Startup Iceland

Interview: Startup Iceland

Startup IcelandInterview date: 20 June 2014

Interviewed by: Tanja & Frantisek



The story:

Startup Communities



Excerpt from Startup Communities: building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in your city/ Brad Feld.

The onset of 2008 financial crash changed Bala Kamallakhan’s future, as the bank he was then working for at the time had to close their entire international division.

“It was a tough time. I asked myself, “Where and how do we create value and equity?” I had an epiphany; the answer was entrepreneurs and startups. I got to work and met every young entrepreneur and startup in Iceland. I catalogued all of them and saw that at the grassroots level there was a change happening that was not obvious on the surface. I made a personal mission statement that I wanted to help entrepreneurs and startups. When I started on this I really thought the only thing the entrepreneurs and startups needed help in was in raising money. I was so wrong in that notion.”

“It was painfully obvious to me that what the Icelandic entrepreneurial system needed was not just money but also mentoring and a bridge to a larger market. I started doing research and found out this thing called TechStars. I was blown away by the idea and started my campaign to move Iceland toward a startup culture, what I now call startup Iceland. Startup Iceland’s mission is to build a sustainable startup ecosystem.”


Research Questionnaire

1.         Name: Bala Kamallakhan
2.         Email address: bala [at]

3.         Phone number:
4.         Your title in the company: Founder
5.         Company Name: Startup Iceland /
6.         Industry: Education (Conference / seminars)
7.         Company years in operation: 2011
8.         Type of company: Project (not registered as a legal entity), run as a zero balance project where costs are covered by income.

9.         How many employees does your company have?

Volunteers  (2012:15 / 2013: 10 – 12 / 2014: 5-6 )

1 paid person for Program Manager

Volunteer positions: book-keeper, PR/Media, Logistics, and Selling Tickets)

10.        Annual turnover: 2014: $60,000 for 250 attendees (budget: venue, travel & accommodation costs for speakers, food)

11.         Description of company: A resource for entrepreneurs and startups to build a sustainable startup community through tools and resources and creating a network/community.

12.         Company Mission: Build a sustainable startup ecosystem

13.         Description of social / environmental mission: Same as above

14.         Would you call yourself a social entrepreneur or social enterprise?

“I classify myself as Bala Kamallakhan. I try to create value for whoever I work with. I am motivated by lots of things. At the core of it is learning, I believe in the learning side of things, every life experience is a learning experience. The minute I get a bit head strong I remind myself why I do things. If that is a social entrepreneur then yes. Categorising people in what they do is a slippery slope because we put on many hats. But at the core of it I am a very pure capitalist. I believe very strongly if the economic model doesn’t work all other models fail.

I have nothing against communism or socialism or other types of thinking all those models break down because they don’t focus on the core of what makes those things work. What makes a lot of these things work is economics.

That’s why I like the economic model, it gives the individual the freedom to use the system to whatever purpose they want to do.”

15.         How do you interpret the concept of social enterprises?

“I’m a big believer in sustainability. And sustainability is like a table with 4 legs. And even if one of the leg isn’t long enough, the table won’t work. The 4 legs is one is economic, another is impact or social. You can bring it back to the human being: the mind, body, spirit and purpose. You have to have all four. Obviously sometimes one is more important than the other, you have to prioritize.

I think where social enterprises fail to make an impact it’s when they forget to think about the 4 legs, they get too focused on 1 leg, than the other. And I believe the economic leg is critically important. You have to figure out a business model that works.”


Questions related to the definition

16.          Does your company have a clear social and/or environmental mission set out in their governing documents?

“Everything I do has social or environmental impact, because when you in the business of building communities it’s resource allocation – it has an environmental impact, it has an environmental benefit.

And my personal mission is I try to do more good than harm, so the net benefit is good.”

17.          Does your company generate the majority of their income through trade? (51% and above). If not, how much?

“The mission of startup Iceland is to build a community. And when you build a community there are many values drivers that come out of it.”

I derive a lot of value of getting know the new comers and investing (Bala is also a VC) in them, so whatever excess I get back from investing, I reinvest into building the community.”

Tickets, sponsorship, partnerships

“The sponsors, they don’t think of it as charity, as they are part of the community and they are a player within the community by being a participant. “

18.          Does your company reinvest the majority of its profits back into the social and/or environmental mission? (51% and above), if not, how much?

“Absolutely, that’s what entrepreneurs do, because it’s your lifestyle, you got to do that.”

19.          Is your company autonomous of state? Yes

20.          Is your company majority controlled in the interests of the social and or environmental mission? Yes

21.          Is your company accountable and transparent? (Transparency – corporate actions are observable by outsiders)

“Whoever asks for it, I can give them the accounts. 1) it doesn’t impact anybody, 2) nobody’s asked me for it. My wife does the books. And she will question me why we need to do something, be able to justify it.”

22.          Who are you clients / focus group?

Leaders (entrepreneurs) and Feeders (service providers, investors) as per the terminology used in the book by Brad Feld.

23.          What KPI’s (key performance indicators) or measurement tools, if any, do you use to access if you are meeting your social impact according to your mission? (E.g. Number of users, number of engaged users. Etc.)

a)Number of participants of the conference

b) The increase of awareness of startups in Iceland

c) New accelerator programs

d) New businesses have emerged

24.          As per 23, what type of social impact have you created through your products/services (e.g. assisted 1,000 people access to health care they won’t have otherwise).

a) Conference attendees (Yr1: 200 / Yr2: 225 / Yr3: 275 (but won’t want it bigger than that)

b)  “One even metric:The word startups in Iceland in the media before 2008 and after 2009, there are a lot more people that write about it.”

c) Startup Reykjavik (accelerator model) founded by ArionBanki and partnered with InnovitKlak since 2012. Year 1: 70 applicants, Year 3: 240 applicants (tripled in 3 years). Second accelerator program: Startup Energy Reykjavik

d) The model for Startup Iceland we sell, we provide a platform for service providers and buyers that can engage within this community.”

There are businesses that have emerged through Startup Iceland.

The perspective of startups has shifted from being high risk

There are demands, there are supplies, we have figured out how to make that equation work.

Social enterprise sector

25.          If a social enterprise umbrella body were formed, would you be interested to know more about it and possibly join as a member? N/A

26.          What support do you personally need from such an umbrella body and/or what support do you think the social enterprise sector requires? N/A

27.          How would you like to see social enterprise develop in Iceland?

Focus on creating balance of the four legs, and a sustainable business model that works by creating value.

“I would like to see a change in language often used in social enterprises where it focuses on the moral thing to do, the messaging puts off a lot of people.

If you can create the product, the right purpose, the vision and mission and a market, a need for it, you can make it sustainable so it comes back to sustainability. If you start thinking that way, a lot of things are possible.”

“As long as you appeal to the right audience, I think there is space, by building resources and a community of people to give it a shot. You never know until you give it a shot.”

28.          Can you recommend anyone we can interview?

Einar at ArionBanki

Mentors of the Startup Reykjavik

Mobilitus (Toti)

Seafood Cluster

Geothermal cluster


Note: Social Enterprise Iceland does not in any way imply that the interviewed company is a social enterprise. The definition for social enterprise in Iceland is still work in progress through these research interviews. The purpose of sharing these interviews with the public is in alignment with our values of transparency as we share our process of discovery with those who are interested.

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