“We Do it for the Users”: Opera’s Twinkle-Toed Tenor
Twinkle toed. Those are not the words that come to mind when you see Lars Boilesen. The man, in true Nordic tradition, is tall. And with a great head of hair. And in supremely non-Nordic tradition, looks a bit like author-actor-iPhone fan Stephen Fry.
And yet the man drove into an Indian mall in a rickshaw, got off and shook a very efficient leg as he danced along with his team members to celebrate 50 million Indian users for Opera Mini. And he did so with a smile that clearly came from his heart.
There’s more to Opera CEO Lars Rabaek Boilesen than meets the eye.
What did meet my eye when I was introduced to him was a tall gentleman in a suit, who had just attended a very formal award ceremony of some sort. One could picture him with an Oscar, thanking his team and others for ‘this special moment,’ further accentuating the similarity with Mr Fry.
A man of surprises
Any resemblance to the British thespian however disappears when Boilesen speaks. The accent is distinctly Scandinavian (Boilesen is Danish). And like many tall people, he actually speaks very softly, a quality his predecessor Jon von ‘booming voice’ Tetzchner did not share. What, however, he does share with Tetzchner is a sense of humour. Only instead of a roar of laughter and a thump on the back (which more often than not restricts circulation for a while!), what you get is a smile, and an occasional chuckle.
You also get used to being surprised. Pleasantly.
On seeing me, Boilesen shook my hand, and said, “Tough times.”
“Yes,” I said. “The traffic in Delhi can be bad…”
He smiled (the Stephen Fry doppelganger-ism becomes even more apparent when he smiles) and pointed at the jersey I was wearing below my jacket and said, “No, no, I was referring to Liverpool. They are not having a good time, are they?”
“No, indeed,” I smiled wryly. Well, it HAS been a rough season for the Merseyside
“Don’t worry,” he said, patting me on the back. “They will get better. Football teams should have a refresh button too, yes, like browsers?”
And then it was time to talk tech, with Opera Mini Product Manager Christian Uribe, and Sunil Kamath, Vice President for South Asia. “That running Opera Mini?” he asked, pointing to the BlackBerry Passport I was using. When I replied it was not, because Opera Mini was not available for BlackBerry users, he frowned and looked at Christian. Then grinning mischievously, he slid the device across to Ube and said, “Install Opera Mini on it for Nimish, will you? It is not in the App World, he says.”
The browser business: “We just want people to have a great experience”
The conversation on browsers took a familiar route, with Christian looking up (increasingly annoyed at the Passport – it can do that to people not very familiar with it) and chipping in with statistics and rationale as we talked about the new Opera Mini, with its layout and stress on video compression. The last is clearly something that is very important for Boilesen, “I think it’s a big deal for us, the video compression,” he says. “Because video is really booming on networks, and in some market like North America 50 per cent of all traffic is video. Video is really the main driver now on networks and we have just launched video compression and,” he pauses subtly for effect and delivers his coup de grace, “And no one has that!”
Mind you, the stress on video has not made Opera take their eyes off what Christian Ure calls ‘reality’ – the mainstream user, who does not use heavy specced phones but might actually be using a basic one with a 320 x 240 resolution. “We have to make web pages feel lighter,” Uribe stressed, “And make the interface more icon based.” Coast, their completely reworked browser for iOS, is clearly a big inspiration for them with its relatively uncluttered interface. “All the features you like in Coast,” Boilesen added, tapping the table lightly, “You will see them in our other browsers too.”
A question on the multitude of Opera browsers (Opera, Opera Mobile, Opera Mini, Coast by Opera) makes the trio smile wryly. They looked at each other. Ure shrugged and gets back to trying to install Opera Mini on my Passport, and Boilesen answered, “That’s’ true. That’s why we are working very hard on that… if you see there’s only one Opera browser on the iPhone because we entered iOS later than the Android and feature phones. I think the future is Opera Mini because this the strongest brand we have.” He paused to think then added, “The problem is Android because many people prefer different solutions here so we are not sure yet that we want to turn three products into one product.”
What about the challenge of being a third-party browser that has to go up against preloaded opposition? Boilesen said Opera was tying up with a number of Indian manufacturers to offer the browser preloaded on their handsets. He, however, could not resist a gentle jibe at the opposition. “If you look at Google/Apple, they are not focused on new features,” he pointed out. “They’re quite happy with how the situation is. They use their browser to lock-in users – search on google, use Gmail, use iTunes. We are more open. We just want people to have a great experience when they log in to a browser. Hopefully, stay a little longer in our browser.”
“India is our home market!”
He also points out Opera’s strength as an advertising platform. “Every month from our platform we send out 70 billion ad impression, we are the biggest independent mobile advertising firm in the world. We have the third biggest advertising platform after Google and Facebook,” he said.
A lot of those ad impressions come from India, which is Opera’s biggest market, with 50 million users out of a global total of 270 million. “India is our home market,” Boilesen said. He and the team said thanks to the country by organizing a flash mob in one of the malls in Delhi, which culminated with Boilesen arriving in a rickshaw, dismounting and dancing more than a step or two to a Hindi film song.
And he clearly had fun doing it too.
It is not about the money
Fun, it transpires is an important part of life at Opera. It is more important than money. For the only time in our conversation, Boilesen’s voice takes on a slightly emotional edge as he describes what Opera works for:
“We are a company founded on the idea that we do it for the users. When our engineers make Coast or Opera Max, no one is asking them how to make money on that, it’s all about make something for the users. We just don’t only think about monetization,” he paused (a rare occurrence, as he is a lucid speaker), as if attempting to digest what he has said. Then he looked up at me and smiled, “We are not a charity company, and we find a way to make money. If we get 10 million users we can find a way to make money. If we don’t do that what’s the point? So, you see, we don’t think about making money when developing a product.”
Seeing my eyes narrow a bit cynically, he went on. “When the team came out with Coast, no one asked them about money. That’s how we work. We figure that out later. You need to provide a really good environment to work. We want people to make a difference to our users. Because of which we still have that edge.” He paused once more and then added very quietly. So quietly that it could have been missed in a noisy room.
“Otherwise…otherwise, we will become like anybody else.”
Shades of Jony Ive and his “Our goal isn’t to make money. Our goal is to design and develop and bring to market good products” philosophy. Judging by Opera and Apple, it clearly works.
What had not worked, however, were Christian Uribe’s efforts to get Opera Mini on the BlackBerry Passport. He handed me the device back with a sigh that had as much of despair at the results of his efforts as at the interface of the device. “We will make sure Opera Mini gets on the App World soon,” he assured me. “I will make sure he makes sure,” Boilesen added, with a smile.
A man of surprises (concluded)
After I reached home, I dropped the Opera CEO a mail, thanking him for his time. He replied that it was a pleasure and he signed off with four letters: YNWA.
I had no idea what they stood for. An unpronounceable Norwegian way of saying ‘regards’? A special designation at a browser company?
So I dropped another mail asking what they stood for.
Pat came the answer: You’ll Never Walk Alone.
It was the anthem of Liverpool, the club Boilesen had referred to when he had clapped eyes on me.
He enters malls in a rickshaw.
He dances to Indian songs.
He remembers the name of the football club you support.
He heads a company that is the world’s third largest advertising platform and makes one of the world’s most popular mobile browsers.
And he does so without making a fuss.
And while having a whole lot of fun. So what if he prefers to smile rather than laugh?
Lars Rabaek Boilesen, Opera’s CEO, or should I say ‘tenor,’ (hey, the company is called ‘Opera’ after all!) is a man of surprises.
And all of them are pleasant ones.