Alumni reflections: No Isolation

This January we’re accepting applications to our fourth accelerator, where we invest 1MNOK in great technology entrepreneurs building something exciting out of Norway. Building up to that, we’ve caught up with some of the entrepreneurs we’ve worked with in the past to hear what learnings they can share with younger companies.

Karen Dolva and No Isolation's first product, AV1. Source: Titan UiO

Karen Dolva (KD) started No Isolation together with Mathias and Marius two years ago, and the journey so far has been impressive. Previously she was actually part of the StartupLab team, so we were extra curious about how life on the other side has been so far.

SL: Status of your business so far in two sentences?

KD: We’ve started scaling our first product out of Norway and developing our second product. It’s going surprisingly well and we’re planning a new round of fundraising this fall to continue in the same speed going forward.

SL: As a former StartupLab-employee, you were exposed to a lot of entrepreneurs working on a lot of different problems. When you set out to solve one yourself — how did you select which one?

KD: Hmm… That’s a hard question. Unlike many others, we didn’t start with a concept or an idea for a product. We wanted to work on a big problem, and we knew that combined we could build the solution to a lot of different problems.

I think we were all quite set out to build some kind of communication tool, but more important than the idea or problem was the desire to start a company together, the three of us. And it was first when we sat down that we figured out that loneliness was the problem we wanted to attack.

SL: What’s impressed us a lot with you guys from the start, has been your obsession with your customers. Is this due to your background as a UX designer? In what way has it helped you guys proceed.

KD: Having a UX-background has been very helpful. The three of us set out to build products that were not for ourselves, so we were completely dependent on feedback and insight from others. Always talking to your users, customers and potential partners teaches you so much more than you can imagine.

But I also learned this working at StartupLab. I saw that the companies that had the most progress, were the ones going out there. We talk about our ideas and thoughts to anyone who’ll listen. And instead of saying/pitching “this is the amazing thing we want to build”, we try to say “this is what we want to achieve”. You end up getting amazing input.

SL: Landing partnerships with big corporates (we all know you from Telia’s commercials in Norway, and you just signed a new deal with Vodaphone) — what’s the secret to making it happen?

KD: I actually wrote a post about that about a month ago. It’s been very successful for us. When it comes to working with big corporations, our philosophy has been very simple from the start: we’re 100% confident we can build our product faster and better than any competitor, big or small. As long as that’s true there’s no harm in collaborating with bigger firms — in our case they’ve just increased our pace even more. Speed and a true understanding of your users beats everything.

But it has to be said these collaborations don’t come for free. We’ve spent a lot of time planning, coordinating, following up. And we’ve always tried to optimize for win-win situations. The best thing that can happen is that the big corporate makes a lot of money from working with you. That’s when they come back for more.

SL: You guys are part of what one might call a trend — companies doing good by being good. In what ways has this helped you?

KD: Hard to be specific here. It has been helpful in every way. We sort-of assumed we’d get more help, but the support we’ve actually gotten has been overwhelming. People meet us thinking — “today I might actually be able to help somebody — do something good”. And this has opened an insane number of doors.

Take for instance our first investors. While they all want No Isolation to become a great, profitable business, some said it was an easier decision given the problem we’re solving. Even Barnekreftforeningen has helped finance us — that’s very uncommon. Future investors probably have stricter requirements when it comes to the health of our business, which is good. But you might say the problem we chose helped us get off the ground easier.

We’ve also seen this in a lot of the job applications we’ve received. People want to join us in making a change. Our engineers obviously also want to work on exciting technology, but as it happens we have that as well. We’re hiring by the way!

SL: Next question: If you were to name the top reason you have gotten to where you are today?

KD: Openness. We are extremely open around what we do. We talk about our products long before we know what they’re going to be like. We might know what direction we want to go in, but our destination is partly determined by feedback we get along the way.

By being open we get requests from people who want to go in the same direction. They tell us how they can help, and together we figure it out. I don’t think that me, Marius and Mathias should sit in a meeting room and decide what we should do. That’s a job we, as a team, shall do together. By being open we achieve that.

SL: And one thing you would have done differently?

KD: Just because we’ve succeeded with something at one location, doesn’t mean we’ll be able to replicate it at a second location. I flew down to Amsterdam thinking I could manage on my own, but that just led to us wasting too much of my energy and the a lot of time. Since then we’ve realized we have to think differently when we enter new markets.

Also, I have to say, we had a really great advantage in Norway being part of StartupLab. It saved us so much time. We saved time in the beginning, just because we could connect to experienced people that had the answers we were looking for. My entire core network was built at StartupLab. That has been invaluable.

SL: Status of your business in two sentences, if asked in five years?

KD: Hopefully we’ve grown a fantastic amount by then. We should have a lot of products, and improved versions of our current products. It’s a tough question, but the answer is that we are just going to continue to grow as much as possible without destroying ourselves.

SL: That was three sentences, but fair enough. Entrepreneurs are supposed to break the rules :) If you’re working on solving a problem and looking for funding, network and top-end support that gets you off the ground, check out or upcoming accelerator.

StartupLab is an incubator, an accelerator, and an early stage investor for Norwegian tech startups.