clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Zendesk Co-Founder Mikkel Svane Writes a Memoir

"Apparently, unless you are Steve Jobs, CEOs are not supposed to allude to recreational drug use."


Six-foot-three and broad-shouldered, Zendesk co-founder and CEO Mikkel Svane filled up his side of the booth at Mikkeller Bar near his office in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood on a recent night.

He looked down at the specialty beer joint’s menu, a long list of hearty stouts and things like “Monk’s Elixir, Belgian-style dark strong ale.”

“I prefer girly beers,” Svane said in a deep, Danish-accented voice, blushing a little beneath his thick beard.

Svane — who has led his customer-service company from its 2007 founding in Copenhagen to Silicon Valley, and its successful IPO last May — is showing his sensitive side. This month, the 43-year-old executive released his first book, a memoir called “Startupland,” that follows him as he navigates through Silicon Valley’s booms and busts until he emerges victorious.

“A unicorn,” he writes.

The book is a pretty honest look at entrepreneurship, with chapter titles like “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” and details on how to hire for athleticism (screening through fast walks). He said he wrote it to keep a consistent corporate narrative.

“I went through considerations of ‘should there be a message?'” he said. “But, fuck it, I’ll just describe the journey. As you grow your company, now it’s 800 people, the original story of why you made the company and what it is quickly erodes.”

Silicon Valley, as a place, inspired and drew him because of its mythology, which he sees his own story adding to.

“My father-in-law is a chicken farmer. He came to visit, and I drove him around, and he said, ‘It’s still fresh soil here. In Europe, it’s been harvested and churned for generations and generations,'” Svane told me over beers. “I think a lot about the early settlers from Europe. They were struggling with the earth — and they came here and the soil was new. That’s how it is for the entrepreneurs.”

The book follows the Silicon Valley version of an American dream, from garage to Tesla.

Svane begins “Startupland” with the lyrics to Paul Simon’s song “America”: Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together/I’ve got some real estate here in my bag/So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies/And walked off to look for America.

He explains that, “though life in Copenhagen was good — everything was taken care of in the place with the happiest people in the world — we wanted to do something else with our lives,” lest he and his friends become “butt cheek consultants,” so named after a type of drapes reminiscent of scalloped butt cheeks.

And so: “Like so many before us, we went West in pursuit of a gold rush — this modern-day one fueled by the Internet and a severe case of being bitten by the TechCrunch bug.”

Zendesk moved into a building in San Francisco’s South of Market district; later, Svane finds out that it “used to be a Buddhist center (!)”

And the company began to grow. Here, he writes about staffing up:

We grew the staff quickly. Michael Hansen, who had moved to San Francisco with us and was now in charge of the customer advocates and sales, developed some new hiring strategies to build the San Francisco office. He took recruits on a walk to Philz Coffee shop or The Creamery. He walked very, very fast to see if they could keep up with him. (He also wanted to make sure they were physically fit — maybe a remnant of his army training.) He would see if they let him order first, and who paid. The whole way, he used foul language and swore, just to see how they would react— — and that reaction would help him determine if they were right for a startup culture. (There’s a lot of cursing at startups, or at least at Zendesk.) On the way back from a walk, he asked their salary requirements.

Svane observes such Silicon Valley truisms as: “T-shirts, the business card of San Francisco.” And that “there’s a lot of ‘crushing it’ and ‘killing it’ and other aggressive verbiage in the local vernacular.”

He writes about his personal missteps, like when, during the buildup to IPO, he bragged that he built the billing system “in a four-day, LSD-induced stupor!”

“I was chastised for that,” he writes. “Apparently, unless you are Steve Jobs, CEOs are not supposed to allude to recreational drug use.”

And then there is the glorious “unicorn” chapter at the end, when the founders marry up and buy Teslas.

“For now, I wanted to focus on us, and what happened now, after we chased — and caught — the American Dream,” he writes. “I traded in my Volvo; I was customer No. 319 for the Tesla Model S.”

Now, Svane, who posits the book as an outsider’s account, runs deep in the Silicon Valley posse. He jokes that his wife has a crush on Zendesk board member Matt Cohler, whose “Facebook feed is packed with models.” And he writes that he “still appreciates getting gently mind-fucked by Peter Fenton over Burgundy wines at RN74 from time to time.”

Over Ballast Point Longfin lager at Mikkeller (no relation to Mikkel, which Svane said is a common name back home), he talked about his family, feeling alienated and what’s coming up for Zendesk.

Svane, who lives in the city’s especially hilly Bernal Heights neighborhood with his wife and four kids, said he had gotten water in his ear on a recent trip to Hawaii, and it was annoying him. His next step for Zendesk is to build out a more intensive customer service experience — “to create an intimacy, so it feels like a seamless conversation.” Svane and Zendesk’s basic premise is that social media amplifies customer experiences (good and bad), so word of mouth and customer service are more important now than ever — and a more effective use of company money than advertising.

It’s not in the book, but he mentioned to me that his wife is deaf, and it’s harder for her here in the U.S. without the social services and deaf-community integration there is in Denmark. This has made him attuned to customer service.

“The Whole Foods my wife goes to, they kind of all know she’s deaf now. It’s not a program, it just happened, and they remember her,” he said. “That’s the effect we [at Zendesk] want to create, so you don’t feel like a stranger every time.”

I asked if watching his wife interact with the world had any impact on him starting this company or whether it was inspiration, and he said he wasn’t sure, but added: “When you feel alienated, feel outside, it’s because people don’t make things easy for you.”

I asked if he had any hobbies.

“Like goat farming?” he responded.

I was thinking more like kite-surfing or crossfit. But sure, like goat farming?

He said he didn’t have any time for goat farming.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.