I had the pleasure of interviewing Jesse Nieminen, the chairman and co-founder of Viima, a SaaS product that helps organizations collect and develop ideas and turn them into innovations.
Jesse has a master’s degree in Computer Science and has worked for one of the fastest growing software companies in Europe prior to founding Viima. Together with his co-founders, they’ve successfully bootstrapped Viima from the humble origins of their student apartment to a profitable, fast-growing company with Global Fortune 500 customers.
Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?
My pleasure! I’ll start from the beginning of our story.
On the first day of school at our university, we were put in the same freshman group with my future co-founders. We soon became friends and worked on a large number of projects together throughout our computer science studies.
Despite our studies being very technical by nature, we were all very entrepreneurial and knew that someday we wanted to build our own companies. At the same time, the startup community around our university was also gaining a lot of momentum and we learned that they were organizing a Summer program for teams that were interested in building their own startup.
After our third year of studies, we decided to apply for the program and were accepted. The summer was a humbling experience for us. Thanks to the well-organized program and terrific group of experienced entrepreneurs who volunteered to mentor the teams throughout the summer, we then had a realistic idea of what it would take to build a company.
So, once we graduated from the program, we proceeded to set the company up and get to work. Since we didn’t need much financing to begin with, but none of us had much personal wealth to speak of, we decided to bootstrap the company by continuing to work in our day jobs and on our studies.
Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Well, from the very beginning, we’ve always had a can-do attitude and set the bar high for ourselves. As we’ve always been passionate about creating value for our customers, we’ve been gradually taking steps in the right direction for a long time. Even when things didn’t look very promising, we still persisted and continued forward.
It took almost three years before all three of us founders were able to leave our day jobs and focus fully on just Viima.
To this day, we always seek to persist and set the bar high for everyone in the team and based on the feedback we’ve heard from our customers, it shows in our work.
Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Yes, we definitely have a number of projects going on that we’re very excited about!
There are a number of awesome new features that we’re working on for our product and we’ve also recently started projects with a number of large organizations around the world and we’re super excited to be working together with them.
In addition, there are a couple of international business initiatives that we’re currently planning, but these are unfortunately all things that I can’t go into too much detail just yet.
Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
There are so many that it’s hard to name just one! I’m very passionate about reading and learning more and all the books that I’ve read and the podcasts that I’ve listened to have without a doubt shaped my thinking and the way I approach both business and life in general.
If I had to pick just one, I’d probably say “The Founder’s Dilemmas” by Noam Wasserman.
All three of us founders read it on a school course prior to us setting up the company, which helped us get on the same page and have a great open discussion about our expectations for the company, as well as the principles that we wanted to have. If we hadn’t read the book, I’m sure the first few years would’ve been much more difficult for us as a team.
Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Twentysomething Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Work hard and be persistent!
When I was younger, I was always great at school without never having to put in much effort. However, once I got to the university, I quickly learned that it was no longer the case. I had terrible grades from the majority of the courses during my first year. I realized that if I wanted to be successful, I would need to work much harder. Many of the mentors we had early on also helped clarify this point for us.
2. Learn to enjoy the process of getting better and always put your own needs last
Many of the other startups that started at the same time we did, went out of business quickly. Some of them clearly had great teams, but it seemed that their motivation was mostly based in personal gain, be it related to money or status. This obviously meant that when everything didn’t go as planned and they hit a rough patch, they quickly went on to other adventures.
For us the biggest motivator was always to learn as much as we can. We agreed together to not take any salary until the company could afford it. As we always put the company first and just kept on learning more about everything imaginable, we kept making steady progress.
3. Make sure to focus on your health and fitness
Building a company is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. If you don’t take care of your health and your fitness, you won’t be able to work hard and be productive for years on end.
The longer I’ve been an entrepreneur, the more I’ve been putting emphasis on working out and sleeping enough, eating healthy, the more I’ve felt these things help me stay productive and happy.
4. Have all of the core skills your company will need in the founding team
We’re a software company, so we have a few key areas of expertise that we knew we needed to have in our founding team, namely: engineering, sales and marketing. Each of us decided to focus on one of these areas and learn as much about as these possible and we started to do that already prior to actually founding the company.
That meant that we’ve been able to do virtually everything by ourselves without having to rely on external partners, which has naturally saved us a lot of money, but even more importantly, allowed us to move fast and build our own expertise and core capabilities.
On the other hand, we’ve seen a number of companies that didn’t have all of the required capabilities in their founding team and they’ve gone out of business almost without exception. How are you ever going to build a sustainable competitive advantage if you can’t do the most critical tasks for your business yourself?
5. Read a lot and emphasize learning!
I was just recently going through some of the early documents we created right after founding the company and I have to say that it was a bit embarrassing to see how bad we were initially. It just goes to show how far we’ve come in the last five years and a big reason for that is our unstoppable passion for always learning more.
I personally love to read books and listen to podcasts, but that’s certainly not enough. It takes thousands of hours of dedicated practice to master any skill and while there are shortcuts, such as learning from the best, you’ll still need to put in the time and the work to become good at something.
While you can always compliment your weaknesses in certain areas by hiring trustworthy experts, you should still be good at many, if not most, of the things your company does for you to be able to effectively manage the work in a small company.
Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Oh, this is a tough one! There are so many that I’d love to talk to and learn from, but if I had to name just one, it would probably have to be Reid Hoffman.
I’ve heard only positive things about him and would love to dig deeper on many of the topics that he’s covered in his Masters of Scale podcast :)
— Published on June 27, 2018