This woman sold her app for $85 million — here's the common mistake she sees in start-ups

Mette Lykke

Building a high-value business takes patience and entrepreneurs shouldn't believe that start-ups reach multi-million-dollar valuations overnight, a successful Danish businesswoman has warned.

When it comes to growing a start-up, Mette Lykke, CEO of food waste organization Too Good To Go, speaks from experience.

She co-founded fitness app Endomondo in 2007, developing the company for almost a decade before it gained enough interest to be acquired by American firm Under Armour.

Endomondo was sold to the U.S. athleticwear brand in 2015 for $85 million, and Lykke stayed on as its CEO until 2017.

According to Lykke, who began her career as a management consultant, a business can only experience vast growth rates if the people at its reins exercise what she calls "patient impatience."

"Every day you have to push (yourself) and you have to be willing to do that for quite a while," she said. "I think a lot of stories about start-ups give the impression that two guys start a company in a basement and boom, two years later they change the world. That's just not how it works – it takes years, so working hard every day is crucial."

Be clear on your purpose

For the past two years, Lykke has been the CEO of Too Good To Go — an organization that works with restaurants and food retailers to tackle waste by selling food at a discounted price. The app has 11 million users and works with 22,000 stores across 11 countries.

Her involvement with the company began around 9 months after the service was launched, when a friend who knew its founders showed her the app.

"I thought it was such a cool concept," she told CNBC. "I got invited to invest and then was asked to help the founders run the business."

She said her core driving force when it came to work was being part of a company that had a strong purpose and could make a real impact.

"I work a lot and put everything into it, so I want to do something that really matters," she explained. "My first company was designed to make fitness fun, and now I have an even stronger purpose in tackling food waste. I just hadn't realized the scale of this problem, but it had always been natural to me not to throw away food."

Entrepreneurs looking to grow a company needed to follow her lead and work on something that they felt was meaningful, Lykke added.

"Make sure you're really, really passionate about what you do — that's fundamental," she said. "There are going to be days and nights where, if you don't have that passion, it's going to be too difficult."

We've saved almost 20 million meals from going to waste, Too Good To Go CEO says
We've saved almost 20 million meals from going to waste, Too Good To Go CEO says

As well as being passionate about their business, start-up founders needed to build a team who believed in the purpose of the company.

"Being clear about the company's vision is important, (but) the people you find for your team need to believe what you believe — it's important to establish that team really early on," Lykke told CNBC.

She noted that having a strong ethical purpose was also a big competitive advantage, helping to attract both talented employees and investors.

Seek advice — and share it too

As well as looking inward to work on growing a company, Lykke said it was important for founders to prioritize taking a break from the bubble of their own business.

"It's important to keep seeking inspiration from the outside world," she told CNBC. "That can be a challenge because you're so into your business, but just make sure you're in touch with the outside world and get advice from friends, family and other entrepreneurs — you have to get out of the office."

Lykke herself has built a network of people who she thinks are doing great things, and regularly meets with them informally over a cup of coffee.

"It was surprising to me to find that entrepreneurs are actually extremely helpful to each other," she said. "Some people might think there's a lot of competition, but it's really not like that at all — I always try to help others out too."