The Icelander still wins

With two weeks of the research visit hosted by the University of Iceland's School of Business now behind us, it's time to look in the rear-view mirror. This is the first in a series of research visits funded by the Academy of Finland's GenZ project. The other destinations are Denmark, Sweden and Norway, which I will be heading to later this year. The Arctic Researchers' Network ARN also contributed to the funding.
Kuvassa näkyy vesistön läpi kulkeva ajotie. Horisontin peittää valtava vuori, jonka juurella on muutama talo.

The visit was effective. As a result of the first week, I listed the next steps completed in a Facebook post:

  • Accommodation on the roof of a Suzuki Jimny with a couple of hundred thousand kilometres on the Auto Home roof tent at Reykjavik campsite. Cheaper and cooler than the cheapest hotel - four-wheel drive included. *check
  • Take over the desks at the University of Iceland's School of Business and Innovation Centre Gróska *check
  • Getting to know your colleagues in both workplaces *check
  • Participation in the Reykjavik Innovation Week Scipreneur event *check
  • Listened to Iceland's concise history in English and Rämö's "The Icelander always wins" as audiobooks *check
  • Four Generation Z digital start-up entrepreneurs interviewed *check
  • Four interviews with Generation Z digital start-up entrepreneurs scheduled for next week *check
  • Handled ongoing work matters in Finland. *check

During the second week, the adventure continued with interviews with Generation Z digital entrepreneurs, and by the end of the week, eight interviews had been conducted, in line with the target limit. All very relevant. It was also nice to have a full range of male and female interviewees, both "barefoot" Icelanders and immigrants, in roughly the same proportion as the country's demographic structure. On Wednesday, in cooperation with the University of the Arctic Thematic Network, I conducted a webinar for the staff of the School of Business. I gave a presentation entitled "The growth management priorities of the GenZ digital startup entrepreneurs in the Arctic contexts". On Thursday, I attended "Startup Iceland 2023" 10th anniversary event. In the evening, I went on at 6pm to interview an entrepreneur from a refugee background over a hot cuppa in his office. On Friday, there was still an Industry 4.0 interview with a growth company and a final digital start-up. The week was officially wrapped up when I sent all the interviews for transcription.

The interviews were very rewarding, and as part of structuring my thoughts, I put together a list of the most memorable observations at the end of both weeks:

Week 1

  • The entrepreneurial spirit of Icelandic youth and the natural combination of work and entrepreneurship from childhood ensures inclusion and guarantees a wide range of services despite a limited population.
  • Studying abroad at master’s level is very common - internationality is the norm, not the exception.
  • Taking risks and not fearing failure: "Can it be so hard?"
  • "Everything will be fine": you don't have to be ready when you start. Preferably start experimenting right away.
  • Everyone knows everyone, hierarchy is kept to a minimum and the new entrepreneur is helped to get started by sharing networks, up to the top management of the country if necessary.
  • It's important to know where you come from. Your family roots, where you come from and who you know are important conversation starters for Icelanders. Does this also affect the choice of the founding team of a start-up? It would seem so.
  • Formal education does not determine careers as strongly as in Finland - there can be many consecutive, overlapping and parallel careers.
  • Generation Z digital entrepreneurs are aware of the benefits and drawbacks of the digital environment. Time wasters are consciously limited.

Week 2

  • The entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to help of Icelandic and migrant youth is admirable.
  • The unpredictable environment, variable weather, fluctuations in fish catches and volcanic soil encourage rapid action when there is a chance of success.
  • The conditions for serial entrepreneurship in Iceland seem to be good. Extract from this week's Iceland Monitor: "Making mistakes should be a civil right."
  • Hot springs are the sauna of Iceland. I got a concrete example of this on Wednesday evening when I happened to visit one of the main sponsors of the Startup Iceland event at the Laugardalslaug saltwater pool.
  • The price of money is rising, also in Iceland. In this situation, people want to hold on to ownership and put their own money on the line in the true spirit of "bootstrapping".
  • "Reputation is more enduring than money". Being enterprising and taking positive risks builds something very important for an Icelander: reputation. A good reputation can withstand the occasional loss of investment.
  • Startup Iceland, launched in the aftermath of the banking crisis, is "founded for founders" and continues with the same mission.
  • Icelandic "all-in" risk-taking has led to collapse on a few occasions; examples can be found in the herring fishing, movie rental and banking sectors. Tourism is now the hot topic. Can tourism grow indefinitely?
  • Active networks of women entrepreneurs promote gender equality.

Thanks go to the GenZ project of the Academy of Finland and the ARN network for a successful outcome so far. Thanks also go to Satu Rämö for her inspiring insider perspectives. Rämö's book "The Icelander always wins" confirmed some of the observations made in the interviews and provided a great backdrop for this visit. Read recommendation.

Today, on Monday, I met the leadership of the Federation of Finnish Enterprises in Pasila on my way back home. Iceland's perspectives served as an interesting conversation starter. Today I return to Northern Ostrobothnia for a couple of weeks to digest what I have learned and to orientate myself for my visit to Denmark in mid-June.

Matti Muhos, Dr. Sc. (Tech.), Director and Professor, Kerttu Saalasti Institute, University of Oulu