‘In Sweden, there’s no excuse not to start a business if you have a good idea’

"Sweden has this reputation of being a fantastic place, and from afar it seems almost like a utopia! So I wanted to experience this perfect-seeming society, and of course, it's not really perfect, but I did feel at home here."

'In Sweden, there's no excuse not to start a business if you have a good idea'
Cole Roberts. Photo: Fer Juaristi

Photography entrepreneur Cole Roberts has been living in Gävle, Norrland since 2014, but his fascination with Scandinavia began ten years earlier. During a semester abroad in Helsinki, Roberts visited Stockholm and quickly fell in love with Sweden, choosing to return not long after for a one-year Master's degree, this time in Umeå in Sweden's far north.

His experience studying in Sweden led to two lasting relationships. Not only did he meet his Swedish wife, Therese, but he also met his current business partner, Jakob Granqvist, who was enrolled on the same university course in entrepreneurship.

Today, the pair run three businesses together: wedding photography company Nordica Photography, photography conference Way Up North, and Kolla, a photography art print store launched in March this year. Roberts had always been interested in starting a business, inspired by his parents who had both worked for themselves, but never anticipated a career in the wedding industry.

“It's actually slightly hilarious. Granqvist and I met as partying students — if you'd told us then where we'd be now, we would have laughed at both the idea of weddings and photography. Neither of those things was on our radar at all!” he tells The Local.

The pair developed an interest in taking photos separately, with Granqvist in Sweden and Roberts having moved back to Canada following their studies. At first, it was just a hobby, while Roberts struggled to find a job that challenged him. When Granqvist started a photography blog, the Canadian was inspired to set up his own as a way of gaining SEO skills.

Jakob. Photo: Sachin Khona

It was when he started to get inquiries about paid photography assignments through the blog that Roberts realized he could turn it into a job. “I don't have a formal artistic background at all… does playing professional hockey count?! I think education is never a bad thing, but learning by doing is always the best teacher,” he says.

When Granqvist also made the move to Vancouver, the pair brainstormed ways to start making money, and decided to go all-in on photography. That's how their wedding photography business, Nordica Photography, was born in 2009. 

“We quit our jobs, and it was 100 percent about hustling out a living through the craft. We were in it together from day one and had to make Nordica work,” Roberts explained.

Since then, the friends have travelled the world to photograph destination weddings, a journey that has taken them to every continent but one (if you’re planning an Antarctica wedding, get in touch so they can complete the list!).

At that point, Roberts says he could have easily stayed in Vancouver and “lived happily ever after with a healthy business.”

The decision to move back to Sweden came when his first child was born. Living in Sweden made sense, both to be closer to his wife's family and to benefit from Sweden’s child-friendly policies.

This time, they ended up in Gävle, a small town at the very south of Norrland. Roberts says their choice of city was fairly random.

“We had no connection to the city other than it was the midpoint between Arlanda and my wife’s hometown, Söderhamn. My wife landed a great job with a large company in Gävle, we bought a home, and were off to the races,” he explains.

Roberts (L) and Granqvist. Photo: Nordica Photography

For Roberts, the move entailed adapting not only to the Swedish way of doing business, but also the Swedish way of doing weddings, which are typically understated and relatively informal compared to North America.

“Canada is more like the Wild West for entrepreneurs: there are more people, and there’s more disposable income, so you just start doing something and see if it works. Sweden is more by the book, you really have to do things the right way or it will catch up with you later. But that’s no bad thing — if you can make it here with all the regulations, you can probably make it anywhere. It’s an exciting place,” he says.

“Weddings here are also typically done in a Swedish way. For photography, people don't pay what we charge, and you can't force your services onto the market, so that's why we do destination weddings.”

A lot of people travel to Sweden for elopements because of the spectacular landscapes or the possibility of a snow-covered backdrop, but Nordica Photography also travels regularly to Italy and France for weddings, and Iceland is the most popular country of all among their clients. 

For his own wedding, Roberts and and his wife eloped within Vancouver and got married in a cave on a beach. The only person who knew about it was Granqvist, who also photographed the day.

“We've been the sole witnesses to many weddings, and people often tell us 'you can't post anything online yet, no-one knows we're doing it'!” he says.

So how does it feel to get that kind of insight into such an intimate moment?

“Well, the romantic answer would be to say that it's tearful and emotional, but actually we  approach every wedding the same, you have to detach yourself from the day a bit to make sure you're documenting the day in the best way and to tell the couple's story. That applies whatever the size and location of the wedding.”

Taking a practical approach to the job doesn't mean the two don't love what they do. “We never take it for granted how lucky we are,” Roberts stresses. “Due to travelling so much, we’re lucky enough to photograph various locations around the world outside the wedding itself.”

Over time, their work as wedding photographers has naturally led to two new projects. The first was Way Up North, a wedding photography conference for wedding photographers which helped the pair build up a wide network within the profession.

“The talent here is incredible; the work created by Swedes is world-class. However, you’d never know it in some cases because I don’t feel like self-promotion and seeking attention is a priority for the average artist here. Artists here are understated and modest which is comforting in a way,” explains Roberts.

The contacts they made through those conferences were a catalyst for the second project, Kolla.

A selection of prints from Kolla. Photo: Kolla

The idea to curate and sell high quality photography prints came when Granqvist, wanted to decorate the walls of his summer cabin. When he looked for photography to display, the only options he could find were either extremely expensive options or generic, uninspiring photos. 

“After starting several businesses, we've learned that it's important to have a North Star — a reason for why you do what you do,” says Roberts. “For Kolla, that 'why' statement is 'See the world differently'.”

The duo realized they could use their own archive of non-wedding work, as well as work from the global network of photographers they'd met at Way Up North, and curate it into a collection of photography art to sell at affordable prices.

It took about a year to take Kolla from a spark to a fully-fledged business, with the site launched in late March this year.

But the business has already been met with a great response. The pair launched an equity crowdfunding campaign through Swedish site FundedByMe — and reached their minimum goal in just four days.

“That’s just insane, to be honest, and the support for Kolla has exceeded our expectations. It seems like we’ve come at just the right time. Everyone is obsessed with Instagram now, constantly scrolling through these curated timelines of photos, but if you look at the average office space, they mostly have very mundane pictures on the wall. So why can’t we have the same quality and range that you can get online?” he notes.

“I hope this can inspire people that starting businesses is exciting. In Sweden, there’s no excuse not to do it if you have a good idea!”



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Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”