The Oslo Startup Scene from an Expat Perspective
Cofounder and CPO at laiout
Cristiano Coretti is as passionate about proptech (the use of digital tools to disrupt architecture and real estate) as he is about Oslo. Coming from a family of architects and civil engineers, the Italian’s career change from architecture to tech came across as a weird decision. "But that was why I came to Norway," he says. "Antler in Norway is one of the biggest proptech hubs in Europe. The Nordics made sense to me, especially because I love Scandinavian design."
His move started with a stay in a quarantine hotel in January 2021. Under COVID-19 restrictions, he spent 10 days isolated before being "released into the wild," as he recalls. Little did he know that this experience would kickstart his entrepreneurial journey in Norway, because during his stay at the hotel, he met Wouter Merkestein, who was planning to join the same entrepreneur-in-residence program at Antler. "We became friends. We were sitting in a hotel corridor, two meters away from each other, drinking tea and talking about startup ideas," Cristiano says.
Once the Antler program finished, they joined forces with Isak Buhl-Mortensen and founded laiout in April 2021, an automated floor-plan platform for architects, property managers and property developers that had started as an idea just a few months before.
Before his move to Oslo, the Italian entrepreneur had lived in Rome, Italy; Istanbul, Turkey; and London, UK. "I wasn't very happy living in London during COVID. It was evident that it was the right time to try something different. I’d always wanted to start something of my own but never found the right people to do it with. Antler helped a lot because it gave me a chance to believe in myself."
During the three months in the Norwegian accelerator, he realized that his architectural experience was just as relevant as someone’s who has been in the business for over twenty years. Antler gave him the challenge he’d been looking for. "At the company I was working at in London, I never really had the chance to prove myself. It wasn't enough. I needed a strong challenge, and a startup environment created that. I needed this kind of kick. At Antler, I was working with scientists with double PhDs and people with crazy CVs. There were so many highs and lows. Crying one day, laughing another."
To Cristiano, Oslo meant the start of his entrepreneurship and also the beginning of a personal journey: he was starting from scratch in a new city. "When you arrive, you don't know anyone; you have to build an entire network,” he says. “For me, it was the third time starting over. In your twenties, it's a lot easier. You go out, grab a drink and meet twenty people. But in your late thirties, it's a bit more complicated. People are married and have kids. It's more difficult now, but I've been fortunate with the people I met. People are the reason you stay, at the end of the day."
Being a city person and growing up in some of the largest European cities, he loves to feel the buzz of a metropolitan city, and Oslo offers that, even if the city's 2023 population of just over 1 million falls short of the 9.6 million of London or the 4.3 million of Rome. "I'm still an architect. I like buildings and walking around the city. The asphalt, the beautiful stones on a building. I like feeling the city's touch, like an insider: sitting in a café, watching people, enjoying nature. I love the sea too. For me, Oslo has everything that London was missing. I needed to be close to the sea. Even if I get lost here, I'm only fifteen or twenty minutes away from the seaside. That is now my only condition when moving to a new place."
He also appreciates the other natural perks of being based in Oslo. "I love winter, for example. I love skiing. It was crazy that I could jump on the metro and get to the ski resort. Maybe it isn't the best one, but where in the world can you go from the city center to a ski resort or an ocean swim on the same day? Not many places, I can assure you. I'm very happy now."
Being a citizen of the European Union, he didn't have to go through visa applications or residency permits, but moving from the UK to Norway during the pandemic and as Brexit became official added some complexity to his challenges. There were many bureaucratic hurdles to go through. "To access almost every aspect of the Norwegian system, from a bank account to making payments online, you need the BankID. It took us almost one year to get it. One year of one-hour train journeys to go to another city to bring some documents as there were no appointments available in Oslo, or ask a friend to rent a car for me as I couldn’t use normal apps. I had to get a friend to buy me a bed because, even though I have six different bank cards, none of them worked in Norway. When I finally got a Norwegian bank card, I discovered I could only use it to get cash at an ATM or go to the supermarket. I felt weird, like I was twelve years old, and my mom gave me pocket money to buy candy. You need to be strong; the initial struggles can be tough. And I can imagine that the barrier might be even more challenging coming from outside the EU."
