Thor Fridriksson watched his app fail and his young company Plain Vanilla go into bankruptcy in 2011. Instead of cursing his naiveté, he channeled it into a string of faith-leaps that has led to enormous success for his most recent app and a development contract for a major Hollywood client.
It would be easy to peg success on luck and timing, which Fridriksson humbly admits always plays a part. But the man’s knack for turning a trip to the unknown into a wild partnership or funding success is uncanny, and betrays his real secret.
He trusts everyone. Implicitly.
It’s fitting that Fridriksson takes cues from his literary hero, Candide. Though Fridriksson hasn’t taken the lumps that Voltaire’s plucky hero suffers throughout the 18th-century novella, he admires Candide’s willingness to trust, well, everyone.
"I’m the guy who leaves the door open at his house," Fridriksson says, though he admits that It’s not that remarkable to do in Iceland, a country with so little crime that it recently mourned its first ever death by police shooting. Still, his earnest trust extends to negotiations, where he won’t compel partners to do anything in hidden contract clauses.
"You have to trust that their intentions align with yours. I write very open-ended contracts because I want [the negotiating company] to have their own incentives," says Fridriksson. "In the end, it’s the trust between parties that’s dictating the response."
That relaxed pose is anathema to the startup and tech landscapes, where patent trolling and name-protecting litigation are accepted poisons. But thus far, Fridriksson hasn’t had his trust betrayed, nor has he fallen prey to the American shark businessmen his Icelandic peers warned him about. Again, Fridriksson credits his mantra: Trust the people you’re dealing with and that will pay off. For Plain Vanilla, it surely has.
After the bankruptcy, Fridriksson's first leap of faith was to hire two app devs and buy them one-way tickets to San Francisco, where he knew nobody. It was there that he pitched a game idea he dreamed up on a sheet of paper: QuizUp, a mobile trivia game that would become a blockbuster within three months.
That isn’t to say that Fridriksson doesn’t have regrets. Plain Vanilla’s inaugural game, The Moogies, landed in the app store in Dec 2011. It promptly flopped. An entire year of Plain Vanilla development time was lost to the noise of the Apple app store. Why didn’t I market it differently or add this or that, Fridriksson anguished. He forwent his own salary for a few months as he frantically weighed the options for a studio whose only product had sunk.
He hit his lowest point. His friends told him, "Stop trying to conquer the world with an app," and he applied for regular 9 to 5s. But he couldn’t abandon his naive trust in incremental progress.
"In the end the first app was just a stepping stone into something else. Things just have this way of turning out fine," Fridriksson said. "I didn't understand why at that point in time, but everything helps you get to the next level."
His trust in "the next level" has been a long time coming. His first big startup success was Hive, a broadband ISP in Iceland that got bought by Vodafone in 2007. Fridriksson bounced around working as a television news reporter and other odd jobs before pursuing an MBA at Oxford to see more of the world. At Oxford, Fridriksson reveled in his culturally diverse peers and became determined to build a global company.
Fridriksson had three months of visa time in the U.S. when he landed in San Francisco. When he cold-called VC groups, the few that returned his calls said they could make an appointment ...in three months. Frantic, Fridriksson changed tactics and studied his VC marks to see when he could "happen" to bump into them at lunch. In retrospect, he says, it was borderline stalking. But it got the job done: Plain Vanilla got $1.2 million in seed funding.
If there’s anyone Fridriksson trusts most, it’s himself. How else could he keep trusting his gut to fly into the unknown? With the $1.2 million, Fridriksson began building the studio in Iceland but knew his team needed a stepping stone challenge. Trusting his gut, Fridriksson bought a ticket to Hollywood looking for a studio that could use a branded trivia app. Once again, he flew halfway around the world to a city where he knew nobody.
Lions Gate Entertainment took Fridriksson up on his offer. One Twilight Saga trivia app later, Plain Vanilla had a hit and a million users to study use behavior. With a legion of happy Twihards as clout, Plain Vanilla went back to the funding blackboard. It only took two weeks to scare up $2.5 million in funding. The train was rolling toward QuizUp.
If there’s a lesson to take from Fridriksson, it’s that indulging in naive trust works when you go for it one hundred percent. Keep honest in your business dealings, he says, and you earn trust and show others trust. Like what happened with his hero Candide, the lumps will come—but abandon honesty and you lose a reputation for earnest cooperation.
Plain Vanilla’s unofficial slogan is "Why Not?" Fridriksson was absolutely sure that he’d land in San Francisco and people would throw money at his app idea. He hadn’t even lined up a place to stay.
"I went to SF with little more than a pitch: ‘I’ve got this idea for a quiz app!’ It’s not really the strongest idea for a pitch. In retrospect, it’s kind of stupid," says Fridriksson. "In retrospect, if I had done a lot of research, I probably never would have gone."