It's a rare entrepreneur who tackles Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ) head-on and lives to tell the tale. That's doubly unlikely when his product is a Web browser. After all, even mighty Netscape Communications Corp., whose browser virtually launched the Internet boom, eventually fell victim to the software colossus.
But Jon S. von Tetzchner, CEO and co-founder of Oslo-based Opera Software, is that rare survivor. Since he and business partner Geir Ivarsoy launched Opera in 1995, the company has attracted a following of tens of millions of users who love the browser's easy navigation and speedy performance. Crowning Opera's success, this March the company staged a successful stock offering -- one of the first after Europe's long postboom drought -- that raised $17.9 million to fund future growth.
Opera has prospered against all odds by relying on technical virtuosity and clever management. In its first five years, the company was too small to register high on Microsoft's radar. By the time the software giant took notice, Opera had gained a loyal following and established a reputation for innovation. Its PC browser is either free if users accept ads tucked into the screen or available for $39 in an ad-free version. But von Tetzchner's smartest move was to spot opportunities for browsers in devices other than PCs. In 2003, the company booked 70% of its $11.7 million in revenues from software licenses to makers of mobile phones, interactive TVs, and other non-PC machines. Opera's clients include marquee names such as IBM (IBM ), Nokia (NOK ), Motorola (MOT ), and Canal+ Technologies, who weave tiny versions of the browser into handsets, set-top boxes and other products. "These companies don't depend on Microsoft now, and they don't want to in the future," von Tetzchner says.
Such a scrappy attitude has served von Tetzchner well. Raised in Iceland, he moved to Norway for university studies in computer science and completed his degree while working for the national phone monopoly, Telenor (TELN ). When he and Ivarsoy cooked up a Web browser in 1994, Telenor set the pair free to sell the product on their own. The first few years were rocky, but by 1998 the company was turning a profit. Von Tetzchner, 36, now spends much of his time on the road scaring up deals, while Ivarsoy, who handles the technical side, drives Opera's latest innovations.
That leaves von Tetzchner, who is married with two small children, little time to indulge his passion for soccer and for collecting vintage PCs. But this is a man on a mission. He can imagine a day when browsers -- including Opera's, of course -- will be built into everything from cars to appliances. So if someday your refrigerator starts singing an aria, you'll know it's because it has Opera inside.