Lunch with… superyacht owner Niklas Zennström

2015-01-28By Mark Chisnell
Niklas Zennström sacrificed yachting to build his career in the cutting edge of technology.

Niklas Zennström is one of the founders of Skype, which has become to instant messaging and voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) what Google is to search. He is also unfailingly polite. In a burst of over-efficiency, the maître d’ at Goodman’s Mayfair steakhouse crosses the Zennström booking off the list when I turn up early. So when my lunch guest asks for his table five minutes later, there is no record of one. Oops.

Fortunately, Niklas Zennström is no prima donna and waited patiently while it was sorted out, a rueful half-smile as he finally beat his way through the confusion. Atomico, the technology venture capital firm that Zennström founded and now serves as chief executive, has its London offices just around the corner in New Bond Street.

Zennström had taken time out from his work day and came dressed accordingly. He ordered just as sensibly, steak frites; cooked medium but with salad instead of the chips. I started to get the sense of a very measured, rational man.

Zennström has made nearly as big an impact in the rarefied world of maxi yacht racing over the last five years, as he has in technology in the last decade. He appeared on the international sailing scene in 2007, quickly moving onto a Mini Maxi and then the TP52, the current peak of inshore monohull racing. The regatta wins have flowed in his wake, and all in the space of a few short years. But Zennström is no Johnny-come-lately to sailing.

The clues are there: Zennström supports the British Keelboat Academy through the loan of the Farr 45 Kólga, and by providing time for the senior members of his crew to mentor the next generation. His charitable foundation, Zennström Philanthropies, is working to restore the condition of the Baltic Sea as part of its environmental agenda. These seem like the actions of someone with a deep connection to the oceans.

Niklas Zennström: Skype founder, entrepreneur and yacht owner – but just a face in the crowd at the Goodman steakhouse.

‘I’m from Stockholm and that’s where I started to sail when I was seven years old,’ he says. ‘My family had a cruising sailing boat and we spent a lot of time during the summers just cruising around Stockholm, Finland and Denmark.

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Both my parents were teachers so they had a long summer break, so for a few years we were out cruising maybe one month or almost two months.’

Zennström remembers a 7.5m boat, a 1970s production cruiser derived from a racing design (an IOR half tonner), complete with overlapping headsails.

‘My father was the one that liked sailing, and he put it to my mother that we should get a sailing boat,’ he says, describing how he would trim and race the boat against whatever was nearby. Unfortunately for the young Niklas and his father, his sister was more likely to have her nose in a book.

Eventually, the declining interest of the distaff side of the family meant that the boat was sold and the long holidays were devoted to a summer home. But Zennström was already sailing the Optimist, and now he started racing from Uppsala – the birthplace of the Olympic Finn dinghy.

Big for his age, Zennström had to move up to the Europe when he was 13, well before the normal Optimist age limit. A similar move followed from the Europe into the Laser. It meant he was constantly competing against older children and, combined with his sister’s unwillingness to be dragged around by the family so Niklas could compete, it meant he never got to race in big championships.

Yani was Zennström’s first sailing yacht.

Zennström’s words outline the typical sailing-obsessed kid, drawing boats in school books, and out on the water every Wednesday and weekends when the family allowed. He even did a couple of weeks of work experience with a sailmaker.

‘I was in the Sea Cadets for a few years,’ Zennström adds. ‘I ended up a teaching assistant in navigation. When I was young I did go racing, and I enjoyed racing, but for various reasons, I did think [that] I could have done better, but I did get a lot of sailing and seamanship.’

He even spent a year and a half on a patrol boat.

‘We used to have compulsory military service in Sweden. I was in the navy, so I was always on boats and on the water,’ he says. ‘You can apply for doing officer training, and at the end of that you enrol to be a reserve officer. Me and my friend contemplated that, but decided to go to university and do engineering. I was pretty close, I had the application form.

‘I ended up taking general physics and engineering, but I actually was contemplating doing naval architecture. I talked myself out of it, because there are very few options.’ Zennström pauses, ‘It was really my passion and what I loved to do, but I didn’t see that there was a commercial potential.’

At this point in his life he started to drift away from the sea. He studied hard, played basketball and other sports, but still chartered a boat with friends in the summer sometimes. He co-owned a Folkboat with his sister and a cousin when he lived in Stockholm in the early 1990s, but in the end he didn’t sail at all for about six years.

‘I devoted myself very much to my career,’ he says, ‘and being an entrepreneur you have to sacrifice several things if you want to be successful. You don’t have so much free time, you are putting all your savings into the business, so you don’t have the time or the financial capability to go sailing.’

Zennström also moved around a lot, living in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Luxembourg before London, where he’s been for the last 10 years. And it’s there that he finally reconnected with sailing.

Zennström’s first racing boat, Rán II, a 22m Mini Maxi launched in 2009, won the first Mini Maxi World Championship in 2010.

‘We came back to London just when I was starting Skype. That was consuming all my time and effort and money. But in 2005 we decided to do a little outing with some people in the company, but also with the marketing agency we were working with, to go sailing, to do the Round the Island Race. We chartered an old X362 with a captain, and it wasn’t very competitive, just a bit of fun.’

‘Then you start to think, “I miss this,”’ he continues. ‘We did a bit more sailing in 2005, chartering another boat, a bit more of a racing boat… And you know what? I realised this is something I’m going to get back into, because this is my passion I’ve been pushing away and I need to catch up.’

It was less than a year before Zennström and his wife Catherine bought their own boat. It was a Martin 49, a performance cruising boat they had built in Sydney in 2006, and launched in the spring of 2007.

