Slush and other Finnish Startup Stories

A brief history of Finnish startup communities

Richard von Kaufmann
Dec 2, 2018 · 34 min read

[Updated: April 2019]

At prep school, we were allowed a small bag of sweets each Sunday, and I would watch in bemusement as one boy enthusiastically gave away most of his sweets. Over time, however, I noticed he was getting at least as many sweets back — if not more — and it also helped him gain a positive reputation.

The people who build up startup communities are also sweet-givers: enthusiastically volunteering time and energy to help build stronger startup ecosystems. People excited to be challenged and grow but also willing to roll up their sleeves and stack chairs as needed. People who enjoy mixing with other talented, energetic, and creative make-it-happeners. This is a world where mercenary attitudes flounder and belief is needed to fly.

During the writing of this article, it became clear that— like the sweet-giver—many of those who have played a prominent role in building Finland’s startup ecosystem/community have themselves built their reputations and have gone on to create successful businesses and careers.

Here are some examples of “current” highly successful businesses that were brought to life with the help of such sweet-givers: Supercell (Ilkka Paananen, LifeLine co-founder and early supporter of Slush), Rovio (Peter Vesterbacka, Slush co-founder), Yousician (Christopher Thur, Startup Sauna participant and coach), MySql (Mårten Mickos, volunteer coach & inspirational speaker), CRF Health & Meru Health (Timo Ahopelto, Slush Chair & Startup Säätiö founding board member, employed Kristian Rant who founded Meru), Oura (CTO Teemu Kurppa, volunteer startup coach), Holvi (Kristoffer Lawson & Tuomas Toivonen, Alternative Party co-founders, Traveling Salesman, and volunteer coaches), Callstats.io (Varun Singh, founding member Aaltoes), Wolt (Miki Kuusi, Slush re-founder, COO Riku Mäkelä, Slush CEO 2015–2016), Smartly.io (Kristo Ovaska, Aaltoes founder, Otto Hilska, Assembly organiser & previous Startup Foundation Chair).

These are just a small sample of some of the better-known companies but there are many other successes. There are so many that it is not possible to list them all here and more success stories continue to emerge.

This article is first and foremost a testament to the achievements of the community builders and a way to share some helpful lessons to anyone interested in developing startup ecosystems.

Note: The appendix includes a list of notable investor startup community sweet-givers who have facilitated many successful companies.


Article origins

In 2017 I completed a study for the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs into how startup communities could collaborate in support of development goals. This included looking into how Finland has managed to grow its own vibrant startup scene and that research sowed the seed for this extended version.

Arriving in Finland in 2005, I was fortunate to be present when some key startup communities were just kicking off. Helene Auramo, the co-founder of my first startup Zipipop, was also one of the founding members of Slush, and Zipipop was included in the first group of affiliated Aalto Entrepreneurship Society (Aaltoes) startups. In addition, we witnessed friends creating the Helsinki OpenCoffee Meetups and Arctic Startup. That gave me many direct personal insights quoted in this article, however, most of the information came out of interviews with key people, online articles, and a Master’s thesis by Eeppi Nieminen (Coachilla founder).

There have been many contributors who have helped the communities to succeed, but the names that repeatedly come up tend to be of those who had the initiating sparks and put in the first effort. So for brevity, I have focused on these critical early-stage sweet-givers or ‘make-it-happeners’ and I apologise to any who I may have inadvertently left out. Links to other significant online articles are provided in the appendix.

By comparison to those cited in this article, my involvement in startup community building has been relatively superficial but I have done a fair number of voluntary gigs in different communities since 2007, and I initiated a project that took Startup Sauna to Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania. In this article, I have shamelessly used photos from my own archives but if you have iconic images you particularly like please do share them. And please do correct me by email me at richard@pricetap.io if something is clearly wrong or glaringly missing and I will do my best to make amends.

The first Slush event held 2008 with around 300 people in Korjaamo (author on 2nd row) — Photo: Peter Vesterbacka

What is a startup community?

It is important to first ask what is a startup community because answering that question helps to determine how far back to go. But to answer that we first have to know what a startup is.

There is no exact definition of what a startup is but there are attributes that are generally recognised: temporary organisations in search of product-market fit; less than ten years old; founder-led; potential to scale rapidly; high-levels of technical or service innovation, etc.

Startup communities across the globe share common reference points, similar attitudes, and practices related to the unique startup attributes. I have found it easy to move between and operate within startup communities in Finland, East Africa, Vietnam and San Fransisco. This points to the existence of a common global startup culture, and it is those communities which identify with and embrace it that are the focus of this short history.


Before the beginning…

Prior to 2007, there were tech-related events, communities and companies in Finland that paved the way by promoting startup-like thinking and ambitions, but they did not specifically identify as being ‘startup communities’. They tended to be organised along specific ‘verticals of interest’; for example, digital art, games, graphics and mobile. And involved passionate groups and small companies—that would today be called startups.

Later in the article, we will look at how the likes of Aaltoes and Slush were radical to the scene in the way they organised activities horizontally; thereby making people and companies, regardless of their field, realise that we are all tackling pretty much the same problems.

The nineties demoscene

The demoscene is an international computer art subculture focused on producing demos: self-contained, sometimes extremely small, computer programs that produce audio-visual presentations. During the nineties, a number of demoscene groups and gatherings laid the foundations for the future success of the Finnish startups, particularly in the gaming industry.

There were many demoscene groups/events/parties/hackathons in Finland with fantastic names (Abduction, Stream, Rebels, Future Crew, etc.), however, two event titles that appear in numerous international demoscene articles are ‘Assembly’ and the ‘Alternative Party’.

