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Great Companies Can Come From Anywhere

It's possible to go beyond providing some "local" competition to a global giant.

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It’s always dangerous to predict how a year will unfold when it’s only a few weeks old. But I’m confident that when the list of 2014’s most influential people in technology is put together, Ilkka Paananen, the founder of Helsinki-based Supercell, will be near the top.

Let me explain why. When we were building Skype 10 years ago, most of our role models were great American entrepreneurs. The Valley was home to almost all the industry’s success stories, and many believed the idea of building a global Internet company anywhere else was simply impossible. I’ll never forget the investor who insisted that we move to Silicon Valley before he would put money into the company — advice that we declined to take.

Ten years on, Silicon Valley is still one of the most remarkable places on the planet. But it’s no longer the only place to look to for inspiration. Thanks in part to the infrastructure developed in the Valley, enabling global access to technology platforms and information, it is now easier for entrepreneurs to start businesses no matter where they are. And, while the Valley is home to a great many brilliant people, talent is to be found across the world.

Of course, while all companies need talent, information and resources, that’s not enough to build a truly great company — they also require entrepreneurs with the ambition to disrupt and lead huge, established industries. And this is why entrepreneurs like Ilkka and the Supercell team are so important: They are the role models for the next generation.

The story of Supercell shows why. Just a year after launch, its two hit games were at the top of the highest-grossing charts in more than 100 countries, and last fall it took a strategic investment from Japan’s SoftBank that valued the company at more than $3 billion.

There are many remarkable things about Supercell, but let me pick out two. First, it’s amazing to see a small team in Helsinki achieve global success in such a short period of time. The company only started developing tablet games in 2011, and now its titles top the App Store’s charts. Secondly, as I have seen firsthand, Ilkka and the team are already having a huge impact on the next generation of Finnish entrepreneurs.

Atomico invested in Supercell last year, and in November, I was lucky enough to speak alongside Ilkka at an amazing event called Slush. The event was a sellout, with more than 5,000 entrepreneurs coming together to celebrate the remarkable rise of Scandinavian startups, and the energy around Ilkka was electric. Concern over the fallout from Nokia’s difficulties had been replaced by a new optimism and confidence. And this isn’t a Scandinavian phenomenon. Atomico invests globally, and our people across Europe, China, Japan, Brazil, Turkey and Korea see this happening there, too.

These role models are proof that where you start out is no barrier to whether or not you can achieve global success. They show that it’s possible to go beyond providing some “local” competition to a global giant: You can become the giant. And they show that while it’s fun to debate which location is most likely to rival Silicon Valley — will it be Silicon Alley, Silicon Roundabout or Silicon Dragon? — it’s the wrong question.

The point is that geography is becoming less relevant, not more. In fact, the key geographic question isn’t where you’re headquartered, but whether you can enter huge but complex markets across Asia, Europe and Latin America, and forge the partnerships you need to succeed there.

After all, that’s where the most impressive growth is coming from. In the last five years, China has seen average year-on-year Internet-user growth of 10 percent, compared to just three percent in the U.S. And this is going to continue: Between 2015 and 2020, Internet users are forecast to increase by 13 percent in China and Brazil, and by just seven percent in the US.

Many of the initial team that scaled Skype internationally are now at Atomico, helping companies outside Silicon Valley to overcome cultural and business barriers to achieve global success. And Atomico III, our recently closed $476 million fund, is aimed at helping growth companies do just that.

I have always believed that great companies can come from anywhere. With role models like Ilkka inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs to aim for global success, no matter their country of origin, I am increasingly confident that they will come from everywhere.

Niklas Zennstrom is CEO and founding partner at Atomico. He is appearing at the Code/Mobile conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Oct. 27-28. Reach him @atomicoventures.

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