I recently wrote a piece on this month’s STHLM TECH Meetup, covering the startup takeaways from two slick American investors. What I didn’t write about was the things happening on stage before they entered it…
It’s late August, and the summer has finally hit Stockholm. To my right, I have an amazing view of the water. Occasionally, the great cruise ships are passing by, greeting me with the deep sound of their horns. It’s Friday and the sun is shining. Around me, I have the Sinch team consisting of forty-something talented, dedicated, funny, and unique people, coming from all across the globe to work at this exact place.
Did they come for the weather? Swedes know – that’s not it. For the taxes? Many argue “hell no”. And I can’t imagine they came just for Taco Friday’s, Princess Estelle, or a decent box-wine at Systembolaget. So why did they?
Last Tuesday, Tyler Crowley, organizer of STHLM TECH, had put together a kindling mix of top politicians, entrepreneurs, and communal workers to comment on the Stockholm tech scene. Among them were Knut Frängsmyr, Klarna’s Deputy CEO, Nina Johansson, Head of the Swedish Migration Board’s Work Permit Unit, Emilia Bjuggren, Stockholm’s Vice Mayor of Labor Market and Sports, and Folk Party’s Mathias Sundin. Ajayi Joseph Oluwagbemiga from the Google office in Ireland participated too, calling on Google Hangouts.
Apart from a few yawningly polished comments (which Tyler saved by constantly interrupting the speakers with his refreshingly brutal honesty), the discussion on stage turned out to be both fruitful and fierce.
Stockholm is one of the five fastest growing cities in Europe, expected to reach 1M citizens by 2020. All four experts on stage seemed to agree that the Swedish tech industry shows a great potential in actually becoming one of the main international tech scenes, but that it’s currently lacking the required talent to do so.
“For all its advantages, Stockholm does present several unique challenges for technology startups. Sweden’s population, while well-educated and tech savvy, is only 9.5 million people. If you want your business to have any sort of scale, having an international strategy from day one is important.” Andreas Bernström in The Wall Street Journal
With a vision of making Stockholm the given hub and the engine for national growth, it’s promoters are doing everything they can to attract talents globally.
Visuals borrowed from Stockholms Stad.
And Stockholm is attractive. Tyler reminded us of the one big advantage which Stockholm’s tech scene holds over, say Paris or Berlin: it’s the language. “Almost every tech company in Sweden is run in English, it’s amazing”, he said.
“Stockholm attracts businesses, workers and students from around the world. Stockholm is known for his inspiring entrepreneurial and innovation climate, a high-quality infrastructure as well as for world-leading research in areas such as information technology, life sciences and environmental technology.” Stockholms Stad
On a further note, we have investors like Sean Percival, coming all the way from the Valley to launch 500 Nordics and check out the hottest startups in Stockholm! And the city is in fact a high-producing Unicorn Factory with bragging rights ranging from Skype and Spotify to King’s addictive Candy Crush Saga. Thanks to these and other stubborn startups, Stockholm is now known for its successful innovations.
“We speak up. It’s OK for one in a senior role to be wrong, and one in a junior role to be right.” Tor Grønsund
Perhaps those innovations is a result of what Tor Grønsund, founder of Lingo Labs and Entrepreneurship lecturer, calls the Nordic leadership style: egalitarianism, flat organizations and the welcoming of dissent in decision makings. This business model is also about full transparency and collective ownership – something that’ll fit well into the globally raising gig economy. ”We are ‘us’, not ‘me’”, Tor says.
On a big screen, calling from his office space, wearing headphones and a company t-shirt, Ajayi told us his story. In short, Ajayi migrated to Sweden a few years back, eager to settle down and start working. But his application to the Swedish Migration Agency somehow got stuck in the process, and after almost a year’s waiting without a caseworker, Ajayi understandably run out of patience and left. Today, he says he can’t even travel back to Sweden, since his paperwork is officially still being processed. He does however seem very happy about his current situation as he now works at Google. Needless to say, Sweden lost a talent.