Assembly — 2004

Assembly Computer Festival

In 1992, John Kavaleff (Meegosh) and some other members from the Rebels demoscene groups, founded the Assembly event. Pekka Aakko (Applifier co-founder) and Markus Kantonen (Fleetonomy.ai founder) took over in 1994 and Jussi Laakkonen (Applifier co-founder) joined in 1995 to help solidify the event’s foundations. [Note: Applifier was bought by Unity Technologies in 2014]. Assembly went on to become a top global event and is now run bi-annually by around 200 volunteers and gathers more than 25,000 people.

Alternative Party

In 1998 Kristoffer Lawson (Scred/Holvi co-founder) started the Alternative Party as a revolutionary type of technology and demoscene with an artistic tinge. The event became the largest digital art festival in the Nordics, with over 1,000 people visiting and over 100 organisers.

Inspirational tech growth companies

The demoscene laid the foundations for many Finnish gaming companies and deserves an article of its own (image: Samuli Syvähuoko)

The nineties also saw the creation of tech growth companies that provided critical inspiration and talent building that would later spawn many other startup successes: Hybrid Graphics (Ville Miettinen, Jufo Peltomaa (later also ZenRobotics co-founder)), Sumea/Digital Chocolate (Mikko Kodisoja / Ilkka Paananen), Remedy (Samuli Syvähuoko + five individuals from Future Crew, The Movement, Complex and Accession), Frantic, Bugbear, SSH and many others—not forgetting Nokia, both in terms of skills capacity building and later, in times of trouble (around 2012) the Nokia Bridge scheme helping employees move on and start their own companies. Satama Interactive was like a talent crucible that brought together smaller web startups to create a more powerful company that had a rare IPO.

Many of the founders and employees of these companies went on to start up new companies and/or become startup investors leading to a virtuous cycle of ecosystem development.

Some other significant inspirational startups established after the nineties and before 2007 included: Sulake / Habbo Hotel (Sampo Karjalainen & others). Habbo Hotel was at one point one of the biggest online social games in the world; Eat.fi founder Tina Aspiala was inspirational in the way she built up the service with pure sisu determination, personally approaching one restaurant at a time; Jaiku (Jyri Engeström & Petteri Koponen). Jaiku was for a while running head to head with Twitter before later being bought by Google.

Tekes & Finpro

Tekes and Finnpro (now combined into Business Finland) were already playing an important role in supporting tech growth companies and the wider innovation ecosystem — both within Finland and with Silicon Valley outreach services.

Web and mobile communities

HP Mobile E-Services Bazaar

In 1999 the original startup, Hewlett-Packard, initiated the HP Mobile E-Services Bazaar in Helsinki, Finland. The initiative was inspired and led by Peter Vesterbacka. It was a co-working space, partnership developer, and marketing programme all wrapped into one. It later expanded to Singapore, Tokyo, Silicon Valley, Beijing, Shanghai, London and Bangalore. In 2003, HP Bazaar organised a mobile multiplayer game making competition at the Assembly hackathon. The competition was won by Niklas Hed and two of his student friends at Aalto University. They later started Rovio which is best known for Angry Birds.

Aula

The Aula community in Helsinki (and in cyberspace) was set up in 2000 by Jyri Engeström (Jaiku co-founder), Tuomas Toivonen (Now Office founder), Aleksi Aaltonen (Moves co-founder), Jukka Tavastila (Hybrid CEO), Torsti Tenhunen (startup coach & FIBAN board member), and Marko Ahtisaari (Dopplr co-founder). Coincidently, Peter Vesterbacka approved the first Aula kickstarting sponsorship on behalf of HP. Aula was centred around a space in Lasipalatsi described as an “urban living room for the networked society”. It was an open society focused on virtual communities and mobile technology. The Aula community only existed for a few years, but many of its members went on to become significant startup players in an ecosystem that had to regroup after the 1999–2001 dot-com internet bubble.

MobileMonday

In August 2000, during the Night of the Arts Helsinki festival, Vesa-Matti ‘Vesku’ Paananen and Peter Vesterbacka dreamed up MobileMonday. Vesterbacka went on to spread the concept throughout the world via his extensive personal network. MobileMonday became the biggest mobile professional meet-up network, and it is still active in several cities.

Graphics scene

The first meeting of ACM SIGGRAPH Helsinki was 7 December 2004 at the William K pub on Annankatu, and it registered as an association 6 months later. The first SyysGraph event was a two-day seminar on 7–8 September 2005 and in the first years was organised twice a year (KevätGraph and SyysGraph), but since then it has been held only once per year (usually in November).

IGDA Finland was set up roughly at the same time as ACM SIGGRAPH Helsinki (some of the first meetings were held together or back-to-back at William K). The monthly gatherings bring in around 400 developers.

Finnkampen was first held in San Diego 2003. It is an annual get-together of Finnish and Nordic graphics technology people, held in conjunction with the official main SIGGRAPH conference (city varies, half of the time in Los Angeles), and has been organized every year. It has grown to be one of the more important “side events” of the main SIGGRAPH conference (which itself brings in 15K-50K industry people).


2007 — Helsinki OpenCoffee and Arctic Startup

In September 2007, Ville Vesterinen started the weekly Helsinki OpenCoffee Meetups. He had been inspired by British venture capitalist Saul Klein, who started London OpenCoffee Meetups. His motivation was the feeling that in Helsinki there were no “open” opportunities for meeting startup interested people. OpenCoffee Meetups gave founders, and people interested in becoming founders, a chance to mingle and meet like-minded people on a regular basis. Helsinki OpenCoffee Meetups continue with many startup-related events being hosted at the startup hubs (e.g. NewCo Helsinki, Microsoft Flux) and private companies.

