Tommy Ahlers: The software boss who says he was born to lead

By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC


For someone who happily admits he isn't very good at computer programming, Tommy Ahlers has done rather well for himself in the world of software.

The Danish entrepreneur is best known as the former boss and co-founder of ZYB, a cloud storage back-up system for mobile phone users.

The business was set up in Denmark in 2005 with only a handful of staff. Just three years later it was snapped up by mobile phone giant Vodafone for $50m (£31m).

Rather than simply sit back and count his new found fortune, Mr Ahlers has gone on to successfully lead another Danish technology start-up, project management software company Podio, which last year was also bought out in a multimillion dollar deal.

Mr Ahlers, 38, says that while he isn't great at coding, he's not bad at being a leader.

"I'm a very passionate and enthusiastic manager," he says. "My job is to convey my passion and vision to the team, to be a good communicator, to get everyone to believe in the same thing.

"The whole programming definitely needs to be delegated, but I can spot a new idea or trend, and then rally support around it from a team of staff and investors. If you have these things you can make something a success."

Key advice

The son of a farmer from rural Denmark, Mr Ahlers says that from an early age he "always sought out a leadership role". He adds: "I'm sure I was also influenced by my father... but I think I was born with the desire to be a leader."

Yet while other successful entrepreneurs look back on teenager years making good money selling confectionary products or other items at school, Mr Ahlers was instead involved in youth politics.

image captionMr Ahlers decided not to follow his father into farming

His interest in business - and ambition for a business career - stems from working part-time at a call centre, and the advice he was given by his boss.

"I asked a mid-manager what I should do [with my life]," says Mr Ahlers. "He said that if I was to stay here, one day when I'm 28 or 30, 'some management consultant will come in and tell you what do to'. His advice was for me to go to university and become a management consultant myself, and that's what I did."

So after studying law at the University of Copenhagen, Mr Ahlers joined the Danish arm of McKinsey, the giant US management consultancy.

He was at McKinsey for four years, but eventually realised he wanted to become his own boss.

"I had the increasing feeling that while I was valued I was only part of a machine, and that they could easily find someone else for the role if I wasn't there," he says.

"It made me want to be an entrepreneur, and the gratification that if I hadn't done something it wouldn't have been done."

Share flotation dream

And so in 2005 Mr Ahlers quit McKinsey and set up ZYB with two friends. Initially it focused on using computers to send text messages, before moving into data back-up for mobile phone customers.

After ZYB was purchased by Vodafone, Mr Ahlers stayed for a year before moving on to Podio.

image captionMr Ahlers has remained the boss of Podio followings its sale

While he didn't start up Podio, as its chief executive he led its growth and then subsequent 2012 sale to US software group Citrix for an undisclosed fee.

Mr Ahlers says that in both the case of ZYB and Podio it was the right decision to sell the companies.

"I did dream about taking Podio all the way to an IPO [initial public offering, or share issue], but that would only have been to please me," he says. "By contrast, it was in the best interests of both firms, their employees and their customers, to be sold.

"Take Podio, it now has the security and access to funds that comes from being part of a larger company."

With Podio still based just south of Danish capital, Copenhagen, Mr Ahlers remains in the chief executive role.

He is also an angel investor and board member in a number of other start-up technology companies.

Regarding the level of entrepreneurship in Denmark, of people starting up their own businesses, Mr Ahlers says the situation has "been getting much better" in recent years, but that the country still trails Sweden and the UK.

'Change the world'

Looking forward, Mr Ahlers, who is divorced and has two children, says that despite achieving financial security he has no plans to quit the business world and put his feet up.

"If I was into money I would have stopped work in 2008, mission accomplished.

"But happiness in life for me doesn't come from relaxing, it comes from delivering," he says. "I want to change things and make a difference, my ambitions are so big I want to change the entire world.

"Don't get me wrong, a good Friday night out - of getting hammered with my friends - is fun, but only if it comes after a week's hard work."

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.