No Isolation & SANDS

With its charming robots for chronically ill children, No Isolation has become one of the greatest happy-ending stories in the world of Norwegian entrepreneurs, a story which is now being told enthusiastically in more and more international markets. Lawyer Stig Nordal has been part of every move the robot has made since founder Karen Dolva got help from her father in soldering together the first network interface cards.

“As a start-up, you neither know everything already, nor do you have the self-confidence you might have deserved for getting out into the world. The value of an enthusiastic lawyer who is into start-up culture and has that international network simply cannot be overstated,” says Dolva.

Just a little over two years have passed since No Isolation was started with three energetic heads and a simple idea to prevent loneliness among chronically ill children: a robot that could substitute for the children both at school and elsewhere. Now Dolva sits and looks across a teeming open-plan office in Akerselva Atrium, where close to 60 employees roam between technology laboratories equipped with large whiteboards, playful offices and communal areas carpeted with AstroTurf. Alongside her sits Stig Nordal, the man who more than anyone is considered the Norwegian start-up realm’s own lawyer.

Ready – Set – Go! Karen Dolva first met technologist Marius Aabel, who at that time was getting started on his third company, in the StartupLab entrepreneur accelerator in Oslo. She was working part-time in addition to studying information science. They arranged a hackathon together and realised that someday they should work together.

“We complemented each other professionally, drank beer and got lost in dreaming about everything it would be cool to do. Two summers ago, we finally went for it. We started this way: “What problem should we solve?” I had a friend with a child in hospital, and we started working on loneliness.

That’s how No Isolation came about. While Aabel and Matias Doyle, the third member of the team, worked through their termination notice periods, Dolva went round and broadcast their ambitions. In October 2015, everyone was in place in Oslo.

Then they rang a lawyer.

“We’re friends, but we needed to have a shareholder agreement in place. It’s even more important with all the arms and legs in a start-up. We needed to know what convertible bond agreements look like. I knew from my previous start-up that I needed a solid legal team-mate” says Dolva.

They knew Stig Nordal from StartupLab, where he had provided free consultancy for entrepreneurs each Friday. He calls it “introductory sales”.

“I love the energy in that environment – how I could stroll the hallways at Oslo Science Park and the information science building and chat for long periods about what we were going to create. I say ‘we’. We quickly become acquainted and build a personal relationship so that the threshold for asking us questions is as low as possible,” says Nordal.

Initially, there is usually discussion of a memorandum of association and a good shareholder agreement, before things generally turn quiet from the start-up for a good while. But eventually the major questions come up. Always.

“You want investors and so you need wonderfully good agreements. Suddenly you are going to send something out of the country with user terms and conditions and a great deal of legal work that has to be completely by the book,” says Dolva.

“That’s when it’s terribly important to have a lawyer who thinks what the company is doing is both important and fun. You do notice immediately that you’re sitting in a room with people who think it’s fun to work with you. Of course, you’re coming as a start-up and asking to get something for free, which actually isn’t so much fun,” she says.

Karen Dolva is the founder and CEO of No Isolation.

Soldering on. The first year, Karen Dolva went round to investors with a home-made pitch deck of five slides. On one side was a time line with just four items, where it said that the launch was nine months away. That was a completely wild guess. The small team at No Isolation built everything by hand, one robot at a time. But they missed the date by just five days. They suddenly received the first order for 40 robots, which were to be delivered before Christmas.

“You cannot fail to give chronically ill children their robot before Christmas. So our controller screwed the robots together, the communications manager tested them, and my father and I soldered the motherboards and headboards, respectively. The technicians would just sit and improve things. It was incredibly fun, actually, even though we came close to 16- or 17-hour workdays and were right at the limit of what is OK.

“Right then it was a nightmare. Now it has become an adventure that I love.

They made continuous changes because they received feedback from actual users with a lower tolerance level for a poor user experience. They outsourced the manufacturing – one of many make-or-break moments for entrepreneurs.