Antti Vilpponen and Miikka Kukkosuo started writing the Arctic Startup blog to be a focal point for startup news and it became a vital voice in promoting startup interests in Finland. Ville Vesterinen and Karri Saarinen (Kippt and Rails Girls co-founder) joined the team in 2008 and it went on to cover the whole Nordics. The team also started hosting popular ArcticEvening startup events featuring startups and guest speakers.

Tarmo Viki later became involved particularly in 2014 with the Arctic spinoff CoFounder magazine.


Slush co-founders: Kai Lemmetty, Peter Vesterbacka, Ville Vesterinen, and Helene Auramo.

2008 — Slush & Aaltoes

Slush — the origins

The origins of Slush arose out of parallel discussions around a growing need and serendipitous coincidental meetings. Like so many great organic movements it has multiple parents.

Kai Lemmetty, together with Joonas Pekkanen, started organising Startup Developer Gatherings (SDG) and Entrepreneur 2.0 Meetups at the Korjaamo cultural factory space; which involved a keynote speaker followed by casual networking drinks. And while travelling around startup conferences in Europe, they started playing with the idea to do something bigger in Helsinki, e.g. an annual conference combining those two monthly meetups. Lemmetty had also been bouncing ideas on the topic with Ville Vesterinen.

Hanging out at Korjaamo. Kai (Kaitsu) Lemmetty and Ville Vesterinen (Photo by Helene Auramo, 2008)

Around the same time, Vesterbacka gave a talk about startups at the TKK Technical University (now part of Aalto University), where only 3 out of around 600 students put up their hands when asked how many were thinking of founding a startup. As a result, Peter also started discussing with his Some Bazaar incubator partner Timo Airisto, the idea of an event designed to improve the general Finnish attitude towards startups.

Our Zipipop office on Museokatu was at the time a fairly popular hangout place for founders to drop by (particularly at our open house Friday beers), and Vesterbacka happened to be our key advisor. This led to a serendipitous meeting between him and Lemmetty and they ended up in a nearby restaurant discussing their shared aims for what became Slush.

Vesterbacka suggested the name and that it should be in November because the cold and darkness would make it stand out from other global startup events — he always likes to avoid the obvious.

They soon asked Helene Auramo to join them to “bring her positive energy to the team and give it an even stronger startup perspective” (Vesterinen, 2008). Although not so publicly visible, Timo Airisto would provide critical managerial and hands-on support for the next three years.

Helene Auramo takes a photo of Ville Vesterinen and Peter Vesterbacka at an early Slush planning lunch.

It was from the outset intended to be for startups and run by startups and that encouraged various startups to commit resources to it, e.g. Zipipop (branding by Tuomas Laitinen), Valve/Bolder (website) and Scred (later Holvi) for selling tickets.

They wanted entrepreneurs who had started small and grown big to be the key speakers — because only they can fully appreciate what the journey involves. Fortunately, they were able to entice some big names to participate, amongst others: Risto Siilasmaa (F-Secure co-founder, Petteri Koponen First Hop/Jaiku co-founder (later to co-found Lifeline Ventures), Asmo Halinen (Apaja/Sofanatics co-founder), Ilkka Paananen from Sumea/Digital Chocolate (later to found and launch Supercell at Slush 2011).

Gaining global attention for Finnish startups was also part of the plan, and therefore Matt Marshall, founder of VentureBeat, and Ilja Laurs, founder of app delivery service GetJar, and Rich Wong from Venture Partners were also persuaded to take part.

Legend has it that, when Laurs was asked what he would like to drink on stage, he jokingly said vodka — to this day he tells people it’s the only panel he’s sat on where they really did drink vodka. A small thing in itself but all the little stories helped to spread the word and build awareness that something interesting was happening in Finland.

Vesterbacka and Airisto personally underwrote the initial 45K euro budget, and they needed a legal vehicle to run the event (e.g. to sell tickets). Vesterbacka had previously had an upsetting experience when the grassroots MobileMonday brand he co-founded had been hijacked for commercial purposes by Jari Tammisto in 2004; so, together with Aristo, they set up a limited company to handle the logistics and protect the brand. The other founding members were disturbed by this rapid move to register Slush as a limited company, so to mitigate the concerns clear public declarations of Slush’s intentions were published:

To make a great startup event in Finland.
To bring startups and investors together.
To do a good thing for the whole startup ecosystem.
To create an event with the help of volunteers to develop the ecosystem — not to make a profit.
To make young people interested in entrepreneurship.

Zipipop exhibiting at the first ever Slush in 2008 (Robert Aarts, Tuomas Laitinen, Petri Rötkö (now Swap.com lead developer), Richard von Kaufmann (article author & Zipipop co-founder)

Aaltoes

Kristo Ovaska, Krista Kauppinen and Andrew Heiniluoma undertook a self-organised trip to benchmark startup-related activities at the top universities in the US, including MIT, Harvard and Babson. The tour was encouraged and supported by Peter Kelly who was then the professor at the Helsinki School of Creative Entrepreneurship.

Bengt Holmström, a professor at MIT, and Steve Blank, Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at Stanford, pushed the students not to delay and start taking action right away.

In December 2008 Kristo Ovaska, Andy Heiniluoma and Peter Kelly organised a gathering to explore what kind of startup activities could be done in Aalto University: Ovaska’s invitation email read: “The idea is to eat lunch and share ideas about how a student-run entrepreneurship society would make the most impact at the new Aalto University. Lunch is hosted by Peter Kelly.” At the meeting best practices from the American universities were used as discussion starting points. One of those cases was a student-run venture fund so in 2017 it was great to see the launch of Wave Ventures.

At that meeting, I remember Maija Itkonen (Gold and Green co-founder) telling how she had recently collapsed due to the pressure around establishing her then PowerKiss startup. There were not so many startup founders at the time—especially ladies doing hardware (notoriously challenging)—and her heroic efforts helped inspire others to establish their own startups.

