Jon Olafsson has been a music executive, a media mogul, and a retiree. Today he is a beverage executive. Here’s how he made it big.
At age 14, Jon Olafsson started working his first gig as a band promoter in his native Iceland. Two years later, he was managing bands professionally. Soon he emerged as the country’s most influential music executive, owning 85 percent music recorded in Iceland. Over time, Olafsson expanded business—and then in 1999 merged his companies into Northern Lights Communications, a multimedia conglomerate of film, radio, television, print, and mobile. His media-mogul image earned him the tongue-in-cheek title: “the Icelandic Richard Branson.” But in 2003, Olafsson sold everything, in an attempt to retire. It wasn’t long before he dipped his toe in an entirely different business: the beverage industry. This isn’t an entertainment-industry branding play—he’s not selling energy drinks or bottles of bubbly. Instead, Olafsson founded Icelandic Water Holdings with his son. He told John McDermott of Inc.com why he did it.
You had a successful media company—and then you let it go to get into the bottled water business, which is such a crowded space. Why?
The reality is, it all just sort of happened. I sold everything in 2003 and I had moved already to the U.K. As you know, Iceland is a very small country. Land-wise, it’s the same size as New York. So, it’s not a big playground, is it?
Right—so how does geography affect entrepreneurship in Iceland?
You have to be able to do a lot of things to survive. Most people have more than one job. My mother was born in a dirt house. Iceland has come a long since the second World War. We took a giant step into the future. For me personally, after selling Northern Lights Communications I wanted to retire, only to realize that I’m a work junkie. At the same time, my son was working on a product where a Saudi said, “I want to get into the water business. Can you help me find something in Iceland?” He looked around and found this company. He won the bid, but the Saudi never paid. So we were kind of stuck with it. That was not our intention.
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