The 4 Biggest Lessons I Learned Building a Startup in Scandinavia
Sweden has become a vibrant ecosystem of startups and scaleups. With Stockholm playing host to power brands such as Klarna, iZettle and King, it’s hardly surprising that after Silicon Valley, the city boasts more tech unicorns per capita than anywhere else in the world.
These successes have created a new narrative for what’s possible. Entrepreneurial hubs and accelerator programs have blossomed over the past few years, further enabling an environment that fosters new ideas and encourages personal risk-taking.
By solving a very specific problem I had in my work as a data protection officer at iZettle, the transition into starting my own business, in 2015, was simple and through participation in an accelerator program, we truly found our footing.
Having experienced the ups and downs myself, here are my four biggest lessons on building a startup in Scandinavia.
1. Get serious about the team.
In my experience, building an initial team that comprises great recruits and well-connected people you trust is the only way. But with such a large concentration of startups and innovative businesses, many find themselves competing for the same people. Stockholm is a city where talent is hard to find.
When my co-founders and I launched the company, we were conscious to bring on a team with diverse skill sets. We wanted people who could take the company to the next level, and people who could challenge everything we’ve done in the past. Each of the early members were entrepreneurially minded specialists in their own field.
As we’ve grown into a bigger business, this mindset hasn’t really changed. Bringing on people with diverse talents, backgrounds, nationalities and experiences has only served to better enrich our product, as well as our business.
2. Be driven by a vision.
In a society where we have the luxury of having our basic needs met, there is time to consider the meaning and purpose of a company’s existence.
The very nature of our company means that we believe in the free flow of information, as well as facilitating respect for human rights. Our vision is clearly stated and grounded in the general idea of the existence of our market.
This is what makes us go to work every day.
When we first identified and agreed on our core values, these became an integral part of the business. We decided what was important, what culture we strived for, and what behaviors would contribute to the success.
A vision larger than ourselves -- coupled with a clear understanding of the type of culture we wanted to create -- has brought us together on our mission.
3. Make sure to trust and communicate.
Swedish businesses are known to be flat in hierarchy. This invites decision-making to be spread out in the organization, and we make it a point to trust people to contribute great ideas and run with them.
Having colleagues around the world requires lots of communication and interpersonal understanding, as such it is incredibly important that everyone is aligned around the company’s targets and goals, and provide insight into what other departments are up to.
This stimulates cross departmental curiosity and cooperation, customer centricity, a shared feeling of urgency, and ownership.
I entrust people with both freedom and responsibility. I’ll focus on the what and why, but expect my colleagues to decide the how.
4. Adapt a global mindset from the start.
Our business exists in a new, and growing, market. For that reason, we are shaping the industry, as much as it is shaping us. But no industry today is immune to the rapid changes we see in the world.
Scandinavian countries are good places to test out ideas and products as we are often early adopters, priding ourselves on our ability to keep our ears to the ground.
But we’re small countries, with small populations. If we want to build big companies, we need to adapt the mindset of being global from the start. This challenges us to think bigger, and make choices based on where we want to go.
Paradoxically then, identifying as a startup is not always great in the long run. I’ve seen founders stay too long in the hubs or be too focused on positioning themselves as a "startup," at the risk of losing sight of what matters -- growing and building a business.
In the end, a startup is a launchpad to a bigger vision. At some point, it might be beneficial to shake the startup label.