Rhiannon Garth JonesJune 22, 2018

The best place to grow a startup? Try the Nordics

Hunting for a unicorn? You might actually do better among the fjords of Scandinavia than the deserts of Silicon Valley. For the past eight years, there has been at least one billion-dollar exit from the Nordics every year. Spotify and e-invoicing company Klarna, along with game companies Supercell and Unity are expected to become some of the biggest in Europe, and they’re all from the Nordics. Skype? Co-founded by a Dane and a Swede.

And, let’s face it, even Ikea and Lego had to be startups once upon a time… So what is it about these countries that allow more startups to flourish per capita than anywhere else in the world?

Life in the Nordics

Foosball tables, free food, casual dress codes and flexible hours, doing work you’re passionate about, possibly making a small fortune… startups sound like a recipe for happiness. And – surprise! – the Nordic countries are the happiest in the world. Maybe there’s something there.

It’s a small region, but one with a lot of diversity. By the Nordics, we’re mainly talking about Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, but in reality Iceland and Finland should be in the conversation too. All in all, you’ve got five distinct languages and cultures, and all kinds of nature: mountains, fields, forests, volcanoes – even a polar bear or two in Svalbard. What more could you ask for?

Well, you probably are interested in city life as well. In that department, the Nordic region boasts three of the most liveable, visitable and startup-friendly in Europe: Stockholm, Oslo, and Copenhagen. (You’ll find us in the latter.)

Here are some great facts about the Nordic countries. And check out #Nordic or #ScandiLifeon Instagram. Not exactly hard to imagine being happy here (even if it does get a little bit cold!). But, quirky facts and gorgeous design aside, other things might explain the high levels of happiness in these countries – and they might also explain why startups here are so successful.

Risky business?

Sweden’s Minister for Enterprise and Innovation, Mikael Damberg, thinks it’s simple:

I think if you want to be an innovative country, you have to give people security so they dare to take risks.

The Nordic countries boast world-famous social safety nets, with healthcare, childcare, and university education all heavily subsidized (and often free). There is also extensive maternity and paternity leave, as well as unemployment support. It stands to reason, then, that would-be entrepreneurs feel they can take more risks that one day might pay off. More than that, a healthy work-life balance is culturally ingrained, encouraging people to do work that they love: perfect for both happiness and recruitment!

All together now

Short of moving both you and your company to one of the Nordic countries (seriously, though, check them out), how can you replicate this at work? Government policy isn’t the easiest thing to change, after all.

It turns out there’s a bit more to this success story. Founders and employees from the early Nordic success stories, like Skype, went on to set up more startups and they often work collaboratively with others, as well as sharing advice. The knock-on effect of that enthusiasm and experience is pretty impressive – for every Nordic company that raises $10 million, another three companies will be born.

Look out

The total population of the Nordics is only 27 million, which is often viewed as a problem for startups. But it might be a benefit: knowing the domestic market is small, these startups think globally from the outset. The average company from a small country takes only 16 months to expand internationally – less than half the time it takes those from countries with populations of over 50 million. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big and it looks like, actually, there might be something very right in it


If you can’t join them – beat them. Here’s a quick recipe for success that doesn’t require relocating your business to Scandinavia.

  • Talk to successful people you know and find a way to learn from the ones you don’t

  • Hire people who enjoy their work – the kind of people who will want to keep innovating even after they’ve already made a success of their first go.

  • Encourage a collaborative working environment: try replacing long meetings with quick stand-ups, hot-desking so your teams mix, and encouraging staff to socialize (fredagsbar, anyone?).

  • Think globally from the outset – it might save you time in the long run.

Most importantly: don’t forget the foosball.

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