If you think founding startups is something new, think again. In just a few years in the 1990s, two tech founders made Opera Software a global powerhouse in the web browser market; took over a porn shop; turned down multi-million dollar offers; and eventually did an IPO.
This is a repost of an original article published in the pilot issue of CoFounder in late 2014.
By Jon von Tetzchner
I and Geir, my co-founder, started up together in a small team working on a word processor at the offices of the predecessor of Telenor research unit. While there we scouted for interesting technological developments and in doing so, found something very interesting at CERN, Switzerland. The Web was taking its early steps there. We started working on the Web, setting up one of the first 100 web servers in the world, which also functioned as the gateway to further servers in Norway. We set up a company Intranet (although that word had not been coined yet!). We also made tools for converting documents to HTML. However, it was not enough, and after considerable deliberation, work was started on a browser in June 1994.
By the end of the year, the browser was in beta, and Telenor had to make a decision on what to do with it. That deliberation took another half year and ended with Telenor offering us to take over the project. Looking back now, that was the make or break moment. We founded Opera in August 1995 with 50,000 Norwegian crowns starting capital (about $6000 at the time). Telenor was nice enough to offer us office space at a low cost for the first three years and said that we could continue working on the browser there. We both worked on the product – I did UI work, and Geir did most of the rest. His skills were second to none. His ability to organise his work and maintain a total overview at all times were incredible. We were two techies – I took on the role of CEO as Geir was not so keen – he was ten years my senior, but desperately wanted to focus on the development side. We did, however, discuss all decisions in the company and we were in general very much in-line with one another. We wanted to make a great browser and a great working environment as well – and I believe we did.
Our first employee came in in early 1996 after we met Sandra at the Telenor Research Christmas party – to which we were still invited. Sandra is from Zimbabwe and through her entry into the team we started on our road to becoming a company where more than 55 different nationalities are represented. Sandra handled all things non-technical with a focus on sales and marketing, which she made an excellent job of.
In August 1996 we started offering Opera as a download. At that time most of the software was sold in boxes in stores, but that was not an option as for the consumer browsers were already free, or at least they seemed to be. Netscape was free, and Internet Explorer was part of the Microsoft Windows operating system. Most of the other browser-makers gave up around that time. This included massive companies like Apple, IBM, Symantec. Making a browser was not easy, and the competition was fierce. We did not give up and slowly but surely, downloads and registrations increased. Downloads of our browser, costing $35 a piece, were already paying our salaries and allowing us to continue growing. We also started getting rave reviews and even prizes, in Sweden, in the U.S. and Australia – to name just a few places. From our little Nordic corner of the world, we were making big waves across the Web. The growth continued. However, personally, it was a tough time with Geir’s first diagnosis of cancer coming in 1997.
In 1998 we were a three-year-old startup with a growing base of users and good revenues. That was when we received the first significant offer for the company. We thought it through and said “no”. Looking back, it was the only good answer we could give. Our company of 10 was already worth millions of dollars and interest in us was continuing to grow.
This was also the time when we moved out from Telenor and into the Waldemar Thranesgt offices, where we stayed for more than ten years. The offices were not fancy, and some magazines comment on just that. We were making a world renowned browser from a building which also housed a car repair shop, a computer store and a porn shop. In fact, the porn shop was on the floor below us, but as we grew, we took over that space and a big part of the building in general. There was room to grow.
In the early years, we held company meetings around a small conference table that Christian, one of our early employees, brought over from his home. That kitchen table was where we had our breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks and was where we discussed our plans for the future.
Our big goal was to reach 100 million users – we reached that, and much more!
Our initial investment of 50 000 crowns got us a long way, but in the year 2000, we held our first round of financing, taking in capital to speed up growth. It is not as if we did not have options and discussions before this point – I have already mentioned the offer we got in 1998 – but we also had various other discussions before and after that time. Luckily they did not lead to anything, and that allowed us to stay on the path and to grow. Finally, in 2004, after two further rounds of financing, we went public. Today, ten years later, the company has 350 million active users and a market cap of about $2 billion.
More importantly for us, Opera has made a difference. We have helped hundreds of millions of people around the world – many of whom are from emerging countries – get on the Internet, and we made a difference by fighting for an open Web and open Web standards. We strived for excellence, and we listened to our users. I am proud of what we have achieved, and of the team we built and the products, we made.
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Visual by Egert Uibo