We’ve opened the 2024 application period for our SOCAP Entrepreneur Fellowship: LEARN MORE AND APPLY!

The Secret to Achieving Work-Life Balance

Meghan French Dunbar April 4, 2015
Martin Bjergegaard has not only co-authored the International Bestseller Winning Without Losing: 66 Strategies for Building a Wildly Successful Business While Living a Happy and Balanced Life, but he also co-founded Rainmaking, a “company factory” that launches and builds startups. Since 2006, the company has invested in 165 startups and also runs Startupbootcamp, Europe’s leading startup accelerator program. One might assume that working at this pace is entirely unsustainable, but Martin has discovered a set of tactics that help him to maintain balance and happiness in the face of it all.

Your company Rainmaking has created 20 companies, invested in 200 startups, raised more than $100 million, and created more than a thousand jobs based on three core values: being Warm Hearted, a Whole Person, and World Focused (WWW). What was the process for developing these values? What tactics do you practice to return to these values, especially in times of crisis?

Martin Bjergegaard: When we started Rainmaking in 2006, all four of us had had experience with the traditional way of doing business through working at big corporations and international consultancies. We felt that most corporate cultures had too much cynicism, too much of a narrow-minded focus on profit, and too many egos fighting over power. That culture didn’t really do it for us so we decided to create our own thing.

When we sat down to design Rainmaking, we quickly agreed on one overarching guiding principle: our company should make us, and everyone else interacting with it, happier than we would have been without it.

Talking more about it, we quickly realized that for us to thrive we needed a culture of warm-heartedness – a place where we would actually care about each other as human beings, not just as means to an end.

Three of us had recently become first-time parents and we definitely knew that we wanted to be a very integrated part of our children’s lives and upbringings. Not even the most exciting startup in the world could make us compromise on that dedication. Health is also immensely important to us – not just as a concept, but as a daily commitment to being active, eating properly, and feeling great. So we wanted a good balance between our passion for Rainmaking and our other joys and commitments, which made us all agree on the Whole Person component.

Finally, we decided to connect with greatness rather than fear. We imagined how well things would go and how big and successful Rainmaking would become (at a time when we had just quit our jobs and were about to borrow whatever small amount we could from the bank). Then we asked ourselves the question, “Now that we are successful, is there anything we regret?” In this frame of mind, it was obvious that cutting corners and compromising on integrity would be a really stupid thing to do. A lot of people become successful but only a few of them are proud of the actions they took to get there. We wanted to internalize that insight and, by design, put ourselves in the latter category.

“It’s one thing to agree on values, it’s another thing to live your values day after day.”

Of course, it’s one thing to agree on values, it’s another thing to live your values day after day. Soon after we started Rainmaking, the financial crisis came and almost knocked us over. We had managed to raise $2 million in 2007 from nine business angels and, on the back of this investment, we sped up our activities and launched quite a few new businesses. Then, suddenly everyone around us was paralyzed and it became a very difficult business environment. Most of our investors lost a huge part of their fortunes during 2008 and 2009. Whenever we met with them, they looked so depressed and were worried if things would ever return to normal.

Personally, I decided to stop following the news altogether – it was simply too depressing. I asked myself, “What frame of mind do I need to maintain in order to get through this crisis in one piece?” The words “strong,” “enthusiastic,” and “happy” came to me. Luckily, my co-founders are very resilient, so we supported each other, made a new plan, felt good about it, and kept moving forward.

There definitely were a few times when we were really challenged on our values. For instance, we had to close down one of our startups early on that was based on one of my ideas and which I had been running as CEO for more than a year. We had to close it down because we ran out of money while we still had a substantial burn rate. In some ways, it was tempting to file for bankruptcy – the conditions for doing so were definitely met. Instead, all the Rainmaking founders decided to cut back on our own salaries for a year to be able to pay everyone what we owed them. It did hurt at the time, but that tough year went by quickly and today what is left is a feeling of happiness for being able to adhere to our values, even under difficult circumstances.

