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Intuition in business

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By Nicolai Elmqvist, CEO and co-founder of Arkyn, a SaaS startup that provides an app to simplify SAP for enterprises. Based in Copenhagen, Elmqvist has 15+ years experience developing creative tech & SaaS products.

I’ve spent most of my professional career as a CEO for different early-stage startups and businesses. As a leader in any business, you are forced to make decisions to drive the company forward and each day consists of an endless stream of questions to address and choices to make. A great deal of my time is spent on just that. Many of the decisions I make revolve around the business strategy, market opportunities, when to hire, who to hire, who to fire, which technology to use, and when to cut costs. Then, there are decisions around unforeseen things that need to be handled when they kick in. For this, I have made what I call “the 30% rule” which means that I always need to be prepared for spending 30% of my time dealing with unforeseen things.

The truth about decision-making is that every choice you make will always be a gamble since no one can foresee the future. It comes with a risk. Any good leader will try to do their best to make the right decisions. In some cases, it’s easy and the decision can be made with confidence since data is available and it feels good to make the choice based on your past experiences. In other cases, it’s a whole different ball game. There is no real experience, very limited data, and no one that can give solid advice. In this case, the decision will mostly be based on a gut feeling.

A great example is how many leaders must have felt during the pandemic in 2020 when they needed to make decisions under high pressure. It was extremely hard to predict what would happen and what the impact would be. Looking back on how different government leaders handled the situation differently, it’s obvious that not every strategy worked equally well, although they had more or less the same limited set of data and experience in this field. But they had to make a choice with great uncertainty and then face the consequences and effects on both casualties and economics in their country.

This is obviously an extreme example, but it explains the challenges of always making the best possible decision with the best possible outcome and it shows how our intuition plays an important role in making the right decision. Intuition combines the emotional reaction of instinct with the intellectual response of analysis. It is feelings combined with thinking.

I’ve now turned 43 and looking back at 18 years as a startup CEO with both exits and crashes, I’ve made tons of decisions and learned from the outcome. From being a young and very progressive and optimistic entrepreneur that was not scared of anything, I am now more reserved and take my time before making important decisions. By being too fast your instinct might fool you before you get the chance to think things through and combine the overlapping part of your gut feeling with your wisdom and facts.

I find myself thinking more about the decisions I need to make and I am now bouncing them against my past experiences, failures, and successes. But I’m also thinking about the reasons why I have made them after they have been made. This reflection enables me to do two things: I become much faster at fixing bad decisions earlier when I see that it was a bad choice, and I’m much more in contact with myself and constantly learning.

Recently I decided about my future and was very much aware that my intuition played a large part in this choice.

In August 2021, I left a startup after spending five years after a couple of pivots and was now floating around as a consultant for four months. During that time, I consulted other early-stage startups with the purpose of finding a new place to join. I ended up with four very different offers, and at the end of 2021, I found myself in a position where I needed to make a bet on one of them or continue as a consultant. This was a very unique situation to find myself in. While I was grateful for it, I was scared because I knew that except for continuing as a consultant they were all time-limited opportunities and I needed to turn down most of them. All of the companies had very likable people and I had a similar deal with each one of them though they were at different stages.

I spent a lot of time collecting data to do proper due diligence. I started by analyzing the market, business model, potential, runway, team, investors, and experience. Then, I focused on how I would fit into the organisation, and where I could make the biggest difference and add the most value. The data was there, and in theory, that should be enough. However, it did not give me a clear picture of what was the best option since they were all different. I obviously made my bet, and a big part of the decision was listening to my gut feeling and using my intuition to conclude and it has not changed.

Did I make the right decision? It depends on how you look at it. I feel good going to work every day and I see myself making a difference in the business. Will the business succeed? The answer to that is that the future will tell but looking at the market conditions then they have changed dramatically since the end of 2021 and we are now looking at an unpredictable future with high inflation. That might actually be an opportunity for a company like Arkyn since we are helping enterprises using SAP to become more efficient by optimizing work processes, increasing data quality, and saving a lot of money. At the end of the day, intuition (along with many other factors) brought me to where I am now, so I believe that trusting your gut in combination with the data available will take you a long way.


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