The Nordic Model

A Conversation With Niklas Zennstrom

Niklas Zennstrom

  • Country: Sweden
  • Title: Entrepreneur
  • Education: Uppsala University, University of Michigan
  • Known For: Co-Creating Skype
  • Website: Zennstrom Philanthropies

A native of Jarfalla, Sweden, Niklas Zennstrom studied business, engineering physics, and computer science at Uppsala University and the University of Michigan. In the mid-1990s, while heading up the Danish division of the Swedish telecommunications firm Tele2, he hired Janus Friis to run customer support, and soon the two of them decided to collaborate as entrepreneurs. They founded the peer-to-peer file-sharing company Kazaa in 2000 and the Internet telephone company Skype in 2003. In 2006, Zennstrom started Atomico, a firm that invests in innovative technology companies around the world. And in 2007, with his wife, Catherine, he started Zennstrom Philanthropies, which focuses on human rights and the environment. He Skyped with Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose in early November.

What are the most important qualities for a successful entrepreneur to have? Courage—because as an entrepreneur, you’re trying to do something that no one has done before, and a lot of people will try to discourage you. You need to have a lot of courage to take the first step and stay your path through all the challenges. That’s very, very important. Another important thing is curiosity—being curious about how things work, trying to see around corners, trying to understand what the world could be like in the future. And the ability to question the status quo, to ask why things cannot be done in a different way.

Even many people who have those qualities don’t succeed. Are there some predictable things that separate the winners from the losers, apart from luck and timing? [Just like when] you play basketball or football, you need a bit of luck to win sometimes. But timing is hugely important. Entrepreneurs who come up with their idea at the right time are much more likely to succeed than those who come up with the idea a little bit early or a little bit too late. But refusing to give up—that’s very important. And also having vision and clarity and focus about what

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