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Lunch with… superyacht owner Niklas Zennström

Lunch with… superyacht owner Niklas Zennström

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.’

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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