Ep96: Aksel Lund Svindal "From Skier to Investor - Prepared for Impact"

Cleaning Up Episode 96 Edited Highlights – Aksel Lund Svindal



ML It's a little embarrassing to have to ask you to explain your sporting career…


ALS Don't be embarrassed because I wouldn't expect everyone to know! I was a professional ski racer for 15-16 years and had a long and fairly successful career - I won the Olympics a couple of times, five World Championship titles…


ML I have my own very modest Olympic career, which lasted about 30 seconds in total. You're very modest saying “oh, you know, I won the Olympics a couple of times.” You won some other things as well didn't you?


ALS I have a few other medals as well, from the Olympics and of course World Championships. I've a couple of overall World Cup wins too. To me, as an athlete, that's actually the biggest achievement. If you are, for one specific year, the athlete that took the most points when you combine all the events, by definition, you are the best skier in the world. For us that’s even bigger than an Olympic gold.


ML That's week after week, getting up there and performing at the absolute top level. I had a couple of wins at national championships, but you were in just a completely different world.


ALS You say it's a completely different world, but that I am sure at the national championships you felt the nerves. Everything gets a little more intense at the biggest events, but it really isn't all that different. I think that's the awesome part about sports.


ML Before your last Olympic win you already were an investor, right? How did it start?


ALS It’s a journey that started through the people that I met, my network. As an athlete, you have an advantage - if you ask for a meeting, you're very likely to get that meeting. Even before I was a famous athlete I met with all these agents that want to represent you and I wasn’t too impressed, so I actually did most of the negotiations myself. You learn quickly when it's your own money because it kind of hurts when it doesn't go well. And then I started to win races, and I got interested in how to invest the money I was making. As in sports, I'm more interested in the mentality that people have, what drives them. I got the opportunity to meet small companies where you can actually meet the people involved. Really, I think being an entrepreneur is a lot like being athlete. It's risky. Obviously, it's a lifestyle more than a job. And I kind of liked that mindset.


ML It was in 2015, that you started to get involved with what became Norselab. Is that right?


ALS In the fall of 2014, a week before the first race of the winter, I tore my achilles. You should always try to look for the upside, right, so I thought, what can I do now that I normally wouldn't have the chance to? One thing that kept coming up was people saying that I should go to Silicon Valley, that they would introduce me to some people there, and that's what I ended up doing. That led to new meetings, and meeting the founder of Norselab, Yngve. We hit it off because he is a hands-on kind of guy.


ML How did Norselab get to be Norselab?


ALS Is it was an old school business model to begin with that reflected the investment environment in Norway. There’s a lot of private equity capital in Norway, but it can be difficult to secure investment… it's typically very easy to get a hundred thousand dollars, but it's almost impossible to get a million or two or three. We wanted to scale what we were doing, then we made the decision to build this investment platform.


ML Norway has this extraordinary and very unique investment and business environment. There are big ticket, ultra-high net worths who have come out of shipping or energy, and they really command the heights of the economy and the investment economy in a way you certainty don’t see in the UK.


ALS There are some wealthy individuals, and some of them have a system and some of them don't. They do invest in start-ups, but it's not really in their mandate, and funding can fall away too easily. It doesn't mean that they're not founder-friendly, but they might not have time for the founders or time for the companies. So, there used to be no structured money or capital coming from venture funds in this space. Now, there's a few players and there's rumours of some more, so it's definitely starting to look better.


ML So you decided together with Yngve to create a platform more like what you might find in any other country, perhaps a bit more Californian. You've got a whole portfolio of companies now and you've got a team. How big is your team?


ALS We're 25 and growing. The key bit of the puzzle that had to come together was getting someone that has a lot of knowledge with finance. This is where Erik came into the picture who has worked in traditional finance his whole career.


ML I wanted to ask, where does the impact scope come from? What does meaningfulness mean?

Meaningfulness to us is the way we talk about impact. That's our impact scope, its meaningfulness, our way of framing what we need to do. You just can't just tick some boxes; you need to measure the fact that that what you do has an impact.


ML So you've got your philosophy, you've got your 25 people, you've got a portfolio. Within that portfolio, can you pick out a few of the ones that you like most?

Farmable - I liked the story of the founder. He's very technical guy who had technical jobs, but then he inherited the family fruit farm from his parents. And he said “I'm going to make this farm digital.” Farmable is basically a very simple app to use for a farmer to do the most important stuff that you need to do as a farmer. And when they have this device turned on it is tracking everything that happens on the farm. Plateful is another one. They make huge amounts of food that would otherwise go to waste available on a commercial basis. When you start reading up on how much food is thrown away around the world, it's unbelievable. These guys have the whole infrastructure and have built a whole digital experience, meaning that if you run a hotel or a restaurant, you can order this diverted food online, using products that are available. I’m driven to stop food waste and tackle climate change. Lots of people struggle to visualize climate change. To me, it's been super visible because I've been around the world skiing and I see how the glaciers are getting smaller and smaller.


ML One of your incoming investors is our supporter on Cleaning Up, which is Capricorn Investment Group. Why did you choose Capricorn?

We started talking to Capricorn a while back, so we've gotten to know each other over the last two years. They believe in what we've done so far and, more importantly, what we can do in the future. So, they've invested in us to scale up. With Capricorn’s help, we are going to prove that impact investing is the way to go in all asset classes.


ML We’ve got a few minutes left so I want to ask you about risk. It's a favourite topic of mine. How do you manage risks? How did you manage it when you were a skier?

The first thing that I always thought is that there's nothing I know more about than downhill skiing. So, I can push the boundaries pretty far in downhill skiing because I know exactly what's going too far and what's staying on the right side of the limits. But on the other hand, every once in a while, you do cross the limits in order to win a race. When it comes to risk, it's funny because my injuries are one of the reasons why I was able to start working with Norselab. Before I retired I spent a lot of time on crutches. All of these crashes happened when I was winning back to back races - that’s not just bad luck. It's because when you go that extra mile, when you push a little bit harder, you’re taking a risk. Bottom line is, there's risk involved. I don't try to hide the fact that there's risk involved. But I tried to rationalize it in my head and ask if it's worth it.