Rainmaking has seven co-founders/ partners and you’re all committed to deepening your personal friendships with one another along the way. What strategies do you employ to honor this commitment?

MB: Like any relationship, the key is to spend time together. We have Rainmaking offices in London, Berlin, and Copenhagen, and Startupbootcamp (our accelerator program) is in ten cities globally and expanding. We all travel and have teams to attend to, so we need to be intentional about spending enough time together just the seven of us. We are very dedicated to doing so because we know that our friendship is our most important asset. For us to thrive, it needs to be a friendship, not just a partnership, because this way we truly get joy, energy, and happiness from working together. Going into the office every morning, we want to have the same feeling as when we were kids going to the after-school club – that amazing feeling of, “I am going to play with my friends.”

Four times per year, we spend a few whole days together, all seven of us. We call these days “Energy Days” because we realized that the most important outcome of these days is that we are all energized afterwards. With this intention, quarrels, endless budget sessions, or a strict agenda cease to make sense. These are very enjoyable days in which the social part is fully integrated with the business part.

It’s obvious that you can’t have too big of an ego if you are to work together as seven equals. Luckily, none of us has a need to be right all the time or to get things “our way.” We are all aware that our individual interpretation of a situation is just that – an interpretation. We don’t claim to know what is ultimately right or wrong. We are very pragmatic in that sense.

If something is truly important to us, we will be transparent about it and the rest of us will listen and do our best to accommodate that preference. Just having this opportunity means that we very seldom use it.

“Our company should make us, and everyone else interacting with it, happier than we would have been without it.”

Working with friends is often seen as something not to do in the business world. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are thinking of working with friends or who already work with friends?

MB: There’s definitely a risk working with friends. But there is also a very meaningful upside. Personally, I have had so much fun, enjoyed so many shared experiences, and have deepened my relationships by working with my friends. However, it definitely wouldn’t work with all of them, so you have to be very thoughtful and selective. Only choose a friend for the work if he or she is the ideal candidate for the job, irrespective of the friendship.

Your book, Winning Without Losing, outlines 66 strategies for building successful businesses while maintaining balance and happiness. Which of these strategies consistently shows up in your everyday life? Are there any strategies that have proven to be the most important to you personally?

MB: I follow my own advice in the book and make a “today list” every day. I write down the three things that are wildly important for me to get done today. At least one of these needs to be strategic, moving me forward toward my big goal for this year. To have this razor-sharp focus makes a huge difference when done consistently day after day. It reduces the risk of procrastination and clutter and gives me something to feel good about every day when I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.

I also have walking meetings almost daily. It’s such a nice way to interact and work with others. The mind works best when the body is in motion, so it’s actually a terrible idea to sit in a meeting room where the air gets stale. It’s amazing how many meetings can actually be done outside!

What is the most important quality to you and your partners when you are considering investing in a business?

MB: We have to be really excited about it. Of course, we consider the typical things like scalability and early traction, but ultimately our excitement is what matters most and that has a lot to do with the founding team. We love to work with nice, skilled, and passionate people who share our values.

What insights do you have regarding leadership? What leadership qualities do you look for in the leaders of the companies that you invest in and what leadership techniques have proven to be most critical to your personal leadership style?

MB: In leadership, personal maturity is key. Maturity has nothing to do with age, but everything to do with how much a person has evolved beyond the ego, his or her insecurities, the need to be right, and the tendency to panic and see ghosts where there are none. We believe that leadership today is about building the right team, setting the right direction and tone, and then supporting people while they work their magic. It’s not about being bossy or knowing it all. Rather, I feel that leadership is about creating the space for others to shine and thrive.

We don’t really apply any leadership techniques. We just try to be mature, compassionate, honest, and respectful.

What gives you hope for the future?

MB: That humanity has been making amazing evolutionary strides during the last 100 years – or 1,000 years, if you will. We still have some way to go before we have a safe, fair, and prosperous world for all of us. But when I remember where we have come from, I think we have made tremendous progress and we keep on evolving. This is quite possibly the most exciting time in human history!

Stakeholder Capitalism
Join the SOCAP Newsletter!