Could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself, John?
Growing up, I lived in a craftsman’s home filled with technology and devices. All sorts of new technologies, including computers, were available to me at an early age. Like a true inventor, I began to build an alarm system for mopeds for my first project. My strong desire to start my own companies began when I started studying Engineering Physics at KTH, and I met a lot of new people while learning about the world around me. I wanted to use my ideas and technical skills to build something great.
My main inspiration came from people around me. At the time, many of my peers and seniors at KTH went on to become entrepreneurs and the fascination with changing people’s behavior became my driving force. My ultimate goal was to create the “Christmas present of the year”.
The idea for my most successful venture, Tobii Technology, arose when I was working with the Institute for Surface Chemistry on the side of my studies at KTH. With a bit of charm, I convinced them to let me experiment with re-building and re-coding sensors and algorithms, and eventually, I found a way to use optic sensors to track the eye’s direction. With that, Tobii Technology was born and I became the archetypal college dropout, you could say. In fairness, though, I was a drop-out in the making, constantly seeking new opportunities and expanding my network.
John Elvesjö, co-founder Node.vc & Tobii Technology
Tell us about your latest project. What is Node.vc and why is it needed in today’s business environment?
Node.vc is a Nordic venture capital (VC) firm that invests in young tech companies. Unlike many other VCs out there, the people behind Node are entrepreneurs at heart who have experience building tech companies from the ground up. Over the years of growing Tobii, I have gained many insights into the company structure, investor relationships, acquisitions, IPOs and so on. Besides that, I have formed a lot of relationships with other venture capitalists and gained a good understanding of the entire ecosystem. I always knew one day I would be a full-time investment professional.
As a tech enthusiast, it’s natural to envision the solution first. How do you make sure your business idea is solving a real problem?
For Tobii Technology it was true that we started on the wrong end. We had a technical solution in search of a problem. As for the rest, we focused on doing things the right way. I recruited a few co-founders that were phenomenal along with a few other early employees that are still with the company today. So to answer your question, I would say that the individuals and team were extremely important to us. Together we worked systematically and strategically to determine the true value of our product, who would pay to use it? Who could live with the limitations of the immature technology? We mapped out a maturity curve that we have closely followed, and today we have applications solving customer problems in a wide range of industries: from customer research to automotive and gaming.
How did you go about validating the need for the solution?
When Tobii was born back in 2001, we didn’t have access to large amounts of funding, so we had to find paying customers. I believe this was an extremely important aspect for the success of the company. We were not free to do whatever we wanted, but had to search everywhere to find customers willing to pay for the technology. It also forced us to grow organically. We would build 2-3 devices, sell them, and then use the money to build 10 new ones.
If the entire business is built around a specific technology, how do you make sure it won’t become obsolete?
History contains quite a few failures to learn from: the fax machine and the camera film roll are just two examples. This reminds us that even the greatest inventions may fail commercially with time, which is why it is critical to continue investing in the future so that you will be prepared for what lies ahead. Once you have built a strong and stable business, it is time to turn your attention to innovation and let it drive your future growth. As long as you don’t anchor and consider yourself to only be in one industry, or focus on a single technology, your business will remain competitive and be part of the change.
At Tobii, we are working a lot with artificial intelligence and have an entire unit focusing on only this. Initially, our company was one homogeneous unit, but we fairly quickly realized that our base technology could be combined in various ways; as a helping tool for people with disabilities in one context, or marketing professionals with another packaging. To learn more about each market we served, we created separate sales teams, and eventually, we ended up with three separate businesses. The lesson here is to do what’s best for the customer. Focus on customer problems in different markets, and if other technologies can be used for the same purpose, embrace them as well.
What’s your advice to aspiring tech entrepreneurs on building a sustainable business?
In one sentence: Think hard about the business model; an invention or an idea is not a business. A good approach is focusing on one specific customer segment and its needs. Additionally, I would urge you to surround yourself with the right people. It is a fantastic time to recruit brilliant co-founders at the moment. Attracting capital, however, might be more challenging, but I consider that as something positive. Take a look at how well Tobii did.
How can Node.vc support entrepreneurs besides providing financial support?
First, we need to find you and get to know you, which we likely will, given our network of entrepreneurs and investors. Having built tech companies ourselves, we know it takes time and a lot of risks to build something truly great. Using these learnings, we will prepare you for what’s to come and support you in your startup journey. It won’t be easy, but with the right help and opportunity to take in the best investors, you’ll come a long way. At Node.vc, we are actively engaged, especially in the early stages where sparring might be necessary. Our team can also assist with acquisitions and future financing rounds, so having us on board is great for future series A, B or C rounds.