Inside Startup Extreme festival in Norway, where founders and VCs share bunk beds, jump off airplanes and party until ...
- Startups and investors gather on Norway's west coast for Startup Extreme. Couchsurfing's co-founder Casey Fenton (to the left) was invited as a secret guest this year.
- Norway is lagging behind its highly successful Nordic neighbors when it comes to tech, but for how long?
- We went on a 3-day extreme sports camp together with the countryâs startup elite and international investors to find out.
- Our findings are both frightening and promising.
âBERGEN?â A rather confusing sign welcomes us to Norwayâs second-biggest city. The odd question mark has the effect of grabbing the attention of passers-by. Investor Henrik Grim from Stockholm picks up his phone and snaps a shot of it before tweeting about his arrival.
âBergen? Bergen! In town for @StartupExtreme, ping me if you want to meet up.â
Heâs the first person I shake hands with out of probably a hundred during the coming days. Thatâs still a minority of the approximately 300 guests who are here for Startup Extreme. Community organizations, startups, investors, speakers and journalists from around the world gather in Bergen before heading to a town called Voss in the countryside.
One of the selling points are extreme sports activities that everybody does together for the purpose of team building â" more about that later.
My first introduction at the conference, Henrik Grim, used to work at Spotify and King before joining Northzone. Itâs a VC firm with an impressive track record of investing early in Nordic startup su ccesses such as the aforementioned companies.
âWeâre looking for the next big thing,â he says as we get into a car.
His home town Stockholm, Sweden, has evolved into a well-renowned unicorn factory over the last decade. The Swedish capital until recently had the highest share of billion-dollar tech companies after Silicon Valley. Itâs the birthplace of global brands like Spotify, Skype, Klarna and Izettle to name a few.
One could say that Norwegian tech has been living in the shadow of its bigger neighbor country. Norway has roughly half the population, but is still waiting for the first tech company to reach unicorn valuation, 1 billion dollars.
Even though this oil nation is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Norwegian startups receive less venture capital than Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The investments even dropped slightly from already low levels during last year.
- Nordic Web
Why is that? And what is needed to fuel the Norwegian ecosystem? Those are burning questions for a country that has recently suffered from being dangerously dependent on oil. Crude oil and gas account for as much as half of the countryâs export.
âNorway lacks know-how â" like a desertâ
During the next three days I get a crash course on the Norwegian startup ecosystem. This yearâs conference theme is scaling a startup, which seems like a suitable choice for the local scene.
The topic is touched upon from different perspectives, such as recruiting the right people, raising capital and getting international media attention.
One of the speakers is Lars Johan BjÃ¸rkevall, who knows more than most others about Norwegian tech. He has founded several businesses within media and tech and works as a mentor at the K atapult Accelerator program in Oslo.
- Lars Johan BjÃ¸rkevall, co-founder of ScaleupXQ.
BI Nordic talked with him after his speech about the greatest challenges for Norwegian startups that want to scale. He sees a big gaping hole in the talent pool as the biggest problem. Most professionals work in traditional industries, and few have knowledge about scaling a startup.
âThe Norwegian ecosystem lacks commercial know-how. I thought it was just in tech, but found out that itâs like a desert. We have many that are skilled in lower management positions â" they are good at growth hacking, creating a buzz around the product and getting the first customers onboard,â he says and continues:
âBut when youâre ready to take the next step, forming an organizatio n and make it grow fast, there is almost nobody in Norway who has experienced such a journey in new business models.â
Sweden, in comparison, has much more expertise in that field after plenty of global successes, he continues. Several billion-dollar exits have also poured fresh money into the ecosystem in Stockholm, paving way for the next generation of companies.
Read More: First Spotify, now iZettle â" 2018 is already the greatest year on record for Swedish tech exits
Investors are impressed
Itâs a challenge for some to get out of bed the morning after. That is after a long day packed with speeches, workshops and âspeed dating.â Followed by a bus ride to Voss for a barbecue dinner, mingling and a dance floor. Rumors are swirling that the after party closed at 6 AM.
- Going on a 'hyttetur' is as Norwegian as it gets.
- BI Nordic
We all stay in cabins by a steep hill overlooking a crystal clear lake. My room mates know each other from the NTNU School of Entrepreneurship in Trondheim and they have all ditched traditional business careers to found their own companies.
Most startups at Startup Extreme are in the early stages. Some are pitching to get their first seed investment. But what they lack in experience, many make up for in drive.
Investors I talk to are impressed by what they see. For example Wiral, a Kickstarter success with a cable solution designed to shoot spectacular videos, is praised by a Nordic business angel. Another VC from London says that the quality of the startups here makes him convinced that Norwegian tech is on the threshold of its big breakthrough.
Domestic investors, however, are harder to convince. They stick with property and stocks in traditional in dustries like oil and fish rather than investing in tech companies.
âNorwegians are extremely risk averse. There are cultural reasons but it also has to do with tradition and trust,â says Camilla Andersson, co-founder of Sparkup Norge, an equity crowdfunding platform.
âEverybody buys an apartment at a young age and as you get more money, you invest it in property. Weâve never had a culture of encouraging people to take risks.â
She is noticing a change in mentality, though, after the oil price crashed in 2014. Many Norwegians lost their jobs and people finally realized a pressing need for new businesses. All of a sudden it became popular being an entrepreneur.
Extreme sports get conversations going
The heavy clouds that have been hanging over the mountains are moving away just in time for the anticipated highlight â" extreme sports! Some choose adrenaline-pumping activities like river rafting, tandem paragliding and skydiving during a b reak from seminars.
Others are hiking or going sea kayaking to meet potential business partners in a relaxed manner.
The unusual concept is widely appreciated. A big majority who lack sleep get a much-needed energy boost and also share an experience to talk about afterwards.
Doing something completely different turns out to be a great ice breaker.
- Business and pleasure combined on a sea kayaking excursion.
- BI Nordic
Unlike many other conferences, people actually seem to enjoy networking here. Youâll find yourself mingling for hours and hours. Itâs also evident when counting the number of business cards in your wallet after the conference.
Read Also: Slush launches the worldâs first skydive pitching competition
Norwayâs bi llion-dollar question
Even in the startup sphere, not everybody can point at a Norwegian tech success story. When I ask one of the keynote speakers at the conference about it the answer is not very confident: âWhich tech companies are Norwegian?â
Edtech startup Kahoot is the most household name, but other than that?
A common explanation is that the biggest names are B2B and not consumer brands. The countryâs heritage of oil and shipping is also shaping its tech scene. Take Xeneta, a crowdsourced price-comparison service for ocean freight, for example.
Maria Amelie, an author specializing in tech, explains that Norwegians startups have not been that good at storytelling.
Everybody seems to agree on one thing at least â" the first Norwegian tech giant could have a huge impact on the rest of the startup scene.
âWe need one or two companies to reach unicorn valuation to get some serious attention here. Not all companies should strive t owards that goal, but it would be damn good for publicity,â says Lars Johan BjÃ¸rkevall, the startup founder and mentor.
Are you hopeful or pessimistic about the future?
âI am hopeful, even though it is easy to be pessimistic. I think that when you have a problem like we have, people will focus on solving it. It helps when the community and events like this talk about scaling up. In two or three years, I think we will have a vibrant ecosystem for scaling startups.â
âThere are many international investors that are realizing that now is the time for Norway.â
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