Strong Voices Interview #10: Catarina Dahlin - CEO and Co-Founder of Dagsmejan
"It’s important to not be too afraid to fail, a mistake is an opportunity to learn and to try again smarter and with more experience." - Catarina Dahlin
OUR QUESTIONS FOR CATARINA:
You achieved a lot in your career over the past years. But taking a step back, once you finished your studies and were at the beginning of your work life: What were your goals and ambitions for your professional career?
For many, long-term goals are very important, but I must admit that I have never had a 10 year plan or even a 5 year plan. For me it was always clear that there are many different paths that could be great for me so instead I always tried to keep my mind and eyes open for new opportunities. Better test and try and change direction if it doesn’t work out, than to plan everything out in detail in advance.
When I graduated what I knew was that I wanted to work in an international environment in a position for growth and with the possibility of moving abroad. When I was offered a position that suited these requirements, I jumped right in!
You’re working record is very international, how did you experience working in different countries? Did you face any difficulties?
Having lived in 7 countries across Europe and Asia, there have most certainly been many ups and downs. It was a great learning experience and I have grown enormously as a person and leader from it. More than anything I have learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and with not knowing everything. It has been challenging at times to really change my leadership style or communication style. I remember arriving in Bangkok for example and thinking the first 3 months that everything was going great and that there really were no miscommunications or cultural challenges, only to realize that actually I was just not aware of them. It’s important to not make assumptions based on your own experience or cultural framework but to adapt and keep an open mind. And if you fail, you learn from it and try again.
When and how did you come up with the idea of starting an own business? Which were the most important learnings for you over the past 5 years building up a start-up?
I founded Dagsmejan with my life partner Andreas Lenzhofer. Already the first day we met we talked about our dreams of starting our own business. We are both interested in sports and it struck us how strange it is that so much has happened in sportswear, but we sleep in one of the least innovative garments around. Sleep has such an impact on all facets of our lives: our health and wellbeing, mood, performance, ageing process, stress levels etc. That was the starting point of Dagsmejan 6 years ago.
We have learned a lot on the way, most important I believe is:
- To provide real value to your customers: If you don’t make a positive change in customer’s lives you don’t have a sustainable business
- Test and try: we founded Dagsmejan with a lean start-up methodology and still always work with iterative learning, trying to test and learn as quickly as possible. It’s very difficult to know in advance what will work or not, we have made bets that went through the roof but also others that disappointed. If you go big from the get-go these mistakes can become very costly.
- Keep a buffer for a rainy day….. if you take too few chances you are moving too slowly but if you don’t have a buffer you are taking too many risks. We had several very long delays in production and other challenges but survived as we were able to reduce our fixed costs to a minimum and weren’t living on the edge at all times
- Dream big: if you go digital the world is your market. Even as a small business there is no need to restrict yourself today, you can find a global niche that still is very attractive and easily ship worldwide.
Over the course of your career, which hurdles have you been confronted with? How did you overcome these and what kept you motivated?
Starting my career, I was often in meetings where I was the youngest person and one of the few women there, this could at times be challenging to be taken seriously. I learned that data was my best friend - if you know the facts better than anyone else it’s a lot more difficult for others to dismiss you.
A lot of large organizations also have quite a bit of political game playing going on, in one company I worked growing pains of going to a more centralized set-up led to a lot of infighting. At times I ended up being collateral damage which could feel unfair. I had to learn to not take things too personal and to be careful with what I really let touch my core.
What has kept me motivated throughout is to continuously learn and to be passionate about what I’m doing. Life is too short to be miserable 40 hours a week, there can be challenging moments in any job but if most days feel like a chore than it might be time to make a change.
Did you ever have the impression of facing a disadvantage because you are a woman?
Growing up in Sweden I was taught from an early age that I was as able as a boy and never really thought about my gender. As I grew older, I however sometimes found myself in situations where my gender was a disadvantage. I have experienced some of the typical ‘me too’ situations like very inappropriate comments and having to deal with colleagues not knowing the right borders. However, overall I don’t feel generally that I was strongly disadvantaged and now starting a business this is not an experience I have had. I have a rather thick skin though by now. If someone has a problem with me being a woman and I always try to have it remain that way; their problem and not mine.
In your opinion, what needs to be done to encourage more women to “follow their dreams”? Which recommendation would you give them?
It’s important to not be too afraid to fail, a mistake is an opportunity to learn and to try again smarter and with more experience. Whether you are a man or woman you need to have a lot of confidence to start out on your own, you will however realize after a while that no one else knows it all either. By keeping your mind open for learning and listening whilst following your own dreams you have every chance to make it!
One last question: how did and do you manage to find a balance between your working and private life?
I must admit that I’m still working on that one…. It’s a challenge as an entrepreneur to really separate between work and private life. As I’ve also founded the business with my partner the lines can become quite blurred.
A friend had a saying that I love; “being an entrepreneur is not a sprint or marathon, it’s a lifestyle”. It’s not about pushing through for a certain amount of time but to find a lifestyle you love and that is sustainable for you. I try to consciously invest my free time where it matters the most to me; with family and friends, being active in nature. The laundry can wait for another day!