A CEO special talk: the intriguing story of Peter Sorgenfrei

Dec 16, 2021

Our team had a conversation with one of our clients, Peter Sorgenfrei, the former CEO of an autonomous mobile company and a couch, a mentor and sometimes even a therapist for other CEOs.

Peter shares his experience of being a CEO of the company that was the ambassador of self-driving cars in Scandinavia and Northern Europe.

He also tells how he got sick and why he left it. And how come that due to this sickness he has found a new role in his life, and why CEOs now need his advice and his shoulder to lean on.

Long story short

“I finished a master's degree in economics at the University of Copenhagen. As I was finishing, my focus was international business and the theory of games.

I got a job in the United States with a car company called DaimlerChrysler. I was supposed to be in New York City for six months, and ended up being there for 13 years, building a number of companies on my own and working for a number of other companies as an employee.

Then, in 2013, I moved to London. I built a startup there within hiring and recruitment. And then in 2016, I moved to Denmark and ended up over the last almost four years, until I exited last year, building the largest autonomous vehicle operator in Northern Europe.

Since I stopped doing that, a year and a half ago, I've been working directly as a partner to the founders and CEOs who are trying to do the same thing as I've done, helping them with a variety of things, handling all the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur.”

Building a company from scratch till the certain size

“I think what I do, or what I've learned to be good at, is to start something, identify and attract people to work on this project or with this company, and then manage and grow it to a certain size.

And when it gets to a certain size 200 people, 300 people, something like that, then I'm not the right CEO or leader anymore. So it's actually the same thing I've done, I've just done it over and over again.

I don't think my personality and who I am is well suited for a company of several 1000 employees. I think I do better at small to medium-sized companies.”

About digital products

A couple of advices to those who want to build some business with the prolongation in the software:

“The first thing you need to do is put whatever idea you have in front of a potential customer. Will people actually buy this? Before you start coding, you have to be able to test your idea with a potential audience.

Because without customers, it doesn't really matter how well what you've done is. The second thing is to constantly change and improve them.

I would not spend any money on marketing, for example, or on distribution to begin with. I would spend a bit of money on building something, push it out to everybody I know through all kinds of networks that I have built over my career.

Even if you're just starting out, you should always be connecting with people. And see what people are saying, see what you should tweak.

And then just keep doing that until your product gets so good, that people will start telling other people about it."

"The biggest mistake I see today is people spending a lot of money and time on building something and then distributing it. And they're surprised that nobody buys it.”

Feedback is important before you start

“In February of this year, I had an idea for something I wanted to do. And instead of selling it, I shared the idea with 40 people or so around the world, but people who did not know me through LinkedIn.

I could reach out to a bunch of people and say: 'I've been having this idea'. And I described the idea and why I thought the idea would be valuable. And people who did not know me responded and said: 'That sounds like a great idea'.

So I got a bunch of development feedback. And then I started building something. And when I built the first iteration of it, I shared it back out and said: 'Remember that thing that I talked to you about a month ago? Well, here's where I've taken it. What do you think?' And people gave me feedback on that.

So I iterated with a group of people who didn't know I existed before, but they helped me to validate the idea that I have.”

Is it all about money?

“Since I was 26 years old, I've never taken a job for the money. I learned, as a 26-year-old man in New York City, that money doesn't matter.

I was very well paid. And I hated my life back then. So I've never pursued anything to make money.

That wasn't really a factor in what a company offered me. But what they did say was: “We've invested in a company that prints cars in a 3D printer, that drive by themselves.

And we think that's the future of transportation, and we need somebody to build a business around that. And I said: “That sounds great. That sounds crazy. I would like to do it. But what I need you to do, is to give me the reins, the control. And let me do what I do and leave me alone”.

And they agreed to do that. Of course, I had a board and all these other things, but I basically had complete control in how I was going to build a business.

So that was the most important thing for me: to do what I want to do, when I want to do it. And the second thing was flexibility. So if I wanted to pursue something in one direction, I could do that. If I wanted to change and go in another direction, I could do that too.

And those two things for me were quite attractive in the setup that we made. But most importantly, the task subject, the business, was really difficult.

Like, how do you take people who are used to buying their own cars and driving their own cars by themselves, and convince them to join a shared service?

So similar to a bus, which not a lot of people like taking, and they drive by themselves, and they’re going to be electric? That whole shift was such a big challenge, that I thought it was too interesting to pass up. Which is why I said yes.”

About the project

“There's been a bunch of studies and simulations with data that shows that if every vehicle is shared, if it's autonomous, if it's electric, you can reduce the number of vehicles on the road by 90%.

So you only need 10% of the boxes on the road today, in order to transport the same amount of people over the same distances at the same time. And this is the killer.

You press the button and say: “Come pick me up, autonomous shared electric vehicle”. It takes less than two minutes for it to arrive at your doorstep in 50% of the cases. And people say: “I'd love that, I don't have to worry about parking, I don't have to worry about insurance. I don't have to worry about filling up my car with either gas or gasoline or electricity. And I can sit and work as I'm going along, or I could sit and sleep or watch Netflix”.

So the convenience of this system is much greater than owning your own car. The problem is nobody's done it live and in real cities yet and that's what I wanted to do and that's why I started the company with the investors.

I am a businessman and a politician. Because a lot of this has to do with the politics of cities. It has to do with the lobbying efforts by car companies or taxi companies and others that want to prevent this from happening.

So you have to work a lot with governments and politicians in order to be successful in that kind of role. I don't know how to code, but I do know how systems work.

And I do understand when an engineer talks to me, but I would not be able to design the systems by myself.”

New role in life

“I left this job because I was sick (I'm fine now). I wasn't able to go to work for a while.

And after six months, my board and investors fired me, which is fine, because it's totally normal, if you have a CEO who cannot show up to work and perform his duties, there are no hard feelings about it.

I still own a piece of the company. And I'm still supporting them in the best way I can, so they can be successful.

But I decided that it was time for me to do something completely different with my life, which is working more with people who are trying to do what I did, versus babbling, politicians, and traveling all over the world all the time.

When you are an entrepreneur for so many years, at some point you don't know how to relax, it stresses your body and your system so much that it's not healthy.

So one of the things I'm doing now is to work with people who are in their 30s and 40s, or even in their 20s, to help them to get a more reasonable balance: how you use your mind and mental capacity so that you don't end up not functioning like I did.

Everybody agrees that they need this kind of help and support that I'm currently doing, whether they prioritize it, or not, they invest in having somebody like me involved.

People I work with now typically are founder CEOs who have done maybe a couple of companies, it's not necessarily their first company, they've probably had some success, they may also have had some challenges, but they're still building businesses.

We work on what's inside, how you feel, and also on the external stuff. How do you actually communicate, manage, work with your team, with your investors, with your board, with outside stakeholders? So those things are what I spend time doing now.

Some people call me a coach, some people call me a therapist, some people call me a mentor, I don't really care what they call me.

But they know that I've been there, they know, I have tried all the things that they've tried, and that I actually know what it feels like to be in their shoes…”

If you are interested in the whole conversation with Peter, check out our new podcast episode!


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