Christian Lanng is the CEO and Co-founder of Tradeshift, a company he co-founded in May 2010. Tradeshift is a free invoicing tool.
From creating his first start-up at age 19 which he sold two years later, to studying sociology for three years, before quitting university to go full time working for the Danish Science Ministry, Christian had always been entrepreneurial, and it was during his time working for the Danish Government that he met and created Tradeshift with his co-founders.
I spoke to Christian about his journey so far as an entrepreneur, his background, why he thinks his company has been succesful so far, especially in raising money (Raising a total of $24 million, putting the company's valuation at $137m) and much more.
Our full interview is below.
Hi Christian, Thanks for doing this interview with me. Can you give you some background information about yourself, were you the entrepreneurial type growing up?
I launched my first start-up aged just 19 after reading and becoming obsessed with Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. The start-up I created was one of the first mobile web browsers and was sold two years later, shortly before the internet bubble burst, just as Coupland had predicted.
Not knowing what to do next, I studied sociology for three years, but then quit university to go full time working for the Danish Science Ministry, becoming the youngest head of division in the Danish government.
Tell me how the idea for Tradeshift came about?
During my time working for the Danish Government, I met the co-founders of Tradeshift and we created the world’s first open-source peer-to-peer e-business infrastructure, which was used throughout the Danish government and became incredibly popular among Danish companies.
The initial driver behind Tradeshift was frustration with business solutions and technologies that were currently available. Soon however we realised that a fundamental shift in the focus of business networks was needed to truly change things. We wanted to create a new kind of network – one that focused on people and business relationships.
What is Tradeshift? Tell me how it works?
Tradeshift is a global startup with ambitions to change the way businesses connect with each other. At the heart of the Tradeshift platform is the ability to exchange invoices for free, enabling companies of all sizes to take this time-consuming task into the cloud.
Tradeshift connects businesses on a secure online network to help them work collaboratively and manage tasks such as invoicing and cash flow. In the Tradeshift cloud, businesses create a network with their suppliers, customers and partners to streamline common business processes powered by the latest social technologies.
What was learnt from starting up, the ‘first mobile web browser’ and was any of the knowledge gained brought to Tradeshift?
I think doing something like that at a young age - and seeing that it’s possible to take activities that you enjoy and turn them into something profitable - is an indispensable experience. And that’s key in making success of any venture; the lessons you learn are carried with you in everything you continue to do.
What was the hardest part of starting Tradeshift?
It has to be the uncertainty that comes with being part of any startup. In that first phase, you don’t know if you’re dead in the water or a success - they say it takes seven years before you know for sure. Hopefully we’re running to a faster schedule!
How has the business evolved compared to the your first year of running it, the business model? Strategy?
The business has evolved as many do - by finding what the natural extensions are to the core concept we started with. That means innovations like Instant Payments and another example that we’re looking forward to announcing soon. It also means launching offices in multiple continents and learning as a businesses how we turn that into an asset and keep hold of our culture that has got us this far.
What is your business model?
Tradeshift’s business model it about building a network where there is potential for businesses to connect and expand. We will then offer larger businesses value added services, but the core invoicing product will always remain free as we think this is the only way it will get critical mass.
By providing free transactions for suppliers this increases participation and by consolidating all suppliers onto a single e-invoicing network, this will save businesses time and money.
Are you profitable?
Every penny of investment that comes in is currently going toward growing the business into new territories and products. Our latest investment round was noted as one of the largest investments in a European tech start-up in 2011 and supported by existing investor Notion Capital so we look forward to all these manifesting as great success in the near future.
How many users do you have? Paying customers?
Tradeshift is approaching 100,000 companies across 190 countries. Businesses on the Tradeshift platform include ASP NHS, the French Government, Kuehne+Nagel, TDC, DT Group and DSV, with more to be announced this year.
What makes your business different from other software companies/competitors out there?
Tradeshift is a online network that allows suppliers to exchange invoices and business documents for free, that focuses on people and business relationships. Our technology is as open and flexible as possible. Tradeshift provides open APIs which allow developers to build their own apps within the network. This is incredibly liberating as it means users can access and use these apps to extend and improve their business processes.
What could you say has been some of the key things you’ve learnt so far as an entrepreneur?
If you see a problem in your organisation, seek it out and confront it head on - don’t avoid it. This will accelerate the growth and development of your business and protect against threats that can quickly escalate. Take the initiative and find the solution as soon as you can.
Also don’t be afraid to break stuff - think of the business as a space ship; if you’re moving fast enough then stuff will start to snap off and whatever you build will be stronger out of necessity.
Raising funding can be such a tricky thing to do for startups, especially in Europe - how have you seen that change over the years?
Raising funding is changing in many ways at the moment with startups like Angel List offering access to investors that just wasn’t possible previously. You can pitch an idea and get a sit-round with twenty of the best investors. Meanwhile, Kickstarter has been an enormously valuable tool for those launching a new consumer product.
As mentioned, you’ve been very successful in raising finance for the company, what advices would you give to startups looking to raise money?
Raising funding is tricky anywhere - and you have to do a ton of pitches to get good results. That’s the only way you get better. Don’t get disillusioned, every pitch is a chance to improve - plus it’s free advice from the smartest people around.
Your company has just recently opened an office in San Francisco, can you tell us more about what we can expect from that?
We really want to focus on expanding in North America and introducing more US clients to Tradeshift. Being situated in Silicon Valley amongst many other great start-ups is a fantastic place to spearhead our expansion plans.
What trends, startups, technology are you personally looking forward to in 2012?
For me, 2012 is about two things:
1. Big data. The things companies are doing with this now were barely possible before and are ushering in a new age of opportunities. Personally, I see this opening up a whole new frontier of products and services that will change our every day lives.
2. Trends from 2011 will reach critical mass. Think about mobile, especially tablets.
What are your other plans for 2012?
This year Tradeshift is looking at innovation! We secured another round of funding late last year, launching a revolutionary feature called Instant Payments - where small businesses can receive instant payment for approved invoices that have been received through Tradeshift.
And the new features don’t stop there. Our developers (all our development work is done in-house) are working on some pretty impressive things right now and some of them will be launched very soon.
We don’t believe in standing still - and that includes with our geography too. I’m writing these answers from our latest office that’s in the process of opening in San Francisco, increasing our worldwide reach significantly.
What pieces of advice could you give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there looking to start their business?
Push your concept to its limits and don’t be afraid to break the things that work. It’s only by doing the repairs that you end up with something more robust and sometimes a massive leap forward for your business. I firmly believe those that seek out these threats and conquer them end up building the most powerful companies that change the world.