The List

Little Is the New Big

From Angry Birds to crowd-sourced science, the "micromultinational" corporation is here.

For centuries, huge multinational corporations have dominated the world of business. From the British East India Company to Sony, these industry giants span the globe, with manufacturing centers, production lines, and executive headquarters spread across continents. In most cases, it's taken years for these megacorporations to globalize. But now, due to technologies that have leveled the playing field, there's a new trend on the horizon: small businesses that are international from the get-go. With little more than a good Internet connection and a solid business model, these "micromultinationals" -- as Google's Chief Economist, Hal Varian, writes in Foreign Policy's Future Issue -- are proving that size doesn't always matter. These five start-ups aren't merely market flukes, but rather, the future of business.

SKYPE

In 2003, Swedish entrepreneur Niklas Zennstrom and his Danish counterpart, Janus Friis, who had recently sold the file-sharing website Kazaa, founded Skype. Within the first six weeks of its initial release, 1.5 million users had downloaded the software, which allows video and voice calls, instant messages and file transfers to be made over the Internet. Zennestrom claimed that charging for calls was so "last century" -- Skype allowed people to place calls from one edge of the globe to the other for almost nothing.

Skype grew quickly, and now employs around 500 people in Estonia, Sweden, the United States, Japan, and China, among other places. Skype's founders sold the company to eBay in 2005 for $2.6 billion, and in 2009, the technology investment group Silver Lake bought 40 percent of Skype's stake. Just 18 months later, in May 2011, Microsoft took the company under its wing for $8.5 billion. Skype today boasts around 700 million users, but the company is hoping its new partnership with Facebook will bring in enough new users to hit the one billion mark.

JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images

ROVIO

Angry Birds has become a global obsession. Rovio, the developer of the hugely popular mobile-phone game, in which birds armed with slingshots battle green egg-stealing pigs, was founded in 2003 by three Finnish students. A team of only a handful monitored and developed a series of games for the first several years, but in 2009, when Angry Birds made it to the iTunes store, their success spread like wildfire. The game hit No. 1 in 68 countries, and remains a personal favorite of Justin Bieber and David Cameron. In May, CEO Mikael Hed told Reuters he expected the Rovio's revenue to be in the range of $72 million to $143 million this year.

But Angry Birds isn't just an addictive diversion -- it could be the beginning of an empire. In March, investors including Skype co-founder Niklas Zennstrom and Accel Partners, one of Facebook's funders, backed Rovio with $42 million. Disney may be partnering with the company in the near future, along with Zynga, the creator of the wildly popular game Farmville, and Electronic Arts, the global video game behemoth. Rovio is currently considering taking additional funding from a yet-to-be-named entertainment company, valuing the company at a $1.2 billion. Clothing and stuffed animals depicting the animated birds may soon be sold in 200 Chinese stores, and an Angry Birds movie is even in the works. With only around 110 employees now based in Espoo, Finland, Rovio's success is remarkable -- especially considering the firm had only 17 people on staff until last year.

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SUNDIA

Launched in 2004 from founder Brad Oberwager's California basement, Sundia -- a major U.S. fruit and vegetable provider -- now deems itself to be the "fastest growing produce brand in North America." Sundia's growers are scattered throughout the United States, its manufacturing hubs in China, Mexico, Thailand, and Turkey, and its distribution centers in Vancouver, Los Angeles, and New York. Its phone systems are based in the Philippines, accounting in India, and quality assurance in Pakistan. While Sundia remains a staple source for U.S. grocers, the company's backbone is nearly entirely international.

Sundia's web-based system, which CNN praised in 2006, allows for "a Sundia employee in the Philippines [to] take an order from a Philadelphia grocery store for watermelon juice made from Mexican fruit. The juice gets squeezed in Washington state, and payment goes to Oberwager in California, who then notifies his CFO in India that the money has been received."

The company's global network has translated into success, with Sundia now manufacturing all Sunkist and Jamba Juice fruit cups; 35 percent of watermelons in the United States bear the Sundia logo. In 2009, Forbes ranked Sundia as the sixth-most promising young company. As of last year, the company only had 15 employees, with revenue of around $15 million.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

VISTAPRINT

After finishing business school in Paris, American entrepreneur Robert Keane sought to start a printing company that would provide individuals and small businesses with the tools to market themselves cheaply and easily. In 1995, Keane did exactly that -- and built his firm into one of the leading online printing companies. In 2007, the company partnered with OfficeMax to introduce stations using Vistaprint technology in all of its U.S. and Mexican stores; it announced a partnership with FedEx two years later.

Vistaprint's competitive advantage is scale. In a matter of minutes, small companies around the world can create personalized logos and business cards using the company's online design studio for a fraction of the cost of what traditional printing companies charge. But small can be hugely profitable: CNN ranked Vistaprint No. 52 on its 2010 list of the 100 fastest growing companies, and the company's revenue for the 2011 fiscal year reached $817 million.

Vistaprint has three regional headquarters in the United States, Spain, and Australia, as well as facilities in France, Jamaica, Tunisia, and a handful of other countries. There are currently 24 versions of the Vistaprint website, and its products are shipped to over 130 countries. As Keane told CNN in 2006, "It's often hard for startups to find their way out of their home nation. But you have to -- it's not that type of world anymore."

Vistaprint

KAGGLE

Outsourcing may have become a dirty word, but Kaggle, which pools the expertise of more than 13,000 scientists worldwide, is unabashedly harnessing its power. The company describes itself as an "innovative solution for statistical/analytics outsourcing." By launching online data analysis competitions, Kaggle consults thousands of experts from over 100 different countries and 200 universities for what they say is "cheaper, faster and more powerful analytics" -- a 21st century approach to solving real-world problems. Kaggle's use of crowd-sourcing has created a healthy competition of ideas and data.

