At the age of 17, Patrick Solrunarson dropped out of school to start and run his own business. Together with a classmate from upper secondary school, they established a successful cleaning company. Although they did not have any experience within the business, they had some important qualities: Passion, enthusiasm, and ambition. Plus an old rusty mop. The mop became the starting point of their today’s continuously growing cleaning empire.
– Hey, how are you?
Patrick Solrunarson (25), the successful young entrepreneur behind the cleaning company Support Service Partner, greets me and smiles. He stands in the door, holding a cup of coffee. Well, it is still quite early in the afternoon when I arrive at his home south in Norway one Sunday morning in December. He welcomes me into his tremendous new villa, and I step gladly inside. At once I get blended by glamorous interior decorations, flowers, pieces of art, and newly painted walls in a real Scandinavian style. ’Okay, so this guy has a good sense of style’, is my first thought. Yet, I just cannot overlook another factor: the perfectionistic tidiness. You know, we, «mortal people», tend to be guilty in this matter (at least I am), but not Patrick! There is not a single speck of dust or any unnecessary object lying in the wrong place. Everything is carefully planned. I have to laugh a bit at myself thinking otherwise. Of course, what else could I expect from a man who established his own cleaning company? Everything has to be on point.
– I think I have managed to show off my creative side in this home. It has become a great work of art, Patrick explains.
Indeed. I am impressed. Very impressed. Especially, knowing his and his business partner’s Ghazi Khder’s personal stories. How they started and how far they have come, being only 25 years old today.
I have known Patrick and Ghazi for several years now. Coming from the same small city with approximately 41 thousand citizens, people tend to know each other. Shortly: Patrick, an Icelander by blood, moved to Norway at an age of 13. Four years later, he did not only learn Norwegian perfectly, but he also decided to start his own business with his best friend Ghazi only 17 years old.
In this talk, I want to get to know him better as a person and as a businessman. How did he have guts enough to start as an entrepreneur at such a young age? What is his drive? In this interview, he will reveal how to start and run a successful business at a young age.
Eva: Eight years ago, just as a 17-year-old boy, you dropped out of school and started a cleaning business with a friend. It has led to millions in sales and millions in profits, almost instantly! Could you ever imagine that it would go so well?
Patrick: Although we did not know how or how much time it would take, we have always thought that we will be big and international. Today, we feel very blessed and we are extremely lucky, but it has not come as a surprise really, because that has been the goal from the start.
What have you done to achieve that goal, to create such a successful business at a young age?
We have both worked hard from day one, having had good values and good attitudes. The goals have been the same all the way and we have been consistent. We have also worked every single day even though we have had bad days, doing everything within our power. You can do a good thing once, but it will not help much in a long run. But if you do that thing a hundred then you will start to see results. The same goes for training, sports, business, and everything you do continuously.
Have you been a typical entrepreneur, I mean a «24/7-at-work-guy»?
Yes, I have been! There is a lot of risk in the picture when starting your own business, so it requires a lot from you. You have to be a little yeasty and you have to have ideas and guts to implement the ideas in real life. The typical stereotype of an entrepreneur is Petter Stordalen for example, a Norwegian billionaire businessman, as well as a hotel and property developer. I would say, an entrepreneur is excited about new ideas and cannot help but implement them. An entrepreneur does not like to think of anything else once he has an idea. He does several things at once and jumps between the tasks. You must also have ambitions and I meet all those criteria. It works very well in the start-up phase because you have to have that entrepreneurial spirit, that entrepreneurial gene, but if you are going to create a great company that is going to be outstanding, then you have to have enough discipline to ignore your entrepreneurial instinct sometimes. You must know finance and politics, among other things, which means that you have to work a little less as an entrepreneur and a little more as a financier perhaps. I would say that I am a typical entrepreneur who has realised that I have to be a typical financier if I want to achieve my goal with Support Service Partner. But yes, I and Ghazi are getting new ideas all the time, but we know we have to ignore them no matter how good they are unless they will help us become the best in the world at what we do.
What is your motivation?
The motivation has changed, but the goal has always been the same. When we were teenagers, we wanted to buy big and expensive cars, big boats, and golden watches. This is what most teenage boys dream about, right? We have different values today. None of us are interested in cars or boats, none of us wear watches, haha … You will never see Ghazi or me with a watch! Our values or motivation today is to create a better world. The money is really just a bonus. We want to help people and we want to give other people a better life. And when we give other people a better life, we get a better society, and we get a better world. We notice that with what we do today, we actually give others a better life and it feels very rewarding. For Christmas 2020, for example, we placed 67 Christmas presents under «The Lonely Tree» which goes to disadvantaged children in our municipality, for those who do not get much at Christmas. We also gifted 625 dinners to Kirkens Bymisjon which also goes to people who cannot afford food. There you can meet a lot of drug addicts, but also refugees who have problems with residence permits and they have children and families. They do not get a job or support from the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration Office (NAV).