‘I didn’t really know what I wanted – that’s when you end up with a performance cruising boat, because you want to do some racing and maybe go for a bit of cruising.’

During the build, they continued to charter boats and race in the English Channel and Solent throughout 2006. Zennström admits their sailing initially wasn’t very organised – but that soon changed.

‘You can try things for fun, but if you want to do it, you want to do it in a proper way.’

Ràn sailing during the Royal Cup’s practice day

Zennström started putting together what would become the Rán team; the first goal was the 2007 Fastnet Race.

A taste of success came in the season opener, a Royal Ocean Racing Club race that they won. The momentum built, and many of those who joined Zennström then are still with him now. But then came the first setback. During a tough Fastnet the boat took water into the engine, which refused to start. With no means of charging the batteries and no navigation lights or electronics they had to turn back.

‘It was a big disappointment, but you get more motivated,’ reflects Zennström.

The Martin 49 was retired for cruising; the next boat would be a racing boat, pure and simple.

It was a 22m Mini Maxi, commissioned from Judel/Vrolijk in September 2007. But with the launch of what would become Rán I(named after the sea goddess in Norse mythology) 18 months away, Zennström wasn’t about to kick his heels.

The TP52s had a very successful circuit in the UK at the time, and the team identified it as a great environment to build experience. They bought a boat from the grand prix Med Cup circuit and set about racing Rán I through 2008.

‘It took some time to start helming the boat myself,’ said Zennström. ‘The TP52 is a powerful boat, the pre-start is quite intimidating and I spent the first few times observing.

‘I started to do more and more; I didn’t do the start, I took over sometimes during the race.’

They raced Cowes and Cork Week, down in Saint-Tropez, and took the Martin 49 to the Caribbean.

Rán’s during a successful campaign at the Trofeo Conde de Godo in Barcelona.

All this time, Rán Iwas under construction at Green Marine near Southampton, UK. The main objective with the new boat was to sort out unfinished business with the Fastnet Race, while also competing on the Mediterranean Mini Maxi circuit, culminating in the Mini Maxi Rolex World Championship in Sardinia.
Rán Iswept all before her, winning the 2009 Fastnet.

‘It was a big moment for us, to win that race, that was great,’ says Zennström.

They then won the professional driver award at the Mini Maxi World Championship in 2009, and followed that up in December with a Division I win in the Rolex Sydney-Hobart.

Zennström was interested in improving still further.

‘I realised I needed to get as much time as possible on the water. But how to get more time? We decided to get the Farr 45.’

Rán took part in the inaugural 52 Super Series in Palma, Majorca, going on to take the Royal Cup.

In 2010_ Rán III_ joined the fleet to race in the Solent, and no one could question the commitment of a man who will race in England in March.

‘If I get into something, I get drawn into it and get pretty – whatever you call it – addicted or dedicated to it. And there’s my competitive nature as well, – I want to do it as well as I can, to set high goals and try to achieve them. But it’s also doing that in a fun way, because it’s the journey that’s fun.’

Zennström reckons he sails about 90 days a year and unsurprisingly the last few years have been no less successful.

In 2010 he won the owner-driver award at the Mini Maxi Rolex World Championship, as well as titles at Antigua Sailing Week, the Newport-Bermuda Race, the Onion Patch Series, Copa del Rey, and the Voile de Saint-Tropez. It’s typical of his approach that the next boat was actually smaller, but in a more competitive fleet.

In the autumn of 2010, Zennström ordered a new Judel/Vrolijk TP52 for the Mediterranean circuit, and the bulk of his sailing since has been about racing _Rán IV _in what is now called the 52 Super Series.

‘You are racing against some of the best professional all-pro teams around, you have a luffing duel with Ed Baird and you learn something, you’re probably not going to come out as a winner, but you learn something,’ he said.

The Rán team finished fifth in their first season and third in 2012. It’s an improvement curve he would very much like them to continue, with a win in 2013.

Meanwhile, the team has continued to race the Mini Maxi where, rather than learning, they were defending champions. They won the Mini Maxi title again in 2011, only losing it to one of the new generation of boats this year. The team also defended their Fastnet title in 2011, and will be looking for a third successive win in 2013.

In his professional life, Zennström is all about disruptive technologies – new ideas that will remake whole sectors of the economy. Does he approach his sailing in the same way?

‘Not really; in technology you are dealing with risk and need to decide which are the areas where you want to be ahead of the curve and take more risks. A lot of the technology we had was a development of what has already happened.’

The Rán Racing Team on Rán at this year’s Audi Sardinia Cup in Porto Cervo, part of the 52 Super Series.

He cites electronics and the winch package as areas that they took those extra risks and did more work.

So where does the source of their remarkable success lie? Ironically, for one of the great disrupters of our time, Zennström’s yacht racing success seems to be more about management than technology. He puts it down to consistency – a long-term consistency of purpose, people and philosophy.

The core of the Rán team has been the same from the beginning and usually he has commitments from the crew for the following year by mid-season. Everyone is a professional on board, and there are no ‘superstars’ in the team. They stay, eat and drink together, Niklas and Catherine included. Expectations are high, but to err is apparently deemed human – there is always a debrief and no one is allowed to point the finger.

Based on those principles, if I had a disruptive technology start-up idea, I’d very much want it to be funded by Atomico.

Originally published: December 2012.

Photography: Thomas Campean; Pedro Martinez; Rolex/Kurt Arrigo; Ingrid Abery

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