J12 Portrait Series — Illustrious perspectives on the people that make our company great.

Pia Engholm — Company builder from Stockholm to Mexico and back

Name: Pia Engholm

Currently: Board member and investor

Previously: Serial entrepreneur with a med-tech/tech focus i.e. Co-founder Panasari, Samsari, AfterSchool; Sales & Marketing at Kibion, and Sales Mgr LatAm at SurgicalScience

A former SSE graduate and serial entrepreneur, Pia Engholm is a J12 Angel Partner within the DHS Network. Having lived in seven countries, including Germany, England, Spain, Russia, Venezuela, Mexico, Portugal — she has started many companies over the years. We are very happy to have Pia back here in Sweden tackling the startup scene on her old turf, as she brings a unique vigor and drive that helps to lift up everyone around her.

Who are you and what do you do?

That’s a challenging question to answer. I am a fairly crazy, slightly almost middle aged but still feeling 20 years old woman from Skåne. I work with SMEs as board member, investor, and coach. But I am also a former serial entrepreneur.

What was your first big success?

My first job was with a very entrepreneurial company, it inspired me. It definitely brought me into the entrepreneurial world. We experienced everything, through startup to close down in 2–3 years. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was like an entrepreneurial crash course but with a salary. That really prepared me for a life as an entrepreneur.

When we started our first company, we got Investor Growth Capital (IGC) to invest in us with just a powerpoint presentation, that was all we had. Only ideas, no product yet. It was the only ever seed investment they ever did. Timing is everything. We were lucky because it was the IT boom and things were happening. A lot of it had to do with them believing in us. It’s the same when I invest today — do I believe in the team and the people, will they succeed or not? What else they do will probably change along the route

Pia attributes her first success to to timing. Timing is everything.

What inspires you?

What inspires me is learning new things — I’m constantly curious. Meeting entrepreneurs teaches me new things every day. It keeps me young at heart. It’s fun and stimulating. I love the passion you have when you have an idea. I would be bored out of mine with repetitive work.

In her own words, “Curiosity has not yet killed this cat.”

What attracts my interest is when an idea/startup has a high technical level and I feel like we’re taking it to another level. Or when it’s super obvious and you’ve never thought about it before. That gets me excited. And always the passion and the team. Are they the ones? Will they make it? Do they have what it takes?

What have been some of the biggest hurdles you’ve faced?

I am by definition a person who doesn’t see hurdles as hurdles, I see them as possibilities. I am rarely frightened. Personally, my biggest hurdle is that I don’t have the time to do all the things I want to do. Occasional frustration with my own creativity and ideas at the time. Perhaps also the long black tunnel when the kids were young. That was definitely a struggle but so worth it.

What have been your greatest successes and failures in business?

My greatest success is that I have had a wonderful life, filled with incredible people and experiences. My husband and I have started a few companies together. I’ve been able to do what I want when I want — I’ve always had control of my time, that’s super essential for me. And I’ve always had fun — which has been key to me in any decision I take. Is this fun? If no, I won’t do it, no matter the financial upside.

As for failures, I see them as lessons. Sometimes I’ll have wished we had invested in something that we didn’t do… But you never think of the lousy ideas you didn’t invest in. You always remember things like this in a skewed way. I don’t like “what ifs” and I do not waste time thinking about them.

To Pia, failure should be seen as a valuable lesson.

How do you define success in life?

Control of your time and to be able to do many other things in your life than work.

You’ve worked for and run many businesses in Latin America, what would you say are the biggest similarities/differences in business culture between Latin America and Sweden?

It’s even more important that you find the right people to work with down there. Also, you need to get to know people. You need to get to know your distributors or clients personally. In Sweden, we do it the other way around. Here people say “don’t start a company with your best friend,” “don’t go to dinner with a client.” It’s much more incorporated in Latin and South America. But you need WAY more patience. The meetings won’t be booked, the clients change their minds, etc. There’s nothing of the logistics like in Sweden. Allow plenty of time and establish relationships. What’s more important: having fun at dinner or closing the deal? We don’t have to be so goal oriented all the time. It’s ok to have fun.

What’s your best piece of advice for people wanting to get into what you do?

Two things.

First, a lot of people believe that they need a lot of money to start investing, but you can start earlier on and work with startups in other ways. You can definitely get involved in helping startups if you’re interested in that scene without investing money, then you can slowly start building a portfolio. You don’t have to wait until you’re financially there — you can work for sweat equity in the beginning.

Second, it’s not a bad idea trying to be an entrepreneur yourself first. But choose the right people to work with. Pick the right team members or co-founders, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and trouble if you surround yourself with good people. I see more cases where there’s problems with the people, where they’re not compatible with goals and visions for the company, than with the idea itself.

Finally, what’s something you want people to know about you?

I don’t like the color black. I think we need more colour in our lives, not less. And I’m a travel addict. I just love exploring new countries and cultures.