Following the success of my first Life in Norway interview with Tim Wendelboe, I had no choice but to get straight back out there for another! This week I visited Oslo's co-working space MESH to meet the folks behind Startup Norway, an organisation set up to promote tech startups and entrepreneurship throughout the country. I sat down with one of the co-founders, Frode Jensen, to talk about the organisation and the Norwegian startup scene.
Tell us your story! What is the purpose of Startup Norway and what do you hope to achieve?
Startup Norway is an initiative formed by me and Maja (co-founder), which began by putting on Startup Weekends in Oslo. We saw that it was something people liked, there was a lot of energy and buzz around it. From this we saw a need for a startup community, with people wanting shared office space, people looking for co-founders for projects, a lot of creative people who lacked somewhere to go. We started hosting “open coffees” and a Julebord which attracted around 50 people.
From thereon, we formed Startup Norway to act as an umbrella organisation for all of these events, with a website featuring the events, a database of Norwegian startup companies and news from the community. We hope to run up to 9 startup weekends this year including Oslo, Trondheim, Bergen, Stavanger and Vestfold.
Nordic cities are known for their startup culture, in particular Helsinki, Stockholm and Reykjavík, but not in Oslo or Norway. Why?
I think some of this is a misconception, because Norway doesn't have an “Angry Birds”, it doesn't have a popular consumer facing name. But we have big names such as CFEngine, technology used by big tech names in Silicon Valley, and other big names which are not consumer facing. This is one of the things we want to do with our company database, so the traditional media can see more of what is going on.
However, it is definitely easier in Norway to become an employee! The salaries are good, the benefits are good, so you get a really good life with no risk.
With Norwegian legislation favouring the right of the employee over the self-employed, what motivates someone in Norway to become an entrepreneur?
I think it's the same for entrepreneurs in other places. With tech startups in particular, it's the drive to do something more than you would in a job. It's the aim to accomplish something and the self-fulfillment of doing something on your own instead of doing what you're told.
Any hot Norwegian startups you can tell us about?
Sure, there's Ensafer, a cloud encryption service. A lot of people are using cloud services and you never know where your data is stored. This can help with security there and they are doing some good things. Some of the more mature ones include CFEngine and ForgeRock for Single Sign-On technology. Both these have had high calibre investors come on board and have opened offices in California. You can see loads more on our company database.
Do the Nordic counties look towards Silicon Valley for partnerships, within Scandinavia, or just within their own borders?
I think traditional borders do still exist. Many smaller startups think local even down to city level. The ones that are really motivated do look beyond to Europe and the international market. But there is more education around now, such as startup weekends, which pushes people to think bigger.
What should/can the Norwegian Government do to develop a startup culture?
There is so much! Firstly pumping up less oil so the oil industry doesn't take all the engineers would be a good start! There is a huge problem with wealth tax laws, in terms of paper values. So if your company receives an investment which values it at 600m Kroner, you as the equity owner would be liable to pay tax on this whole amount, even though you might not have any income.
But, Norway does well in the surveys of how easy it is to set up a company, there's not much bureaucracy and the legal system is good. Now they've reduced the amount of capital you need to own a limited company, it's not that bad owning a company here. Many international companies still have their HQ in Norway and if the environment was that bad, they would have moved.
We're sitting in MESH, a co-working space full of small businesses. How is Startup Norway involved here?
We've supported them since their launch in February, introducing them to people and hosting events here. By the end of the year there should be more spaces and opportunities like this, such as Gründernes hus, 657, Startup Lab and the first startup accelerator at Beta Factory.
Tell us about the Startup Weekends, what happens and who comes to them?
A bunch of people, who are really motivated and enthusiastic, they spend their whole weekend somewhere working on an idea with mentors. The people who attend are all really exceptional! When you do something like this, that's when doors open up and you find new opportunities. We get a real mix of people, in age range from 16 to 65! We segment our tickets to make sure we get a mix of technical people, business people marketing people and others. It's key for the teams to have a mix of these skill-sets.
Are the startup weekends held in English or Norwegian?
English! One of the things we see is a high percentage of expats joining our events and wanting to get involved.
What advice do you have for anyone reading this who has a business idea?
Talk to people!
Whether by joining one of our open coffees, discussing your idea with colleagues that you trust, or joining our startup weekends, just talk to people! You can get some great feedback and you never know who people could connect you up with. If you don't feel you can talk to people about it, there's probably something wrong with your idea!
The risk of your idea being “stolen” is extremely low. People already have enough to do in their lives without going around stealing other people's ideas! And even if three teams started work on the same idea, the end products they produce would be vastly different.
My thanks to Frode, Maja, and everyone at Startup Norway and MESH for allowing me to invade their space today! Visit the Startup Norway website to check out upcoming startup events, ranging from an open coffee on 23rd August, to September's startup weekends in Stavanger and Bergen.