Shortly after that meeting, Ovaska created the Aalto Entrepreneurship Society (Aaltoes) Facebook group, and in just a few days it gathered hundreds of members. The systematic use of social media by the whole team is a significant factor in the initial growth. Linda Liukas (Hello Ruby creator) explained to me back then how they deliberately set about to make the #aaltoes tag widely used in posts related to any startup activity — a cutting-edge social media tactic at the time.


2009 — Entrepreneurship societies growing

Aaltoes booms

Krista Kauppinen guided the new Aaltoes community to the Design Factory while Ovaska pulled together a management team that started organising activities via open meetings.

Other founding Aaltoes board members included: Perttu Ojansuu (Gapps co-founder), Jori Lallo (Gapps & Kippt co-founder), Riku Seppälä (Open Ocean & Icebreaker.vc investor), Aku-Ville Lehtimäki, Markus Nuotto, Thomas Hutton and Varun Singh (Callstats.io founder).

They hustled for small amounts of funding from various university sources and funded a considerable amount of activities out of their own pockets. The early Aaltoes events became an instant success, quickly attracting attendances of fifty and upwards.

The critical tradition of providing food (usually pizza) and beer/cider was established, and later included regular BBQs and breakfast gatherings. This was important because these events were catalysts for creating the offline and online network backbones to support the evolving ecosystem. Building a strong sense of fun into the community was helpful in attracting people to what might otherwise have been perceived as dull information sessions and the shared enjoyment help develop productive relationships.

At these events, they were also able to build credibility among peers by becoming aware off and quickly adopting and adapting global best practices. The community managers added to this by continuing with research visits to top startup hubs in the region and the US to build high-level international relationships.

Aaltoes was legally registered and by the end of the year had over 5,000 members. Preparations were started for the first accelerator programme, called Aaltoes Bootcamp.

By sticking to a “think big, think global, act small” approach they relatively quickly achieved exceptional outcomes, and Aaltoes went on to become the largest community for university entrepreneurship in Europe.

Meanwhile, Antti Akonniemi (Kisko Labs founder) initiated the first BarCampHelsinki in 2008, and Mike Bradshaw (later to be Startup Sauna Head Coach) took them over until 2011.

Boost Turku

Some students from Turku School of Economics, Antti Jokela (Parcero co-founder), Laura Elomaa, Lauri Pitkänen and Linda Liukas (Aaltoes) participated in the Emax Swedish youth entrepreneurship conference. After learning about the Aaltoes activities they were inspired to found Boost Turku along similar lines and formed an initial loose Boost community.

They put the ball rolling in the autumn and organized first pitch events at Turku school of economics with a cross academic group and they received important help (e.g. funding for the pizzas and beers) from the faculty of entrepreneurship. From the start, there was close cooperation and exchange of information between the Turku and Helsinki camps.

A founding Boost Turku board was then established including: Toni Perämäki (COO Valohai), Tuomas Wuoti (Walkbase co-founder), Mikko Rindell (Digitys co-founder), Lasse Rintakumpu, Niklas Wahrman (TicBits co-founder), Vesa Nieminen & Igor Burattini; with Mika Marjalaakso (Viola Systems founder) & Juha Mattsson providing crucial advice.

Author giving a talk at Boost Turku 2010

Expanding entrepreneurship societies

Aaltoes and Boost inspired students from other higher education institutions to create their own entrepreneurship societies, including amongst others LaureaES, HankenES, Metropolia ES, Heslinkies, Tampera ES, OuluES, KuopioES, Jyväskylä Entrepreneurship Society (JES). Entrepreneurship societies are now in most higher education institutes in Finland — a world apart from the three hands of startup interest that Vesterbacka got back in 2008.


Slush moves to a bigger venue

Vesterbacka, Airisto and Lemmetty worked to ensure Slush took place again. This time it was held at the Cable Factory with around 600 people and a budget of about 75K.


2010 — Aalto Venture Garage & The Summer of Startups

The Aaltoes board gained permission to move into an old industrial hall opposite to Design Factory, and in the process of making it ready for the accelerator Bootcamp, Tuomo Kuikka and the team created a co-working space that became the Aalto Venture Garage (later to become the Startup Sauna space).

Juha Ruohonen (later Founding Partner at Superhero Capital), the first head coach, helped to develop and organise the AaltoES Bootcamp programme and designed the curriculum with them, in addition to several other serial entrepreneurs including Moaffak Ahmed (Business Angel of the Year winner 2015) and Jussi Harvela (Superhero Capital co-founder) together with Will Cardwell providing critical support from Aalto University’s side.*

Sixty startups applied and fourteen were accepted. Although not advertised outside of Finland, one of the successful entrant teams came from St. Petersburg (Russia) and they drove to Helsinki every week to attend.

Inspired by the Russian team, and in an effort to tap into a wider talent pool, Ovaska and the team took a late summer trip to raise awareness of the Bootcamp in Russia and in the Baltic region — especially in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

*Note: Cardwell was also highly influential building up startup interest and capacity as Head of Aalto University Center for Entrepreneurship and later via the Aalto Ventures Program.

Summer of Startups was a programme co-founded Ville Simola to support very early stage teams. It was designed to be a new entrepreneurship programme run by entrepreneurial students for entrepreneurial students. The community offered stipend funding, a place to work and coaches. The only requirement was a good but ambitious idea that could be developed into a testable MVP (minimal viable product) in two months.

Summer of Startups was a first-of-its-kind collaboration between Aalto Entrepreneurship Society, Hanken Entrepreneurship Society (HankenES) and Helsinki University Entrepreneurship society. Aalto University and Tekes, the then Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, funded the programme.

