Role models

How to run a business as a couple? Anna Rosling shares her secrets. 

Anna Rosling Rönnlund knows all about working on different projects with family. Together with her husband, Ola Rosling, she launched Trendalyzer, a software visualizing complicated statistics that was acquired by Google in 2007. With her father-in-law, Hans Rosling, she co-founded Gapminder Foundation which provides information and statistics about global development in an attractive and easy-to-understand way. Recognized Swedish designer and author of the book Factfulness, Anna talks about sharing a business with loved ones. 

What is the story behind the Trendalyzer?

It was started by Hans Rosling, my father-in-law and a famous academic. One day he prepared a paper chart with child survival on one axis and the GDP per capita on the other. He decided to make it interactive by adding a time series – for just these two indicators. There were no plans whatsoever to build something generic at that time. First, my husband and I thought about making a cartoon, drawing every single year by hand to make it easier to see the time trend. As we started presenting it in different places, it quickly became very popular. This is why we decided to add more indicators and see what would happen. We put in the World Bank’s data and later started adding UN system data. At that time, the focus was not to build generic software but to make it easier to understand the data trends proportions by making it possible to switch between different indicators in a more visual interface than we had seen. I think we built the software accidentally.

You and your husband were students at the time. How did you build such complicated software in a limited time? 

Actually, we wanted to find a smart way to manage our time at university. In Sweden, as a student, you get a loan and you can also get a grant. In order to receive that, you have to perform on your courses. My husband, Ola, studied economic history at that time, but he dreamt about applying to a school of art. He thought that by animating the paper chart that his father created, he would learn more about multimedia development and maybe he wouldn’t have to write the thesis – which he would have done otherwise to get the credit for the student loan. He also thought that this would be his chance to get to the school of art. So it wasn’t our career move, it was a way of actually getting rid of writing the thesis. And then we started doing this together, in our spare time, on weekends, evenings, and gradually, when we came to a certain point, we got some smaller grant funding, then we got a little bit bigger grant funding, and we could hire some people to help us to program it. So it became software rather than a cartoon.

Ola and Anna Rosling (Photo: Jann Lipka)

Your TED 2017 speech was very eye-opening to me. At the very beginning of the speech you mentioned how you talked to the Swedish students and asked them how rich they thought they were, and they were saying they were somewhere in the middle. And then you presented data from your software so they could compare themselves to the rest of the world in terms of their financial well-being and it turned out they were not in the middle, they were somewhere at the top. Do you think it’s easier to communicate with people using facts and data visualization rather than reading about it?

Yes, I do. First of all, many people can’t read scientific reports and tables. Even for the ones who can – it requires so much time and so much effort and it is pretty hard to see time trends by just reading about them in tables. So, for instance, if you wanted to know about the borders of Poland, it is easier for you to look at the map than having me describe the borders by saying: “then it turns a little bit left, and then there is a lake, and then you go down a bit, and then it goes a bit right”. With complex data patterns, it is usually much easier to spot them by looking at them. It is like when you see many birds flying in a group, it is very easy to see the general pattern and it is very easy to spot the bird flying in another direction or with a different speed. We are very good at spotting that with our eyes. And that is what you can achieve with visualization. But doing visualization is not enough; it has to be a visualization which is easy to understand and that adds another layer.

You built such a great data tool for everyone to use. Why would you sell this software to Google, which you did in 2007?

It was at the point when we discovered that it would be amazing to have all the world’s public data (like the data from the World Bank and the UN system) be in our tool and available for all the people to use for free. But the data are not free; we would have to pay for it. This is why we started contacting different big organizations and asking them to invest in us. Most of them said that they loved our tool, but we were too small for them to trust us. We started calculating what it would cost to have all the world’s public data in the same user interface and host that. We realized we could never fund that, especially if we didn’t want to have commercials in our software.

One day I thought, how about exposing it to Google? They have the scale; they have the tools available for free, and that’s what people are using, anyway. If they are looking for something, they go to Google. We approached the company and basically, we wanted them to steal the idea from us. We had no intentions whatsoever to get paid or to get a job or anything. We just wanted them to take it and to integrate it into their infrastructure. We managed to show it to them. They got interested and we thought it was done. And then they said: “We want you to start working here!”. We were amazed. We took our team of five and we moved to California to Google headquarters and we started implementing the technology into their infrastructure.

Collaborating with Google generated many opportunities as well as many challenges for us. Organizations that used to say „you are too small”, now started saying „we don’t want to collaborate with you because now you are Google”, a commercial company. So it wasn’t as easy as we were hoping. We spent a few years at Google. We decided to go back to Sweden and focus on the Gapminder Foundation, as we wanted to combine data visualization with storytelling and we knew we couldn’t continue to do it at Google.

What is it like to work on these projects with your husband?

It’s interesting because we never planned to work together, but we have always liked doing things together. We met when we were 16 and since then we have always done some minor jobs in collaboration. As students we’ve spent evenings and weekends together, summer vacations and stuff, we have always been at the same place. When we started to do the bubble chart with Ola’s father, we didn’t think about this as work. It was more like a project that we both were interested in. We couldn’t really help ourselves.

Working together can be very draining. It is pretty hard to have spare time. You always talk about business stuff. On the other hand, however, it gives flexibility and is convenient: if we do the dishes in the evening, we can start chatting about something work-related. I think the best part of it is that we can be much more open and truer to ourselves in the collaboration.

If you work with someone you don’t know, you often try not to hurt their feelings or you want to be polite and listen to what they want to say. Or you don’t force your ideas through. You add a lot of politeness. But in our collaboration, we don’t have it.

And I think it’s sometimes better to just say: „I think it is stupid, I don’t want to do this!” When the other person asks „Why?” I can say: „I don’t know yet but give me some time and I will try to figure out”. I think it’s good to not be so diplomatic all the time, and that’s what being in a personal relationship with the business partner gives you. You don’t risk your job by arguing with this person. On the other hand, however, we have three kids, so it is a risk that you pollute spare time with the kids by talking about the work and stuff.

Do you think your children will be working with you on the projects one day?

Yes, most likely they will, actually. We already have had our youngest daughter and one of our sons to see some of our lectures. They came up on stage a few times.

What would you recommend to people like yourself, who decided to work on projects with loved ones?

I think it is important to be honest all the time. Listen to your partner, because very often the other one is having a better idea than you have. You have to learn how to combine listening and fighting for your idea. Also, it is important to remind yourself that that person and yourself, you are going to change over time. And that change is ok. I think it is very easy to hold the other person back by saying “When we started you didn’t do this”, and you sort of force the other one to stay and to be the exact same person as before. I don’t like this approach. You have to be open and be aware that the other person might get other dreams or other interests and you have to adapt to it.

Interview by Joanna Socha

Edited by Phyllis Budka

Production support by Joanna Kuc

Featured photo by Johan Bodin

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