Stephen Ekbergh

Based: Cape Town

To really understand Stephan Ekbergh’s approach to business, we need to visit the Swedish dance floors of the 1970s and 1980s. Ekbergh was working in his homeland as a DJ. There was a very specific kind of music that he enjoyed playing, and it had nothing to do with what was popular in the charts at that particular moment. He was really into what was happening in the New York scene and in Chicago.

The hip places liked what he was doing, but other places didn’t, so he would be very careful about where he chose to play. To him it was about being paid to do what he loves. His approach has remained the same over the years. he loves creating something that he is passionate about and that people are willing to pay for.

Stephan Ekbergh founded Travelstart in Sweden in January 1999. The company grew, but it wasn’t doing particularly well. It was perpetually spending ahead of revenue, always on the cusp of running out of money.

It seemed like a godsend when Ekbergh was offered $10 million for his failing company. He could trade his bad bet for a quick windfall. But very little of that amount turned out to be in the form of cold hard cash. Most of it was equity in a company that was failing at an alarming rate. If anything, the new owners had managed Travelstart into an even more precarious position. So Ekbergh made a stupid bet. He bought the company back and decided to turn it around.

It was brutal. Ekbergh had to let 34 of the company’s 40 employees go. He had to plead and negotiate with creditors to extend Travelstart’s line of credit. He even had to take out another mortgage on his house to pay his remaining staff in December 2001. It was a very bleak time, as the 9/11 attacks had brought air travel to a virtual standstill.

In 2002, however, as airlines tried to coax travellers back with irresistible deals, the tide turned, and Travelstart started to become exceptionally profitable. Most people would have sat back and enjoyed the spoils. Ekbergh didn’t. In 2004, he decided to move to Cape Town and launch Travelstart there.

With a fresh injection of cash, Stephan Ekbergh and Travelstart are setting their sights on the rest of Africa. Their goals are clear: Keep things simple, do things better, and never play it safe.

 

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