The programme was divided into 8 weeks, each with a unique theme (team building, market, business model, etc.) where founders from existing startups served as mentors and shared their experiences. The programme also included a field trip to Tallin and Berlin to meet local startups.

Two of the first Summer of Startups participants, Rudi Skogman and Olli Gunst (now Blok founders), were also the founders of HankenES, and they had helped Simola with practical work to get the programme off the ground. Skogman also became heavily involved in Slush for four years as Chief of Investor Operations.

Ramine Darabiha was the first Summer of Startups Head Coach and a highly active member of the startup ecosystem generall, e.g. his then MySites startup sponsored an early Arctic Startup Evening. Ville Simola also co-founded Startup Sauna and a couple of acquired sports-related startups.

Rudi Skogman and Olli Gunst in Greece recording their Summer of Startups video pitch. With no 3G/4G available, the found a closed bank with an unprotected WiFi network. It took 40mins to upload.

Rail Girls

Linda Liukas at a Rail Girls event.

Rails Girls was founded by Linda Liukas (Hello Ruby creator) and Karri Saarinen (Kippt co-founder) with the aim of opening up technology and make it more approachable for girls and women.

The first event, held in Helsinki in November 2010, got over 100 interested girls signed-up for the workshop. Since then the free events have expanded to Shanghai, Singapore, Tallinn, Berlin, Krakow and many more attracting thousands of girls to the world of coding.


The second Aaltoes Bootcamp was held during the last two weeks of September 2010.

Slush 2010 was held in the Kaapelitehdas once again and kept alive thanks to the heroic efforts of Timo Aristo and Peter Vesterbacka. But the strain of all the unpaid work was not sustainable with so few hands to help out. So a drastic change was needed.


2011 — Startup Life & Startup Sauna

The Aaltoes Bootcamp was helping support founders gain startup experience, however, the Aaltoes board also saw the benefits that could be gained if students would have the chance to intern in the world’s best startups. This inspired the creation of a new programme called Startup Life (now called Startuplifers) that helps organise placements for students in startups in Silicon Valley, Finland and other parts of the world.

Aaltoes arranged for the globally renowned billionaire startup expert Steve Blank, to undertake a rapid tour of Finnish academic and governmental institutions to help cement common understandings of the distinctions and different needs of startups as compared to general businesses.

Startup Sauna

The Altoes Bootcamp grew so rapidly that a dedicated management team was setup to run it.

Kristo Ovaska, Tuomo Kuikka and Peter Vesterbacka met for a brainstorming session at Johto Cafe — a local cafe that had become a popular gathering spot for local entrepreneurs and startups in downtown Helsinki. Vesterbacka asked the Aaltoes team about what would happen if Financial Times, Business Week or TechCrunch dropped by and they heard yet another Silicon Valley inspired garage story. He answered his own question before they had a chance to answer. Nothing. Absolutely nothing would happen. But if they would talk about a student-run Startup Sauna, stuff would happen. Like, are you guys pitching naked in there or what? Could we come and check it out. And they did.

So to differentiate it from other bootcamps, Aaltoes Bootcamp was rebranded as Startup Sauna.

The Re-founding of Slush

Slush was founded on the premise of being run by startups for startups but, after the initial burst of growth, it would have been in danger of sputtering out if Peter Vesterbacka had not encouraged the Aalto University student community to adopt the event.

Fortuitously, Miki Kuusi and his team at Aaltoes had recently initiated the Finland Post Welfare seminar and were inspired to do an even bigger event related to entrepreneurship. So when Vesterbacka approached Miki Kuusi with the idea of taking over the management of Slush, Kuusi was receptive to the idea despite being daunted by it. At the last minute, together with Atte Hujanen (Singa founder, and team member at Aaltoes, Startup Sauna and Slush) and Charlotta Liukas (Mehackit founding partner & team member at Aaltoes, Slush), Kuusi accepted the challenge and picked up the batten.

Under Kuusi’s leadership, Slush would go on to grow rapidly and attracted willing sponsors and lots of media attention. Due to this amplified success and exposure, Kuusi is often referred to by the wider press as the Slush Founder, but it would be more appropriate to call him the Slush Re-Founder (and he would later go on to found Wolt).

Slush explodes (2012–2017)

This era will be covered briefly because Miki Kuusi has nicely summarised the period 2011 to 2015 in this Aaltoes blog post. And Slush 2013 to 2017 highlights are listed in Wikipedia.

2014 was a key date, as Slush moved from the Cable Factory to its current home at the Helsinki Exhibition and Convention Centre to cope with the then 14,000 attendees.


Arctic15

The Arctic15 event was established by ArcticStartup to launch 15 of the most potential technology startups from the region together with world-class keynote speakers. The event becomes regarded as a productive event being large enough to attract plenty of talent while still be personal. Its later move from September to being a pre-summer event placed in nicely in the calendar dividing the year between the Slush behemoth.

Some well know regional startups launched at the event: Kiosked, Pipedrive, Infogr.am, Yousician, Transfluent and Entocube.


2012 — Startup Foundation (Startup Säätiö)

The Startup Foundation (Startup Säätiö) was founded to generally promote, support and fund startup-related developments in Finland, as well as oversee the activities of the Slush conference, the Startup Sauna accelerator and Startup Life (now Startuplifers) internship programme.

From the beginning, it had over a million euros, which had been obtained from Sitra, Tekes, Ministry of Employment, Aalto University, the technology industry, and 57 from private donors.