The Australian company, founded in 2010, is supported by a small team including Anthony Goldbloom, a former economic modeler for the Australian Treasury, and Jeremy Howard, a veteran of the consulting firm McKinsey. NASA, Deloitte, and Ford have all partnered with Kaggle to create data competitions, where prize money is awarded to the winning model. Experts have recently participated in competitions involving predicting the progression of HIV, developing better ways to detect when a driver falls asleep at the wheel, and measuring the shapes of galaxies to map dark matter.

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The List

How the West Was Drilled

From Alberta to the Brazilian Coast, a tour of the new American oil frontier that could eclipse the Middle East.

CANADIAN OIL SANDS

In 1999, Canada surpassed Saudi Arabia as the United States' largest source of oil imports, and today a full half of the country's oil production comes from Alberta's so-called tar or oil sands: a form of petroleum found in a mixture of sand, clay, and bitumen that is either mined in pits or extracted by pumping steam into wells. The U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration predicts that Canada's oil sands production will double over the next five years, adding another 1.3 million barrels a day.

But producing oil sands is a messy, emissions-intensive business; according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the extraction process produces 82 percent more emissions than conventional oil drilling. Canadian officials and oil company executives have argued that these concerns are overstated -- and indeed, credible outside calculations have found far lower impacts, closer to 17 percent greater than conventional oil. But Canada's own environmental agency warns that oil sands production will cancel out the country's efforts to reduce its overall carbon emissions. Oil sands advocates have seen an opening, however, in Americans' perpetual nervousness over its reliance on oil imports from unfriendly and autocratic regimes, as well as a newly restive Middle East, and have increasingly argued for Canadian petroleum as an alternative to "conflict oil" tanked in from dodgier countries.

The proposed construction of the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline connecting Alberta's oil sands with the Gulf of Mexico's refineries, the linchpin of Canada's oil-sands expansion plans, has become the subject of a proxy battle over the wisdom of oil sands development. In June, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered a smaller sister pipeline to suspend operations in June following a series of leaks. But the companies involved in the project say they will export the oil with or without the pipeline, and in the meantime U.S. demand isn't going anywhere.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

BRAZILIAN PRE-SALT

In August 2005, Brazilian petroleum geologists discovered the first traces of oil in the Santos basin, an area more than 150 miles off the country's Atlantic coast. The oil is what is known as a "pre-salt" reserve: a deposit located beneath more than 3 miles of ocean and earth, directly below a layer of compressed salt. This is oil drilling at its most mind-bendingly complex, executable only in the last decade or so thanks to advances in technology, and only then with the expertise of the world's biggest oil companies (who have shown plenty of interest).

But the potential payoff is immense. The largest known field in the Santos Basin -- named "Lula" in 2010 after outgoing Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was on hand for the first pre-salt production test there in October of last year (above) -- is the most significant oil discovery in Latin America in several decades. Geologists believe the basin as a whole -- itself just one of several promising pre-salt prospects -- could contain as much as 50 billion barrels of oil and gas, enough to ensconce Brazil firmly among the world's top 10 oil producers. Current production (which is still in the test stage) is a relative trickle -- 36,000 barrels a day -- but Petrobras, Brazil's national oil company, is investing nearly $33 billion in pre-salt projects over the next five years in anticipation of the boom to come.

ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images

GULF OF MEXICO DEEPWATER

A stash of hydrocarbons equal to all of Norway's oil and Canada's natural gas put together is thought to exist below the U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico -- and last year's catastrophic Deepwater Horizon disaster is unlikely to be more than a speed bump in the race to tap them. Barack Obama's administration imposed a moratorium on deepwater drilling after the rig explosion unleashed a three-month, 4.9 million-barrel spill -- the worst in American history -- but the ban was lifted this spring after new regulations were put in place. Though some areas remain off-limits, new permitting began in February. Even BP, the company responsible for the spill, is getting back in the game.

Kerr-McGee/John Manning via Getty Images

SHALE OIL

It was natural gas that originally piqued energy companies' interest in south Texas's Eagle Ford shale formation. But over the past two years, as petroleum prices have gradually climbed back toward the heights of early 2008, producers have turned their attention to the Lone Star state's reserves of shale oil, which is extracted from rock formations with the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing. The Eagle Ford is now producing 71,000 barrels of oil a day, and is expected to turn out as much as five times that amount by 2015.

Even more extraordinary is the Bakken shale formation beneath North Dakota, Montana, and Saskatchewan (above), which the U.S. Geological Survey believes has between 3 and 4.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil in it -- 25 times what geologists thought a decade and a half ago. There's also the Niobrara shale in Wyoming, estimated to contain 2 billion barrels of oil.

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

OIL SHALE

Geologists have known how to extract petroleum from oil shale (confusingly, not the same thing as shale oil; the former is oil trapped in dense but porous rock formations, the latter is petroleum actually found in the rock itself) since the 1830s. The problem has been the cost. Oil companies tried to make a go of it in Colorado in the 1970s and 1980s, but the effort ended in a multi-billion-dollar boondoggle. The intermittently high oil prices of the past decade, however, have brought oil majors like Shell back to what would be the largest oil reserve in the world, if they can figure out how to profitably tap it. The Mountain West's oil-shale resources dwarf Saudi Arabia's proven oil reserves by a factor of three.

Past efforts to get at the region's oil shale have involved strip-mining, a technique that proved both environmentally destructive and prohibitively expensive. This time around, Shell's ambitious plan involves actually heating the earth itself, which turns the kerogen -- a chemical compound embedded in the rock -- into extractable oil and gas.

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