Takes on Copenhagen
European Straits #91
On Monday night, my wife Laetitia and I went to see First Man at The Screen on the Green, a legendary theater in Islington (the Sex Pistols once played there, supported by The Clash). One interesting scene in the movie comes when the NASA people ask Neil Armstrong what he expects to accomplish by participating in the race to the moon. His answer doesn’t mention beating the Soviet Union or a passion for technological progress. Rather he stresses the importance of seeing earth (and thus humankind) from a different perspective, which in turn can inspire new ideas and bring about innovation.
Back from Copenhagen
Speaking of a different perspective, I was recently in Copenhagen to talk about my book Hedge, just one week after my The Family colleagues had visited the city and connected with dozens of local entrepreneurs and investors. And so I was able to delve a bit deeper into the Danish capital—which, by the way, is one of the most stunning cities in Europe, architecturally speaking.
Three big things struck me during my stay in Copenhagen, a harbor city of trade. First, it is as outward-looking as they come: most people there speak English fluently (if only because the Danish language is both difficult to master and spoken by only 5 million persons in the world). Second, the spirit of tradesmanship and the strength of the business community are evident, including leading corporations such as Maersk (a Fortune 500 company), Novo Nordisk (pharmaceuticals), and the marvellous company that is Lego (whose turnaround is now a major case in business strategy). Finally, because the domestic market is so tiny, Danish startups are forced to think global early on.
As for the resources that make great ecosystems, there’s definitely no lack of capital: Denmark is rich and prosperous; there’s an interesting community of smart angel investors (including Malmö-based Hampus Jakobsson, an early reviewer of Hedge on Goodreads!); and pan-European VC firms rightfully see Copenhagen as a thriving startup hub. And because it’s so beautiful and provides a high quality of life, Copenhagen attracts foreign technical talent from all over Europe and beyond.
Rebellion (the third key resource for growing an entrepreneurial ecosystem), to be fair, might be Copenhagen’s weak point. There seems to be a local culture of staying in line which makes it difficult for radically innovative models to take off in Denmark. This would explain why the most famous Danish startups are mostly in business software (Zendesk) and gaming (Unity).
On the Hedge side, Denmark is an interesting country. It’s the land of flexicurity, which is a convincing version of a . Broad and strong social insurance mechanisms bring together the state, trade unions, and the private sector. And on top of all that there’s the virtuous circle triggered by a government that works and delivers. Taxes are very high in Denmark, but a French friend who lives there and is married with a local said that the high level of taxes is absolutely not a topic of discussion: the Danes like their government and find that they get value for their money!
For yet another take, my colleague Mathias Pastor, a director at The Family, wrote a report on startups in Denmark. To sum it up, Copenhagen startups have great potential and certainly don’t lack ambition, but they can lack intensity. Mathias’s article is reflective, thoughtful, and funny, so you should definitely read it: Thoughts on Copenhagen, Intensity, and Hygge.
And as a bonus, read this interview of Metallica’s Lars Ulrich on Denmark. I sincerely thought Lars was the most famous living Dane on Earth, but it happens to be far from the truth.
The coming two weeks mark a pause in the Hedge tour. These days I’m in France for meetings at the OECD and Radio France, then Laetitia and I will be spending a few days in Venice with our kids, then it’s back to London. And then there will be:
🇺🇸 My stay in the Bay Area: my schedule has been filling up thanks to the great connectors among you. Thank you 🤗! Most of the book talks will be in tech companies and employee-only. However, if you’re in the area and want to attend a talk, there will be one at Bloomberg Beta on Friday, Nov 9 at 12pm. Send me an email if you’d like an invite! And although I don’t have a lot of room for more meetings, please don’t hesitate to share relevant contacts.
🇫🇷🇬🇧 After that I’ll be briefly back in France to moderate a panel at the GovTech Summit on November 12. It’s about startups helping transform public services, created by our good friends at London-based GovTech incubator and investment firm PUBLIC (hi Daniel and Alexander). BTW there’s still time for you to register. Also coming: an article to share my thoughts on GovTech and why startups are the future of public services!
🇮🇱 Finally, the following week (Nov. 19-23) I’ll spend four days in Israel (Tel Aviv and Jerusalem) for talks about Hedge and to explore the local ecosystem. I have friends on the ground there, chief among them Emmanuel Bismuth, but if you know people whom I should meet—either to talk about Hedge or about technology in general—please make an intro!
My articles in Forbes
A first article comments on Emmanuel Macron’s effort at coming up with a progressive, forward-looking framework to regulate tech companies. The echoes I’m hearing from people close to the process are that there’s not enough ambition and a clear danger that the entire thing is being hacked by rent-seeking incumbents. In that case, instead of partnering with Macron, US tech giants could come back to Washington, DC and strike deals with the Trump administration instead. And so, in the absence of a new player emerging, a comprehensive regulatory framework for tech companies in the Entrepreneurial Age will be designed either by Macron in Europe or by Trump in the US, and the winner among them will determine the direction of our economy for decades to come. Read the article (which I wrote on the plane back from Denmark): Macron and Trump Are Racing To Win At Regulating Tech Companies.
The next article, published Monday, pays tribute to three great authors and thinkers whose works shine a bright light on the current Entrepreneurial Age: Carlota Perez and her masterful history of technological revolutions and financial markets; AnnaLee Saxenian and her landmark work on understanding what exactly makes Silicon Valley tick; and Mariana Mazzucato and her important explanation of how important the state should lift up innovation and provide it with a clear direction. Read the article: Want To Understand Today’s Economy? Read These Three Women.
Sources to learn more about Perez, Saxenian, and Mazzucato
Carlota Perez was interviewed last year by Strategy+Business: Are We on the Verge of a New Golden Age? (August 2017).
I also love this interview by USV’s Fred Wilson (video): A Conversation with Fred Wilson and Carlota Perez (October 2011).
A discussion between AnnaLee Saxenian and HBR’s Justin Fox: What Still Makes Silicon Valley So Special (December 2014).
A short interview of AnnaLee Saxenian on NPR stressing the importance of global talent migration: The Global Economy's 'New Argonauts' (October 2006).
A crystal-clear blog entry by Mariana Mazzucato on industrial policy: Mission thinking: a problem-solving approach to fuel innovation-led growth (March 2018).
The now-classic Mazzucato TED talk on her book The Entrepreneurial State (video): Government—Investor, Risk-Taker, Innovator (June 2013).
Warm regards (from Normandy, France),