Transcript of E01 How to Entrepreneur - Leadership with Endre Elvestad
Reno [00:00:07] Hey, I'm Reno.
Otherwise [00:00:08] And I'm Anders.
Reno [00:00:10] Welcome to How to Entrepreneur, a podcast program by Insj .
Otherwise [00:00:15] A show where we would like to take you on a fun journey about entrepreneurship. You'll hear inspiring stories with leaders and entrepreneurs across various industries and how they creatively overcome obstacles and challenges. Here we go!
Reno [00:00:40] Welcome to our very first episode of How to Entrepreneur. Today, we'll talk about Leadership. Are leaders born or is leadership a skill where most of us can learn? Kind of like riding a bicycle. Well, let's find out today. We have a very special guest. He is the founder of SignLab, a language learning technology that empowers the deaf and hearing community. He's also been on the Forbes 30 under 30 list. And we feel very lucky to have him share more about Leadership today. Welcome, Endre Elvestad!
Change [00:01:17] Thanks for having me.
Otherwise [00:01:19] We are super excited to have you on and we want to know why you do exactly what you do?
Change [00:01:25] So we do what we do because we believe that every parent and every child should be able to communicate freely together. Our business is that we are making a learning platform for learning sign language. And that came out when I was in my master's at NTNU in Trondheim and I was interviewing moms and dads that were learning sign language because their child was deaf or hard of hearing. And one of those meetings I was sitting down with a mom from a small community in Norway and she had been trying to learn sign language for the last three years. So she had a four year old daughter at the time. And she was tearing up because she'd been trying to learn sign language for three years and been unable to do so.
That was like a profound impact on me when she then also told that now her daughter was in kindergarten, she saw her daughter's peer kind of learning new words by the day, being more communicative. And she felt guilty for not being able to learn sign language as well as she would like. And I think we can all understand how it must be to be a mom or a dad in that situation where you want to be the best parent that you can be. You want to be confident. You want to be a parent that brings joy and belonging within your own family. And then this becomes a barrier, an unexpected barrier for you to do that.
So the reason why we do what we do is to help moms such as the ones that I interviewed in Trondheim, not only in Norway, but internationally. So in Norway, three out of four parents are unable to learn sign language well enough, such that does not adversely affect strong children across the world. That is crazy. And internationally, that's even worse, right? It's like nine in 10 parents to deaf children are unable to learn sign language properly. That's the personal experience. And that is like how widespread this problem is. And that is what we set up to solve. And we are here not necessarily to teach sign language. That's the tool. That's the language. That's the way we create inclusion. But really what we want to do is to create fantastic parents, fantastic families where children grow up feeling included and joyful about all this fantastic stuff that their parents have to teach them.
Reno [00:03:58] That's a very inspiring story though, Endre. I think just like what you were saying about SignLab being a tool to help deaf family members better communicate with their children, the way I look at the language itself is just another tool of communicating ideas so is text messaging. So is email. There are many different ways you can communicate and you have tools to help you get there. And after speaking with you, Endre, I love for you to share a story about this 15 year old boy in Uganda, Patrick. But afterwards I was able to reflect. I go, those are the questions I really think about. Imagine not being able to communicate with your children, the person you're closest with whom you give birth to. And I also switch hat. Today if I were a deaf child, I do not know how to communicate with other people. I do not know what words mean. I do not know how to express my feelings. I just can not imagine being on either side of the party. But when you come in with that solution, I thought that was brilliant.
