Owe Bergsten And His Lie That Built Nintendo Europe
How can one lie, told by one man, change his life and so many others so dramatically? Owe Bergsten, the charismatic founder of the Swedish electronic company Bergsala, is living proof that one well-placed lie can catapult you into stardom!
Nintendo Co., Ltd. was created in 1889 in Kyoto, Japan by Fusajiiro Yamauchi. He didn't have much to start with, selling hanafuda playing cards in the limited Japanese market. In the next 70+ years, Nintendo Co. transformed, creating better and more interesting cards, and eventually games. When the 1960's came around the corner, Nintendo's philosophy started to pay out, as the era of global digitalization was about to happen.
But the initial idea was games, cards, printed and hand-made. By the 70s, Nintendo started to develop some more complicated, digital games. In 1977, they produced their first video-game console, which was doing fine in the gaming world in Japan, and even the US, but it had no presence elsewhere. Then, a young Swedish entrepreneur, Owe Bergsten, one-upped them and forever changed Europe's perception of video games, bringing the innovative type of entertainment to the old continent through his company - Bergsala!
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A Business From the Lie
Owe and his business partners were walking around the shopping district when he spotted one of the first two-button LCD games - Nintendo's Fire RC-4 Game & Watch™. He immediately got an idea, and on the plane ride back home, he wondered what would happen if he were to bring this mesmerizing game back to Europe - and sell it there?
That's where our story begins - with Owe's bold decision to try and lie his way to a batch of Nintendo games. He found a telex number for Nintendo, and he sent a short message, presenting his electronics company to the representative. Owe explained how Bergsala could be Nintendo's sole supplier for Sweden, despite not having the finances - and he managed to sell it! Bergsala received 250 Game & Watch™ products, but in the beginning, nobody in Sweden wanted to buy them.
He had to create his interest group, not just find it in the population. However, he managed to sell the small batch relatively quickly by employing the then-modern marketing techniques - presenting its 'unique' LCD screen technology, its attention-capturing gameplay, and of course its intrinsic entertainment value. He managed to convince a watch distributor that these games were the future of entertainment - or so he thought, as the guy was just interested in the games' LCD screens. Nevertheless, the batch emptied, and so did the next, until he had sold 30,000 Nintendo products in Sweden - and simply ran out.
Soon, it was time to go to Japan - the bigger order had to be negotiated in person!
The Japanese Near-Fiasco
This was Bergsala's make-or-break moment. Owe could abandon the video game market altogether as the games were proving difficult to sell, but he had bigger, six-figure plans. He had managed to convince the Japanese that Bergsala was a big, financially well-off company, but now he needed something more - a personal appearance.
So, he got on a plane to Japan.
Almost failing to reach the scheduled interview several times, he finally arrived at Nintendo's headquarters in Kyoto, after again lying to the airline, which let him extend his stay for free. The company's export manager wasn't on the job, but once he got a call that someone was there to see him, he couldn't refuse - even if it was a national holiday.
Going back to the office, the Nintendo representative wasn't yet aware that the night to follow would have such far-reaching consequences. Owe had a direct, unrefined approach to doing business, but after hours of conversation, he had it - the slightly inebriated representative agreed to give Bergsala the export rights for Sweden!
"You know the minimum order is 10,000 pieces, right?"
Owe shuddered, but the deal had been struck, and as soon as he got back to Sweden, he went straight to his bank to hammer out a tough deal to be able to afford the batch. He got the necessary money - and then he upped Bergsala's order to 30,000 pieces, because why not?
By the end of the year, and yes, this is still 1981, Owe sold more than 180,000 Nintendo products per month.
Owe was on his way up in the Swedish business community, and inevitably started attracting the attention of larger buyers, investors, and competitors. The video game market rapidly grew into one of the most profitable segments of the new economy - until the historic crash of 1983.
Owe held back and loosened up his pressure on the Nintendo official he'd remained in contact with. He didn't push for any new bulk orders as the market was too unstable, but he did maintain communication, and in August, he was invited to Japan to see the FAMICOM - Nintendo's new 'Family Computer'.
Instantly taken aback by the technological jump from the Game & Watch™ two-button system, Owe took a few pieces back to Sweden. The product was an instant hit - everyone who got a good look at the FAMICOM, loved how entertaining it was! When he brought it to Sweden, his entire company stayed up all night playing on it, so he spent the better part of the next few months trying to convince Nintendo to export their new product to western countries.
Initially the company was hesitant, as the previous year their Atari console had flopped pretty badly on the western markets. But soon after, his efforts paid off, and Nintendo was convinced to make a separate version of the FAMICOM for Sweden. Bergsala placed an order, but retracted it after realizing Nintendo had concluded the same deal with some US importers - the Americans would get their own console, and Owe wanted to aim higher!
Soon, Nintendo backtracked and announced a special NES meant for the European market. This was the moment Owe was waiting for - he put the order in, and started working on the homefront, creating the completely free Nintendo Videospelklubb Magazine in 1986 to boost his audience numbers even further. It ran until 1994, when its subscribers were offered the new magazine Super PLAY.
Nintendo in the West
Throughout the 1990s, Nintendo Europe managed and improved the sales on the European market - except for Scandinavia. Bergsala remains the importer for the entire peninsula, including Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark to this day. Understandably, having the access to such a large market population meant they could develop any way they wanted, and Owe discovered his options were totally open!
He chose the path he thought would be most beneficial for his company in the future: including Scandinavian children in the fun. So, he started the Bergsala Nintendo Video Game Club, which numbered nearly half a million Swedes in its zenith. It was sponsored by the company, yet looked like a genuine bottom-up movement - that's when you know success is inevitable!
He introduced pre-orders and bulk purchases to efficiently manage his distribution, and Bergsala quickly became one of the most profitable business entities in Europe. As such, it never left the position of 'Nintendo's prime European distributor', and their name is still on every Nintendo product.
Of course, Nintendo remains a Japanese company with a unique hold over their games, as they're the only ones who can manufacture software for their hardware.
Helping Entrepreneurs on a Whole New Level
Owe's story was an inspiration to everyone who heard it, so in the 2000s, he got some copycats. People started to do business in his brutal, 'honest' way - one even presented himself as 'Bergsala'! Owe inspired people like Mikael Forslind, the CEO of Elden Pixels, and Brjan Sigurgeirsson, the CEO of Image & Form, a game developer that Bergsala bought out a couple of years later.
With the Nintendo craze still going strong in Sweden, all Owe had to do was solidify his hold on the business, look to create new markets, and eventually expand there. He didn't even need the club anymore, so in 2006, he shut it down and moved his community building program to the World Wide Web.
In the 2020s, Nintendo needs no introduction. The company has an annual revenue of $12.12 billion, with Bergsala itself holding the entire Scandinavian market as the sole non-Nintendo exporter. Owe is living proof that with enough conviction, the right mindset, and a ton of luck, entrepreneurs can really find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He has never rested on his laurels, instead choosing to further build and promote his small part in Nintendo's global enterprise - and that's why we know the name 'Bergsala' today!