Valerie is founder and CEO of VAHA, a VC backed company building an interactive home gym platform. Previously, she founded training solution Pixformance Sports and European gym chain Mrs. Sporty, which as CEO she led to 550 clubs in 10 countries and €80M in annual revenue. She is mom to three kids and divides her time between Berlin and ReykjavΓ­k, where she is writing a Computer Science PhD.


On getting started.
I always wanted to be a professor. I didn’t plan to start a business. It was my ex-husband’s idea to build a chain of gyms for women. At the time, I was happy with my great job at the University: building a business was too insecure. When he needed my support, I told him I’d help for a week. Then for a month. Then for a year. I got totally sucked in. I discovered the beauty of impacting people by offering them a great product. Young and with a company without much funding, at first I tried doing everything myself. The danger is missing the step where you switch to professionalization. The CEO is also a coach for the team: she doesn’t have to be the best player in all roles in the field. You’d limit the results of your company by limiting them to your own abilities.

On learning.
If I'm trying to lead and coach my people, then I also need to show them that I’m also learning every day. I take coaching, I read, I keep close to the new research, I am writing my PhD in Computer Science at Reykjavik University. Continuing to learn is fun, but also my duty to the company as CEO.

On the hardest company stage.
In a franchise business, you have to push hard on growth early to get the experience you need for survival. Expanding the number of franchisees means getting better at serving them. The downside: high turnover among the first franchisees you have onboarded: they might not be able to succeed because of your decisions. It’s a hard learning process where you build something while losing something else at the same time.

On the role of sport.
It’s not about lifestyle or feeling good. For me, it’s a physical need. I try to do at least half an hour of movement every day. If I need to balance my mind, I seek some kind of flow sports. Like kiting, surfing, or horse riding. It’s not physically exhausting, and it brings me to a state where I am one with the wind, the waves, the animal. I don’t get the opportunity to think: what’s next? My whole focus is the moment. It relaxes my thoughts. There, I’m no longer able to think about my job, my family, or any source of worry and pressure. That’s a state of flow. We lose energy every day by investing it in all aspects of life: I use these moments as sources to gain it.

On states of flow.
It all started with a search for retention: what events made Mrs. Sporty users stay the longest? In the data, we saw the workout challenge needed not to be too high: people had to feel the goal was reachable. Nor too low, not to get boring. We saw that it was a perfect level of challenge that made a user happy with their workout. We built a difficulty scale for Mrs. Sporty workouts: retention improved. Later, I found this mechanism is known in research as a flow concept. Steven Kotler writes extensively about it. After a lot of personal studies, I started seeking states of flow in my life and in everything I do.

On her routine.
I usually wake up at 5 AM. I try to start with a sport session: running or strength training. I use my own product VAHA every second day. I do two hours of emails until the kids wake up. I make them breakfast and take them to school. Then I have between 6 and 8 hours of meetings. When they return, we try to do some activity: it’s great for all of us to relax together. When my kids go to bed, that’s where I really start to think about the strategic topics and make lists of priorities. After 17 years, I have a good feeling when my mind is truly functioning. When it’s the case, I take the opportunity to take on the bigger picture. If not, I just do more emails or work on my ToDos.

On confidence and fear.
From the first day of my career, I have been working on the skill of believing in myself. You are always facing challenges that push you a little on the edge, you are afraid of not making it. And the better you do, the bigger the challenges become. You love the challenge, but you are still afraid you won’t make it. In the beginning, you try to get things away from you. You say: I never want to be in this situation again. I never want to feel fear again. The biggest learning from my coach was that there will always be fear. Even the most successful people feel it the same. You need to accept it will always be with you. Accepting this feeling means understanding it's a resource to learn from. Ask yourself why you feel this way and what can you do to make it better. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On managing anxiety.
It’s important to make an effort to share your feelings with others. We are all in a similar situation: it’s best to learn not to be alone. My learning: seek people that are as open as you in sharing. I did lots of coaching until there was nothing to coach anymore (laughs). There's never a single solution to something. You have to look at it from different angles and perspectives and ask yourself whether things are as bad as you see them. Ultimately, it’s the simple things. Sometimes, don't give your brain so much space. Decide you are overthinking! Go out, move, and get your energy back.

On books everyone should read.
There's one book called β€œThe Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect”. It describes in a very clear and logical way our understanding of human thought and artificial intelligence. I recommend it to anyone working in technology: it shows where human intention will be needed.

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