The founding private donors list includes many of the key players in the development of the Finnish startup scene: Aki Seeck, Anssi Vanjoki, Antti Kokkinen, Ari Korhonen, Artturi Tarjanne, Feodor Aminoff, Florence Korhonen, Hannu Kytölä, Harri Koponen, Henri Kulvik, Ilkka Kivimäki, Ilkka Paananen, Jaakko Salminen, Jani Penttinen, Janne Snellman, Jari Pasanen, Juha Aalto, Jussi Harvela, Kaija Pöysti, Klaus Damsten, Kristian Segerstråle, Mammu Kaario, Mats Therman, Micki Honkavaara, Mika Mäkeläinen, Mika Tammenkoski, Mikko Kodisoja, Moaffak Ahmed, Niklas Törnkvist, Nils Forsblom, Ossi Pohjola, Pekka Ala-Pietilä, Pekka Roine, Pekka Sivonen, Pekka Vartiainen, Pekka Viljakainen, Peter Vesterbacka, Petri Lehmuskoski, Petri Niemi, Petteri Koponen, Pii Ketvel, Riku Asikainen, Risto Siilasmaa, Sakari Pihlava, Sami Inkinen, Sami Lampinen, Sari Baldauf, Seppo Ruotsalainen, Taneli Tikka, Tero Ojanperä, Timo Ahopelto, Timo Lappi, Timo Rosenlöf, Timo Soininen, Timo Teimonen, Toni Toikka, Ville Miettinen.

The Foundation currently oversees: Slush, Junction, Maria 01, The Shortcut, Wave Ventures, Rising North and Startup Sauna (the accelerator has now closed but the Otaniemi space remains).

2013 — Slush starts its global expansion

Thanks to some groundwork done by Peter Vesterbacka and some other big players, like Ilkka Paananen, the first Slush Tokyo event was held in 2013.

Martin Talveri also played a key role in kicking off Slush globally, organizing a series of Slush events in over 30 countries (China, Japan, Singapore, India, Brazil, Australia, South Korea, UAE, Indonesia, Turkey, Thailand, Canada) and visiting startup communities in over 80 nations (US, Iran, Germany, Vietnam, UK, Philippines, France, Kenya, Chile, Canada, Spain, Egypt, Argentina.

Slush 2013 at Cable Factory (Kaapelitehdas) Photo: Kristo Ovaska

2014–Helsinki Think Company

Helsinki Think Company started as a collaborative effort between the City of Helsinki and the University of Helsinki in 2013. One year later it founded a parallel volunteer association. “At Think Company, we bring a new perspective to the operational culture of the university. Learning by doing, fast product functionality testing and openness are key elements in our operations. The recently founded volunteer association is a part of the development, where significant change is created at the grassroots level.” (Elina Uutela, Student Captain, 2014 and now IceBreaker Product and Community Manager).

In 2017 Helsinki Think Company opened an impressive and important startup co-working and event space in the heart of central Helsinki.

2014 — Impacting developing markets

In 2014, Ilona Mooney (co-founder Work Ahead) and Charlotta Liukas founded the Slush Impact Stream to bring selected startups from developing countries to participate in a pre-Sluch incubator and networking programme. Later with the support of Heidi Humala (Sitra Impact Investor Advisor) and Aki Enkenberg (then Senior Advisor at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs), they established the Slush GIA (Global Impact Accelerator). Olga Balakina (later to become Chief Global Operator for Slush) was brought in to help organise GIA.

Author hosting a panel as part of the Slush Impact programme 2014

In 2014, I, together with Inka Mero (Startup Sauna Head Coach), arranged to take Startup Sauna to Kenya for a local pitching and coaching event co-hosted with iHub Nairobi. We were fortunate to be joined by Juho Kokkola (then Startup Sauna CEO and Ilkka Kivimäki (then Startup Sauna & Slush Chair).

In 2016, Startup Sauna returned to East Africa with Mero, Tiina Juvonen (Think Africa co-founder), and Mike Bradshaw (volunteer startup coach & later Startup Sauna Head Coach) to co-host local events in Tanzania and Ethiopia. Harri Junttila, Managing editor a Tekniikka&Talous, also joined the trip after writing about the first event, and in true Sauna spirit, he stepped in to replace one of the Finnish coaches who had to pull out at the last minute. Later Junttila was listed as a formal Sauna coach, which was an honour in startup circles.

Startup Sauna Safari posse and the Nairobi Local event pitching winners — Kenya 2014

2015–Maria 01

A general desire for a big central startup hub had been growing in the community since 2013, and various people looked at spaces in different phases: initially Miki Kuusi and Ilkka Kivimäki and later others and finally Voitto Kangas while he as CEO of Startup Foundation. Such places included the YLE-kampus, the railway station, and the Supercell office building but the advent of an empty hospital in Helsinki finally sparked it to life.

Heikki Kyöstilä (Planmeca owner) suggested that the City of Helsinki to do something great towards innovation and exports with the building complex. And the City took well the initiative to ask the grassroots directly and undertook a prep phase between June to December 2015. Numerous people were involved but Marja-Leena Rinkineva, Santtu von Bruun and the team behind Helsinki NewCo had prominent roles.

The make-it-happen period was the phase 2016 when the Startup Foundation and City of Helsinki found a way to operate the space. Slush (unofficially) and Startup Foundation did a lot of the heavy lifting from the community to find companies to move in.

Voitto Kangas (Maria 01 CEO) has written in detail about its growth and future plans in a Building The Next Chapter For The Maria Hospital post.

2015–Fallup & Junction Hackathon

Fallup and Junction were both born out of Aaltoes to meet additional needs.

FallUp was born out of Aaltoes as an inspiring event for future entrepreneurs and students aspiring to become part of the startup ecosystem in Finland. With students, entrepreneurs and key players in the ecosystem, they created an event to give participants opportunities to learn, interact and become inspired by stories, encounters and new ideas. FallUp is now the biggest of its kind in Europe with more than 2,000 attendees.


