At the Silicon Vikings event on September 11,  David Helgason, CEO and Co-Founder of Unity, recounted his entrepreneurial journey in an intimate “fireside chat.” The evening’s discussion was hosted by a fellow Nordic entrepreneur, Henrik Bennetsen of Innovation Center Denmark. The venue, StartupHouse, reflected the event’s entrepreneurial theme. StartupHouse is a shared-desk workspace and dormitory for entrepreneurs, early stage startups and their teams. After Helgason’s informal but candid interview, over 15 startups from around the world delivered one-minute pitches to the audience. Attendees had ample time for networking and the opportunity to chat with Helgason and the many startup company founders, all while enjoying complementary beer, wine and appetizers.

            The moderator began the fireside chat by prompting Helgason to describe Unity in his own words. Unity was founded over 12 years ago, “One of those overnight successes,” Helgason joked. While Unity began as a video game company, Helgason and his founders discovered that their passion was in designing tools to create games. “The meta of games,” as Helgason calls it. Helgason points out that this is a common trajectory for many companies. In its early stages, Unity became a moderately successful company, however the opening of the iPhone app store in 2008 allowed Unity to become one of the most popular tools for making mobile games. Unity became highly profitable through mobile gaming, with their game design program being purchased by customers worldwide.

            Despite Unity’s immense success, the company had humble beginnings. Helgason started Unity as a young programmer with a few friends, borrowing money from their parents and taking out personal loans from several banks. After securing their modest funding, Helgason and his co-founders created a business model for their product. They wanted to design an accessible and affordable product, with promotions such as free trials. Helgason describes their strategy as “outdated” by modern standards, but effective in 2003.

            While startups are ubiquitous today, during the early 2000’s in Copenhagen they were comparatively rare. As a result, Helgason had very little guidance during Unity’s early stages. “There weren’t networks” or peer communities of fellow startups to help guide Helgason and his cofounders.

            Helgason went on to describe the influence of San Francisco and Bay Area entrepreneurs on Unity’s evolution, his experiences as a public speaker, the difficulty of rejection as an entrepreneur, the importance of a guiding mission statement, managing an overwhelming schedule, the power of luck, the ideal founding team, the difficulty of making decisions as a team and staying true to one’s vision in a growing company.

            After Helgason’s extensive discussion with the moderator and a Q&A session with the audience, the startup companies took the stage. Some companies already had thousands of users, others were in their formative stage. While most were Nordic startups, a few come from South America and Western Europe. The nature of the startup companies ranged from Voltset, offering “The World’s Smartest Multimeter,” to FYTNS, a “Mobile Marketplace for Personal Training,” and CompeteHub, “Yelp for Endurance Events.”

Following the presentations, attendees had further networking opportunities with the many startup founders and David Helgason, while the appetizers and drinks continued to flow.

Erik Isaacson