Ajayi represents the main issue that was being addressed during the evening. A vicious spiral of regulations that makes it hard and expensive to employ people, which in turn is making Stockholm less attractive for employees outside the country. Many of the Swedish successful businesses are now looking for talents, one of the speakers said. We need to get better at translating foreign grades, and taking practical experience into account when evaluating a person’s qualifications, another one suggested.
A man in the crowd stood up, triggered by Ajayi’s story, and told everyone about his personal experience of the Swedish way. He spoke freely about his disappointment in the system and the management. He basically said this: “The problem is not moving to Sweden, it’s easy to get a permission to come here. But once you do, it’s far from your previous expectations”. He told us he wanted to make a life in Stockholm, but that he got relocated to the northern parts of Sweden, and that he had a hard time getting a job that matched his qualifications. “Migrants come here to work. We want to live and make a life, just as everyone else”, he continued. “I know many people who say they regret even coming to Sweden”.
It’s easy to blame paperwork and multi-step processes. Nina from the Swedish Migration Agency could have been an easy target that night, but she managed to stand tall, withholding a humble approach. Paraphrasing her, Nina said “we’re working as hard as we can. We certainly don’t want to stand in the way, and we’re trying to simplify the processes as much as possible”. As an example, the Swedish Migration Agency is now integrating their customer support service into the organisation, to make consultation easier to access.
Tyler asked Nina about the most common mistake people and businesses make when applying for work permissions, and she told us it’s without doubt handing in incomplete applications. “We’ll deal with those too, but it will extend the waiting period significantly”, she explained. Then Nina turned to Mathias (the politician) and said that this is due to all the state regulations they need to consider.
At this point, Mathias and Knut (from Klarna) didn’t really add anything to the discussion. They continued blaming existing policies, and argued around “shorter processes” by “cutting steps”. But Emilia (the Stockholm promoter), which had been pretty quiet until now, finally raised her somewhat tentative voice, and challenged the others with a valid point. She stressed the fact that even though there are administrational hurdles that slows down and complicates migration and employment processes, they exist for a reason…
We hear too many stories like the one Ajayijust told. But we also get to hear about the many people being exploited and abused by companies, working in poor conditions without insurances or other basic rights. Existing regulations is making it difficult for companies to employ talents from other countries, everyone can agree on that. But do have in mind that the same regulations are also there to protect those talents, Emilia argued.
On top of this, Stockholm is having great issues dealing with the current housing situation. One number that’s been spreading in Swedish media since the end of last year is that everyday, as much as two busloads of people move to Stockholm. At the same time, the supply in rental apartments is scarce and housing costs have skyrocketed in the Stockholm market. There’s no way to go but home.
Visuals borrowed from Stockholms Stad.
How can Stockholm grow into the role of a leading international tech hub, if it can’t provide work permissions and housing? Isn’t promoting the attractiveness of a capital with fundamental flaws like these, essentially just putting lipstick on a pig?
The experts spoke about approaching the problem from two ends. One was of course political – getting rid of the paperwork, individualizing the cases, and whatnot – which at this point felt more like something they were forced to pronounce. The other one was through culture, by trying to change the attitudes that exists in the many talent wasting industries.
Is it just me or does that sound a bit vague? The four experts played it safe. Too safe perhaps. They spoke about “opportunities” and “challenges”, the vision of a house/resident balance by 2030, and to “cut four out of five steps” in application processes. If it was that easy, surely it would have been done already.
In sum, the discussion at Sthlm Tech Meetup addressed a three component dilemma. 1) We don’t have enough local talent, 2) the talent we need is hard to attract, and 3) the talent we have is being wasted. With that being said, both Sweden and the World seem to want to make Stockholm rise to its potential as one of the leading tech hubs. Perhaps next Meetup will evolve less around the problems, and more around the solutions.
We will be attending the F8 Facebook Developer Conference from May 1st – 2nd in California, USA. This 2-day event is where developers and businesses explore what’s next in technology and learn about the new products and innovations Facebook is… read more