FallUp Insights: What is entrepreneurship to Mårten Mickos?

We got a chance to sit down with Mårten Mickos, an industy leader whose passion is leadership and entrepreneurialism. We had an insightful conversation around our FallUp topics; entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial mindset and the importance of failure and dreams. FallUp, for those who don’t yet know, is an event created to inspire students towards entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial mindset.

Mårten Mickos is the CEO of Hackerone and the former CEO of MySQL and Eucalyptus Systems. He has been running startups most of his life and is “passionate about entrepreneurialism, disruptive business models, distributed teams, collaborative models and leadership.” In the interview we tackled the difficulty of learning from failures, the importance of dreaming and embracing your weaknesses, as well as the three things that are needed to succeed as an entrepreneur.

Get the insight by listening to our podcast and dive deeper into FallUp’s main topics.

Special thanks to our interviewer, Axel Cedercreutz, and of course to Mårten Mickos for sharing his thoughts! For more inspiring podcasts and thoughts from Mårten, visit his Twitter or a leadership vblog School of Herring.

The transcript of the podcast

Mårten, why don’t you tell a bit about your background so our listeners know who you are and what you have done.

I’m the CEO of HackerOne, the leading bug bounty platform in the world. I’ve been running startup companies most of my life. It started when I was a student in Finland in the 80s’. Then it took me through a series of different companies - maybe I’m most known for MySQL 2001 to 2009 - but I’ve built a number of companies and I love doing that. I’m passionate about entrepreneurialism, disruptive business models, distributed teams, collaborative models and leadership. And now I’m the happy CEO of HackerOne.

So you mentioned you started your first company when you were studying in university. Did you already back then knew you wanted to become an entrepreneur?

No, i didn’t. I reflected on it later that we were just young, enthusiastic, eager people and we thought it would be really cool to run a business. We never even discussed that we would do it for a long time. The idea was just to do something fun and fun is building a business, so we built a business. Afterwards I can say it was the start and it became my life passion, but I had no idea back then.

“The idea was just to do something fun and fun is building a business, so we built a business.”

You’ve gone through a lot of companies and you’ve seen a lot of different people, do you feel that entrepreneurship is more of a skillset or actually just a mindset?

You know, everything you do to perfection becomes many different things. It can be anything. If you do a particular sport and somebody asks you is it about speed, agility or strength, and it’s always all of the above. If you really want to be the best, it has to be all of them. Entrepreneurialism and building companies can certainly be learned, so you’re not born with it. It is a mindset, a skill, it’s tenacity, passion, a lifestyle or a lack of lifestyle. It’s all of the above and you shouldn’t do it unless it’s the only thing you can think of doing. If you’re not fully committed, don’t do it, just go and work for a large corporation.

Your journey has taken a lot of hardships and failures as well. We talk a lot about the importance of failure and learning from your mistakes, but sometimes getting quickly over a big failure can be hard. Have you developed your own skills in this and how can someone get better at this?

It’s a tough question because nobody wants failure. It’s not like we would drive for failure, but also we can not avoid it. We might as well be prepared and know how to deal with it. I think you need tenacity or sisu to be successful, and the only way to get it is as a result of adversity. There is no sunshine story where you build tenacity and everything is always nice, if you have tenacity in you it’s because something in some point was wrong. That’s just the way it is. You have to go through failures, disappointments, anxiety or stress, and you must have a mindset to turn it into your strength. You need to decide that this is really painful, therefore i will turn it into something useful. This is why failure becomes an essential part, although we will neverpick failure; we try to avoid every single failure we can, but they will happen inevitably. And when they happen, we must have determination of saying “okay, failure happened, i’ll turn it into a learning experience”.

“I think you need tenacity to be successful, and the only way to get it is as a result of adversity. If you have tenacity in you it’s because something in some point was wrong.”

