Inside The Mind Of The Travelstart Risk Taker – Stephan Ekbergh

Inside The Mind Of The Travelstart Risk Taker – Stephan Ekbergh

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R648 million. That’s how much Stephan Ekbergh recently sold 49% of his company Travelstart for. How did he do it?
Stephan-Ekbergh-Travelstart

Vital Stats

  • Player: Stephan Ekbergh
  • Company: Travelstart
  • Established: 1999 (Sweden), 2006 (South Africa)
  • Investors: UK-based Amadeus Capital Partners and MTN
  • What they do: Online travel booking portal
  • Visit: travelstart.co.za

There’s a secret weapon in the arsenal of the successful leader that, when wielded correctly, has the ability to literally change the world.

It’s called a ‘reality distortion field’, and while a first reference to it can be found in the annals of science fiction television — in an episode of Star Trek called The Menagerie — it’s also been ascribed to Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton and Elon Musk in the real world.

Basically, it’s the ability to make everyone around you see the world as you do; so powerfully in fact that incredible feats are achieved — often against all odds.

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Inside the reality distortion field

In The Menagerie, the crew of the USS Enterprise encounter a race of aliens called the Talosians who were able to alter the nature of reality through mental force alone. This ability was called a ‘reality distortion field’.

Now, had this ability remained the stuff of science fiction, it would long ago have faded from the lexicon of popular culture, but it was eventually discovered that some people indeed possessed a real-world version of this power — and with it they could accomplish what seemed utterly impossible to most.

The chess player Bobby Fischer was said to possess a reality distortion field that made it incredibly hard for other chess players to compete against him. When Bill Clinton began his political career, his potent charisma was said to emit a reality distortion field that drew massive crowds.

Elon Musk says he’s taking humanity to Mars, and a lot of smart people are starting to believe him, thanks to a distortion field that has him looking like a real-life version of Iron Man.

And, most famously, Steve Jobs was said to possess a reality distortion field that would force those around him to adopt his dreams, deadlines and delusions.

When Jobs insisted in 1981 that the complex Macintosh would ship early the following year, despite the fact that it was nowhere near ready, Mac developer Andy Hertzfeld had the following to say:

“Steve insists that we’re shipping in early 1982, and won’t accept answers to the contrary. The best way to describe the situation is a term from Star Trek. Steve has a reality distortion field. In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he’s not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules.”

The point is this: A company lives and dies by the vision of its leader. Their approach to life and business will bleed into every aspect of an organisation. So whenever you’re confronted with a company that doesn’t believe in ‘business as usual’, you can be sure that it’s the result of a founder with a unique outlook on things.

This is certainly true of Travelstart. It’s a company composed of interesting dichotomies: Disruptive yet simple and minimalist in its approach, proudly South African yet cosmopolitan in nature and global in reach, cheeky and irreverent yet focused and professional.

How has Travelstart grown into the company it is today? It’s thanks to the reality distortion field of its Swedish founder, Stephan Ekbergh.

Let the crowd follow you

Stephan-Ekbergh-South-Africa

To really understand Stephan Ekbergh’s approach to business, we need to visit the Swedish dance floors of the 1970s and 1980s. Ekbergh was working in his homeland as a DJ. He had his fair share of raving fans, but he also had to contend with loads of people who absolutely hated what he was doing.

“There was a very specific kind of music that I enjoyed playing, and it had nothing to do with what was popular in the charts at that particular moment. I was really into what was happening in the New York scene and in Chicago,” says Ekbergh.

“The hip places liked what I was doing, but other places didn’t, so I would be very careful about where I chose to play. To me it was about being paid to do what I love. My approach has remained the same over the years. I love creating something that I’m passionate about and that people are willing to pay for.”

Instead of following the crowd, Ekbergh stuck to what he loved and literally got those around him to dance to his tune.

“I was amazed by the fact that I could influence a crowd — I could capture people and influence their moods and actions. It also taught me to read people — something that I’ve been able to use in business ever since.”

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Fear leads to bad decisions

In 1989 Ekbergh launched a company in Sweden called International Tours. As its name suggests, it specialised in organising global holiday trips.

“I visited South Africa with my brother in 1989 and I immediately fell in love with the country,” says Ekbergh. “It also gave me an idea for a business that would facilitate upmarket tours to places like South Africa for European tourists. Of course, because of the country’s political situation, it was being vetoed as a holiday destination by many people, and International Tours received a lot of flak for promoting South Africa.”

Still, the company grew, and soon it had become a substantial industry player. The success should have filled Ekbergh with pride — instead it left him intensely fearful.

“I couldn’t believe my own luck. I didn’t trust it. The company grew so quickly that I didn’t think it would last, and I couldn’t help worrying about what would happen if International Tours failed,” he says.