“You have to have exactly twice as many contracts as you actually need, because then there is never anything to argue about. The only times we have argued with someone, it is because the contracts weren’t good enough,” says Dolva.

Born global. Fortunately, there are only 6,000 chronically ill children in Norway, but that is not enough to build a company.

“In that case, we would have still been doing the soldering ourselves. So we knew we were ‘born global’ from the start. This imposes very special requirements for the legal side,” says Dolva.

No Isolation already has offices in the Netherlands and London, and is currently setting up shop in the U.S., with an eye on Asia.

“That’s when the paperwork starts! Norwegian law is very pleasant, where a word is taken as it is understood by everyone. In the U.S., words and figures of speech have very special legal meanings that ordinary people do not understand. You can end up in a good deal of trouble if you do not have an intermediary who can support what you want to accomplish,” says the entrepreneur.

Stig Nordal is one of very few Norwegian lawyers with practical experience from Silicon Valley, after having worked in one of Palo Alto’s leading law firms for technology and innovation. He believes the experience is absolutely essential for taking Norwegian companies abroad.

“It is a completely different world. In technology, Silicon Valley is best practice. This is reflected in the entire ecosystem, including the legal aspect. Being with people over there is wonderfully instructive and important, and I use the hotline I have to Palo Alto for investments, go-to-market assessments and the law. They are fully aware that we have extremely good companies emerging in Norway,” says Nordal.

The right ambitions. Dolva believes such networks and know-how can give modest Norwegian ambitions the pulse they need.

“It is sort of easy to be a success in Norway and think ‘Now we’ve done it!’ And once you want to create something more, you’re completely dependent on those who say ‘Why imagine one billion when you can imagine ten?’”

Stig Nordal sees great value in being involved from the birth of the company, so they can pick up problems on a continuing basis and challenge the company to “think big, act big”. Because many of the start-ups SANDS works with are “born global”, he has therefore prepared a new way of working based on posting SANDS’ employees at the companies:

“An incredible number of problems arise when companies go out into the world. And companies cannot just arrange everything themselves or immediately employ full-time lawyers. We are now offering to place people with them who really know every inch of this company, for example two days a week. Then they can rely on the rest of SANDS’ specialists for everything that is relevant.”

Start-up animal. No Isolation is growing rapidly. The selling processes are in a better position. They are building a more corporate structure, which is necessary to scale up to 200–300 employees. Production is being outsourced, while all R&D continues to be carried out in Oslo. An IPO is also in the plans.

“We will get there someday. On the stock exchange. And it will be with SANDS. Because this business of start-ups is a completely different animal – which cannot be caged because you do not always know what it is, or what it will become,” says Dolva.

Nordal refers to being a legal advisor in the early phase as a profession all its own.

“You cannot apply reasoning from listed companies to how legal problems should be solved in the early phase. In Norway, we see that many of the start-ups do not even have the self-confidence they have earned.”

For example, Nordal often sees start-ups intending to enter into an agreement with a major player being given a very unbalanced agreement.

“We have adopted the entrepreneurial perspective and made a change to the entire way of thinking about that. It’s a matter of understanding the dynamic, and you can’t do that if you have never worked for a start-up.”

At the same time, the experience from the start-ups can be made use of with the larger companies. For example, StartupLab gets new large sponsors who see that there may be a lot of good innovation they can use. This is power-coupling at a high level.

In the office beside the Aker River, Dolva talks glowingly about No Isolation’s most recent project: Komp is a technological solution that will combat loneliness among seniors. Stig Nordal just grins:

“I get so enthusiastic myself. It is incredibly fun to see the energy entrepreneurs like Karen have. We are indeed proud when we see the difference they represent. The atmosphere and the determination inspire this sturdy law firm, that I can promise you.”

“But your people are not at all sluggish,” smiles Dolva.

“Not compared to others.”