How did it all start … because initially, you wanted to become an economist, right?
The fact that I was going to become an economist, did not come from me, but from advisors at school and from my parents. It has never been my idea, but it became my plan as a result. Teenagers often struggle to figure out what they are going to become because they do not know anything about different professions or opportunities. Then it will often be something the parents or an advisor plants in their heads. Many people eventually find out that it is not a profession they want to stay in, and as a result, change directions – and that is fine. Fortunately, before I started my education, I found out that this was not what I was meant to do, even though it probably suited me well. I am in a way an economist already, although I have not gone to any school. Yet, I work a lot with that subject in the company. I remember telling my mother that I was not going to become an economist, but that I was planning to start a cleaning company. She almost had a heart attack! She did not like it at all.
Haha, what is your mom saying now?
Mom is very proud of me today. But parents always think it is so scary with entrepreneurship. They do not know it and they do not know what it means. Of course, it is risky to start, but so is everything else. It is risky to get an education because you pay a lot of money for an education and you do not know if you will get a job. There is no guarantee of that. Even if you get a job, there is no guarantee that the employer will not go bankrupt. There are many things that can go wrong. But when we were 17 years old, we owned nothing. We stayed in the boy’s room, did not own a penny. We simply had nothing to lose on it. The only thing we had to lose was our own time and energy, but we were willing to take that chance.
And you knew nothing about cleaning when you started?
No, we knew nothing about anything, hehe …
So how did you meet your business partner and how did it all start?
Ghazi and I met during upper secondary school. I had just moved to Tønsberg and no one knew me. Ghazi, on the other hand, was quite popular at school, everyone knew who he was, and he knew everyone. Then, for some reason, we became pretty good friends very quickly. A few months after, he suggested starting our own business. We were 17 then. I thought Ghazi was a pretty good guy. He had many jobs, and he worked a lot. He had lots of energy, almost on the verge of ADHD. I was very good at school, very good with data and numbers. I remember he copied my homework all the time. Honestly, we were very strong contradictions, but we saw things in each other that we in a way felt we did not have in ourselves. Then I thought: «Yes, why not start our own business?». We thought for a long time what we could start with. We had no experience with anything, neither of us. But then suddenly Ghazi realised that his father had worked as a cleaner and had taught him to clean. That is how we chose to start a cleaning company, as it was the only thing we had experience with.
Patrick Solrunarson with his business partner Ghazi Khder. Together they built a successful business at a young age:
However, we were not old enough to start a business, but it did not stop us from the beginning. So, we went to every restaurant at the wharf of our city asking if someone could give us an opportunity to clean there for some money. Only one restaurant decided to give us a chance. We were washing every single day before going to school for a period of six months until we turned 18. To start a company, we had to have 30,000 Norwegian kroner which was the start-up capital requirement at that time. Therefore, when we turned 18, we borrowed money from our parents and family in order to invoice the restaurant for our job. The revenue we received, we used to pay our families back. This is how the company Support Service Partner was born.
I understand that people have preconceived notions about teenagers, and it is not their fault. But for us, when we went to the various companies to ask if we could get a cleaning contract with them, it was tough! We had a logo that we had made in Paint and it was difficult for us to be taken seriously. But eventually, we found some tricks, such as tucking our shirts.Patrick Solrunarson
Did you grow organically, meaning without mergers and acquisitions?
Yes, in order to build a successful business, we have grown organically all the way and we still own 50/50 each. Now, we did not need that much money to manage the business. We did not invest in big machines or any big things. In the beginning, it required only a bucket and a mop and some soap – and we found all of that in Ghazi’s garage. He had an old rusty mop that his father had used. Additionally, we never spent money we did not have: Firstly, we earned revenue, then we used the income for investments. And … it took two years before we withdrew our first salary which was only 3,000 kroner a month!
And how many employees do you have today?
We have 250 employees, and we are hiring continuously. At the moment we have three offices, and we cover the whole of Eastern Norway. The first goal is to become national, then grow in the Nordic region.
What was your biggest fear when you started?
My biggest fear was that all our critics would be right. Parents and friends just laughed at us and said we did not know what we were doing. They thought it was too risky and that we did not understand how much work it was going to be or how difficult it was going to be. They thought it would never work. But no way if that would have happened, I thought then! It was also the motivation for us, in the beginning, to prove to everyone that they were wrong.
How long did it take you to realise that this business was potentially viable?
It has been a roller coaster, but the growth has been going on since day one. We have never had a downward curve and we have always had more and more customers and employees.
