The startup spirit of Slush

Slush draws together a crowd of 15 000 tech entrepreneurs and VCs to Helsinki next November. Read how it all started.

A calm swept over Miki Kuusi in the early days of November 2014, akin to the seasonal darkness slowly blanketing Finland. After a year of extensive planning and coordinating, the 25-year-old was standing on the edge of international significance with Slush 2014.

All he needed was at least 10,000 people to turn up to the annual tech and start-up event in Helsinki – an event that only a handful of years ago had attracted just 300 attendees.

In short: the stakes were very, very high.

And yet, in the midst of these expectations, Slush's CEO was unfazed. With the hopes of 1,400 companies resting on his team's shoulders, along with those of hundreds of investors, the Finnish government and the global media, perhaps he was just a little bit excited? Maybe some butterflies had found a temporary home in his stomach? How about just a hint of being crippled with nerves?

"I'm not such a nervous person," Kuusi reveals, a few weeks after the event managed to attract 14,218 unique attendees and 715 investors, making it the biggest investor event in Europe.

“It’s not about a single event,
but about a bigger movement;
that’s the journey Slush is on.”

"At that stage the cards have been dealt. You don't have any visibility as to how the event will work because it's such a huge composition. You can only trust that everything will work out with the organisation we've built and the things we thought through. It doesn't mean you are nervous – you are interested to see whether it goes this way or the other."

Such resolve under pressure has become indicative of Kuusi's approach during his rapid rise at the forefront of entrepreneurial innovation in Finland.

An enterprising attitude

After the Internet bubble burst in the early stages of this century, the tech and start-up community in Finland was left dazed and suitably deflated. Companies resorted to more conservative business models. There was little buzz in the media. As the community licked its wounds, this lack of enthusiasm reflected a timid wasteland of innovative ideas.

"If you went to university people didn't know what a start-up was, much less found one or go work for one," Kuusi laments.

Gradually the scene began to bubble to the surface once again, as the decade drew to a close. Its epicentre could be found at Aalto University, the institution formed when the Helsinki School of Economics, the Helsinki University of Technology and the University of Art and Design Helsinki merged together at the start of 2010.

The young economics student found himself in the midst of this exciting development, having commenced his degree a few months earlier.

Kuusi's enthusiasm for innovation and seeing it come to fruition swiftly found an outlet at a pitching event organised by the university. Surrounded by like-minded individuals he would put forth an idea he had for a virtual secretary service. The creative excitement in the room was palpable. While nothing eventually came of his idea, the spark was lit: there was something big happening here, and he wanted to be a part of it.

His ambitions swiftly gained traction as he threw himself into helping to further develop the Aalto Entrepreneur Society (Aaltoes) and establishing the Startup Sauna accelerator programme - today recognised as a leading young university accelerator in the world by UBI Index in Silicon Valley.

Next up it was time to introduce more of a global mix of players into the scene.

Starting with Slush

By 2010 Slush had attracted considerable buzz in Finland over the three consecutive years it had been staged. A moderately successful 300-person event, it had nonetheless struggled to make significant waves on the international scene. Enter Kuusi and his bold plans for a multi-sensorial experience: he would attract the big hitters among global investors and media to the biggest and coolest start-up conference in Europe.

"Back then the event had seemingly reached the extent of its potential," Kuusi reflects. "According to the original organisers, Slush 2011 would probably never have been organised unless we took it over."

Along with his coorganiser Atte Hujanen, Kuusi seized the opportunity to build upon the event's foundations and not have to start from scratch.

It's fair to say that not everyone shared their enthusiasm. In fact, many laughed in his face when Kuusi outlined their plans. But he and his growing team were young and driven.

Their first year out of the gate brought humble returns, with the Slush team attracting a total of four foreign investors to 2011's event. However, the next year drew 47 venture funds, followed by 118 venture funds in 2013. By 2014 the number had ballooned to 715 investors.

The variety of guest speakers also widened accordingly, with the likes of the founder, Chairman and CEO of Rakuten, Hiroshi Mikitani, Skype founding CEO Niklas Zennström and Softbank advisor Taizo Son taking the stage over the years. Politicians also took note, with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang and EU Commissioner Jyrki Katainen each making appearances.

