you never really wanted to build a company, all of a sudden you are doing just that. And the reality is that building a company is hard—it’s no longer about just pursuing an idea. The idea has taken off, and it becomes all about executing and scaling.

Before you know it, you have all these real customers who need real attention, and you need to start building the beginnings of an organization. With all the bureaucracy and management that comes with it. And the realities of your own life creep in. No one tells you in advance how little you get paid to get there. How in the early days you are constantly running out of money. How much credit card debt you accumulate. How many fights you have with your co-founders. How you have to live with their weaknesses and oddities. How there’s the constant temptation of flashy objects and shiny new things. How much you keep from your spouse. How you overleverage your life. It quickly becomes very complicated.

We didn’t know anything about this. We didn’t know anything about anything."

Very soon, they learned a lot—about a lot of things, including what failure feels like.

"In Silicon Valley there’s a lot of talk about failure—there’s almost a celebration of failure. People recite mantras about “failing fast,” and successful people are always ready to tell you what they learned from their failures, claiming they wouldn’t be where they are today without their previous spectacular mess-ups. To me, having experienced the disappointment that comes with failure, all this cheer is a little odd.

The truth is, in my experience, failure is a terrible thing. Not being able to pay your bills is a terrible thing. Letting people go and disappointing them and their families is a terrible thing. Not delivering on your promises to customers who believed in you is a terrible thing. Sure, you learn from these ordeals, but there is nothing positive about the failure that led you there.

I learned there is an important distinction between promoting a culture that doesn’t make people afraid of making and admitting mistakes, and having a culture that says failure is great. Failure is not something to be proud of.

But failure is something you can recover from."

Recovering from too much time spent together can be difficult even for the closest of friends. By 2006, Alex, Mikkel, and Morten had set up shop in Alex’s home—an intimate work environment that presented its own set of challenges.

"We had officially moved “headquarters” from my apartment, which was being taken over by my kids and family life, to Alex’s loft, a sunny space with carefully curated pieces. Alex was more comfortable in his own cave, and, like most Danes, took great care in creating his space. It was an old loft that had been remodeled just a few years earlier. New, fabulous windows framed views over the old roofs of Copenhagen. But it was also very much a bachelor pad. It had a semi-functional kitchen with more drinks and condiments than actual food.

The loft was in the old part of Copenhagen, which was turning hip but still had a pregentrified feel. A gay S&M bar was across the street. Every day I’d walk up five flights of rickety uneven stairs to get to work. And though it was a beautiful apartment, you wouldn’t ever call it ideal office conditions.

Although Alex had selected Scandinavian furniture that looked clean and modern, it was definitely a setup for one guy only. There was only one real work chair. Whoever got in first (Alex) took it. The others sat on old kitchen chairs. The desk we worked at was an old door on sawhorses. (I’m not sure why. I know Amazon and started with desks built out of doors, but we were unaware that this was a trend happening across the pond; it was more of a utilitarian decision.)

Working together in the small loft, we quickly learned each other’s quirks and foibles. It’s so intimate to be working in someone’s home. You see everything.

Alex, a complete workaholic and night owl, frequently stayed up until after 2 A.M. working. I would ring the bell the next morning with my coffee in hand, ready to start the workday at 9 A.M. I had little kids, so I’d already been up for several hours. Often Alex answered the door in his underwear, hair disheveled. Sometimes he’d go back to bed. Later, we had keys and let ourselves in, only to find Alex still in the bathtub. He’d emerge into the “office” in his robe, his head wrapped in a towel.

We had a lot of respect for one another, but spending eight or more hours a day together, you do get annoyed by each other’s mannerisms—you find you need a break. Alex was always pointing out the way I moved my chair or the way I tapped my fingers. He chastised me for clearing my throat. And it sometimes seemed that Morten was annoyed by everything."


Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Startupland: How Three Guys Risked Everything to Turn an Idea into a Global Business by Mikkel Svane with Carlye Adler. Copyright (c) 2015 by Zendesk, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

To read more about Zendesk’s founding story (including other ways the founders drove each other crazy), buy your copy of Startupland