I can imagine that being a young entrepreneur brings some difficulties. How did you learn to overcome the issues? Feel free to give some examples of what you have done.
Most people do not take 17-year-olds seriously. There is a reason for that as the frontal lobe is not fully developed. Teenagers, in general, are in a difficult transition phase, they are mischievous, and they do a lot of weird things. I understand that people have preconceived notions about teenagers, and it is not their fault. But for us, when we went to the various companies to ask if we could get a cleaning contract with them, it was tough! We had a logo that we had made in Paint and it was difficult for us to be taken seriously. But eventually, we found some tricks, such as tucking our shirts. Then we started to notice a little difference. We also had to stop using slang words. We had to start talking a little more as adults. These are some examples of what we had to do to appear more serious – and it helped a little. It also helped as we got growth within our business, we got more employees and broader media coverage. Slowly but surely, we built credibility. Getting older has also helped.
But … what happened with the shirt right now? You look like a rapper!
Hahaha, yes it is a good question! I usually dress like a rapper at home, but at work, I still wear a tucked-in shirt. Should I go and change now?
No, it is totally fine. Now people can get to know you better. I also want to ask about the cleaning industry. This sphere is often looked down upon. Have you experienced it and has it bothered you?
The industry has been known for social dumping and undeclared work. The list is long. It is true that this is an industry people have generally been skeptical about and there are good reasons for it. We have been aware of that and tried to build a good reputation for the profession and the industry: By providing a good service, by taking care of people, and by having good schemes all the way.
That is true. You have a very special leadership role compared to others. Do you agree?
Yes, definitely. Our door sign title is “Potatoes”. That is what we are, literally. At our head office, we have one of the smallest rooms, and Ghazi and I still share the office. We have always been aware of how we want to lead the business and what kind of leaders we want to be. It was an absolutely crucial factor when we started. We have never had any faith in traditional, authoritarian leadership. And for 18-year-olds, to be authoritarian leaders? It would have never worked. We have always been humble and taken good care of our workers. It has been absolutely crucial for us as young leaders.
I am probably most shocked and excited about the fact that you are actually helping the cleaners by cleaning yourself?!
Yes, it happens still. We go out and visit the cleaners and we clean from time to time. It has a very great symbolic value because it says something about how you are as a leader. People talk a lot about showing a good example, but not many people think about what it actually means in practice. Definitely, it sounds really nice, but what it actually means is to get your hands dirty: Go out and do the job that the others do on the floor sometimes. Yes, maybe it is boring, and you have more important things to do, but there is actually nothing more important than that.
You also give the employees Norwegian language training. Why?
We hire a lot of unemployed people from NAV, people with gaps in their CV, and people who have not been given a chance anywhere else. We recruit based on personality. Because you cannot change people’s attitudes. If you believe in that, then I think you have to reconsider yourself. Skills, on the other hand, can always be improved. I believe that it is more important to have a person with the right values and attitudes – everything else can be learned. So, if you go into the recruitment process with this as a focus, then you will get a very good staff who are loyal and who are very happy to get a chance when no one else has given them one.
We go out and visit the cleaners and we clean from time to time. It has a very great symbolic value because it says something about how you are as a leader. People talk a lot about showing a good example, but not many people think about what it actually means in practice. Definitely, it sounds really nice, but what it actually means is to get your hands dirty.Patrick Solrunarson
I have visited your office several times. You almost look like a family based on my impressions!
Yes, and it absolutely amazing when someone comes up to us and says they feel part of a family. That is our whole goal. People bleed for our business because they feel like they own the business. When we arrive in the evening, a team is sitting there working without anyone asking them to. They want it themselves and they are passionate about the job. They feel ownership. I think it has something to do with the fact that we have such a flat structure. We ourselves want to be empathetic, down-to-earth, and humble as leaders. And when we are, we also get a likewise team. This is the recipe for a successful business. There is no one who works as well as those who feel that they have ownership of the job, feeling they are part of something and that they are important as individuals. An uneducated person with ownership of the job does a much better job than a person with a doctorate who does not have ownership of the job. Those who have ownership will bleed for their work, they will do everything they can for good results.
Let’s talk about your great achievements! It is really impressive that Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg visited you in August 2020. How was it?
Haha, yes, none of us saw it coming! She was tipped off by the Minister of Trade and Industry, who had visited us earlier in 2020. We have received a lot of media coverage for several years due to the way we treat people and the way we operate. People find it interesting and exciting. Indeed, we run our business in a very untraditional way. When I talk about the way we run the company, most people will agree that it is wise, but there are so few who implement it in reality. We have almost become frontrunners in taking care of employees. The Prime Minister thought it was a nice thing and it was very cool.