Aaltoes organizes the Junction Hackathon the first time in 2015. The idea was to build a community around the people who are at the centre of building the products of tomorrow — the programmers and the designers. Junction 2016 was Europe’s largest hackathon with over 1300 participants and 300 unique projects. Subsequently, Junction grew into a separate organisation.

2016 — The Shortcut

The Shortcut is an example of just how far startup community building has expanded and diversified.

Anne Badan and Moaffak Ahmed took a pragmatic approach on the topic of economic integration in Finland. What others saw as a challenge, they saw as an opportunity to utilise talent and potential in technology-based companies and startups, which already operate in English and are hungry for talent as an effective way of integration. Technical coding skills are in high demand but transnational knowledge and business, design thinking and communication skills are also needed. In addition, general entrepreneurial skills would give immigrants more autonomy to independently carve out careers.

To validate the initial idea, they co-founded The Shortcut and managed to raise funding from amongst others, foundations, private individuals, Ministries, cities, ELY keskus, unemployment offices, European Union, corporates, startups and scale-ups in the tech industry (e.g. Google, Supercell, Microsoft, Holvi, Yousician, Smartly.io).

After demonstrating proof-of-concept, The Shortcut managed to grow a vibrant community and now consists of a team of 44 people (11 employees, 13 interns, and 20 active team members) and a community of more than 200 volunteers. The Shortcut Lab is an open collaborative space in Maria 01, the Nordic hub for Startups in Helsinki. It’s home to their trainings and activities. It currently hosts about 10,000 visits a year hence the expansion plans in the near future.

In 2018, Anne Badan went on to win the Finnish Ecosystem Hero of the Year Award at the Nordic Startup Awards, which is an acknowledgement to her industrious work and vision, as well as to the results of what has proven to be a much-needed concept.


Microsoft Flux

After the Nokia troubles, Microsoft funded a number of initiatives to help employees transition and support startup communities, one of which was the creation of Microsoft Flux co-working space. Co-founded by Denis Cepun and Drazen Dodik, the handy city-centre location has been a boon to the startup community: enabling the easy gathering of startups, meet ups and regular open events. As with Aaltoes, the community managers have been active in providing regular events and food snacks to further encourage interactions and this has created something of a tradition with startup members also volunteering to give back with their own open provisions of food.

While the business motivation has been to find and support upcoming startups and encourage them to use Microsoft’s Azure cloud services via an incubator programme, the space has from the start been too good to be true: great fittings, meeting rooms and of course the soda drinks and quality coffee all for free.

The project was only designed to last three years and the space closed in February 2019. Microsoft kindly donated most of the fittings and equipment to The Shortcut where many from the community moved over to. The closure of this wonderful and wonderfully convenient space was a big loss for many, both for startup founders and many freelancers.

Sharing food has been a big part of the Flux community.

NOTE: Meeshkan, Slush 100 winner 2018, worked in Flux for most of 2018.


Slush expands in Asia

In 2016, Slush events were held in Helsinki, Tokyo, Singapore and Shanghai. Slush has grown from a 300-person gathering to become a global community organising more than 75 events with 40,000 plus attendees all around the world. Each city and each community adds its own local flavour to the global network.


2017–Kiuas

Kiuas Accelerator Demo Day 2018 was held in the biggest movie theatre in Finland. Attracting 600+ people including entrepreneurs, investors, media and other professionals.

600+ people including entrepreneurs, investors, media and other professionals

There are three primary realisations that inspired the creation of Kiuas, and although these points primarily serve their direct community, their motivations are far-reaching. They want to continue to explore how they can facilitate entrepreneurship in the Helsinki metropolitan area and push forward entrepreneurship education/awareness in the world as a whole.

Not enough members starting companies

Aaltoes is an entrepreneurship society but despite this fact it was felt that not enough of their members were actively pursuing, experimenting, and trying out different business ideas. The whole purpose of Aaltoes is to connect people and give them a safe place to test the waters. Kiuas aims to provide its members and the broader community with a great place to stop contemplating and get started. Theory can be learned in the classroom but nothing comes close to the skill and experience gained through action.

Shift from inspiring to doing

Since 2009 Aaltoes has done a fantastic job of creating cultural change regarding entrepreneurship in Finland. As a result, many successful startups have been founded and thousands of new students have been inspired every year by events such as Fall Up. Unfortunately, inspiration is not enough and only execution counts. Through Kiuas they plan to help even more people take concrete steps towards their ideas and emphasise the importance of execution.

Kiuas is an entity inside Aaltoes that helps early-stage startups go from an idea to first revenue. Their renowned summer programme Kiuas Accelerator (previously known as Summer of Startups) is a 10-week sprint to reach a goal, whether that is getting users or raising money. Recently launched pre-accelerator Kiuas Start takes startups from zero to one in three weeks, and is tailor-made for students who want to turn their garage project into a company and become entrepreneurs by doing what they love.

During the year Kiuas also organises several other events to support entrepreneurs and startups such as: Nordic Roadshow which is a series of fundraising events taking place in different Nordic cities and Kiuas Bootcamp, an idea validation weekend tailored for teams that want to take their business idea forward.

Kiuas has a small but dedicated team with the mission to make Finland the country with the highest amount of self-sustaining startups per capita in the world.


Slush 2017 opening sequence

Biggest Slush ever

Marianne Vikkula (previously a Summer of Startups organiser) rounded off her tenure as Slush CEO by overseeing and the event with 20,000 attendees gathered together, including 2,600 startups, 1,500 venture capitalists, and 600 journalists from over 130 countries. As is often pointed out, it has been quite a journey from the 300 who attend the first Slush in 2008.