Change [00:04:52] Yeah. So. I know we are now in a podcast and it's kind of difficult to show you anything here, but there is a great episode that you can find freely on YouTube. It's Unreported World Patrick Speaks or Patrick Signs where it really shows the extreme effects. If you take language deprivation, that is like you are, let's say, hard of hearing or deaf and you are unable to access spoken language. What happens to you then? You're language deprived, then you grow up. And what that video shows is a fantastic young boy, a teenager now that up until he was, I believe, 13, 12, 14, has not had a proper conversation with anyone in his entire life. That is the effect of language deprivation. Here, I just want to be a bit careful to say that this is not typically how it would be, let's say, in Norway or Nordics or the US or you're from like that. That is more like you can be deaf and you can be hard of hearing and you will have great benefits for learning sign language and using sign language. It's kind of like a bit of a different thing. So I definitely want to say that the extremes that you will see in Patrick Speaks is how it is in Norway, but it is shown at the extreme how important sign language is and how like decremental, the inability to access language of any form like sign language is as beautiful a language as any spoken language. Absolutely fantastic.
Reno [00:06:26] Yeah, very well said, Endre. I just took a moment to imagine how extremely lonely Patrick felt living in his own head, not being able to express his ideas or feelings. Personally, I do not speak Norwegian just yet, living in Norway, but there are times I did feel left out due to a language barrier. But that's just incomparable with Patrick's case here, and that's why I believe in SignLab's value. If I were an investor, I would totally hear you guys had it.
Change [00:06:57] Thank you. I appreciate that. That's true, Reno. That is absolutely true. So maybe some of our listeners have been in a situation where they've been abroad and they have been in a group of friends. This happened to me multiple times when I was traveling abroad. And they speak a different language, let's say Cantonese, and you feel completely left out. You have no idea what's going on. And yes, that is a feeling of loneliness. Like when you are in that group and everyone is chatting and having fun and someone is laughing or telling a joke and you just have no idea what's happening. Right? I think that's definitely a feeling of loneliness. But it's I think it's even the stronger feeling is this sense of being rejected in a way like not being included, being excluded from like the community of other adults or other children or the group as a whole. And I find that to be like that is one of the most hurtful things you can have as a human being, like we are tribe animals. Right? We love to be part of the group, a part of a tribe. And if you do not understand what's going on, feel that I somehow like a rejection of you. And that, I think is really powerful.
Reno [00:08:07] Yup! And that said, we'd love to understand a little bit more about SignLab's original idea. I did a little research and found there are actually 180 to 300 different types of sign languages. I was so ignorant and thought there was only one and everyone shared it. But that is far from the truth. Could you share with our listeners about the early days of SignLab? How did the idea come about? What did you do to solve that problem?
Change [00:08:38] I just want those 2 questions there. And that was like, how can it be so many sign languages? That does not make sense. That's often like a conception that I get. And the fantastic thing about humans is that humans create language when needed. So one of the very few times we're linguists have been able to study a new language being created was in a deaf school, I believe it was in Africa, but it might have been South America where over like the course of two decades, I believe, you had deaf children put in a deaf school where they did not have a sign language established. The adults did not speak sign language. They were like a special education school. And then spontaneously, humans just created these children just created a new way of communication. That was the sign language. So that's just amazing how that happens.
And then you can see why sign language has been recreated from scratch several times for typically each country is at least in Europe. And that's kind of how it's been. And they inherited from very interesting things like Norwegian sign language science from Danish, but it's completely different from Swedish, like much more different from knowing Norwegian sign language, a Swedish sign language than it is from.
Reno [00:09:51] It's like an accent with the spoken language but with sign language, too. It sounds like.
Change [00:09:55] Yeah, it's a completely different thing. So we have accents in Norwegian. They have Norwegian dialects. You have like the Bergen dialect and Trondheim dialect and Oslo dialect. And they're all different. And they probably even though I'm not linguists, they would say that they were kind of created in different deaf schools in Norway tradition. So back to how we started. And as I said, we started out as a research project. Can we create and I'm an engineer, a computer scientist. It's kind of my background. And I wanted to create something awesome as an engineer. And now I'm like 24 and I wanted to use VR and artificial intelligence was really hot back in the day. It is still. Didn't really take off as much as we expected at the time. But I mean things take, especially the AI part, takes a very long time. We wanted to create amazing technology which we did. And then as I said, we actually then met with the parents and the families that really needed what we were creating. And we said that this has to be something more. So that's when in my mind, it went from my master thesis essentially to actually becoming SignLab. And we've had a shout out to the Norwegian Research Council. They have a heavy risk appetite when it comes to young founders. They have the STUD-END entrepreneurship grant, which is a million kroner to I believe it's like 25 companies each year for the last four or five years. Amazing program. Amazing! Shout out to them that that is what gave us the ability to start out.