We ourselves want to be empathetic, down-to-earth, and humble as leaders. And when we are, we also get a likewise team. This is the recipe for a successful business.Patrick Solrunarson
The company Support Service has also been nominated for numerous awards, most recently to Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. What does that mean for you?
It is really great! It is a multinational professional services network that has an annual global award called Entrepreneur of the Year. Every year, a company in each county is nominated, on behalf of the county, for this award. There are many excellent entrepreneurs and companies that have been nominated for this award. Petter Stordalen won for Norway once, for example. We have been selected in the county of Vestfold and Telemark and will compete against the other companies in Norway. The national winner will represent Norway in Monaco in 2021 in the international selection.
What are your tips for other young entrepreneurs who yearn to start but are reluctant?
1. Even though your mother wants what is best for you, she is not always right.
2. Do not get too obsessed with the idea. You do not have to have a revolutionary idea to get started. A good idea often comes up during the process.
3. Do not be afraid to ask for advice and help from others who have done it before. It is amazing how much people are willing to help.
4. Team up with people who are good at things that you are not so good at.
5. Work on gaining enough self-insight to understand what you are not good enough at, practice to become better.
6. Find out what your strengths are and create good goals. Find out what you need to do to reach your goals and do it every day. Decide on some things that you should do every day and do it no matter if you have a bad day. There will be times when you are bored, but you have to put on your shoes and do the things that you have decided to do. Everyone can work well when they are motivated, but only winners do the work on bad days. That reveals the winners. Continuity is key!
Being an entrepreneur involves a great deal of risk. We see this especially now, in a time hit by a world crisis such as the corona. Many people struggle a lot. Your niche, on the other hand, has become more sought and needed. Can you give some recommendations on which areas one should focus on in order to achieve a favorable business model?
Now, we have been very lucky. We have chosen an industry that is present anyway, but in a way, you cannot choose a successful business within an industry based on what will happen if there is a pandemic. A pandemic is just one of the crises that can occur. There are many other things that can happen. It is a bit of a difficult question… But when we chose cleaning, we never thought of an industry that could go well if something were to happen. We also did not think much about money. We did not even know how much money there was in cleaning, but we knew that people needed it. At the same time, we knew that it was not something that would fill a gap in the market, because there were many other companies out there doing the same thing.
Okay. We have had a long talk about business. What is your guilty pleasure when you are not working?
Haha, guilty pleasure? Hmm… I do music, I read books on different subjects, for example within the business. I am also very interested in psychology, so I read a lot about it. Right now, I am reading about rituals within religion. I often get such impulses; becoming obsessed with things I am very interested in. I cannot think of anything else during that period.
Yes, there you have your entrepreneurial personality!
YES, exactly, haha! But that is how I have always been. When I was 9, I suddenly realised that I was going to learn to beatbox, so then I did nothing else. My mother was going crazy, but when I learned it, the obsession stopped. In fact, I have built up a lot of weird talents throughout the years, because of these obsessions that I have had.
What crazy talents?
I can remember a card deck within 5 minutes. I can look at the cards, remember them, and list them in the correct order. There was also a period where I wanted to learn all the capitals of the world and where the countries are located on the map. I have had that obsession twice before, now I think I know maybe half of them because I forget eventually. Once I also got an obsession with polishing shoes. Today, I am a professional at polishing shoes! If they are made of leather, I can in addition paint them in a different colour. There is probably a lot more in stock… Hmm, I got an obsession with sleeping once. Why do we really need to sleep? I googled: “How to sleep less?” as I felt I was missing out on so much fun! Just imagine how many more decks I could remember by not sleeping?! Imagine how much more I could work! Actually, when we sleep we are defenseless, we can neither hunt nor protect ourselves. So evolutionarily, sleep is a very big disadvantage for us. So, I thought that if there is such a big disadvantage, then there must be an advantage that outweighs that disadvantage – and it is. The more I read about it, the more excited I become. Today I sleep eight hours no matter what. I walk around the office, asking my colleagues: “Did you sleep well last night? Did you get your eight hours? Good!”. I often share sleeping tips with people as well, so, yes, I get really weird. Now there is nothing that can stop me from getting eight hours of sleep every day.
Does it mean you go to bed at nine in the evening then?
My curse is that I am an eternal night owl. I cannot get up in the morning, but I get so much energy in the evenings and so many ideas. At the same time, I know how important sleep is …. Ah! So, all in all, it means that I come a little later to work and end my day later. Yet, I have the alarm at 7:30 AM every day. I really want to get up then, but if I look at the app and see I have slept for only 6.5 hours, I will not go to work until I have rested my 8 hours.
Well, this is how it is when you are a Managing Director in your own company!
Yes, hehe! I would have been a lousy employee otherwise …