The Icelandic investor and self-proclaimed ‘adventure capitalist’ who made billions, lost everything, then made it all back, shares some lessons learned
How do you get out of difficult situations? You stay adaptable and you stay positive, according to Thor Björgólfsson, who went from billionaire to broke after the Icelandic crash in 2010.
Although many think your ability to succeed is based on a number of factors such as luck, connections and privilege, Björgólfsson told the audience at the sixth annual WIRED2016 conference how his attitude to his difficult times was based on three factors: optimism, adaptability, resilience. “These qualities have got me through the hardest times in my life.”
“The only thing to do was to go all in. No plan B. Go at it with optimism. It eventually paid off”
At the event, held at London’s Tobacco Dock, Björgólfsson told the story of how his financial life began in Russia, which, in the 1990s was a particularly dangerous place. “There were 45,000 homicides in Russia when I was living there for ten years.” Having moved into a small flat, he started his first business and the day after, the Russian financial crash hit.
When Björgólfsson left Russia, he had gone from struggling startup founder to successful businessman. “When I left Iceland to Russia, I flew coach and I started growing a business from scratch. When I returned to Iceland, I flew a private jet and walked into a beautiful house.”
All things were going well in Iceland – until the financial crash in 2010. Going from being worth $3.5 billion, Björgólfsson suddenly faced some financial difficulties. That wasn’t the hardest part, however. “The most dangerous thing that happened was the big crash, and it was deadly to me because it almost cost me my optimism.
“Iceland was on the map – and then the unthinkable happened. There was a massive crash and the three largest banks in Iceland crashed. I watched everything I worked on come crashing down. But when we hit bottom, the big question is ‘what do you do now?’ Especially when you’ve been in a situation where you’ve been at the back of a lot of rage.”
So, if you’re in a position like Björgólfsson – a billionaire hit on hard times – what do you do? “I bet on Iceland’s ability to recover, but it took all three of those qualities combined. The only thing to do was to go all in. No plan B. Go at it with optimism. It eventually paid off.”
As one of the richest investors in Iceland before the crash, Björgólfsson received a large amount of criticism for his actions. After the crash, he released a statement saying” “I, the undersigned, apologise to all Icelanders for my role in the asset – and debt-bubble that led to the collapse of the Icelandic banking system. I apologise for my complacency towards the danger signs which arose. I apologise for having not succeeded in following my instincts when I realised the danger. I request your forgiveness”
Björgólfsson left with a final line of wisdom: “I stopped listening to my intuition and that was my problem. Always follow your intuition.”