Amidst the ballooning spectacle of big names, smoke, lights and lasers, Kuusi stresses that the core idea of the event has remained the same as it was when he and his team first took over the reigns.

"The reality we see is that in 2014 altogether over 4,000 meetings were held at Slush between investors and companies. These are the things that build the value of the event."

The spirit of change

Basking in the afterglow of 2014's success, Kuusi takes a moment to survey the current tech and start-up scene locally. Unsurprisingly, he is extremely pleased with what he sees.

"There has never been such a good time to found a tech start-up in the Nordics or Finland than today."

Nonetheless, whilst open to the widening array of new ideas, his enthusiasm for local innovation does have some limits.

"I don't believe that anything is possible, but I believe that a lot of things are more possible than you would think," Kuusi outlines. "We tried a lot of things over the years before Slush that didn't work. When we started to work on Slush there was this kind of pull that was taking us somewhere. We felt this strong purpose, so we took it forward."

Kuusi believes such drive should also prevail amongst Finns, traditionally confined to stereotypes of being somewhat introverted and reserved in their approach.

"I think it's time for us Finns to stop telling ourselves what we are like: the quiet Finn who doesn't speak to anyone and looks at his own shoes, or the extraverted Finn who looks at other people's shoes. These are funny stories, but this is not reality."

For Kuusi such cultural clichés are a hindrance to potential opportunities.

"It doesn't make sense to give ourselves excuses not to get better. If we start telling ourselves that it's not me and not something I can do, or that's not how Finns are, we are never going to know what it is possible."

Given the rapidly growing number of start-up possibilities created by Finns, the necessity for such cultural stereotypes is certainly questionable. In fact, when casting a glance over the current diversity of the local scene, Kuusi draws an impressive comparison: Silicon Valley.

"Over there you meet so many different kinds of people with such different kinds of backgrounds and stories. The whole community supports itself, whatever people are doing. There is a strong culture of paying it forward here in Finland as well, helping each other, talking very openly about different issues and failures and successes. I see that as a very positive development; a cultural change, definitely."

This change is also reflected in the number of investors plugging in to the flourishing environment.

"If you start a company now, it's easier to find employees, really smart people who want to work with your company, as well as co-founders. There are more entrepreneurs than before, more funding, more capital. More of everything."

“There has never been such a good time
to found a tech start-up
in the Nordics or Finland than today.”

Kuusi is quick to acknowledge that this ecosystem is propped up by considerable governmental support. He recently found himself discussing the Finnish tech scene and Tekes with American David Gardner, the first investor in Supercell and Unity.

"David said that he loves investing in Finnish gaming companies," Kuusi recalls.

"He can have the same company in the UK and the same company in Finland. He invests the same amount of money into both of them. The UK company could have a runway of two years with the investment, but, because of Tekes, the Finnish company might have a runway of even three, four or five years. That's why he loves investing here, as the probability of success is higher because of the government's involvement."

Investing in the future

Having set the Slush train in motion, it is now time for Kuusi to step down from his post as CEO, content with the impact the event has made on the scene.

"It is much more developed than it used to be. I am much more confident now that we will see more interesting things coming out of here in the next 10-20 years or so because of this ecosystem."

Looking ahead Kuusi also sees Helsinki and the event growing synonymous with one another, much in the same way that Cannes is linked to its movie festival, Austin and SXSW go hand-in-hand and the mention of Milan immediately evokes images of its design week.

"Our dream is that in 20 years from now we can say Helsinki has Slush; it is one of these kinds of cities, but in the tech and start-up scene. However, it's not about a single event, but about a bigger movement; that's the journey Slush is on."

And what part will Kuusi play in all of this?

"We'll see. Slush was one journey that I've been a part of for four years. I will still be a part of it in future, but in a different role. I like starting new things; I'm really excited to get my hands in the dirt again. I think of myself as a person who likes to see something come out of nothing."

Slush 2015 conference will be organised on 11th - 12th November in Helsinki, Finland.

Text: James O'Sullivan
Photo: Samuli Pentti/Slush

The story was first published in the Tekes Views Magazine 2015