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Exploring the Nordics’ healthy advantage in leisure tech

The Nordic region is home to an increasing number of global leisure tech startups

There is a fine line between sport and leisure, but their cultures are often poles apart. With the former entrenched in notions of competition, performance and tradition, the latter is often more flexible, holistic and accessible – a perfect breeding ground for technology to flourish, and for tech startups to infiltrate.

Pastimes such as yoga, youth sport or fishing are associated with ideas of “hobby”, “health” and “wellness”. And it’s these terms that have ushered in a strong Nordic tech startup contingent that already prioritises social implications above all else.

“We have seen that the social network behemoths sometimes don’t bring relevant content to the user,” said Johan Attby, CEO of Fishbrain. “Though platforms like Facebook and Twitter are brilliant for general interactions and awareness, there is a separate demand globally for specialist social networks. That’s why entrepreneurs are targeting these more niche pastimes; building communities around a specific interest to make conversations more dynamic and engaging.”

Fishbrain is a global fishing app, and Attby citied the activity’s global participation rates as the reason for its initial inception. However, he also believes the company’s success has derived from this very Nordic ability to look beyond the obvious users and create routes to underserved markets.

“The Nordics are the best in the world at collectives,” he said. “Living in social democracies driven often by consensus-thinking, we are experts at cohesive, group interactions. We believe the sum of our parts is greater than the individual, and this viewpoint is ingrained into our national psyche.

“What that means is we are brilliant at building these community-driven platforms and exporting them internationally.

“Think Equilab, the network for horse-riding based in Gothenburg, or Vivino, the Danish wine-tasting community,” said Attby. “Both are examples of how the Nordics have built startups that target hobbies and build communities around them.”

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Heja is another company looking to capture the best of social to enhance the realm of leisure. Focused on solving the day-to-day communication and coordination of parents and coaches, the platform already hosts 100,000 teams in various sports. It was created for very similar reasons to counterparts such as Fishbrain – “to introduce and apply mobile digital solutions to a previously underserved sports scene”.

“People involved in niche sports are, by their very nature, incredibly passionate about what they do, so being able to capture this segment represents a huge opportunity for startups,” said Heja CEO Mikael Blix.

“As smartphone penetration increases, it’s going to become second nature for teams to turn to specially designed communication tools, just as we now automatically turn to Google Maps to find our way around, or Spotify when we want to listen to music or podcasts.

“The combination of ever-increasing smartphone usage and the fact that people will always play sports means that, with our expertise and product-first approach, we have a hugely exciting opportunity ahead of us,” he said.

Combining digital and physical

Niche hobbies often breed a passion unparalleled in more traditional mainstream sports. Inevitably, this can lead to increased uptake when it comes to tech solutions. Even though football or tennis may have more participants or teams, it often means that tech is either already out there or it’s so settled and saturated in its infrastructure that tech isn’t thought to be needed to improve it.

However, with more niche sports, pastimes or wellness activities, there is often a “wave” of enthusiasm that comes with them, with people more receptive to tools and systems that make the hobby more accessible, socially inclusive, exciting or even more simple to participate in.

Companies such as Fishbrain and Heja have tapped into this, as has Playfinity with its goal to harness those appealing traits at a much younger age.

“Kids love to play sports because they like to compete or to be with friends,” said the company’s CTO, Jarle Nordby-Boe. “The main reason they stop doing sports is that it gets too serious too soon. In many cases, this is driven by the parents’ ambitions. We want kids to be kids, and enjoy playing sports for a longer amount of time. We do that by making games and activities that improve their skills, while having fun.

“By combining games on phones with physical gameplay, exercise doesn’t become a chore. Because it is gamified, the kids simply don’t want to stop – the gameplay drives them to repeat the training sessions.”

The value behind health

Playfinity’s model was first applied to handball, a mainstream sport in the Nordics especially. However, there was a quick realisation that the themes of fun, sociability, affordability and health were universal. It’s here where the Nordic influence can be understood and explained.

First, in seeing that these characteristics have often been overlooked in sport, companies such as Fishbrain, Heja and Playfinity immediately unearthed a competitive advantage. “The Nordic startup scene has its foundation in thinking global first, which allows us to be more niche without losing valuable reach,” said Blix.

As it’s constantly analysing the global situation, few ecosystems are better placed to realise the potential influence of tech on burgeoning waves and trends. This evolution of the health, wellness and non-competitive sport sphere is a prime example.

Fishbrain’s Attby said: “Technology is coming on leaps and bounds in the broad health and exercise sector, and this provides a strong bedrock for apps in both the sports and pastime space.

“As more investment floods into health, such as Google’s acquisition of Fitbit, this has a trickle-down effect on sport- and hobby-tech. The greater the understanding of our bodies, the greater value physical activities have, and the more people will look to digital solutions to enhance these hobbies.”

Nordby-Boe said this may be just the start of a far more concerted push into the sub-sector, especially considering the Nordics’ culturally ingrained leaning towards long-term health in a sporting context. “People in the Nordics are generally more interested in outdoor activities than in many other regions,” he said. “It’s no coincidence that two of the most popular companies for activity trackers and smartwatches, Suunto and Polar, are based in Finland.

“Even for kids, we want them to learn and enjoy a sport rather than turn them into professional athletes, and this has had a direct influence on companies such as Playfinity taking this approach to tech in the leisure space.”

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