GigaOM Euro 20: Wild cards

Categorizing Europe’s best startups is hard: good ideas don’t respect the boundaries that journalists like to draw, and even the greatest businesses sometimes get hidden in plain sight. So although our list of 20 has included some companies with huge ambitions, break out potential, and long histories there are others out there that are doing great work but don’t quite fit the mold.

These outliers are our Wild Cards. Some are surprising, some are potentially risky, and a couple are largely unknown. If we do a 2012 version of our Euro 20, we’ll look back on our list and let you know if we hit these bets out of the park or swung and missed.

Grey Area

Founded: Helsinki, 2010
Investors: Lifeline Ventures, Ilkka Paananen, Mikko Kodisoja, Index Ventures, London Venture Partners, Initial Capital
Business: Location-aware mobile gaming

It’s worth being wary of any company that melds together several hot concepts — and that complaint could easily be leveled against Finnish games developer Grey Area for its combination of location, presence, gamification and mobile. But if its first title, Shadow Cities, is anything to go by, then our concerns might go unfounded.

The company is creating a strong platform to build location-aware games that go significantly further than most previous attempts, with a style and cohesion that many rivals lack. And while this style of gaming is an acquired taste that won’t suit everybody, it has increasing appeal for hardcore gamers… which could mean that the mainstream might be a little farther behind.

Founded: London, 2010
Investors: Brent Hoberman, John Hunt, Marc Simoncini, PROfounders Capital
Business: Design retail

Online retail is a really strong area for growth in Europe, and London-based Made matches this trend with several other important characteristics. It specializes in offering users a way to buy high-end furniture at low prices, which is a market segment that seems less vulnerable to wider economic turmoil than some others. It works through a mixture of group buying — orders are batched up once a week, not on a piece-by-piece basis — and custom manufacturing, with most of the goods made to order in China and shipped back to Europe.

The result is that, for those who are prepared to wait for several weeks while their purchases are built and delivered, there are serious bargains to be had. And it’s also a model that could easily be replicated in other markets.


Founded: Switzerland, 2001
Investors: Private
Business: Casual online and mobile games

In many ways, Miniclip is an exception on our list. It’s one of the oldest companies we’ve featured, and one that has operated only with private investment. That means it’s often been overlooked. But even though the shape of its business may be unfamiliar to the world of web startups, it’s hard to imagine a better example of how to be successful.

Profitable since its first year of operation, it has continued to grow dramatically year after year and now has 65 million users each month playing games on its site or downloading them to their phones. Over the years the company’s founders have watched as upstarts like Zynga soar, or local rivals like Playfish sell for hundreds of millions of dollars. But now that even their longest-standing rival, Seattle’s Popcap, is a target for acquisition, the time may be right to capitalize on that long-burning success.


Founded: Stockholm, 2009
Investors: Private
Business: Makers of Minecraft

When the game Minecraft first emerged, it was hard to imagine that it would do anything but disappear into obscurity. First, it was hardly a game at all — just a Lego-like building environment. Second, as a personal project put together by lone Swedish programmer Markus Persson, it had hardly any resources behind it. And then there was the fact that it was stupendously ugly, with graphics that looked as if they’d been stuck in a 1990s time warp.

Yet the Internet turned it into a breakout hit: the addictive nature of the game itself, plus its collaborative online play and virality helped it sell more than 2.5 million copies. On the back of that unexpected success, Mojang is expanding (albeit slowly) and looking to make good with improvements and a new title: Scrolls.


Founded: Budapest, 2009
Investors: Magyar Telekom, Sunstone Capital, TED
Business: Presentation software

When Hungarian startup Prezi launched its Flash-based presentation toolkit two years ago, the Web went crazy over it. After all, it did something that really lit up the senses for a certain class of connected business person; turn dull Powerpoints into something dynamic, Internet-friendly and beautiful-looking. Instead of flipping between slides, users could zoom in and out of their pages and give their talks some real power.

The noise has died down since that initial hubbub, partly because Prezi was overused by the early adopter crowd, which is something that led to overkill, and allowed others to dismiss it as a mere gimmick. While the buzz has faded, the team has been slowly adding more features, trying to iron out bugs and broadening its scope with new ways to interact with the system. If the way people actually use Prezi catches up with the concept, then maybe it could catch fire again.