In focus“It’s more important to teach students to code than to cross-stitch if Sweden is to keep its high-tech edge”

Home computer subsidies and inclement weather. These are just a few of the reasons cited for why Stockholm has emerged as the world’s second hottest high-tech hub, bested only by Silicon Valley. But if we are to continue producing success stories such as Spotify, Mojang and Klarna, more young women need to be interested in technology – programming and coding should be as important in the classroom as mathematics and English, according to people from several prominent Swedish technology companies.

Swedish developers have gained rock star status as these innovative entrepreneurs have launched some of the world’s most successful and fastest growing companies in their respective fields. Many of these companies are located in Stockholm, the world’s second most productive high-tech hub per capita after Silicon Valley, according to a study recently published by venture capital firm Atomico. The survey also showed that only the US and China outpace Sweden in terms of the number of software companies that have been founded since 2003 and reached the USD 1 billion mark in sales: Skype, Klarna, Spotify, and Mojang

“There is a dynamic energy in Stockholm right now – a bit like during the dotcom bubble of the early 2000s. The crucial difference is that now things are sustainable and for real,” says Jonas Mårtensson, who became CEO of video game giant Mojang after its highly-publicised sale to Microsoft in the autumn of 2014.

Unprecedented computer access

Like many others, Mårtensson believes that one of the main reasons behind the Swedish success is a late 1990s home computer campaign in which employees were given the opportunity to borrow a computer from their employers as a fringe benefit. This unique initiative transformed Sweden into the country with the highest number of computers per capita in the world. Many children found their parents’ computers and started playing, developing computer skills that their parents could only dream about.

“Subsidised computer access in combination with fast Internet and inspiration from successful entrepreneurs has proven to be an optimal recipe for creating Europe’s start-up capital,” says Sebastian Siemiatkowski, CEO of Klarna, a payment solution provider.

Social system contributes to success

Being an entrepreneur has become “acceptable” in Stockholm, which creates a favourable climate, promotes ideas and not least, inspires courage.

Peter Grandelius, General Counsel at music service Spotify, also credits today’s IT success to the Swedish tradition of successful innovation and entrepreneurship, with some corporate role models that include Ericsson, H&M and IKEA.

“We have good schools and a unique social safety net that allows people to venture into something that might have an uncertain future,” he says. “Another factor is the harsh winter climate, which makes it more appealing to find something fun to do indoors rather than outdoors.”

According to Mårtensson, being an entrepreneur has become “acceptable” in Stockholm, which creates a favourable climate, promotes ideas and not least, inspires courage.

“New networks and hubs are constantly popping up where entrepreneurs can come together and bounce around ideas,” he says.

An informed group of experienced business angels and domestic and foreign venture capitalists also help to create a dynamic ecosystem where everyone thinks internationally from the outset.

“Many entrepreneurs are forced to be strategic and think globally from day one to attract financing,” says Mårtensson.

Social media a part of Mojang’s success

One of the reasons why Mojang’s game Minecraft – described as a virtual Lego where creative limits are only bound by the players’ imaginations – has been so enormously successful is founder Markus “Notch” Persson’s talent for communicating via social media. From the Stockholm headquarters, a constant dialogue is maintained with players through Twitter, blogs, Facebook and YouTube. As 2014 rolled into 2015, the game had sold 70 million copies and had more than 120 million registered users worldwide.

“After ‘music’, ‘Minecraft’ was the second most searched word on YouTube last year. It even surpassed the number of Google searches for the word ‘God’ long ago,” adds Mårtensson.

“We continue to focus on maintaining a close dialogue with our players, which includes holding the annual Minecon conference. This year’s event will be in London and have around 10,000 visitors. Last year’s Minecon was in Orlando, and the 8,500 tickets sold out in just a few minutes.”

Revolutionising music – and payments

With 60 million users, Spotify has also become a global phenomenon, revolutionising the way people around the world consume music.

“If you talk to teenagers today and ask them if they download music illegally, they barely understand what you’re talking about. Almost all music is available on Spotify,” says Grandelius. “Now we are focusing on becoming even better at offering personalised music recommendations and playlists.”

Like Mojang and Spotify, Klarna has revolutionised its industry. The payment service provider’s goal is to create a new standard for how people shop using their mobile devices. The company, founded in 2005, is currently present in 18 European markets and is currently expanding its operations in the US.

“A major reason for our success is that we have worked closely with shoppers all along and developed our ideas based on their needs. But we’ve only just begun – we want to be the way the world prefers to shop,” says Siemiatkowski.

Regardless of the specific factors that have led to their success, these representatives of prominent Swedish technology companies agree about what creating a thriving business climate in Stockholm in the future takes.

“We need to foster an interest in programming and IT in general, especially among young women,” says Siemiatkowski.

Grandelius concurs: “Programming and coding must be included in school curricula and become as obligatory as maths and English. In the future, being able to code will be more important than being able to cross-stitch.”

In recent years, there have been several initiatives to increase awareness of gender imbalance in the IT sector, where women rarely make up more than 15 per cent of a company’s workforce. An initiative to speed up the process was launched in the form of a weekend hackathon by Spotify in early 2015. Entitled Diversify, the event was targeted at students from all over the country, with half of the 40 seats earmarked for women.

“We have never before received so many applications from women about an event – a full 43 per cent of the total,” says Grandelius. “It shows that there is interest and that we need to keep encouraging this development. There is not only a need for Spotify to continue to evolve, but for Stockholm and Sweden to continue producing new world-class technology companies.”