Rune Sovndahl, CEO and co-founder of Fantastic Services reveals why his taste for adventure – including swimming with sharks and exploring underwater caves – has made him a better business leader
It’s safe to say most people’s idea of bliss does not involve spending four hours submerged underwater, in a cave, with a limited supply of oxygen. Oh, and the nearest point of exit could be 45 minutes away.
However, according to Rune Sovndahl, extreme pursuits are ideally suited to entrepreneurs with a spirit of adventure – it’s all about strategy, exploration and, above all, keeping your head while others are losing theirs. “You need to keep calm. Panic doesn’t solve problems and you tend to make some really bad decisions when you panic,” he says.
Take, for example, the time he went swimming with sharks off Mexico’s Caribbean coast. He recalls: “It was on my birthday and it was a surprise set-up by my diving partner. There you are, 200m from the beach, 26m down in the water and suddenly you are surrounded by bull sharks – fascinating creatures, slightly playful but non-threatening… so long as you don’t panic.
“By that, I mean no rapid movements, fleeing from them, scaring them. In other words, anything you would instantly think of doing if you saw a shark! Not reacting in the way that everything about that situation is telling you to react – that is the challenge. You just have to stay still, breathe normally.”
There have been several occasions when Sovndahl has had to keep his nerve while growing his business, Fantastic Services – a one-stop shop for domestic services ranging from pet care to pest control and house clearance to household cleaning.
Fantastic Services was born out of the 2008 crash. Sovndahl was simply looking for a decent cleaner when he bumped into Anton Skarlatov at a party. Skarlatov had just lost a major cleaning contract with an investment bank. Together, they soon realised there was a gap in the market.
Sovndahl says: “Obviously it was an established business but it wasn’t an online industry. We had to convince people that it would head this way, that people would make bookings using mobile phones.
“When we met I started to understand how the industry works. That’s when I started to join the dots together. I looked at how we worked at Lastminute.com [where he was group SEO manager], in terms of how to make the bookings.”
He also applied what he learnt as a chef in the Royal Danish Navy, which included cooking for dignitaries and members of the royal family. “You make a dish and it has to be served within five minutes. After that, your dish is no good. If somebody sends that meal back to the kitchen then you get the instant feedback. Being able to act upon instant feedback allows us to not only tell people what they’ve done wrong but how they can improve.”
Since launching in 2009, the business now delivers more than 40 different services with around 1,800 partners operating under a franchise system from offices in London, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Melbourne. But, of course, few companies reach that size without experiencing some problems along the way.
When the Fantastic Services vans first started turning up in the streets of London, rivals resorted to slashing their tyres. Again, it was about keeping a cool head, and, says Sovndahl, some of his former competitors have since become franchisees.
He also became frustrated when the business wasn’t growing as fast as he initially envisaged – by his own admission he is a restless soul and prefers adventure to relaxation outside work. “You won’t catch me spending my holiday on the beach. I wouldn’t find that relaxing. In fact, I would find that annoying. I needed to do something for two weeks before I started a new job. I went to Egypt, I tried scuba diving and I had the most amazing experience. But once you’ve seen some corals or rock formations it just becomes the same thing.
“Cave diving allowed me to go on a different type of adventure, to explore another world.” He adds: “There are certain pressures you put on yourself when you’re cave diving. You can’t just decide to go back to the surface when you feel like it. You might have 45 minutes before you reach an exit point. It’s about control and it’s about teamwork because you also have to trust the person who you’re diving with.
“In business you think freely, you come up with new ideas and you’re creative. But in this environment there are rules which you need to stick to. It’s all about learning what can go wrong and being prepared for that. I like that. And you can apply that back into business.”
For his next great adventure, Sovndahl wants to go to the Riviera Maya on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and explore an area that is revered among cave divers. “It is called LSD. You go through narrow passages and you enter a cave, which is meant to be the size of a church.” One blogger wrote that LSD is “so big, a plane could fit inside it… it will blow your mind!”
Getting a pilot’s licence is also on Sovndahl’s list of future adventures. “There is that saying which goes, ‘an entrepreneur is somebody who jumps off a cliff and builds a plane on the way down’. But if you are too afraid of the outcome you won’t take a chance. I think that you have to be adventurous just to be an entrepreneur.”
Gallery: Rune Sovndahl diving
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