From Iceland — Examining the Start-Up Culture

Examining the Start-Up Culture

Published September 21, 2010

Examining the Start-Up Culture

Sesselja Vilhjálmsdóttir and Valgerður Halldórsdóttir are two young successful entrepreneurs, currently in the midst of making a film about their own kind: young successful entrepreneurs. “We are very interested in the start-up culture and young entrepreneurs and we have been following this scene closely since we started our own company when we made the board game Heilaspuni last year,” Sesselja explains.
Since receiving a grant from the EU to make a documentary comparing the start-up culture in Europe and the US, the two have been visiting with the movers and the shakers to interview them about the key to a successful start-up. “We started filming in New York and San Francisco in May, and next week we are going to Europe to meet with people in London, Stockholm and Berlin,” Valgerður says.
The project is off to good beginning, and the pair has interviews with some of the brightest minds from the successful start-up companies like WordPress, Vimeo and Dropbox, already in the bag. “As soon as we got a foot in the door and got some of the heavy hitters to agree to an interview, they were able to point us to others and make introductions, and that made everything much easier,” Valgerður continues.
A Learning Opportunity
“We eventually want to move our company into the software business, so this is a unique opportunity for us to be able to ask some of the most successful people in the business how they did it,” Sesselja says, and Valgerður adds: “The movie is dedicated to comparing the start-up culture in Europe and the US. That is what we applied for the grant for. We haven’t been to Europe to conduct interviews yet, we are going there next week, so we don’t really have the comparison yet, but we can definitely see a trend emerging from the interviews we already have.“
Sesselja explains that the young entrepreneurs they have talked to are all unusually energetic people and most of them seem to think a little outside the box, “I think you have to think a little differently from the ‘normal’ person to be able to be successful in this field,” she says. Valgerður also mentions the importance of culture: “The culture in San Francisco very open to new ideas. There is a tradition in place,” she explains. “ We went to a café in Palo Alto and on every table around us, people were taking meetings and pitching ideas. It was all you heard there.”
The European Model    
The two explain that based on their preliminary research for Europe, it seems the cultural differences may eventually turn out to be the question of financing. “The thing that surprised us a little is that when we kept asking people stateside how they financed their start-ups and if it was difficult, most people said that was the easy part. As soon as you have a good operational demo of the product you can go out and find start up capital. Investors in America are very open to financing new ideas, because there as so many companies that have been successful on the Internet, that no one ever thought would be successful,” Instead, people told them the important thing was to have a good product and a workable demo, Sesselja explains, while Valgerður adds: “In Europe, there seems to more importance placed on having a solid business plan.”
A headache for another day
With the project moving into the later stages of production, are there any solid plans for distribution in place? “That is something we are keeping our eyes open for just now. The target group for this film is very Internet-based, so I think the film will eventually always end up being distributed on the Internet, but we would like to send it to a few film festivals as well. But right now, we are just focusing on getting the movie done; distribution is a headache for another time. But, we did have a nice discussion on the options for Internet distribution with the founder of Vimeo,” Sesselja answers.  
“You can’t plan too much ahead, if we had, I don’t think we would ever have started this project,” says Valgerður. “We just bought a one-way ticket to the US, and we did not make any plans for coming home until we had something to show for it.”
The Startup Kids
The movie websites lists all the persons interviewed so far, and it is an impressive list of start-up royalty. “We did not get Mark Zuckenberg, that was our goal. Or [blogger and Twitter founder] Ev Williams, that was an interview that was close to happening, but then his wife gave birth, and he slipped through our hands,” Valgerður says. “But apart from that, I think we have talked to most of the people we wanted to see.”
“We were a little surprised at how willing people were to talk to us,” adds Sesselja. “Many of these companies are still in start-up mode, so they are eager to talk to the media, or anyone who can help them promote the company. Most of them were just young people like us, and they were just happy to talk to other young people about their interests. We met a lot of people who were just starting out, and were still running their company from their living room, which also doubled as sleeping quarters and a dining area.”
Valgerður says that although San Francisco is a large city, this is a very tight knit scene where everyone knows everybody else. “We were invited to a party at someone’s house and there we met everyone we had talked to and everyone we still wanted to talk to.” Then she adds: “But there was a big difference meeting people from a start-up company in a bootstrap mode, operating out of their homes, and then with someone from a company that has moved on to the expansion stage. These are young people in their early twenties and as soon as they got some money they were buying all sorts of stuff. When we met the founders of Dropbox, they had just moved in to a new office space, which was humongous, and they only had staff in about half their offices. And they had just bought this huge dance machine off of eBay. Sesselja had a dance-off with [Drew Houston] the founder.”     
“I killed him,” Sesselja adds.

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