Photo: Joachim Rode

‘It is difficult to learn from successes’

Thursday 12 Apr 18

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Entrepreneurship is no guarantee of a lifestyle characterized by success, fast cars, and champagne. Reality is often very different. Discover the story of the failed start-up—Sentar.

The Dream

“Our dream was to make it big,” remembers Mads Rømer Svendsen as he thinks back to the time before Sentar was established in February 2016. Back then, he was studying Design and Innovation at DTU together with Christian Breinholt from the same year. Aboard the team was also friend Lasse Korsholm Poulsen from Copenhagen Business School.

Christian and Mads were in their mid-twenties and both were suffering from back problems. Too young to be suffering from back pain, they began studying the market and discovered that back and neck pains cost European companies EUR 27 billion in direct and indirect costs due to sick leave. sThe solution was simple—or so it seemed to the two entrepreneurs. Employees at Danish companies needed to use their height-adjustable desks much more.

The friends were optimistic. It all seemed straightforward—clear cut. The two engineering students set about combining an advanced sensor incorporating the ‘nudging’ principle, which would prevent employees from sitting down for too long at a time. At the same time, Lasse Korsholm Poulsen started developing business models.

“We were determined to be successful. That was what spurred us on. And securing our first grant felt like a huge victory. Even though we were inexperienced, we felt we had a young fresh approach and were ready to take the market by storm,” says Mads Rømer Svendsen.

Christian Breinholt continues: “Entrepreneurship is often portrayed as a lifestyle with success, fast cars, champagne, and luxury. A lifestyle more and more people are striving for. For that same reason, the concept of entrepreneurship has become popular in Denmark in recent years. This message is underscored by television programmes such as ‘Dragons’ Den’ and by Danish celebrity entrepreneurs such as Tommy Ahlers and Christian Stadil.”

“Reality, however, is altogether different.”

Everyday life

In the beginning, things moved very quickly. The two friends studied during the day and worked on their invention at the weekends and at night. It was exciting and non-committal. The small team now also included human physiologist, Anders Peter Lund. In June 2016, the entrepreneurs developed the first ‘Shifty’ and tested it on employees in some of Denmark’s biggest companies. The prototype, which resembled a mobile phone with a foot, registered the desk’s height—and when the employees were present. When it was time to rise from the chair, employees were automatically notified by Shifty, which lit up with a message. The prototype worked really well.

In August 2016, Mads Rømer Svendsen and a friend began writing their joint thesis. It turned out that the thesis struck a blow at the very core of the newly established company. Lasse Korsholm Poulsen investigated the market in the large companies where the entrepreneurs thought they would sell their solution. The study showed that the companies did not want to buy the newly developed solution for back problems—their biggest problem was noise and stress.

“Lasse comes home and says: ‘It’s great that you spend more than 60 hours a week developing the technology, don’t sleep at night, and don’t see your girlfriends. But we can’t see where we’re going to sell it,” says Christian Breinholt.

That was when the problems began.

Downward spiral

Tensions began to flare, particularly on two occasions in autumn 2017 when the team found themselves disagreeing about the way forward in the workshop in DTU Skylab. What were they doing—and where were they heading?

It was time to write their theses. Mads Rømer Svendsen and his friend were unable to begin work on a new MSc thesis until a few months before the submission deadline. It was a stressful time.

"It is difficult to admit to yourself that your business idea doesn’t hold water."
Mads Rømer Svendsen

“We saw an opportunity to combine the start-up with the thesis. But when you establish a start-up, you don’t know what’s going to happen the following week. You have to be willing to change course if things aren’t working out. We couldn’t change course. We had just been through six months where we had built promising prototypes. We had slogged away day and night,” says Mads Rømer Svendsen.

In August 2017, Sentar was chosen to participate in the hardware competition Danish Tech Challenge (DTC) at DTU Science Park. At the same time, the team landed an InnoBooster project, which required that they improve their prototype for insurance company approval. At DTU Science Park, Sentar spoke with consultants and mentors, who believed that the entrepreneurs would have a hard time making their start-up profitable.

“That was when we realized we were on shaky ground. What we thought was our market didn’t make financial sense. We stopped in the middle of the DTC. It didn’t happen overnight—it was more of a gradual transition. We closed one door after another,” says Mads Rømer Svendsen.

Christian Breinholt continues: “We didn’t enter the finals. The final blow came when a major company wrote a mail to us explaining that they didn’t want to buy our product. Our last hope was shattered. They wrote that they were busy developing their own solutions and that we were welcome to apply for a job in the future. We reacted differently. I started laughing—Mads didn’t think it was funny.” 

Photo: Joachim Rode
Christian Breinholt and Mads Rømer Svendsen from DTU started Sentar together with Lasse Korsholm Poulsen from Copenhagen Business School. Their dream was to make it big. Photo: Joachim Rode.

Food for thought

Frustration. Irritation. Hopelessness. Relief.

“It is difficult to admit to yourself that your business idea doesn’t hold water. Just because people tell you doesn’t mean that it sinks in. It took a while for me to accept,” says Mads Rømer Svendsen.

In December 2017—after two years of intense development—the three founders shut down the company. They had devoted many hours of work to their project, bid farewell to one of the founders, built four different prototypes, discussed, argued, and tested several markets and much more. They are now sifting through the whole experience in order to pinpoint the mistakes and reasons why they failed so that others can hopefully learn from them.

“You always hear about the successes. But they are difficult to learn from. In general, all of us who fail should be better at sharing our experiences. For most new start-ups fail. You have to be honest. There’s not enough honesty out there.”

Mads Rømer Svendsen and Christian Breinholt are now looking for a job. Lasse Korsholm Poulsen works as a consultant for Implement Consulting Group.

Sentar’s five good pieces of advice for new entrepreneurs

  1. Set up a critical problem: Check the most critical current issue facing your company. Are you sure that you have a product/market fit?

  2. Set up a hypothesis, validate, reflect: Our hypothesis was that major companies would buy into our service. After final testing, it turned out that no more than five per cent were interested. So we set up a new hypothesis and started over.

  3. Enjoy positive feedback, but always investigate any critical feedback. Listen, accept criticism, and examine the correctness of the statements. Don’t try to convince other people they are wrong.

  4. Be ready to do a U-turn. Fixed plans far into the future make it harder to quickly change direction. Work in short bursts, stop and check whether you are focusing on the market you are trying to target.

  5. Validate your market. Check whether there is a potential market for your product/service prior to spending too much time on development. Pretotype from the outset. We have focused too much on the technology instead of selling the concept.