A Brilliant Mind: Skype Founder Niklas Zennström leading an Entrepreneurial Movement in Europe

This article was originally published on Huffington Post in January 2016

There couldn’t be a more exciting time to invest in Europe — the tech scene is booming, digital global value chains are interlocking across the continent and a strong movement of collaboration among entrepreneurs is underpinning this dynamism.

“It’s about founders helping founders,” according to Niklas Zennström.

A role model for entrepreneurs across the globe and recently selected “Person of the Year” by Tech.eu Zennstrom is the Swede behind several high-profile ventures such as Skype and Kazaa, and is currently CEO and Founder of international investment firm, Atomico. The fund has backed over 50 companies in four continents, and with investments including Skype, Supercell, Klarna, Zocdoc, and The Climate Corporation, Zennström seeks out and champions the very best in innovation across the globe, helping them scale and grow international successfully.

Zennström and Atomico are redefining what it means to run a global fund by focusing on partnership, giving back and creating a collaborative community of creativity instead of one solely based in bottom-lines.

“Success breeds success,” Zennström often says and his commitment to sharing his successes with the next generation of entrepreneurs across Europe, and especially in his native Sweden, is an inspiring game-changer.

In this vein, I’m proud to say Niklas has been a leading supporter of Symposium Stockholm — an effort to capture the future and the forward-thinking energy of Sweden in a week-long collaborative gathering of international luminaries, global decision-makers, and young emerging talents drawn from the worlds of music, technology, fashion, politics, and other creative sectors since its inception.

Brilliant Minds is a carefully curated thought leadership summit at the heart of a week-long festival of ideas in the Swedish capital. As a founding member of our advisory board, the interview below with Niklas is the first in a series focused on the world’s Brilliant Minds that leads up to the actual event June 9, 10 in Stockholm.

The element that will separate Brilliant Minds from the bevy of other tech and digital conferences is a values-based approach steeped in collaboration, sharing and sustainability. We will gather together entrepreneurs across sectors that have one thing in common: purposeful leadership, an unabashedly open mind and a higher meaning outside of their own business advancement to everything they do.

The below interview with Niklas Zennström is the first in a series called, “A Brilliant Mind”.

What were your thoughts of Symposium Stockholm 2015 and the Brilliant Minds thought leadership forum? Any specific highlights?

I felt very proud to be part of such a vibrant tech scene.

It was great to see ambitious entrepreneurs just starting out, alongside established icons of innovation like Daniel Ek. Success breeds success.

Talk to young entrepreneurs in Sweden and they want to build the next Skype, Spotify, or Klarna. As well as inspiration, these entrepreneurs often provide mentoring to the next generation, as well as attracting talent and capital from outside. This virtuous circle was one of the hallmarks of Silicon Valley, now it is happening across Europe, and beyond. I was excited to see that in action — at scale — at Symposium.

What, in your opinion, is the key to a successful event?

Definitely the people it attracts. What’s really interesting about the most successful businesses in Sweden is that they come from many different sectors, like gaming, music, financial services and fashion — which makes for a far more interesting crowd and everyone learns from everyone else.

Any theory about why Stockholm has become such a successful hub for tech startups?

The cycle of success I’ve mentioned is certainly an important factor, but it’s also interesting that companies from Sweden tend to think globally from the outset. With a smaller domestic market, founders must think about internationalizing much sooner than those in America or China, for example. Five billion-dollar tech companies have been founded in Sweden in the last 12 years — three of them went international in their first year.

The challenge now is to grow companies of the scale of H&M or IKEA, and to ensure that European investors benefit also. As ecosystems across the world and beyond establish themselves as technology hubs, we face fierce competition for the best people and capital. But Stockholm’s certainly on the right track!

Which, of the pretty young Swedish tech companies, impresses you right now?

I’m really excited about the levels of entrepreneurship in Sweden in general, and I met so many interesting founders at Symposium — it’s incredible that Stockholm now ranks alongside Silicon Valley in billion-dollar companies per capita!

It’s not a ‘startup’ anymore, but I’m really impressed by Truecaller at the moment. They have 200m users and are transforming the way we think about our phonebooks. They’re seeing huge growth in Asia, most recently in India, and are an excellent example of a company that’s been thinking global from the outset.

When you (Atomico) look at tech companies to invest in: which are the most important qualities? What should an entrepreneur do to impress you?

Great companies can come from anywhere. Today it matters much less where you come from than where you scale into. We look for impressive founders who believe from the start that their company can be a global winner, and who want to disrupt their sector in an original way.

We look for companies with a great product, underpinned by excellent technology; with the potential to become an international category winner, which are truly loved by their users and customers. Passion and confident entrepreneurs are key — we can help with scaling and growth, but we can’t fix a poor idea!

Which sectors in particular interest you right now?

Traditional industries like transport have been transformed by tech entrepreneurs in recent years, but there are many sectors that still represent huge opportunities. I’m excited that trillion-dollar sectors such as healthcare, education and real estate have yet to be seriously disrupted by innovative technology. Some will be harder to crack due to regulations and regional obstacles, but we are seeing newer tech hubs like Stockholm maturing and taking on these bigger problems through innovation. Companies like Transferwise, Knewton and ZocDoc are taking on financial services, education and healthcare.

Is there a company that you chose not to invest in that you regret today?

There will always be successful companies that I feel I should have invested in, but I don’t regret any of my decisions. I honestly don’t have the time to sit back and dwell on companies I haven’t invested in because I’m so focused on the hundreds of great startups emerging today. I really believe that now is the best time to be a European tech investor — so I’m very much focused on the present!

Follow Natalia Brzezinski on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Natalbrz

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