Advice from the founder of Skype

Time for a quick break in the reporting about the Ivorian elections. This was after all supposed to mainly be a business/entrepreneurship blog.  In my defense though, the elections in the Ivory Coast have profound implications for anyone wanting to do business in that country.

Today, Wired magazine has an interview with one of Sweden’s most successful entrepreneurs; Niklas Zennström, founder of skype and many other IT-related ventures.

The interview contains a lot of wise words that I believe apply to anyone wanting to start a business, may it be in Voice over IP communications or real estate in West Africa.

Niklas Zennström


“If you want to be an entrepreneur, it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. It defines you. Forget about vacations, about going home at 6pm — last thing at night you’ll send emails, first thing in the morning you’ll read emails, and you’ll wake up in the middle of the night. But it’s hugely rewarding as you’re fulfilling something for yourself.”

It’s probably a good thing Zennström is older than lifestyle design guru Tim Ferriss.  The world might have lost out on a lot of cool technology if Zennström had read Ferriss’s book “The 4-hour work week” when he was like 18.

“You shouldn’t be afraid of failure — when something fails, you think, ‘What did I learn from that experience, I can do better next time.’ Then kill that project and move on to the next. Don’t get disappointed.”

Guess everybody says this, but it doesn’t make it less true.

“Often you’re the only one who believes in what you’re doing. Everyone around you will say, ‘Why not give up? Don’t you see it won’t work?’ You then have to find out, are they right or am I right? It took a year to raise money for Skype: we went to 26 different venture capitalists, asking for 1.5 million euros and prepared to give away a third of the company. But no one wanted to invest.”

I was a really early user of skype, and thought it was a great piece of software. If I only I had invested a chunk of my savings with Zennström…    he sold skype to Ebay for $3.1 billion.

“Surround yourself with smart, dedicated people — to build something isn’t a one-man show. It’s more important to have smart people who really believe in what you’re doing than really experienced people who may not share your dream.”

Yup, and for the Ivory Coast I would add smart people who believe in your dream and have rock solid integrity. (See the discussion in the the Issue of trust post)

“Try to prove there are people actually interested in your product before you spend money building a business. Test it on your mother, sister, friends — I tried Skype on them very early on. Though you never know with the ‘mum test’ if they’re saying good things because they just want to be nice.”
“None of my family were entrepreneurs — my parents were teachers. But I thought early on, in school in Sweden, that one day I wanted my own company as that was the way to make real money. I wanted to prove to others and myself that I could make it big.”

It’s clear that Zennström has big doses of drive and ambition.  I can’t really say I knew I wanted my own business in school in Sweden, but there are many paths to entrepreneurship – some start earlier and some later.  I guess all have a bit of passion, drive and ambition though.

One great entrepreneurship story is that of Scotsman Duncan Bannatyne known from the British tv show Dragon’s Den. Bannatyne lived a sort of beach bum existence on the channel island Jersey up until age 30 doing small seasonal jobs here and there.  Then he started an ice cream van business and moved on to ever bigger businesses.

I’d recommend Bannatyne’s autobiographical  and very inspiring book “Anyone can do it” despite it’s somewhat cliché title, especially for those like me who are more into bricks and mortar businesses than internet/IT ventures.


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