When you become friends with a Norwegian, it will be forever. Actually, you get closer to them when you're not physically present. You get closer when you're not always around.
He's also quick to admit that the city is investing a lot of time and money into the entrepreneurial ecosystem and restructuring its openness for talent. "We're very lucky to start a company here. Oslo means a lot to us; it has given us a lot of advantages. Once you get things in place, you will feel totally integrated."
Cristiano also loves the Norwegian welfare focus and the work-life culture in the country. "If you lose your job, the state supports you; you’re not alone. If you must leave work at 4 PM. to pick up your kids, that's fine. Here, I was taught not to send an email on a Friday afternoon, because no one would read it. In London, sometimes I used to work until 10 PM. on a Friday, because if a client sends an email at 6 PM., you need to reply and finish the work before leaving the office. As a foreigner, those new habits felt strange, but in a positive way. You need to learn how to adapt to this new environment psychologically."
Another good part of the Norwegian work culture is the lack of founder's anxiety. None of the initial challenges has tainted his entrepreneurial experience in Oslo. "From a founder's perspective, Norway has been fantastic. Pressure is not really pressure here. The difficult part is entering the ecosystem,” he says. But luckily, platforms like Antler are making it easier for entrepreneurs to network and get their foot in the door, and the startup world is increasingly becoming more international. "You talk with people from Russia to China to the United States and South Africa. It's a beautiful mix. At laiout, we are eight people from seven nationalities. Two of them are Norwegian, and I've heard them speaking their mother tongue maybe twice in two years. It's a smaller city, which makes the ecosystem vibrant and potentially better than larger ones. Startup people go to the same places, so I met most of my friends in coworking places or events, which are usually held in the same places. You see the same faces and have a lot in common, because you tend to have the same issues. People help each other because they've been there; they know the struggle you're going through."
At the moment, Cristiano’s work with laiout keeps him in Norway for around seven months of the year. "There's work travel, and there's travel to see my family,” he says. “That's kind of normal when you're not from here. I have this beautiful feeling when I come back…. It's like, oh, I'm home. I recognize the streets, I walk around without overthinking, I know where to go, and my feet will get me there." After living in different cities of all shapes and sizes, he learned to love the cultural exchange unique to each place. "You learn what your preferences are, which city you feel more at home at. And you collect the best from each one. Sometimes, I leave the window open during the night, and I don't hear a noise. Not even the cars make a noise; they are all electric. Sometimes, I just need someone screaming down the street. A bit of craziness can give a creative rush. That's something I'll always need; it's just who I am," he says. "Coming back to Oslo feels safe and calm."
[Flash Q & A]
What's your favorite book?
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
I love Netflix's Rise of Empires: Ottoman docu-series.
What's your most used app?
What do you do every day to get ready to work?
I put on my small headphones, and I listen to music when I'm getting ready.
What coffee shop would you recommend?
My favorite coffee shop is next to the sea, the Porsche Studio Café. It's a partnership between Porsche, the car brand, and Supreme Roastworks, a coffee brand. I love cars, I love coffee; I'm Italian, after all.
What restaurant would you recommend?
Girotondo, an Italian restaurant. It's different from other restaurants because you have big tables and you sit together with other people. The food is good, but the community vibe is even better.
Do you have a favorite building in Oslo?
I would say, the opera house. It's a relaxing building that gives everyone a nice feeling. And the materials are incredible: white marble from Italy, glass, beautiful wood.
What's something that a person moving to Oslo should get as soon as they arrive?
For something not physical: patience. For something physical: alcohol. Taxes are crazy, so get some bottles at the airport. Every single Norwegian stops at the duty-free to buy alcohol.