Reno [00:11:31] Yeah. Coming from Silicon Valley, I definitely see the advantage startup entrepreneurs have here in Norway, the support system. But to be clear, it's not all sunshine and rainbows, right. It takes a lot of grit and resilience. Could you share some stories about SignLab's early days? Like what was the vision or the product versus what are they now?
Change [00:11:54] I'll just tell a bit more about this fantastic journey that you're on when you are a beginning entrepreneur. Right. You have gotten a grant that we got in our case. You have this team, which is fantastic, brilliant team, passionate team to solve the problem. We were going down to Turkey. We had like a small apartment there and we just coded 24/7. They were just hard on. It was amazing, like you with your car during the day and you would go out and grab a pizza or a margarita down in what it was like when we went like thats typical Norwegian part of places in Turkey. It was just absolutely amazing. And it's massive confidence that, you know, we will have this problem solved in like no time flat. It's such an amazing feeling. And then you start building up a product and then you see that. Oh, shit. This does not really work like we really missed the and we did not really understand the problem, as we should not. That's like the very most basic lessons that any entrepreneurship course will have you say that's like to start lean, properly understand the problem, test along the way. And we had read all the books.
I had taken all the courses and like intellectually I was like super aware. But the thing is, you do not know that you're not doing it until we suddenly like hit this roadblock. Maybe year in. We had an epiphany and it was clear that our users, the parents and hearing sign language learners did not like the product at all, it looked hideous. I'm calling it like internally. I've been calling it the ugly duckling or even the ugly duckling where it was this like the first animation website where we're using animations and like even its creators, that is the team. We're like, maybe this was not the best thing. And it was hard. It was really hard, especially when you kind of you're trying so hard. And suddenly you said this is really not working. And we had a couple of meetings that made that really crystal clear. And like on every level, not only did it not help the parents, but it was also not really showing sign language in the way that it should be shown.
So we saw this as an opportunity to grow through our adversity. So in a month, we found a fourth addition to the team, which was an amazing woman, Ingrid Strand, that is, she has been dedicated to putting out sign language videos on YouTube for almost a decade just because she wants to help other people learn sign language. We sent her a text and said that, you know what, we messed up, but we got a great piece of technology. We'll just take the animations out and we'll get you in within less than a month. Ingrid then created a full curriculum on her weekends. She filmed all of the movies that we currently have in our platform and that we have been using for the last three years. And we then pushed it into the platform and we checked it out. And the only switch was going from animations to videos. And suddenly people liked it. People saw the potential. People could see the vision that we had in our minds.
Reno [00:15:30] Thanks for sharing these amazing stories that show ups and downs during SignLab's journey, now jumping over to Leadership, being a leader yourself, do you think Leadership is a skill where people can learn to be leaders or is it something people are born with?
Change [00:15:47] I think that Leadership is something that everyone can do. I am a bit hesitant if you can learn it in the same way that you can learn other skills. So can you learn to be calm and collected in tough situations? Kind of. But you do not learn it from reading a book. You learn from experience. We learn through it like taking a meditation class or it's kind of a different type of learning from learning Math or learning Programming. So I think that if you want to be a leader, maybe learning Leadership is not the right word, but experiencing and kind of embodying Leadership is something that everyone can do. And I think that is, again, is like going back to when you get challenged on a problem that you've passionate about, you have a group that is trying to achieve what for us, is a tremendous goal.
