The Travelling Salesman is back – Part 2January 24th, 2011 by Tommaso De Benetti
Recently, the ever-intrepid Kristoffer Lawson talked about the first part of his journey in search of the most promising Nordic tech startups. We featured his adventures on the Swedish and Norwegian scene, along with how it feels to drive around Umeå in a windowless jeep in the middle of December.
Now, with more startups, more anecdotes and even some Danish blondes, we present the final, thrilling installment…
Iceland and Denmark: Optimistic and familiar
Iceland, with its famous scenery and videogames industry was an eagerly anticipated destination for Kristoffer. Discussing this little volcanic island Kris says: “I was surprised by how positive everybody was despite the financial situation. Nobody seemed bothered by that…They were all setting up new startups, also the videogame industry was heavily recruiting.” Great vibe aside, Kris admits that some of the island’s rural residents had their doubts about a tech revolution being delivered by city boys who could barely handle a Land Rover.
The final leg of the journey was through Denmark. Here Kristoffer found an interesting and active scene, surprisingly similar to Finland’s. Stopping off at the Copenhagen School of Entrepreneurship our Travelling Salesman had the chance to attend a pitching competition: “It seemed like the whole building was crowded with startups. However, unlike in Finland where people speak in English, everything was in Danish: presentation, pitches, even simple chitchat. VCs were 100% Danish – everybody was tall, blonde and in a good shape – apart from us there were no foreigners in sight. Even so, I didn’t really understand why it wasn’t in English, seeing as eventually the pitches would have to be. Otherwise, one negative thing was a certain lack of ambition: I didn’t see many ideas about to change the world and most stuff felt derivative. It might be a cultural thing, but it seemed like if you claim you are trying to change the world they would look at you like you are a bit crazy. So while there is probably still a bit of work to do, there’s definitely no lack of good models.”
Leaders of the Pack
When Kristoffer stopped talking about the talent on display in Denmark, we asked him to tell us about some of the best practices he witnessed on his epic journey.
“One incubator holds a compulsory breakfast” he says, almost licking his lips with the recollection. “You have to be there at 9am: the idea is to create a situation where people have to speak to each other and find out what everyone’s up to. In another company, every Friday someone pitches an idea – it doesn’t have to be a business idea…They do it because it gets everybody used to pitching and you always learn new things.”
“Two more ideas were a weekly 10 point to-do list where you’re forced to complete at least one thing before lunch and one thing after lunch, and the vu-ja-de, which consists of thinking how to do differently something that has been done already a thousand times before.”
The long and winding road
“Organizing the trip was the difficult part,” Kris admits. “Our idea was that we’d have pre-arranged meet ups. We started the organization process in the summer but some companies responded that they just didn’t have time. Jani Penttinen, entrepreneur and founder of the multilingual social network XihaLife, had some wise words: “Don’t worry, the startup scene is not the same everywhere. Don’t expect every place to be like Helsinki, where it is very easy to do stuff like this.”
Faced with this challenge, Kristoffer decided to take the trip to a whole new level. “In a lot of places I just went knocking on doors – like a real travelling salesman. Some people couldn’t even understand what we were doing. We only wanted to find out about startups – no catch – but perhaps it wasn’t always very clear. Maybe we’ll try and do a few things differently next time around.”
“There were great times though: in Umeå we met some students almost randomly. They knew one guy called Emmanuel, I rang him and explained what we were doing – he loved it immediately! He directed us to the after party of a digital media conference. We found a room full of nice hardware, game designers, artists – all kinds of people. We packed seven of them (plus Emmanuel) into the Land Rover and went for a beer. It was a fantastic evening, Emmanuel told us how he designs startups. It was great because we’d never contacted him before and he’d never heard of us, but he still came out there and helped us – he even got us a discount at the hotel. It felt really, really good. Next morning wasn’t so great though.”
Awestruck by his tireless dedication to the entrepreneur’s cause, we ask Kris: aside from finding out how long does it take to remove stickers from a car (answer: 5 hours), what was the most important lesson you learnt along the way? He hesitates for a moment, before replying: “Don’t give up.”