Interview: Skype co-founder and head of Atomico Niklas Zennström explains his passion for entrepreneurship (video)

18 Oct 2012

Niklas Zennström on stage at the Dublin Web Summit yesterday. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography

Niklas Zennström, the co-founder of Skype who last year sold his company to Microsoft for US$8.5bn, made no secret of the fact he yearned to be an entrepreneur. Like most entrepreneurs he began as an employee.

When the bubble burst in 2000, Zennström had a panic attack and thought: “That’s it, I missed my chance.”

However, as Zennström demonstrated, he in fact was right on time with his idea. Many of the reasons for the bubble bursting were to do with massive valuations, but also the fact the internet that was promised juddered along largely at 56k modem speeds.

By the time Zennström and his business partner Janus Friis entered the fray, broadband was quickly on its way to becoming a mainstream technology, making it a vibrant time to be running a company like Skype or other ventures that became prominent around the same time such as YouTube and Facebook.

Around the world today, close to 600m people have Zennström and Friis to thank for being able to stay in touch with loved ones in ways that were unthinkable a decade ago.

Today, people can make free video or voice calls in real-time via broadband or their smartphones, not to mention low-cost fixed and mobile telephone calls, through Skype. Before Skype, Zennström and Friis had run a peer-to-peer file-sharing company called Kazaa. After selling it, they started Skype in Sweden in 2003 and quickly realised that if they were to succeed they needed to go international first and not try to be a success at home.

The irony that Zennström feared he had missed his chance was not lost on the packed audience at the Dublin Web Summit, who laughed politely at the thought. However, Zennström was quick to point out some truths that in many ways are timeless.

“You can choose to be a big company in Sweden but you’ll only be a big company in Sweden. The same is true for Ireland, you could choose to be a big company in Ireland but you’ll only ever be a big company there.” In other words, the key is to go global from the get-go if you have the right idea.

In our exclusive video interview with Zennström, he explained his views on how countries like Ireland or Brazil can field the next big technology company, that it’s cheaper than ever to be a start-up and elaborated on the various shifts shaping the technological landscape as we know it.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years