Start-Up Iceland: What Americans Can Learn From Viking Entrepreneurs

While Silicon Valley may still be the technology and entrepreneur hub of North America and some say, the world, it's shortsighted for investors, businesses and even consumers not to be looking to global pockets for innovation and new ideas.
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While Silicon Valley may still be the technology and entrepreneur hub of North America and some say, the world, it's shortsighted for investors, businesses and even consumers not to be looking to global pockets for innovation and new ideas.

Every year at South by Southwest (SXSW), the number of companies showing off their innovation outside the U.S. is growing and I've been impressed by start-up ideas coming out of Europe, Israel and more recently Korea and Chile.

Some are merely ramping up their presence in the states, whereas in other cases, governments are creating incentives to attract investment from abroad, such as the salary offers to engineers coming out of Qatar and the tax benefits for setting up shop in Ireland.

One country you may not expect on the list is Iceland, a country with a population of roughly only 320,000 people, two thirds of which reside in the capital city of Reykjavik.

The combination of my life in Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial world and my travel writing brought me to an event in Reykjavik this year called Start Up Iceland, now in its second year. Started by serial entrepreneur, angel investor and Greenqloud CEO Bala Kamallakharan in 2012, the event has not only grown in size in just one year, but attracted top notch angel investors from the states, as well as European and American entrepreneurs and thought leaders.

Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson thought the initiative was important enough to show up to address the more than 300 attendees at HARPA, an elegantly designed concert hall and conference center, the result of Henning Larsen Architects and Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Iceland's U.S. Ambassador Luis E. Arreaga also showed up for the event, another symbol of Iceland's commitment to a thriving start-up business community.

Grimsson suggested that while a financial crisis is a horrible thing to happen to any country, it may be the very incident that led Icelanders into thinking more entrepreneurial about their careers and livelihood simply because external conditions forced them to do so. When jobs disappeared, people had to suddenly get creative about what to do next. Enter the world of start-up energy and entrepreneurial thinking.

Kamallakharan chose the theme: "Building an Antifragile Start-Up/Entrepreneurial Ecosystem" for the event because of Iceland's unique situation in the world. He said: "Despite all the challenges Iceland have faced, the entrepreneurial community is getting stronger every day since and because of the financial crisis that hit in 2008. We are a country that has gained from uncertainty and fragility."

Haukur Guðjónsson, a local entrepreneur who attended the event and has a blog on Iceland entrepreneurship thinks that the "tenacity and stubbornness Icelanders used to survive hundreds of years of the harsh and extreme climatic conditions as well as the economic crisis is the very asset that will enable a thriving start-up ecosystem in Iceland."

While other countries may toss financial or real estate perks out there as a draw, Iceland is tapping into the strength they used to move through the crisis to build, grow and become a major player on the map, both from an internal start-up ecosystem perspective and what it can offer foreign companies as incentives for doing business on Icelandic soil.

Consider some of Iceland's value propositions, including its geographical location. Conveniently located between the U.S. and Europe, Reykjavik is a painless seven hour direct flight from Seattle, two to three hours from mainland Europe and under six from Boston and JFK, roughly the same commitment as flying to the west coast.

Here are some of the assets I think American entrepreneurs could learn from the Iceland culture and attitude:

  • Resilience & Flexibility: The Icelandic people are both resilient and persistent. Consider what the country went through in 2008 and how as a nation, they came out the other side as committed and united, moving forward with a team and "can-do" attitude, something every start-up needs to not just survive but thrive.
  • Small Means Flexibility & Sharing Ideas: Because the technology community is still relatively small, ideas flow back and forth regularly - the concept of sharing best practices and helping each other become successful is something that can help them in the long haul. Smaller communities in the U.S., such as Boulder and Portland also implement more of a sharing and caring mentality, something Silicon Valley could incorporate more of into their business attitude. As Foundry Group's Jason Mendelson commented on a panel at Start-Up Iceland, "in Silicon Valley, it's more like every man out for himself."
  • Small Means Opportunity: Because the country is so small, start-ups and small companies can test out ideas at home first to see what will stick and what won't, soliciting ideas and feedback among a small and trusted community before launching products and services to a much larger market. Think of it as a beta hub for really great ideas to brew.
  • "Go With the Flow" Attitude & Sense of Humor: After the event, I ventured out to the country to take in some of Iceland's natural beauty. While I was chatting with my tour guide about the force of Iceland's strong winds through every season of the year, we explored related topics which ultimately led back to Iceland's resilience once again...its resilience and its easy going and carefree attitude. As he threw me a big but warm smile and his piercing blue eyes engulfed me, he said, "When you live on an island in the Nordic north, you learn that you can't control the conditions you're given and they're constantly changing. You learn to live with them, go with the flow and have a sense of humor along the way. There's no other choice." Having that attitude will get you far in business and in life. I found that wonderfully genuine and easy-going attitude among the business entrepreneurs I met in Iceland and while easy-going may scare investors, let's remember that Iceland is a Viking culture not a Santa Cruz one. Icelanders are hardworking, incredibly smart and eager to succeed.
  • Beauty & Nature: Personally, I am more motivated, inspired and creative when I'm working in a beautiful and natural environment. When I asked a British engineer why he relocated to Iceland, while a job offer is what brought him over, it is the access to its stunning nature that keeps him here. Imagine having volcanoes, craters, thermal waters, hiking and Northern Lights in your backyard. While I moved to America's west coast for its natural beauty and weather, I find that most people in my start-up circles spend more time in front of a computer screen or a mobile device than they do on a mountain.
  • Green Power: For power independent and intensive industries, Iceland is an attractive location. Because Iceland's power grid is 100% green, data centers and carbon fiber companies can dramatically reduce their power costs, which turns into significant numbers when calculated over a ten year period. I discovered a Swiss company which operates their power center in northern Iceland's Akureyi and they're not the only European country looking to Iceland to save money. Equally lured by low energy costs, American-owned aluminum plants have also set up shop in Iceland.

I also learned from chatting with Einar Tómasson of Film in Iceland and Promote Iceland that Iceland has the largest banana plantation in Europe. "Huh," I found myself thinking after reflecting on all the countries where I have devoured the most bananas and Iceland was most certainly not on the list. "You can grow anything in Iceland greenhouses," he said. Iceland is full of surprises.

Did you know that a number of Hollywood films were shot in Iceland, including Batman Begins, Tomb Raider, Thor, Game of Thrones, A View to a Kill and a host of others. It's not just that the land itself is a unique and dramatic place to shoot, but 20 percent of the production cost is reimbursed. Since Iceland is a member of the EEA, films and television programs made in Iceland receive European content status and can therefore be released in Europe without affecting any quotas on the release of non-European content material.

From greenhouses and films to technology start-ups and government support from the top, Iceland seems commited to take on a leadership role in the world of entrepreneurship. Start Up Iceland is evidence of that commitment as is the president's support for growing start-up communities, which will not only help from an infrastructure perspective but will also instill confidence in the minds and hearts of the entrepreneurs committing their time and energy to creating innovation at home.

Above Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson spoke to local and international entrepreneurs and below Seattle Angel Conference's John Sechrest moderates a session at the Hackathon, which was held at the University of Reykjavik, the day before the more formal event kicked off. Geeks gathered in a massive room to brew ideas, write code and present their ideas to a panel of judges.

Below finalists from the Hackathon pose for a shot with some of America's investors and entrepreneurs:

Below Kamallakharan interviews Foundry Group's Jason Mendelson and Ryan McIntyre in fireside chat style.

To give you an idea of the diversity of the event, MakeLoveNotPorn's Cindy Gallop talked about the challenges of launching a start-up with the word porn in it, and later, we heard from author Nicholas Nassim Taleb on Antifragility. Known for his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, Nicholas "beamed in" from New York to talk to the audience via a live video feed.

What Taleb has identified and calls"antifragile" is that category of things that not only gain from chaos but need it in order to survive and flourish. His premise is applying to business what we know about stress and fragility in life. For example, just as human bones get stronger when subjected to stress and tension, and rumors or riots intensify when someone tries to repress them, many things in life benefit from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil.

Where in the U.S. we often define our success by getting funded, a successful exit or having a luminary sit on our board, it's not enough in the long haul. TechCrunch's John Biggs said in his talk to Icelandic entrepreneurs, "entrepreneurs are obsessed with getting funded and while it may be one measure of success, you also have to create value with that money and have a positive impact on people." One of the woman founders of The Start Up Kids said of her experience on American soil, "Silicon Valley seems to create a lot of solutions for problems the real world doesn't have."

Bringing in global ideas, attitudes and cultural nuances into the innovative mix is important. So, whether it's South Africans creating info kiosks for micro-payments in real-time, the Irish who helping to make emergency response teams more accountable and better prepared, or the Icelanders with their national green power grid and growing start-up community of fresh ideas and attitudes for real world problems, Americans have a lot to learn by looking beyond their backyard, starting with the rewarding insights and lessons learned from the land of Ice, a hop, skip and jump across the Atlantic.

Below, a short video I shot of President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson's speech:

All photos taken by Renee Blodgett.

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