2018–Shutting down and booting up

In any ecosystem creatures are born, grow and die, and a startup ecosystem is no different. Although the co-working space continues, the “accelerator” arm of Startup Sauna was shut down.

Startup Sauna had over 240 graduate startups from 27 different countries participating in its accelerator and those startups collectively raised over 240 million euros in funding after the programme. Over 150 of these startups are still alive and kicking. Notable alumni success stories include Yousician, Audiodraft and Sharetribe. Sauna organised 300 events in all corners of the world with the voluntary help of top-notch coaches, alumni and local partners who have all put in countless hours year after year to make it all possible.

The official reason for the closure, that the Sauna accelerator had done its job bringing investor attention to Finland is a simplified explanation. The full reasons are more complex. For a while Startup Sauna had been stuck in something of a dilemma: on the one hand, it had been encouraged to stay streamlined and focused, but on the other, it was criticised for not growing. And its KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) were starting to be questioned; for example, it was hoped many of the startups would stay on and establish themselves in Finland but only a few did. There were also concerns about how many graduates were becoming world-class startups, since, looking at just averages, a million per startup is not so exceptional at a global level.

Being a Startup Sauna coach was a badge of honour and, alongside spending time with the bright startup talents, being part of the inner community was an important reward. As the Sauna budget became tighter, the volunteer coach “thank you” network gatherings were reduced to just the Christmas dinner. These social gatherings can seem superficial on the outside but are crucial for maintaining wider political support.

Meanwhile, as the Startup Sauna accelerator was slowly drifting into something of a quagmire (in part due to historical technicalities relating to its legal structure being tied together with Slush), Aaltoes was assertively and energetically growing the Kiuas accelerator, which was resulting in a blurring of purposes. The idea of Aaltoes adopting the Sauna accelerator had been put forward but with Kiuas being the new focus the idea was not adopted—but the potential does still remain.

Speaking recently to a young Aaltoes executive member, it seems that the Sauna community had on some level become detached from its Aaltoes roots. The students have been the key drivers of the second wave of the ecosystem building, so it is critical they have a strong sense of ownership to be able to nurture and maintain the enthusiasm.

Local startups are still being well catered for by Kiuas and other startup support services (e.g. Helsinki NewCo), however, the opportunities of startups outside of Finland (particularly in the neighbouring regions) have been drastically reduced, and so has the international reputation that the Startup Sauna accelerator had built.

The Startup Sauna co-working hub remains. But after the closure of the accelerator arm, will the brand one day find a way to rise up and once again become internationally significant.

Sampo Accelerator

Something that might become a successor to Startup Sauna accelerator has already been started by Mike Bradshaw (last Startup Sauna Head Coach). It is called Sampo Accelerator and the focus has shifted away from investor presentations towards the customer discovery and product/market fit activities. As with Sauna, it has been started entirely with voluntary efforts. At least it has a good solid Finnish name that is also easy for foreigns to say and remember.

Mike Bradshaw surrounded by the first Sampo Accelerator graduates.

Icebreaker VC

Icebreaker is a brilliant example of how the Finnish startup ecosystem continues to breed vibrant communities.

Although Icebreaker VC started in December 2016, I wanted to leave it to the end as an example of how startup community building in Finland continues to thrive and innovate.

Icebreaker is a venture capital fund and community that focuses on people with strong industry knowledge and who wish to become, or have become, entrepreneurs.

I attended their Super Jam evening last Thursday and can testify that they have really managed to create a vibrant community. But this should not come as a surprise, as Icebreaker is being led by some veteran and new startup community-building talents, amongst others: Riku Seppälä (Aaltoes co-founder), Jesse Lindberg (current Aaltoes team member), and Elina Uutela (prominent roles at Slush, Aaltoes, Helsinki Think Company and Startup Foundation board).

To conclude…it’s a good start

When asked about how he feels about Slush and other success stories, Peter Vesterbacka’s default response is to say that it’s a good start. This is strategically the only perspective one can hold long-term, for as soon as people start reflecting too much on past glories then things can easily start sliding backwards.

So congratulations to all the Finnish startup community builders who have so far helped Finland gain a global reputation for startup ecosystem building, but just keep in mind that it’s a good start and we look forward to what the future brings.

This article was never going to be easy to write and I apologise to the many key people who have not been directly referenced. Please email richard@pricetap.io if you notice any clear mistakes or glaring omissions. This is just a work in progress and far from polished — but perfection is the enemy of done and for now I have run out of time.

Here’s wishing the very best to all the current and future startup community builders who are enthusiastically taking the flame forward — particularly for Slush CEO Andreas Saari and his crew for the coming week.

And remember, if you give more than you get, you get more than you give. So just keep enthusiastically giving out your sweets and good things will come your way!

Appendix

Some of the investor sweet-givers

Here are just some of the notable investors with highly successful portfolios who have also been active startup community sweet-givers: Moaffak Ahmed, Startup Säätiö co-founder, current Chair and volunteer coach); Ilkka Kivimäki, Startup Säätiö co-founder and previous Chair); Inka Mero, previous Startup Sauna Head Coach; Torsti Tenhunen (startup coach & FIBAN board member), Riku Asikainen (previous FIBAN Finnish Business Angel Of The Year & Startup Sauna Head Coach).

NOTE: Will be adding to this list and will add a section about FIBAN and the role played by the investor communities.

MANY THANKS: To all those who have helped guide me and contributed content. Special thanks to Tuomas Pollari for always helping to make connections (including my first startup technical partner Taro Morimoto), and Maari Fabritius (active startup community participant since the dawn of the web) for helping me avoid at least some glaring omissions and errors.

References (roughly chronological order):

Richard von Kaufmann

Written by

PriceTap founder: In-store shoppers scan price tags to create wish lists and get rewards. www.pricetap.io

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