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Sebastian Knutsson

Sebastian Knutsson is quick, creative, and adaptable. While others work to develop a current idea, he’s already imagining the next. The path that led him to where he is today is perhaps just as compelling as the creative products he designs.

“I was born in Lidingö, outside Stockholm. My childhood was not the typical
Swedish one. My father was an entrepreneur. After graduating from the Stockholm School of Economics, he saw what was happening in London during The Swinging Sixties, so he brought that freedom to Sweden.”

“In 1966, he started one of the country’s first fashion houses: Gul&Blå. Two years later, he met my mother who was an Italian fashion designer. She joined the business and, that same year, I was born.”

The big boom came in the 1970s with “V jeans”: tight to the knee, then flared to the ground. These bell bottoms took the world by storm. People lined up for blocks every Thursday just to buy a pair. By the next morning, they were sold out. From ABBA to Andy Warhol, everyone wanted to be seen in Gul&Blå.

“Mom was the designer; Dad was one too, in mindset. Product design is about understanding the creative without necessarily being good at drawing. Knowing how to communicate an idea in order to create something, then finding competent people to help build it. Dad taught me this. He recognized things that were trendy and right for the time. Mom was great at creating them.”

“I have two older half-siblings from my father’s previous wife. They were two and three years old when I was born. I also have a sister who is 11 months younger. That’s four babies born within five years to two different mothers.”

“Filippa and Lukas lived in London and would spend Christmas, Easter, and summer here in Stockholm with me and Sabina. They relocated to Sweden after university.”

“We were always very close: my sisters worked at the family business and my brother lived in America for five years as a professional skydiver in Florida. He was the freestyle world champion several times before moving back to Sweden in 1993 where he married and had children.”

“A Cambridge-educated engineer, he actually worked as a developer at Spray, my first startup. Lukas was very experienced and had done over 350 BASE jumps. His last jump was in Switzerland.”

Eighteen years have passed, but there is still sadness in Sebastian’s eyes when he speaks of that time. He remembers how his child was just born when they got the call.

“My brother did what he loved to do. He had two sons and, even though he was very safety-conscious, skydiving is still risky. His friends, who had no kids, BASE jumped the day before and Lukas didn’t feel it was safe. The next day though, he did. But his parachute never opened.”

“I never took those kinds of risks. My passion was video games. I begged my father to take me every weekend to the arcade. Some of those places were really dodgy. Dad joked about how all the money he put into tennis camps for me never really paid off, but my begging to play video games somehow did.”

Sebastian was very close with his parents; however, they worked a lot.

“Especially my mom; I guess I inherited my intense work ethic from her. We always had different nannies; one, in particular, took care of the household from the time I was ten until I was 18. He was a super funny guy.”

Sebastian’s father refused to do the military service, so he had to serve 30 days in jail. Sebastian remembers visiting him there when he was a little boy.

He says his dad made a lot of friends in prison. Sebastian’s parents always wanted to help others, driven by what he calls the hippie mentality. They even employed ex-cons to clean the company stores. Sebastian remembers one guy, in particular, with a lot of tattoos and a sketchy past, who was actually inspired to start his own company.

“We grew up in a very open household with a lot of interesting people. The first house we lived in was quite big: the four of us children running around with our flamboyant nanny, all of his boyfriends, and a host of seamstresses sewing jeans in the basement.”

“At one point, we even had ex-cons living on our top floor, whom my parents were trying to rehabilitate. It all worked out fine – until one of them had a relapse and stole our TV.”

Sebastian laughs as he remembers.

School was a constant though, for Sebastian. He excelled in math, physics, and chemistry. Upon graduating, he went to Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology to study biochemistry.

That lasted three days.

“As soon as I heard that I had to memorize the periodic table, I dropped out. It wasn’t for me. I worked at Dad’s shop for two years before applying to the Stockholm School of Economics. One of my first courses was math.”

“I was surprised that everyone thought it was much harder than I did. I guess having studied more advanced math in high school had somehow given me a leg up.”

This was 1990 and Gul&Blå was still doing quite well.

“While my classmates were trying to get summer jobs in finance, I was working at the family business. Even before starting my studies, when I did my military service in Luleå, I would board the train at 4:00 p.m. every Friday afternoon, arrive in Stockholm the next morning at 8:00 a.m. and open the store at 10:00 a.m. Then, I would take the train back again the next day: 16 hours north. I continued working at the store while going to SSE.”

Then the economic crisis hit. A crisis hit their family as well.

“My father got terminal cancer and was given six months to live. When I graduated from SSE in 1993, Dad wanted to focus on his journey to recovery, so he closed down the family business. My sister, her husband, and a friend started their own company.”

Filippa K is now one of the biggest fashion houses in Scandinavia.

“There were two top gigs for an SSE grad at the time: banker or management consultant. As my grades were in the top 10th percentile, I thought those jobs were the ones I should be targeting. My wife says I’m very competitive. I try to hide it, but I think she’s right.”

An opportunity popped up with a company called Everyday, looking to hire an internet manager for its games business. Sebastian immediately jumped without knowing anything about it. The CEO was an SSE graduate looking for young SSE graduates. Sebastian says it was a good fit for him.

“It was an interesting, but a super messy company. Three months in and the marketing director was fired. There I was: fresh out of SSE with no marketing experience and suddenly in charge. The CEO who had been mentoring us, was also fired. Two interim CEOs came in and had no clue what we were doing. Five months after starting, our entire group decided to leave.”

“The last week was nasty: those in charge keeping us in different rooms and strong-arming us into staying. But the bullying only made us stronger. We put up our own money and launched the internet consulting company, Spray.”

