Panel discussion with Niklas Zennström: “I am optimistic”
9 October 2019
Focus on meeting the major challenges: that was the message delivered by Uppsala alumnus Niklas Zennström when he participated in a panel discussion in front of students on the Master’s Programme in Industrial Management and Innovation at the Ångström Laboratory.
Niklas Zennström, entrepreneur and founder of Skype, succeeded in filling Siegbahnsalen when he visited Uppsala University on 1 October. The panel discussion A MILI keynote talk about entrepreneurship and life was aimed at students on the Master’s Programme in Industrial Management and Innovation, who had also submitted advance questions to the panel.
The panel was conducted in English and was led by students from the master’s programme and programme coordinator Thomas Lennerfors. Proceedings began with a question to Niklas Zennström as to whether he believed that people could be born entrepreneurs. This was however a description that the business guru himself did not identify with.
“Personally, I was never an enterprising child who had a lemonade stand and a paper round. That said, I do remember that I was innovative and tried to construct models with Lego,” said Niklas Zennström.
His early ambition was to be a boat designer but he realised during secondary school that this was a limited market. Instead, he plumped for studying engineering physics at Uppsala University. It was not long after he graduated that he left his full-time employment to become an entrepreneur.
“That’s something I do sometimes regret. I can be quite a slow starter...”
Ahmed Nuur, a first-year student on the Master’s Programme in Industrial Management and Innovation, wondered how Niklas Zennström would define entrepreneurship. You don’t necessarily need to start a business, was the reply – the most important thing is to have an entrepreneurial attitude and the courage to challenge the status quo. You also need to be willing to fail; something that makes you grow as an entrepreneur.
Inspired by Upptech
Niklas Zennström repeatedly pointed out the importance of having a vision and following it passionately, and of having a broad team. Employees with complementary strengths can support one another and make the right contributions at the right times. He had no mentor himself; rather, he took his lessons where he found them. His current source of inspiration was however clear: those who rise to a challenge and take risks for something greater than their own advancement. At the same time, he pointed to the sign for the University’s new technology investment, Upptech.
“’Grand challenges need grand solutions” – that is precisely what it’s all about. That is the kind of thing that inspires me. People who realise that, whatever the issue we need to resolve, we must be courageous.”
Student Luise Kaufmann wondered what advice Niklas Zennström had for entrepreneurs in dealing with adversity. His answer was that setbacks – irrespective of how painful they may be – can be transformed into the motivation to continue.
“Aside from passion, you also need the fortitude to go on and not give up. As difficult as it may be, you have to pick yourself up if you want to achieve a higher goal. Sure, it’s tough – especially if you are the founder of the company and can’t pay your teams’ salaries. Those have been some of the hardest times for me, when I have let my team down.”
The legal tribulations around the file-sharing program Kazaa, the most downloaded software in the world in 2002, are now part of internet history. Niklas Zennström himself only looks forward.
“You do however need to learn from your mistakes, otherwise they are no help at all. Embrace the opportunity to continuously learn from failure and create an entrepreneurial culture in which it is OK to fail.”
Innovations are part of the solution
One question dealt with how entrepreneurs can contribute to combating climate change. Niklas Zennström pointed out that humankind currently has the best toolbox it has ever had at its disposal. This can contribute solutions to do what needs to be done; the halving of greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years, something that demands changemakers in the form of entrepreneurs who develop and implement innovations.
“I am optimistic because I now see many entrepreneurs using this toolbox to meet some of the major challenges facing our society,” says Niklas Zennström.
“We are currently investing in a company that manufactures electric planes that take off and land vertically, the coolest technology ever! Another company is using machine learning to discover drugs to combat rare diseases. Another is using computer vision to detect breast cancer.”
To answer to what Niklas Zennström would do if he could go back in time to when he was a 20-year-old student raised plenty of laughs:
“I would probably enrol in this programme!”
Student voices from the panel discussion "A MILI keynote talk about entrepreneurship and life" in the Siegbahn Hall on 1 October:
1. What did you think of the discussion?
2. What do you plan to do after your graduation from the Master's Programme in Industrial Management and Innovation?
Maaz Hsabo, first-year student:
1. It was very interesting. When you hear advice from Niklas Zennström who is so well known and hear how he manages to do all that he has done, it is an opportunity for everyone to be inspired to work hard. You don't have to be an entrepreneur, you can apply it to whatever you do in life.
2. I'm not sure I want to become an entrepreneur directly, rather work at some major company in manufacturing and learn from their expertise, at least to begin with.
Shreeya Mali, first-year student:
1. It was very good, something the university should organise often.
2. First, I want to focus on creating as many contacts as possible and finding a job. Then in 10-15 years I plan to start a business, perhaps in sports equipment.
Gurruraj Anantharramu, who was also part of the panel, second-year student:
1. He said many good things. I believe that people who become great entrepreneurs are people who have become great visionaries. They learn from others’ and their own mistakes along the way.
2. Everyone is looking for the next big idea and wants to make money pretty fast. But how many people really have endurance,
the grit Niklas mentioned? I have no particular passion at this
point, but my wife has found her passion in the clothing business.
A lot is about timing as well, and you also need to have the right support system that can take your ideas further.
Marvin Schliemann, second year student:
1. I liked that Niklas said he founded Skype because he wanted to create a company that lasted for at least 15 years, which is probably fairly long time in the current environment. They did not want to build a company that they could sell very quickly to a bigger company and make a lot of money, but something that would have an impact and improves the lives for people in the medium or long run.
2. It is hard to find what you really have a passion for. There are some areas, but I have not yet found what I want to devote my time and my life to.