Thanks to this fear, Ekbergh was eager to cash out his chips, so when the biggest real estate company in Sweden approached him to acquire a large stake in International Tours, he jumped at the opportunity and sold 91% of the company.

“It was a huge mistake,” says Ekbergh. “I sold too quickly and too cheaply. Moreover, the real estate company wasn’t nearly as solid as it looked. About 18 months later, it went bankrupt, taking International Tours down with it.

“It was a very important moment for me. I realised that the failure of International Tours had not come about because of the bankruptcy, but because of my fear. My negative thoughts had been the ultimate cause of the disaster. I made the conscious decision not to let that sort of thing happen again.”

Failure breeds success

Steve Jobs was famously ousted from Apple for being a tad difficult to work with. It is not an uncommon situation. Entrepreneurs are notoriously headstrong, especially those who operate within their own reality distortion field. Like Jobs, Ekbergh was fired from a company he started in August 1997 called Mrjet.com.

“I was fired by the investors for being a pain in the ass,” he says. “But I view it as a good thing. You can’t become a good rider until you’ve been thrown from a horse a few times. The same is true of business. It teaches you humility and empathy. As a founder or CEO of a business, you will inevitably need to fire people at times, so having been on the other side of the table is an invaluable experience. I also learnt from the mistakes I made at Mrjet and made sure to avoid them when I founded Travelstart.”

But Ekbergh is ultimately quite sanguine about the mistakes he made at both International Tours and Mrjet.com. He sees mistakes as inevitable. The important thing, however, is to learn from them — both your own and those of your competition.

“The difference between failure and success often lies in making fewer mistakes than your competition. You need to ride in the slipstream of your competitors and wait for them to mess up. Over the years, we’ve made some good decisions at Travelstart, but at least some of our success is attributable directly to the mistakes of our competition.”

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Low risk results in low reward

Travelstart-South-Africa

Stephan Ekbergh founded Travelstart in Sweden in January 1999. The company grew, but it wasn’t doing particularly well. It was perpetually spending ahead of revenue, always on the cusp of running out of money. Travelstart was — to use a bit of start-up jargon that is too apt to resist — quickly running out of runway.

So it seemed like a godsend when Ekbergh was offered $10 million for his failing company. He could trade his bad bet for a quick windfall. But very little of that amount turned out to be in the form of cold hard cash. Most of it was equity in a company that was failing at an alarming rate. If anything, the new owners had managed Travelstart into an even more precarious position. So Ekbergh made a stupid bet. He bought the company back and decided to turn it around.

It was brutal. Ekbergh had to let 34 of the company’s 40 employees go. He had to plead and negotiate with creditors to extend Travelstart’s line of credit. He even had to take out another mortgage on his house to pay his remaining staff in December 2001. It was a very bleak time, as the 9/11 attacks had brought air travel to a virtual standstill.

In 2002, however, as airlines tried to coax travellers back with irresistible deals, the tide turned, and Travelstart started to become exceptionally profitable. Most people would have sat back and enjoyed the spoils. Ekbergh didn’t. In 2004, he decided to move to Cape Town and launch Travelstart here.

“I don’t believe in playing it safe,” says Ekbergh.

“Low risk will give you a safe result with low yield. I believe in embracing risk and choosing life. You always need to count the cost, but you can’t always play it safe. You have to follow your dreams and never give up.”

Naivety is actually an asset

Here’s the problem with embracing risk: It’s scary. And, as Ekbergh learnt with the quick success of International Tours, the more you focus on the risks, the more risk-averse you become. The solution? A kind of blissful naivety.

Naivety is rarely seen as an advantage, especially within the business world, yet Ekbergh is adamant that it is one of his most useful attributes.

“Naivety allows you to dream big and aim for things that really should be unattainable,” says Ekbergh.

“It also prevents you from realising how unsuited you are to the role you’ve assigned yourself. If you look at some of the truly great companies in history, many of them tried things that they shouldn’t have tried. Most people thought they’d fail, but they didn’t. Somehow, they succeeded. They had a vision and they pursued it, regardless of what people thought.”

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Naivety is a crucial component of the reality distortion field. Steve Jobs was not an engineering genius, so he wasn’t particularly aware of (or interested in) the demands he was placing on the Macintosh team. Once you get too bogged down in the details, that moonshot starts looking impossible. Sometimes you just need to approach a project with the wide-eyed optimism of a child building a spaceship out of cardboard.

With a fresh injection of cash, Stephan Ekbergh and Travelstart are setting their sights on the rest of Africa. Their goals are clear: Keep things simple, do things better, and never play it safe.

Sep 22, 2016
GG van Rooyen is the deputy editor for Entrepreneur Magazine South Africa. Follow him on Twitter.