Like we are a small company with at this point three, four people that want to tackle a problem that involves millions all around the world. That's ambitious. That's tough. And that is, I think, having a clear vision, there is kind of the first step of Leadership. You have a clear vision about what the problem is and how you would like the world to be. And that is like it does not start with passion. It starts with that vision. And then you put that into a fantastic group of people that are as clear on that vision. And you and you generate this passion for the problem for the people that we're trying to help that be the families or the deaf community and then lead. That is leadership. That's the first step. And for us, I would also like to break it down into two parts. So you have Management and you have Leadership. And that, in my mind, are not the same thing. You can definitely learn Management. You can read a book on Management. And I think it can be an excellent manager that does not make you a good leader. If we do not build on that.
I think that there are also two types of Leadership that are needed. And here I've made a, like, for me, the analogy is when you're playing tennis, you have like the backhand and the forehand stroke. And the backhand for us was when we are faced with adversity like leadership in hard times. That is when you are realizing that what you are building at first was not working. You do not even like it yourself. And then you actually take the group, energized the group. And that is not something that you do alone. Leadership is by definition, not something you do alone. You do it together with a team. And I think it's much better when the team, all of them are leaders, all of them are as passionate as you are. And everyone got everyone's back when tough times are real tough.
Reno [00:18:33] Thanks for keeping it real for our listeners. When I turn on social media, whether it's Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, it's all sunshine and rainbows. And coming from Tech Sales. Yes, you win big deals, but people do not really talk about is the less than five percent win rate. In other words, could you resist 95 doors, slam in your face, get up, maintain the same enthusiasm and keep grinding? So in many ways we are leading ourselves when time gets tough. Similar to your story, Endre, keep on emphasizing on the vision and the why. So that said, when you guys read that dip, before you have that communicative skills and say, hey guys, this is why we're doing it, we're going to continue to pursue it. When you went home and you turned off the lights at night, what are some of the things that you were going on in your head? Maybe some positive, maybe some negative, because you also have to self manage or self lead before we can lead others. I'm curious about what was going on in your mind. Any negative thoughts or positive thoughts? But how do you how did you carry yourself forward before you led your team?
Change [00:19:44] That's an excellent question. That is a really insightful question. Thank you for that. We know the end of the story. Things are going well for us. But when you were in the middle of it and here I was 26, which is like fairly young and inexperienced. I'm not saying I'm experienced now, but it's definitely more experience than I had. I had never experienced anything like this before. Never thought that you would be in a situation where you are leading a passionate team, building a fantastic company. But actually, because of my mistake, I really did not hit the market as we should have. That is a hard realization that hit me really hard. So on one side, that is like the personal challenge there is to grow through it like you grow through adversity and you see as I mentioned, seeing the silver lining that actually this is a fantastic growth opportunity.
You, the worst case is that the company goes bankrupt and the rest of the team who are fantastic will find good jobs elsewhere. They will be fine. I will be fine. And then you start with there and then you also see that. But, if we will not be able to achieve the vision or solve the problem that you are passionate about. So then you kind of create a flaw like the at least in my mind, that's how I did it. And this is going to be OK regardless. But it's worth fighting because the things that's not going to be OK are for this problem to still persist and still be there. And that's the reason why we say that we are really going to go for it. And we really fought hard. And then I think there is a second part here of Leadership and that like really understanding how large kind of the opportunity space. There's so much you can do. Like people will tell you, well, you have to reach out to investors all the time. All the time. Go for it. Go for it. Go for it. But there is so much other stuff you can do as well.
