Watch and read Stephan Ekbergh’s inspiring talk at SUCCESSness FEST, Cape Town
Stephan’s inspiration highlight: ” I was there, yes. I did what I could, but you know, because the whole company’s just built on a heap of mistakes, you know, on fuck-ups, on my stupidity, my childish dreams and all these things, so it was really, really, strange how this thing happened and honestly I cannot for a minute take any credit of what happened there. If anything I can take the credit for is that I’ve learnt this really, really powerful prayer that I’ve done so many times, and it’s really helped me! And it actually works and I’ve practised that a lot, you know. I think that’s my only claim to fame in this world here.”
Below is a full transcription of Stephan’s talk:
Please stand up. So what do you feel when you hear this song? What do you feel? So, this is very interesting. I was professional DJ for 10 years and this song was very popular in those days. You can sit down now. I just wanted to, you know, get you going a little bit here. This song, when Prince made this song, you know he put in the normal bass line that you do when you do a song that you need to dance to, but he realised you know what, what, if I remove the bass line, then people will have to imagine the bass line instead when they’re dancing. And you know of course I’ve played this song literally hundreds of times in clubs, and it’s very, very interesting because people dance differently to the song because the bass line is in their head. And you know what the mind is a very, very interesting thing, and I wish I could speak about the mind but I actually don’t know much about it so I’ll leave that to the experts and I’ll actually talk about stuff that I’m an expert on – and that is myself.
So this is an interesting day. A friend of mine was the founder of Mckinsey, their Swedish branch, and he ran that for 25 years, very, very successfully. He sat on all these committees in New York, and was a partner, made tons of money. We met him in Llandudno, and he had jumped ship. And I said: “What the hell?”, I mean he’s got you know all of the blue chip guys in Sweden, including the king, and what have you in his cell phone and direct contact to them. I said to him: “Why did you quit your job?” He said: “Because I’m now turning 50!” And I’ve seen so many people that between 45 and 55 who feel if they don’t make a radical decision in their life and make some big changes they’ll go nuts. It’s all the stuff that’s inside of you that’ll come out. So you’ll get a mistress or you’ll start to play golf or you know, I mean all kinds of weird shit. So he had decided and said: “I’m actually not going to do that, I’m actually going to take control, control the next part of my life.” So this is really what this day is about.
I like to call myself a reluctant entrepreneur. I never wanted to be an entrepreneur, I’m really more of a dreamer, and I do day-dreaming really, really well. That’s why Steve and I get along really, really well. We sort of both live with our heads in the clouds most of the time, right? At school, I told my teacher, because he thought I was a total failure, and to be honest if you look at my grades from school I was. I told him 2 things when I quit school. I said I want to make a lot of money and I want to write best-selling novels. So I’ve already achieved the first part, but I haven’t even started with the second part.
I was an entrepreneur most of my life. I paid my own salary for the last 35 years and that means that for many of those years there was no salary, and you can ask my wife, she’ll tell you that there was many years with absolutely no salary. And I wanted to tell you some stories from my desert years, if you can call it that.
And so when we got married, I think Annette’s parents, they probably wondered what the hell did she get herself in to. Every time they met us they gave us 50 dollars or the equivalent in Swedish krona. Even in the church that we used to go to, they used to come knocking on our door and give us money because it was so embarrassing to see us. I mean, literally in the city where we lived you know, when people would see me walking down the street they used to go round the block not having to get in contact with me. That’s how, you know, embarrassing it was. But I of course I had a quite successful career before I met my wife and after that everything turned sour. No literally, I mean there was like 5, 6 years where everything I touched they absolutely, you know, blew up. I remember I thought I was going to have a break through and you know, because the thing was that I was really, really fascinated, I was always fascinated by, you know, what’s next, I’m so curious you know that’s it’s unbelievable and curiosity, you know, it killed the cat but it still hasn’t killed me.
So, when the internet started to emerge I was thinking: “How the hell can you do something out of this?” I tried this and that and, you know, this and that and, you know, of course, you know, nothing worked out and then we had kids and, you know, all these things and, you know, it was just, I mean some days I literally had to force myself to get out of bed and there was even some days I couldn’t get out of bed, because things were just going so, so, so bad.
Eventually I got a consultancy job, and I was so happy about that. The problem was just that the place was very far from where we lived and we had this beaten up old car that someone in the church had given us, and that bloody car just stopped at every traffic light. One time the exhaust pipe was broken and fumes came into the car and by the time I got to work, I was just so high I didn’t know what I was doing. And it was the hottest summer in Sweden in I think the last, you know, 75 years or something like that and I had to travel an hour and a half to get there and by the time I got there I was like “Woah, you know”. Anyway, so I got this consultancy gig and I was super happy because I was now going to be able to provide some income for my family, eventually. So I worked there for 3 months but they never paid me, so, so, that wasn’t at all great.
