Meet Norwegian entrepreneur Bjørn Holte
Lives: Brooklyn, New York, USA
From: Trondheim, Norway
Family: Married with three children
Career: Created first start-up at age 16; founded multiple companies; raised over $10 million in investment; has five patents. Currently CEO at bMobilsed, advisor on investment to Norwegian government, angel investor, and film investor.
It all started when he wanted to buy a home computer. Despite working during the summer holidays and on weekends in his grandparents’ garden center in Trondheim, the teenager was still short of cash. But rather than ask his parents for money, the young Bjørn Holte devised a scheme to buy up and copy public domain computer games and sell them to the thirsty Norwegian game-playing market.
He roped his two brothers into the enterprise too and the trio printed a 64-page catalog on the copy machine at their father’s office, where they also downloaded so much software they crashed the server. That didn’t stop the three boys. They placed ads in MacWorld magazine, circulated their catalog, and by the end of the first year had more than 200 customers and NKr 10,000 (about a thousand euro) in their pockets.
“Our only problem was that our prices were too low – even lower than in the US – so while our sales were great, the profit margin was slim,” says Holte. “It was an invaluable experience though. I learned some really important skills from setting up that first business and through working for my grandparents. When you’re a kid, by working hard and getting paid for it you build character and learn the value of having control over what you do.”
After completing a business degree in Norway, Holte headed to Australia, where he wrote his Master’s thesis in marketing, specializing in the Internet.
“Australia was insanely good,” he recalls. “The students usually knew more than the teachers and I ended up taking a three-year multimedia course simultaneously. Then I took some time off to surf, travel, play in bands, and enjoy the Australian lifestyle – which was fabulous.”
Upon his return to Norway, he started consulting for Norwegian IT company Q-Free, and was told, “Do whatever you want – we’ll pay you.” Holte took them at their word and within a year was responsible for the company’s website, magazines, and overall branding.
Then came a defining moment, one that was inspired by his love of extreme sports.
“They gave me about $1,500 to create a team-building event for all 150 employees. I decided to take everyone bridge jumping: we would free-fall jump from a bridge into a river without a rope – about 13m. It was going to be really exciting!”
The powers that be didn’t think it was possible to stage the event with so little money but Holte had a plan. “I got all kinds of companies to sponsor the event: a brewery set up banners on the bridge, I rented two buses, and sold cheap beer and sausages. In the end only 20 people dared to jump!”
“They gave me about $1,500 to create a team-building event for all 150 employees. I decided to take everyone bridge jumping”
“I realized that if you believe in something, even if nobody else does, you can do anything you want, as long as you have faith” he says. “Most people end up working for somebody else and are bored with their life. I decided to start following my dreams. I told myself that everything would be ok. No matter how dark or bleak things look, there’s always a way.”
Holte then decided to focus on Aktivt Søk, a search engine optimization company. In 2003, Aktivt Søk was named the Best Start-up in Oslo. “By that time, I had also started bMoblised, which was called bMenu at the time,” he says. “Working with two companies was absolutely exhausting so I had to exit one of them. I stayed with bMenu, with the aim of revolutionizing menu navigation online.”
The company attracted a number of big clients, and then came the idea to move to mobile. bMenu became bMobilised, and provided a do-it-yourself program to simply and easily transform traditional web platforms to a mobile format.
“bMobilised simplifies the whole process of taking your website to a mobile device and reduces costs enormously. It’s like an Ikea solution. In a matter of minutes you can create a mobile website that is functioning and attractive.”
More than 50 major Norwegian companies such as Home, Hafslund, Storebrand, and Vinmonopolet, became clients. And in 2010, Holte relocated the company to New York, launching into the lucrative US market with one clear aim: to secure 10% of the 75 million globally active websites.
After a few lessons learned and changes implemented, bMobilised is still working towards that goal. “We are now seeing strong growth, at a rate of 10–20% a month,” says Holte. With bMobilised on the right path, Holte then began working on launching the first solution to automatically convert existing websites into brand new responsive sites.
But building businesses isn’t Holte’s only focus. He’s also working with Norway’s Minister of Trade on re-writing the government’s rules for investment in order to help new start-ups succeed.
“The main issue for start-ups is the growth stage – from creating the concept to running a business,” he says. “Often you have limited capital and venture capital will in most cases take control of your company. Kids are desperate so they accept bad terms and end up getting screwed. We want to help them through the first stages while giving long-term support to succeed.”
Being a start-up veteran has given Holte a lot of insight into where the start-up scene is heading. “Automation services are all you hear about now – how you book travel, restaurants, cars, etc. That’s where the real money is – using the Internet and mobile to speed up existing services and industries. Software start-ups, where you make basic Internet services softer, easier, and faster, are a big area. You make it easier for people to ‘do things.’ Mobile just makes things more acceptable and give you more access, so these sorts of start-ups will grow.”
While Holte may be facing middle age he says he still loves a good board – whether that’s a skateboard, a wakeboard, a surfboard, or a snowboard.
“I’m a bit of an adrenalin junkie and I love all sports, particularly water sports, jumping, and, believe it or not, dancing,” he says. “I love to push myself in every area, and everything I do is for my family, because without them there would be no point in anything.”
Holte recently, in fact, had to confront a serious family illness, which led him to take time to focus on those who matter most. “Business is important,” he says. “But family always comes first.”
He has some final advice for budding entrepreneurs. “Listen to advice, but always make your own decision. If you follow someone else’s vision, it is really hard to succeed. Always believe everything is possible. You just need to think really hard and you will find the solution. I find that the hardest things are often the easiest to achieve. When most people say something is impossible then almost no one will try it, leaving the field wide open.”
Holte’s best advice, though, is to always have fun.
“I know it sounds like a cliché but life is too short, so don’t waste it. Follow your dreams.”
Text: Judi Lembke
Published: June 20, 2016