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Startup success is ‘The Finnish Dream’

Finland has a startup mentality running through its veins and its water, with an “all for one” attitude driving fledgling tech companies

There is a concept in Finland akin to “The American Dream” – it’s called “Sisu”. It’s a mentality of resilience that is thought to come from the country’s water and is a national trait that drives its population.

In the business world, it is also a notion of determination, perseverance and long-term thinking that has helped conjure up some of the most renowned names in tech.

More aptly summed up as “bravery in the face of adversity”, this resilience is naturally aligned to a startup way of thinking, and it’s no coincidence that Finland – and especially its capital, Helsinki – has become one of the hottest breeding grounds for digital startup success.

“There’s simply a huge amount of startup activity here, particularly games companies, and it has generated a sort of ‘safety in numbers’ situation,” said Robin Squire, CEO and co-founder of Black Block, a game development studio working on large-scale virtual worlds for mobile devices.

His company is barely more than a year old, but already Squire has witnessed the conditions that explain the success of companies such as Nokia, Rovio and Supercell that have come before.

“Everyone has each other’s backs and wants each other to succeed,” he said. “It’s seen as good for the industry and good for Helsinki. We regularly receive help from other games companies in Helsinki that would be seen as ‘direct competitors’ under similar circumstances in other cities.”

And this trait isn’t specific to gaming. Renowned data insight generator and retail partner HappyOrNot, which provides the smiley feedback management system, has witnessed, and thrived off, this exact same culture for more than 10 years.

“The Helsinki, and broader Finnish, business culture is one of helping each other,” said the company’s co-founder, Heikki Väänänen. “As a small country that has only been around for 100 years, we have had to overcome significant adversity. Because of that, the Finnish people are very collaborative and proud of business success cases.

“As a result, the business environment provides a lot of support to startups and entrepreneurs. Tekes, the government-run Business Finland organisation, helps by providing funding for technology and innovation. They provide significant financial assistance, of course, but they are also good at connecting entrepreneurs with each other so that people can learn.

“Finnish success stories such as Kone lifts, Rovio, and of course Nokia mean that there are lots of brilliant minds to learn from in Finland.”

Read more about tech in Helsinki

Nordics unicorns and multinationals have given birth to a vast , innovative talent pool that have seen first-hand what can be achieved with a little ingenuity.

But it is the mix of local and international industry veterans that has helped to build one of the country’s most famous gaming organisations – the company behind The Walking Dead mobile game franchise, Next Games.

“Helsinki has a vast local talent pool of industry veterans who have helped to make the company what it is today,” said its CMO, Saara Bergström. “But in order to successfully maintain the city’s reputation, it is vital that we also look overseas and attract passionate, hardworking people from all corners of the globe who want to embed themselves in our culture and contribute to our society.”

A domestic and international blend is imperative for a country that is situated ideally between Russia and Asia to the east, Central Europe to the south, and Scandinavia, the UK and the US to the west. Being a politically neutral and socially stable pivot in the middle has potential in theory, and by capitalising on it, Finland has become one of the world’s more intriguing tech hubs.

“That’s not even including the other Baltic countries,” said HappyOrNot’s Väänänen, referring to Finland’s geography. “Finland is full of brilliant developers, but this is also the case in Tallinn, Estonia, for instance, which is only a few hours’ ferry ride from Helsinki.

“This connection to different, equally talented, regions is not just an advantage, but an advantage over other Nordic countries when it comes to attracting talent and investors.”

Unique ecosystem

Finland’s growing startup ecosystem has seen it enjoy the highest investment ratios in tech startups, per capita, in Europe.

Healthtech and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) startups have even helped to diversify Finland’s output away from the gaming sector to strengthen its position. And this strength is never epitomised better than in November, when the world’s quirkiest and most creative tech entrepreneurs descend on Helsinki for Slush.

“Slush is one of the biggest technology conferences in the world, attracting the most important innovators in Europe and further afield,” said Väänänen. “This has helped put Helsinki on the technology map and has had a wonderful trickle-down effect on our ecosystem.”

Combine this drive to further enrich the digital startup realm with one of the world’s best education systems and an all-round “happiness” that exists in Finland, and the country’s prominent influence on global tech makes perfect sense.

“The level of education, support and resources available means that the journey from youth to adulthood, and then on to starting a company, is a completely viable career path for many people,” said Next Games’ Bergström. “Helsinki is a unique ecosystem to work in, but what I think differentiates it from other cities is the shared passion and ambition for everyone to succeed.”

Väänänen added: “I see ‘Sisu’ manifest itself in the Helsinki startup scene every day. Entrepreneurs won’t take no for an answer and they bounce back up when they’re knocked down. We all have our troubles at points in our business’s development, but also have the grit required to overcome these hurdles to ensure we become very successful.

“This is what makes Helsinki, and Finland more broadly, unique.”

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