Four of Spray’s six founders were SSE alumni. They wanted to be a smaller tech company instead of a big enterprise. The dot com industry exploded, and those very enterprises became their clients. By the third year, Spray’s six employees grew to 2000. Sebastian remembers:

“We did some things right, but so many things wrong. We grew too fast. Then we merged with an American company, Razorfish and listed on the Nasdaq in 1998. All proceeds went to building the portal business and competing with Yahoo in Europe.”

The epiphany happened when they realized people were using Spray to meet each other. They launched Spray Date, complete with two different gay sites, which were also really successful in Europe.

“It’s hard to replicate that kind of experience. We attracted tons of great people, worked like crazy, and had loads of fun. We built services that nobody had done before, so no one could tell us how to do it better.”

“I was 25 years old and met my wife around this time. We’ve been together for 25 years. Malin took control of the home. With our first two babies, I never took parental leave at all. This was a big strain on her. A lot of people romanticize having really small children; neither of us do. They’re much more fun when they are older.”

Sebastian set up a temporary company called Fjord for which Sebastian designed the concept. As Riccardo Zacconi had been Managing Director at Spray, Sebastian had kept in touch with him. Two years into Fjord, Sebastian and Riccardo started talking about a new venture.

In 2003, King was born: an interactive entertainment company for the mobile world.

“Setting up King led to a lot of work and travel again. This time, we wanted something that worked when having small children. We’re really smart about the hours we work now. King has a great culture that fosters work-life balance.”

After some changes in the business in 2010, Riccardo said to Sebastian: “You have to create the most popular game in the world.”

As the inventor of more than 100 video games, Sebastian jumped at the challenge.

“When I come up with ideas, I usually start with the logic of the game. I like to give the artists creative freedom when designing the impressions. With this game though, I wanted something everyone could relate to. Instead of being a fancy object that you never see in real life, I wanted hard glossy candy.”

Without even knowing it, this made Sebastian’s idea much more marketable. In 2012, King built its most successful game on Facebook, bringing it to mobile by the end of the year. By 2013, Candy Crush Saga was a worldwide household name.

“People do it to relax and unwind after a long day. Many think we came out of nowhere but, by that time, we had been around for ten years. Even those in the gaming industry didn’t know who we were since we were developing niche games for housewives. Most of our players were women aged 35 to 45. The typical PlayStation 3 player wasn’t even interested in our games... They didn’t think we were cool enough.”

Now Candy Crush is among the most well-known digital games on the planet with 3 billion downloads.

“I was interviewed on Canadian TV and was told that I’m ruining Canadian sex lives because so many people are playing Candy Crush in bed instead of making babies. I always loved the simple arcade games, like Pac Man: put in money; play the game. But these simple puzzles are still quite difficult to master. Candy Crush is evergreen; it takes a long time to master and there’s no time pressure. You should be able to play a game, go offline, then come back to it later and continue playing.”

“With the mobile psyche, people don’t have time to commit to a lot: if you have two minutes on the bus, you can pick it up; drop it, get a coffee; come back, and play it again. The simplicity of the game is what really appeals to people. That, and the endless variations you can create.”

“You challenge yourself to beat the challenge of the puzzle.”

King’s founders knew how to scale the service, work with data, and do smart marketing. Their previous online and dot com experience allowed the founders to operate on a really high level with a different mindset from the traditional gaming companies: creating, building, and scaling. Sebastian is pleased with King’s legacy. There is an air of humble generosity to almost everything he says.

“Many have gone on to set up their own businesses or other successful joint startups. There’s one thing about having a product that has been successful, but what’s really important is fostering other people to go on and become successful too. It’s amazing to be part of that journey: Creating the company and then having people go on to create things themselves. That’s what makes me proud.”

Sebastian says he’s uncertain if King will remain in its current form in 20 years or whether it will go on to become something else. He believes they have created some products, such as Candy Crush, that will live on forever. But for him, it’s more about the company’s heritage, its culture, and the team of people they have brought together.

And what about Sebastian’s secret to success?

“There’s always a bit of luck in ending up in the right place at the right time. I guess not everyone knows when to grasp an opportunity, I suppose. I think it has helped coming from a family that’s creative: design wise and conceptually. My interest in natural sciences, technology, and economics has helped me to communicate with technological people and artistic people, as well as to understand the business aspect of an idea and knowing how to scale it.”

Working from a 360-degree perspective is crucial for Sebastian. His breadth in that space has allowed him to play a role in making the execution part of a creation also successful.

“It’s easy to have ideas, but the execution is 99 percent of it. I don’t get a creative idea just because I think it’s a beautiful thing; I need to understand that it’s going to make good business, too. But don’t try to do everything yourself. I can’t draw. I can’t do art. Partnering with good people who are really skillful at what they do is extremely important.”

“I need other people to help my ideas come to life. Dad taught me this. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he said he couldn’t trust the doctors if they wouldn’t look him in the eye.”

“He went his own way again, exploring different ways of healing. He turned to those who specialized in alternative medicine in the hope of curing his disease.”

“Dad had high hopes to one day open a health retreat and use his experience to inspire others. He planned to offer short-term courses focused on training for life. He wanted to help people with busy lives open their minds to other ways of living.”

That was thirty years ago.

“What my father went through showed me that the journey is the most important, that you can always use your experience to inspire others, and that you should never, ever, give up.”

Lars Knutsson now runs a health retreat in Dalarna called Bara Vara (Simply, To Be). He is 87 years old and cancer free.


Text: Karyn McGettigan