And how do you turn failure into learning? When you’re younger you may not be as tough, so when things go wrong, you give up. But at some point you realize that you’re not getting anywhere, unless you turn it into a toughness and tenacity. And to do that you must have a sound belief in yourself. You must think that no matter how stupid you were, and we’re all pretty stupid, you’re still a pretty cool person. You must accept yourself and be merciful to yoursels. Just say “okay, this is me and maybe I failed but now I will turn it into a learning, which will lead to my victory”. And every now and then you don’t even believe that. You think you’re so miserable, that you just need to give up. In that point you need an external person to tell you you’re a pretty good guy. And overtime when this happens a couple of times, you start building your strength.

And how do you find those places where you realize this is really just going so wrong, let’s just cut it short and start doing something new?

It is an impossible question to know the answer for, because there are two answers and they’re both completely true. One is, “never give up, if you give up you’re a loser”, the other one is “don’t keep doing something stupid; pivot”. Okay, so which one is it? You never know. It is a belief, you have to just form an opinion, declare it and explain it to yourself. Nobody can know for you. If you’re building a company, it might seem like it will never succeed and you should just learn from it and start a new one. But maybe you’re on to something very big and you should just keep going.

Let’s take an example, Elon Musk. When he was building Tesla he ran completely out of money. He had no money to eat and live, so he stayed at some friends and borrowed more money. And once one journalist asked Elon, “how did you know you would ultimately be successful?” He said he didn’t, “I knew the opposite, that the most likely outcome would be failure, but I just could not stop.” And he didn’t stop, even though he rationally believed he was heading for failure. This shows how difficult it can be; his rational mindset encouraged him to stop doing it, but his irrational mind wanted to challenge the odds. This is a truly a success story but there are also people who didn’t do that well. It’s very difficult to know in your situation what is true. In the end it becomes a philosophical question, it’s just you, yourself and your decision.

“This shows how difficult it can be; his rational mindset encouraged him to stop doing it, but his irrational mind wanted to challenge the odds.”

If you ask someone on the street, most likely they would describe an entrepreneur as an aggressive risk-taker, creative visionary, influential game changer — someone with a big personality. Do you think this picture and these characteristics are accurate and needed to succeed?

No, that’s nonsense. I think that for a startup entrepreneur a number one character is to have a visionary capacity to see things others don’t see. Number two, an ability to learn, because whatever you see and whatever you do, you will have to learn and grow with your business. If you’re not coachable and open to influence, then you can’t succeed. Number 3 is grit, sisu, tenacity. The ability to just keep going and break through a wall, or as we say it in finnish, mennä läpi harmaan kiven. Those three things you need. You don’t need charisma, charisma correlates poorly with success. It’s not bad to have it, but it doesn’t set you up for success in any particular way. My experience of entrepreneurs and risk taking is that they take one risk when they start their company. After that they don’t take many more risks, that’s the only risk they can carry. It’s these three things that are needed to succeed as an entrepreneur; having the vision to see what nobody else can see, being open to learn and grow, and having grit.

“It’s these three things that are needed to succeed as an entrepreneur; having the vision to see what nobody else can seen, being open to learn and grow, and having grit.”

How important do you think it is for self-development to dream and what should be the balance between reachable goals and very utopistic dreams?

Why do you need balance? What is the purpose of balance? People ask those questions all the time and use the word balance as if it is a given goal for things we do. And I think that is the mistake; believing that balance is always what you should achieve. There are some places where you need balance, like balancing. For most things we do in life, I believe it’s contrast you need more than balance. Contrast means dream as much as you like and be as pragmatic as you like. Max out at both ends, but don’t be in the middle. So don’t be the average, be both ends; have these extreme dreams that are so naive that you’re laughing at yourself and then have the practical plan beside them. Let them act as a contrast thing to each other. The world is full of contrast and it works well. Like, a boiled egg, it’s not like you have balance. One half is white and one yellow, but the contrast is good. We have really good things in life nearly always based on contrast, not balance.

“Contrast means dream as much as you like and be as pragmatic as you like. Max out at both ends, but don’t be in the middle.”