And one of the interesting things that happened to us was that out of the blue, we were asked to join a special competition during the Special Olympics. So this was the Special Olympics Innovation Challenge. So that's just a ridiculous story. So we were in this position where we were very, very close to bankruptcy. We have not been, we have not been paying our salaries to myself or the team for three months. And we get invited by this Sheikh in the United Arab Emirates to join the Special Olympics. And they would like flies down there. And we were like present what we have been doing with a bunch of other fantastic entrepreneurs from around the world that are kind of tackling interesting issues. And here. I just want a disclaimer. Deaf Olympics is its own thing. So deaf people are not in Special Olympics and Special Olympics is not the same as the Paralympics. So there are three kind of different special, just so we have that clear. So this was a Special Olympics and we were going there and it was the most insane experience of my life. And it was pretty close, maybe not the most insane, but it was pretty close. You were lining there and they were like literally had like limousine driving us from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, where we had the Special Olympics and I had a room just besides like one like an African king. So there was like a bunch of huge bodyguards outside of my hotel. And I'm like, here is like 20 27 28 at this point,
Reno [00:23:17] They were trying to wine and dine you.
Change [00:23:20] I was like, wow, this is really something. And we had no expectations of winning this thing because other companies were just fantastic. And we went through there and we pitched hard, really told them about our why. And we're very open about the journey that we ever had, how things were going. And we won! And suddenly then we came back to Norway, we had won in Special Olympics, which is a brand that people know, and then suddenly investors got interested. And I had a couple of investor calls already during the Special Olympics. Then we landed our first large second, second, actually investor that got us through this period.
Reno [00:24:00] You remind me of the idea I've heard before, like true innovation. I started thinking about all those things you kind of piece together with this episode, is innovative to me is creating something new that's never been done before. How could you create something new if you've been doing the old way over and over and over? And how could you go from old to new if you did not hit any speed bumps? So all that story you kind of combine going down, going back up, Leadership, Innovation. Do you have any story to share between how did you guys go through the hump and what's the innovation? What's the output?
Change [00:24:33] Right. That's a good question as well. So if you I think the also the reason why if you want to be an entrepreneur, I think you also have this urge to create true innovation, especially if you're in the Tech Space. I think that that is a bit different for other sectors. But if you are a tech entrepreneur, I think there are so many opportunities to really create innovation. And what is innovation like? There is so much you have is like the new iPhone. Is that an innovation? No, it's not an innovation. It's a novelty. It's like this got some novel features, a bit of a better camera, you know, a bit of a better like touch thing, maybe battery life is still marginally improved. That is novelty. It's an upgrade. But the first iPhone was a true innovation. And that is also the thing for us. Like, we want to create true innovation. And for me, like true innovation is something that changes lives. It changes the way you do things.
It changes the way society as a whole operates and changes the market dynamics in which your talent, even if you're working, that is true innovation that is going from zero to one as like Peter Thiel, a great founder of PayPal, a great investor, and had a great book about it going from zero to one. And that's true innovation. And that is what we are doing is nothing like what we are building out in the world. And if we do not do it, I do not believe anyone will. And here we'm not talking about only the product but we are talking about the way that the impact model, the business model, that is innovation itself, and it's important to understand that in the Tech Space, you oftentimes you focus on the product , you focus on the iPhone. As a product, but actually it's the way the market operated that was big for Apple, right, that you suddenly had the App Store take 30 percent of everything that generated that insanely great business model. You now control the market about everything you can put on your phone. Fantastic. And it can take a cut. And also back in the day, and I'm sure some of your users remember that what was on your phone was dictated by the telecom companies. It was not by the phone makers. It was like you got SMS. Well, that's something that's innovated by telecom. You got calls innovated by telecom, you've got all this kind of stuff. But it was developed primarily from the telecom companies. And Apple switched that to say that actually no. We will, like, circle around you and we will decide what's the features that you're going to have on your phone.
Reno [00:27:07] I thought you hit the nail on the head right there. Endre, is not only is the product changing the way people communicate but think about if this lands into the hands of a million, a billion people that change the way people communicate in general, like we're doing this podcast at three different locations right now, that is technology. We can give them that like five years ago, 10 years ago. So changes the way people live. And that is super incredible. And I think that's a really good way of explaining what innovation is to our listeners.
