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EURES (EURopean Employment Services)
News article19 March 2018European Labour Authority, Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion4 min read

Start-up success stories in Europe: across the decades

Siemens, Lego, Gucci, Virgin and Skype are all world-leading brands. Collectively they employ thousands of people, operate in hundreds of countries and enjoy huge profits.

Start-up success stories in Europe: across the decades

They also all began their lives in Europe.

European start-ups have been having a global impact for centuries and here we take a look at some of history’s start-up success stories from across the continent.


Over the last 170 years, Siemens has evolved from a single workshop in a German backyard into an industrial manufacturing powerhouse with over 370,000 employees. The company was founded as Siemens & Halske in 1847 and quickly found success with its inventions and long-distance telephone lines.

Siemens wasn’t alone in its early foundation and humble beginnings. In the same year, across the borders in France, Louis-François Cartier took over his master’s jewellery workshop and his grandsons later helped to turn the family business into a worldwide luxury brand that’s favoured by royalty and celebrities alike.

Scandinavia also saw the establishment of future business superpowers during this period with first Nokia (Finland, 1865) and then Ericsson (Sweden, 1876) coming into existence. While Ericsson has been focused on telecommunications since its foundation as a telegraph repair shop in Stockholm, Nokia was originally a single pulp mill producing products such as toilet paper. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the company began to expand into the areas it’s famous for today.


Europe is home to a variety of famous car manufacturers and the UK’s Aston Martin is arguably one of the most iconic, thanks to its long-term association with James Bond. Founded by engineers Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford in 1913, the company was just finding its feet when production of its first model was halted by the outbreak of World War I. Despite this inauspicious beginning and – at times – a turbulent history, the Aston Martin brand has endured and recently expanded into other forms of transport including speedboats and submarines.

Immigrant hotel worker Guccio Gucci was working in Paris and London when he was inspired by the high-end luggage he saw his guests carrying. Returning to his native Italy, Gucci established a shop for fine leather goods under his own name in 1921. Fast-forward almost 100 years and the luxury fashion brand was voted the 47th most valuable brand in the world in 2017 by Forbes magazine with a $12.7 billion valuation.

LEGO is one of Europe’s most well-known start-up success stories. Founded in Denmark in the early 1930s, the company originally created wooden toys. The famous plastic bricks would follow in 1949, marking the beginning of Lego’s domination of the toy market and beyond. In recent years, the company has capitalised on its products’ enduring popularity by branching out into films, video games and amusement parks. With a staggering 75 billion LEGO elements sold in 2016, the company’s legacy can be seen worldwide.


The decades following World War II saw rapid economic expansion across Europe and start-ups continuing to blossom into thriving businesses. Clothing retailer Primark, established in 1969 in Ireland, filled a gap in the market with its low-cost clothing and enjoyed steady domestic growth in its early years. More recent European and US expansion led the company’s portfolio to 320 stores in 11 countries by 2016.

Richard Branson may be a household name today, but in the early 1970s he was a fledgling entrepreneur who ran a mail-order record business from a church and, later, opened a record shop in the UK. Virgin Records followed and over the next forty years, the company expanded into transport, retail and telecommunications. Nowadays, the Virgin Group has over 37 million social media followers, 53 million customers worldwide and a global revenue of £16.6 billion.

The latter part of this period saw the rise of technology-based start-ups including Avast (Czech Republic, 1988), TomTom (the Netherlands, 1991), CD Projekt (Poland, 1994) and Opera Software (Norway, 1997). Operating in the areas of online security, digital navigation, video games and software respectively, these four companies have all seen substantial success thanks to their innovative products and the growing demand of the digital marketplace.


This technological trend continued into the new millennium, with Skype soon becoming a key new player in the telecommunications industry. Established in 2003, the Luxembourg-based company pioneered free computer-to-computer video calls and was acquired by Microsoft in May 2011 for a reported $8.5 billion. Recent estimates put its number of monthly active users at more than 300 million.

Sweden saw the launch of Spotify in 2008, which was developed as a response to the ongoing fight against music piracy. By late 2012, the music-streaming platform’s user-base had reached 20 million active users and almost a decade after its launch, Spotify announced that this figure had risen to 140 million users.

In Hungary, architect Ádám Somlai-Fischer created a unique zooming presentation prototype to showcase his media-art pieces. That prototype became the basis of Prezi, which launched in 2009 and now boasts 85 million users and 325 million public presentations.

Most recently, Deliveroo was founded in London by William Shu after he’d experienced a lack of late night food delivery options in the city. The company generated strong word of mouth within its first two years and was able to expand internationally in 2015. Three years on and Deliveroo operates in 14 countries and more than 140 cities.

This is just a small snapshot of the types of successful start-ups that Europe has been producing over the years. We hope you’ve found their stories inspiring and for more information on start-ups, why not check out our article on the do’s and don’ts of starting a business.

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