When I was young, I was a day dreamer. I could keep dreaming all day about all fantastic things I would do and be; president and superman. But I never did anything, so it was sort of a weakness of mine, I was dreaming but not doing. Well now, when I’m a business leader, I have developed a sense of strategy thinking and scenario thinking. I can think multiple alternative scenarios because I spent my youth daydreaming. Same skill. I can daydream 15 scenarios for Hackerone at any moment and then I can play them against each other and choose a path. Young people must make sure not to underestimate the value of their own weaknesses. The thing your siblings, parents or your school mates made fun of you for when you were a kid, might actually be the key to your success in five or ten years from now.

“When I was young, I was a day dreamer. Now, when I’m a business leader, I have developed a sense of strategy and scenario thinking because I spent my youth daydreaming.”

We all have a thing in ourselves we think is a weakness but it might not be. There was a time when I was young and I was really difficult and stubborn. Now in business it is the thing which allows me to get things done and not give up in negotiations. I’ve been so difficult, that being little difficult in negotiations comes naturally. It’s very important not to think that you’re a certain type or you’re weaknesses are just weaknesses. Every weakness can be turned into strength over time and every strength can become a weakness overnight. You have to manage your own strengths and weaknesses, work on finding the strength in the weakness and strengthening your strengths so that you don’t lose them.

You have a lot of experience in leading different organizations. We would like to hear your opinion and advice for those who may not yet see themselves as entrepreneurs. Do you value entrepreneurial mindset in your employees and do you think its value will increase in the future? Do you have any examples from this throughout your career?

It depends on how you define entrepreneur. Not everybody in the company needs that full-on entrepreneurial mindset. Many people are not entrepreneurial but still work in fast moving startups. I don’t think the full set of entrepreneurial mindset is needed, but what is very specific for entrepreneurs is their independent responsibility. They don’t wait for an order to be given, they don’t wait for an exact mandate, but instead they see things needed to be done and they will do them. This character is needed in every single human being. If you don’t have that initiative in yourself, you are useless anywhere. That sort of entrepreneurialism everybody needs, ability to say, “I can see it’s needed, so I will do it”. But not everybody needs to be a great visionary and creativist, that’s what we have organisations for; to allow for many different skills to co-exist and together be stronger than they can be on their own.

“They don’t wait for an order to be given, they don’t wait for an exact mandate, but instead they see things needed to be done and they will do them. This character is needed in every single human being. If you don’t have that initiative in yourself, you are useless anywhere.”

This is actually something you talk a lot about, and what I have understood from HackerOne, you guys look for people who are really strong in something and not just good at many things. Why is that?

I started my life and career thinking you should hire well-rounded people and I failed. Then I read Peter Drucker, who said hire for strength. And when you’ve done that, you’re only job is to allow your team to collaborate, to allow every member to build on their strengths and make the weaknesses irrelevant. When you do those three things, magic happens. So I changed my style and thought, I will hire very specific strengths and I will forgive all the weaknesses because in a team you can do that; you need to have extreme strengths. If everyone is well-rounded, you become pullamössö, sort of average and nothing stands out. And in this case it might seem you’re working well as a team, your team members commit and you agree on things. But you don’t realize that you’re lacking the edge that you need, the special thing.

Lastly, we would like to know what is your motto or a quote, which you live by?

I’m not sure I live by my motto, but I certainly have one and I really tell it to myself; “One day”. One day all the great things will happen. If I feel down or if I’m in a good mood, I may just tell myself; “Mårten, one day”. It gives me a lot of energy to think that maybe today was a shitty day, but one day all these things will happen. And maybe it didn’t happen in the timetable, but I believe when given enough time, all the amazing things I’m daydreaming about will happen. When I was young I was daydreaming about wealth, I want to have lots of money. Well, for the first 20 years of my career I didn’t have lots of money, but one day it happened. I also had a dream of being a good leader and CEO. First times I tried, it didn’t happen but one day it happened. It gives me this stress-free environment where I can work hard. If my goal doesn’t happen, I can say, well one day I will get there. It gives me energy.

“I’m not sure I live by my motto, but I certainly have one and I really tell it to myself; “One day”. It gives me this stress-free environment where I can work hard. If my goal doesn’t happen, I can say, well one day I will get there. It gives me energy.”