Change [00:27:40] Yeah, and that's what you've passionate about, like that. That makes going to work fun. As I say, passion is the output. It's not the input. And if you are solving an important problem, you're creating true change, through a product that no one has seen before. It's an amazing feeling.
Reno [00:27:59] Oh, yeah. The first iPhone 3G with a touch screen. So awesome! Speaking of leading a team and spearheading innovations, Endre, could you share with our listeners SignLab's plan in Indonesia?
Change [00:28:15] Absolutely. First, I just want to say that we are definitely not leading the deaf community. They are leading themselves and they are extremely capable leaders and deaf community. I've been so privileged to work with some of the best leaders that I've seen anywhere in the Norwegian deaf community, some true stars. So what we are trying to do is to use our knowledge about technology and how it's built and how it can change and create true innovation, change how a market operates to empower great people. That is like empowering the families that are our users and empowering the deaf communities around the world where we're working so they can get better job opportunities. They can bring this into their workplace and suddenly everyone can learn sign language at least a little. They can sell our products or market their sign language courses on our platform, which gives them more opportunities to grow and get revenue and get more activity in local deaf associations around the world. I think when it comes to Leadership, as you say and as we said, the difference between Leadership and Management is that you are in power as the manager would like.
Power without purpose or vision is not the same as Leadership. And we have a vision where all families are able to communicate freely, to communicate well, where all the children and parents and parents can feel that they are confident and children and family members feel that they are part of a fully included in their family as anyone else. That is our vision for those families and for the deaf communities that we work with. It is that they have empowered, they feel empowered to spread their culture, spread their language. They can take care of their families and friends. And here then we are really empowering great people to not only be leaders but take leadership to the next level. That is like building up leaders.
That, in turn, will create the next generation of leaders just like one level up. And that I find is fantastic. Interesting journey when you have so many good people that have worked so hard and are working every day in countries such as you say, Indonesia, which is a challenging country where you have great dedicated people that wants to see change, wants to see improvement. And I've worked and worked on that for the last decade and will continue for several decades in the future to empower them to be good leaders themselves and in turn create the next generation of leaders is fantastically inspiring. And that is our vision for those communities.
Reno [00:30:52] Thank you so much for trying to make an impact on humanity, Endre, and inspiring us and our listeners with your stories.
Change [00:31:00] Yeah, and I just want to say so when we're talking the analogy there with the backstroke and the and the forehand stroke that I think is Leadership when things are going well. So this is strategy we have had in place for the last one and a half years. And then we knew this was a very different time. Like then we had enough money. We had what we call product market fit. I guess we had a clear strategy where we could it take some time, take a breather and innovate and a leader in that position where you're not pressured that things will blow up in your face, as you'd say, but rather you can actually kind of push your vision out into the world, which we're now doing.
This is a very different type of Leadership where you have to have a clear vision about what you want with your team such that they can believe in what you're doing. They can wake up, I think, to Simon Sinek who says like wake up inspired and leave work fulfilled at the end of the day. I think that's such an amazing way to think about the type of company that if you are the CEO or a founder such as I am, that that is what you want to do, that that is the workplace that you want to create, that you feel inspired to say that. You know what? I actually had a part to play in building this organization, which is a fantastic privilege.
Reno [00:32:22] That's it, folks! If you're interested in learning some sign language or know anyone who is, you can check out some signs in your own language on YouTube. And if you're in Norway, you can download the Toleio app with the link below. Lastly, if you're looking for an opportunity to impact more lives, SignLab is hiring a digital marketing professional to join their team.
Reno [00:32:47] And before you go!
Otherwise [00:32:48] Hey, thanks for listening to our podcast. We will see you at the next episode about community, where we will talk to Managing Director of 657 Anine Willums Karp. If you like How to Entrepreneur, follow us at Insj UiO on Instagram, Facebook, or if you live in Bergen, follow us at Insj Bergen. See you next time!