“Be Aggressive about Diversity” 5 Leadership Lessons with Martin Talvari, CEO of Myriad
I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Talvari, the CEO and founder of Myriad, which is the fastest-growing technology and innovation event in Asia Pacific. He won a $2.1M grant from the government of Queensland to start Myriad, connect bright minds from around the world, and put Australian ingenuity on the map. Martin was previously the Chief Strategy Officer for Slush.org, the world’s leading entrepreneurship and technology conference. He holds an MSc in Civil Engineering, and has competed in chess with Grandmaster Garry Kasparov.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I started on the path toward Myriad in a pretty unusual way. I began my career as a structural engineer and got my degree in Civil Engineering, specializing in the mathematics of structures. I got connected to the startup world because I programmed a game and needed investors, so I joined a ton of meetups and started networking and meeting people in the community. The next thing I knew, my uni mates who started Slush (now one of the biggest and most respected events in the world), asked me to be a part of organizing it. It took me about four years of putting on events in 38 countries around the world to realize what I was doing could actually be a real, sustainable thing. Now I see myself as this business-focused guy with an engineering background who relates to super techy folks and can get in-the-weeds about new innovations, while also being able to connect at a high level with sponsors or VCs looking for the next big thing. I have learned how to highlight the startup and tech scenes in traditionally underserved geographies and really get to the heart of what makes those places and people tick.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Last year during Slush, I was chatting with some attendees and friends about how good the DJ Jan Blomqvist is. Next thing I knew, I had reached out to him and arranged flights for him to come to Helsinki for an impromptu party. Now, I had less than 24 hours to pull off the event. But that’s how all the magic happens — we got this modern sauna bar on the Baltic Sea to host, and invited close friends and friends of friends within the conference network. It quickly morphed into something really special and intimate, and what I loved most was seeing how efficiently community can come together to make something unique like this happen. All of that was created from scratch in less than a day, and I heard later from many who attended that it was one of the most memorable experiences of that week.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Startup communities outside of Silicon Valley are exploding around the world, from Finland to Taiwan to New Zealand and beyond. I’ve visited 82 countries over the past five years and I’ve organized events that help shine a light on the growing innovation economies in many of them. One of my favorites that I can’t help coming back to? Australia, which aside from being one of the most beautiful places on earth, is deeply invested in research, sits on a ton of resources, and has an early adopter mindset you won’t see anywhere else. Myriad was born out of the call for a bigger focus on Aussie ingenuity, which international VCs, local governments, and so many more are seeking; it’s about showcasing the brilliant startups, tech, and entrepreneurs coming from Down Under.
But I learned pretty quickly that every event has an expiration date unless it becomes a movement. Conferences are so critical because they foster relationships, connections, and networks in a special way — they really have to be done well or risk becoming fickle, expensive, and extraordinarily complex beasts. We built Myriad first and foremost under the principle that it needs to remain independent and grass-roots with tons of student involvement, and we’re always experimenting. Our main focus is on creating an experience-forward environment, and our measurement for success is all about how many genuine connections are made. One cool thing we’re doing is partnering with Qantas to charter a jumbo jet to fly a ton of entrepreneurs, founders, VCs, and students direct from San Francisco to Brisbane for the festival on a flight path that doesn’t even exist….yet. Not only is it a great way to fly our speakers to Australia, but it creates a unique atmosphere for people from different walks of life to connect over the duration of a 15-hour flight.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Ensure open communication. Create an open and honest relationship with all your employees.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I can’t pick just one, so I’ll say the founders of Slush, Miki Kuusi and Atte Hujanen, and the entire team. Miki in particular has had a remarkable impact on my life. He was CEO at the time when we were growing Slush from a casual meetup to what it’s known for today. He pushed me to think deeply about what I want to achieve and where I want to be in the future. I eventually had the freedom to go anywhere in the world to organize Slush — I just had to figure out how to do it with little to no budget. That journey was like a nonstop lifehacker challenge; I became a nomad. I got to know myself really well spending a lot of time alone in different parts of the world, whether that was during a whole week in a Bedouin camp switched off and planning my next move or canoeing on a river in Laos for days.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Myriad’s purpose is to provide young startups and students with the tools they need to accelerate, while also increasing collaboration between the Australian and US ecosystems. We realized early on that seeing Australia’s thriving tech community in-person tends to make the most impact, but for many, global travel can be tough. That’s why we came up with our flight path to make attending Myriad easier — we are giving away one seat on the jet a month — for free. We believe that now, more than ever, providing a strong example of cross-cultural collaboration is one of the best mission statements we can have.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Pay it forward: I always go out of my way to support the next generation of entrepreneurs, and students!. Whether it’s finding ways to spark entrepreneurship in students through events like Myriad, or Slush, or saying yes to coffee meetings, being an advocate for tomorrow’s leaders is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve had the pleasure of learning.
Make a point to connect outside the boardroom: One of the reasons why events like Slush and Myriad have been successful is because we’ve created a new way to network that doesn’t happen in a boardroom. The most authentic and valuable connections I’ve made have taken place during a 15 hour flight, a morning hike, or even a concert.
Dream big: The purpose of Myriad (and same for Slush) goes far beyond a standard tech conference. We bring people together to solve huge, global issues and have set out to create a category-defining movement in and of itself. It’s a hugely ambitious goal, that’s for sure, but something myself and the team are continually striving towards.
Think global: Understanding the world is incredibly important. I’ve realized that entrepreneurship should never exist in a vacuum, and that building a bridge between cultures is one of the most valuable things I can do.
Be aggressive about diversity: We make sure our events have an equal gender split, representatives from countries all over the world, as well as opportunities for students and early-stage founders to participate. We are always looking to bring in new ideas and opinions that reflect who we are as a company and our values.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
I like Warren Buffett’s quote: “Either hold a rock concert, or a ballet, but don’t hold a rock concert and advertise it as a ballet.”
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 just see this :-)
I’d love the opportunity to connect with any students, VCs, entrepreneurs, founders, etc. who have an interest in forging connections and building a movement bigger than ourselves. We have a competition running at the moment where anyone can apply online to earn a seat on the Myriad Air flight. We really want to connect with an individual’s personal story and ensure that they will come out of this flight feeling motivated, inspired, and perhaps even funded to kickstart their business to new levels. If this sounds up your alley, I’d like to hear from you.
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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.