Top ten tips for starting a tech company when you’re from Norway

The typical recurring questions I get are: How did we initially start out, and what tips would I give to others starting companies out of Norway? So, dear Norwegian aspiring entrepreneurs, here are my top ten tips.

March 14, 2017

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The Nordics, relative to the size of the population, produces the most unicorns (startups valued a billion dollar or more) in the world, and although Sweden is at the forefront of this Nordic movement, their siblings are catching on fast. And, especially so in Norway.

Ambitious Norwegians, fuelled by the decline in oil (yes, pun intended), are now quitting their jobs and flocking to co-working spaces to develop their ideas and help usher in the post-oil era - making Norway the fastest growing startup eco-system in the Nordics.

Unacast is now headquartered in NYC, but Norway was where the company was incepted and from where we grew. And what a great country to start a company from. In fact, the typical recurring questions I get are on this particular topic: How did we initially start out, and what tips would I give to others starting companies out of Norway?

So, dear Norwegian aspiring entrepreneurs, here are my top ten tips to you, in chronological order: 

1. Norwegians are historically best as inventors, not entrepreneurs

You live in Norway, and before you move on out into the world, you must understand your heritage. Yes, you are resourceful, well-educated, and globally aware (not yet globally orientated perhaps) – but entrepreneurship, especially on a global scene, is not in your DNA. You must break from this heritage.

Ideas are cheap, and only execution matters. That means you or your team will have to master storytelling, hiring, finance, and all the other skills that extend beyond the invention or the idea. You must become an entrepreneur.

2. Your network is bigger than you realize – use it

Norway is a trust society, and there is very little distance between the person that is doing dishes at the restaurant and the person owning the restaurant franchise. Case in point, the previous King of Norway was famously riding the tram like any other civilian and the Prime Minister can often be seen walking the streets of Oslo. I have personally met with the Crown Prince several times and many of the politicians in office, including the Prime Minister, to share my thoughts on Norwegian innovation and the post-oil era. Few countries can compare to our true egalitarian society, and that access is an unfair advantage you must take advantage of.

Reach out to the CEO’s of established companies to validate your idea and perhaps also to find launch partners, contact potential advisory board members from all layers of society, that you want close to the company, and ask anyone for help. I promise you that most people in your extended network will be glad to do just that - help.

3. Get to know the available governmental programs and grants

The oil has made Norway a rich(er) country, and although most of the proceeds are safely placed in the world’s largest sovereign fund, there are numerous generous programs available for new companies that have yet to attract partners and revenue. Innovation Norway heads up many of these programs, ranging from mentorships to favorable loan agreements and grants, and you would be wise to orientate yourself in these possibilities. And don’t forget Skattefunn (Loosely translated to “Tax-find”), where 20% of your costs from approved projects are reimbursed as tax deductions.

It is a myth that these programs are complicated, that they require extensive amounts of your time and that you risk changing your company in the process. It’s quite the opposite – most of these programs are easy to understand, fast, and supportive of your ambitions.

4. Your home market is the perfect test market

What if I could present you a test market for your products where there is high disposable income, an innate trust in and high adoption of new technology and which is small enough for you test scale quickly and small enough for big corporations to dare to risk more than they typically do in larger markets?

Well, that test market is your home country, and it is the perfect laboratory for validating your idea as a business. Do you think it is a coincidence that both Spotify and Tidal came out of the Nordic laboratory? It’s not.

5. You are not alone – get to know your peers

Norway is a young entrepreneurial nation, but there is already a true eco-system here and you should get to know it. Unlike previous generations of Norwegian global companies, there is a high degree of wanting to proactively share knowledge and help out. In Oslo, you should visit StartupLab, Mesh and all the other co-working spaces popping up, as well as in the rest of the country. Reach out to the companies that you admire or that are similar to your own. Read up on the many publications covering startups, like Shifter, and follow startup blogs. Join conferences and seminars – of which there are plenty.

Participate and you will reap the benefits of the accumulated knowledge and networks of your peers, but make sure you never forget why you are doing this – to build your own company.

6. The talent pool is bottomless

Yes, Norway is, as mentioned above, a young entrepreneurial nation and that can have its benefits. Unlike many other countries the most talented engineers, designers, and business people are not yet working for startups. That will change, but for now, you can with some ease attract the very best people to your company. And, as a bonus, talent is cheap compared to global hot spots like San Francisco and New York, they are loyal (“impatient vesting disease” is not yet a diagnosis), and also highly educated.

The only drawback is that the talent pool is not yet as diverse as one could have liked, but that too is changing. Having a great team is one the most important factors of success, and in Norway, you can build the team of your dreams.

Also read: "From Zero To Xerox – How We Failed At Diversity"

7. Your first round of funding could literally be just around the corner

It’s true that Norway is not a great country for VC type funding, although there are signs of it slowly changing for the better. Norway is, however, a great country for finding that initial seed funding. I mentioned some of the state fuelled (again, pun intended) programs above, and in addition, many Norwegians have increasingly cash to spare and a desire to use it for more meaningful things than buying house number three or collect interest.

Between family funds, corporations and wealthy individuals you should be able to find your first $1M to $2M without going abroad. 

8. Norway is small. The world is big

You are coming to the end of your Norwegian journey. Norway will never be big enough to cradle your growing company beyond the initial growth spurt, and as your idea is validated and the beginnings of a real company are starting to become visible you must get closer to your customers, partners, employees, and future funding. The beauty of coming from such a small country is that you knew this from the start, that you would at some point need to orientate outwards.

You should probably already have focused on the global market, so what are you waiting for? 

9. Norway® and Nordics® are brands

Once out there, don’t forget that your very background is a strength. It’s easy to overlook, as we are often blind to immediate surroundings, that Norway, and the Nordics as a whole, is a place associated with many positive traits: Honesty, decency, accountability, egality, and simplicity, as well as being pure, modern, and progressive. These are qualities that are appreciated by many, and a unique strength when forming partnerships, negotiating deals and of course, in hiring.

Use the positive connotations to Norway and the Nordics for all it’s worth in building your company and your brand, but remember to also live up to them. 

10. Stop talking and start walking

Face it. You come from one of the richest and safest countries in the world, with a social safety net that catches close to all that fall. If you don’t dare quit your job and infuse some risk into your life, who on this planet can?

In plain terms: If you are a Norwegian and want to build a company and you are not doing it – you are a coward.