Anyways things went from worse to worse and I thought eventually: “Ok, I have to go to the employment agency and see if I can find a job” which I had never done before, so it was a new experience. So I went there. They looked at my CV and honestly, you know, my CV was like: “DJ in gay clubs, ok right, well what do we do with that? He has his own company and that company went bust, that company was so on and so on”. Anyway in the interview he looked at me said: “What do I do with you?” I said: “I don’t know, I mean I’ve got 3 kids, you know, can you just do something?” So he said: “Well we have this job here, you can clean the beach this summer?” And I thought well, you know, beach, summer, it could be worse. So I said: “Yeah, I’ll take it”. And I asked how much does it pay and it wasn’t a lot, but it was something. So I came home and I said: “I’m getting a job, I’m going there on Friday to sign the papers and we’ll figure something out along the way.” Please mind, during this whole time, I mean, I was working like an idiot with various projects, presenting them to VCs and trying to come up with all kind of ways for things to work. Anyway on the Friday I came back and he said: “Oh, you’re back? I didn’t think that you were going to come back. Sorry you know, somebody else, we gave the job to somebody else.” And I came home and said: “This is great”. My family said: “Why?” I said: “Can it literally get any worse? You know, can it, you know, I didn’t get a job cleaning a bloody beach!!” Actually that was a turning point for me because I remember, I thought it can’t get much worse than this. It was so incredibly humiliating.
But anyway, so fast forward and I managed to finally get somebody to invest in my pipedream hero that the internet is going to be the new thing in travel industryJ and I started a company called Mr Jet. It was awesome. They gave me 30% of the company and I got to run it. A year later they fired me! Boom! Ok, so, what do you do then? Uh well, so through a lot of hassle I managed to get 25 thousand dollars as a severance package and, with that money, I started what is now called Travelstart.
So we start the company and I hire this young student and he says: “You know, if you put together a business report and publish it, it’ll probably give you a lot of exposure.” So I did exactly that, published it on the internet and literally a month later there was a company that wanted to now acquire my little start-up in Sweden.
And so I managed to sell that for, can you believe it, for 15 million dollars! Suddenly I was famous. I was in the papers, I was in the news, I was here and there and everybody wanted a piece of me and I thought: “Ah, this is great”. The thing was just that they paid me in paper, they paid me in equity. But for me, the money didn’t matter. For me it was just that I had a bit of a breakthrough. So the acquiring company was a German company and they were backed by the likes of Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Telekom, all those big wigs and everything looked great. I mean they raised hundreds of millions of Rand, everything looked great. A year later, boom! They go bankrupt!
Here I am again now saying to myself: “What the hell do I do now?” I mean it’s like, you know. So through a lot of events that happened, I managed to repurchase my company that I’d sold them. So this is 2001. And I was working like a dog because I thought: “This time it’s gotta, it’s gonna work, you know, and I’m not going to sell the company. Bloody hell, I’m gonna fix this thing”. And so I started to build it slowly and by September, you know, in 2001, we were starting to have a little bit of lift-off. And then you know what happened! There was this 9/11 event, and of course, you know, all the travel companies and the airlines around the world, they just completely failed.
But the good thing was that, you know, we somehow miraculously managed to stay alive. Literally day by day. In Sweden you have these collection agencies that come to your company and collect debts and the company had so many debts, and they came there literally every, every day. And I said: ”You know, I’ll definitely pay you, I promise, I promise, I promise”. So anyway, it just got worse and worse and worse and worse. So literally every day when I went to work I thought, this is probably going to be the last day, but I’m gonna stay here til 5 or 6 or 7 or 8 or whatever, I’m gonna do it, til the last hour, And somehow miraculously we just managed to do it little by little, every day and, and slowly the company started to grow and we became market leaders in Sweden and everything looked great.
In cames this stupendous idea called South Africa! Me and my wife we love this country and we were always looking for a way of how can we get to South Africa. And so, we decided, you know what? We’ll hire somebody to run the company in Sweden and we’ll move to South Africa and maybe we’ll open up Travelstart in South Africa.
Ok, so we did that and I was on a high for 6 months, and I was so lucky. And so what happened? Well, it took longer than expected to start up the company here and literally the company back in Sweden, you know, almost went bankrupt in the process. So I needed to start to commute back and forth between here and Sweden to save the company in Sweden, and that worked great, you know, while the company here started to grow. So we go fast forward to 2009 and now I’m really sick and tired of this commuting, I’m tired of running businesses here and there.
I then decided to sell off the Swedish business and focus all my time in Africa and do whatever we could do here, And then, a couple of years ago we decided to bring in investors and, on top of all these weird stories that you just heard, the company now has plus 300 employees and it valued at north of a billion rand!
How did that happen? You know, I actually don’t know. I was there, yes. I did what I could, but you know, because, because the whole company’s just built on a heap of mistakes, you know, on fuck-ups, on my stupidity, my childish dreams and all these things, so it was really, really, strange how this thing happened and, and honestly I cannot for a minute take any credit of what happened there. If anything I can take the credit for is that I’ve learnt this really, really powerful prayer that I’ve done so many times, and it’s really helped me! And it actually works and I’ve practised that a lot, you know. I think that’s my only claim to fame in this world here.
So a couple of lessons that I’ve learnt and one of my key take-aways here, if you don’t remember anything that I said here today. But I really believe that they’re going to happen and it’s not got anything to do with more money or anything like that, but it’s just stuff that I want to do in my life. Anyway, this is one of the messages that I want to send to you, for you people that are, you know, not 25 anymore. Really hold on to those promises and those dreams that you have because I really believe that you can get into those thing if you don’t ever give up on them. And I think, as we go into the second part, the first part of our life is really just building the foundation for the last part, and then it’s stupid to double down and do more just to chase a pipedream of whatever that is but really hold on to those deeper things.
And one of the reasons I think Steve is putting on this show today, is that he feels that he has got dreams, and actually we haven’t talked about this particular part at all, but I think he has these dreams, that this is going to be part of and I, and I can really see that in a few years’ time, you know, this can be maybe a movement you know, who knows.