The Techie King of Emerging Economies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The West tends to blow off emerging markets until it is sure the money is there.
By Nathan Siegel
The comfort zone of most CEOs doesn’t really extend beyond the boardroom, a plush corner office and an occasional onstage spiel for a new-product launch. Few dance in public. And fewer even dance Bollywood in a flash mob in New Delhi, India, with hundreds of camera-touting spectators looking on — especially if that CEO is a Danish 47-year-old who admittedly is a crap dancer.
But that’s just another day in the life of Lars Boilesen, head of Norwegian software company Opera: “I’ll do crazy stuff.”
Crazy like barreling head-on into emerging markets that weren’t yet profitable a few years ago. Since Boilesen arrived on the scene in 2010, his business, which is mainly mobile browsers that make going online quicker and easier for people who don’t have a great connection or fancy laptops, has almost quadrupled its profit and is attracting 350 million users from Indonesia to Nigeria. It’s a success story that should be a surprise to the few who remember Opera as a player in the early Internet days that was outmaneuvered by Microsoft — a surprise that this affable son of an entrepreneur father pulled off by, as he puts it, “acting like a Chinese company would” and staking claim to markets no Western company would dive into.
Granted, there’s a reason why the American Internet giants haven’t gone full steam ahead in emerging economies, where the majority of Opera’s users come from. Western consumers are more profitable, and these countries are often so diverse in language and mobile carriers that Boilesen’s company has to work double time to make the necessary local partnerships.
When the company had virtually no revenue, Boilesen was tapped to turn the ship around.
But by his own admission, Boilesen doesn’t always go about things “logically.” Despite growing up in a 1,500-person port village near Esbjerg in southwestern Denmark, the youngest of three boys has always had a serious case of itchy feet (maybe it was his hometown’s “terrible” stench of fish). By 15, he was traveling alone throughout Europe, and at 18, he jetted off to India for a two-month backpacking jaunt that turned into a year. When he got back in 1992, he says, he then declined a cushy job in LEGO’s Germany office to move to Russia, where he traveled 300 days a year convincing Russians to play with the alien toys (it worked). “I couldn’t resist the adventure,” he says.
Despite his early vagabond days, Boilesen hasn’t strayed far from his degree in business from a top Danish university. His Russian adventure ended as the draw of starting a family with his now-wife, Trine, brought him back to comfort and normality in Norway. After a quick stint with another Norwegian tech firm, the father of three wound up becoming the 16th employee at a young Opera about 15 years ago — it wasn’t as exciting as roughing it in Kashmir, but it would do. He clawed to the top there, he says, by being a business mind surrounded by engineers. When the company had virtually no revenue streams in 2009, the founders left, and Boilesen, who has sacrificed everything save his family to “get to the next level,” was tapped to turn the ship around.
Boilesen has a secret weapon: His company is one of the largest mobile advertisers in the world.
As we stand atop the roof of Opera’s 11-story office building in San Mateo, California, following a photo shoot in which the 6-foot-2 Boilesen busted out his famous Bollywood dance moves in fresh dark-brown leather shoes, the Dane tells of how he helped bring Opera back from the dead. Mostly by taking the back door — wrangling agreements with local manufacturers, like Micromax in India, to make Opera their default browser.
“Their strategic partnerships give them a big competitive advantage,” says Arvind Malhotra, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. With 50 million Indians and 30 million Indonesians using Opera, the hustle has paid off. And the upshot is “huge,” according to Malhotra — both countries have an Internet penetration of just 20 and 30 percent, respectively. It doesn’t seem so ludicrous, then, when Boilesen says, “What gets me up in the morning” is reaching 500 million users (which is saying a lot, considering he slept just two hours).
While analysts are confident that the company’s future is bright, competition in emerging economies is about to heat up quick. As the developing world ditches feature phones and adopts smartphones, Opera may not be able to compete with the likes of Google and Apple. And defending “BRIC-y” countries like India and Nigeria may be tough as Boilesen pursues the “dream” of challenging Chrome and Safari on their home turf in the U.S., where Opera has only 7 million users. The American browser space is “very, very competitive,” says Anindya Ghose, a professor of information, operations and management sciences at NYU’s Stern School of Business.
Alas, Boilesen has a secret weapon: His company also happens to be one of the largest mobile advertisers in the world (third-largest, according to Boilesen). That means big money if Boilesen can merge the two, as Google was able to do. In the meantime, Boilesen seems to be keeping his wanderlust in check. Good thing, too, because those itchy feet could be put to much better use learning how to dance.
Photography by Jeff Singer for OZY.