Business & Economics

Nokia as ‘He who must not be named’ and the Helsinki Spring

Steve Blank

I was invited to Finland as part of Stanford’s Engineering Technology Venture Program partnership with Aalto University. (Thanks to Kristo Ovaska and team for the fabulous logistics!) I presented to 1,000’s of entrepreneurs, talked to 17 startups, gave 12 lectures, had 9 interviews, chatted with 8 VC’s, sat on 4 panels, talked policy with 2 government ministers, 2 members of parliament, 1 head of a public pension fund and was in 1 TV-documentary.  More details can be found at www.steveblank.fi

This is part 2 of 2 of what I found. Part 1 can be found here.

Toxic Business Press and Contradictory Government Incentives
Unique to Finland with its strong cultural emphasis on equality and the redistribution of wealth is a business press that doesn’t understand startups and is overtly hostile to their success. When MySQL was sold for $1B and the cleantech company the Switch got acquired for $250M, one would have expected the country to celebrate that they had built these world-class companies. Instead the business press dumped on the founders for “selling out.” In 2010 it got worse with an Act in parliament about the Monitoring of Foreigners’ Corporate Acquisitions. Many founders mentioned this as a reason not to incorporate or grow their companies in Finland.

Steve Blank Day 4: Public Funding and Ecosystem

While the government says they love startups, the first thing they did this year is raise the capital gains tax. While it might have been politically expedient, it was not a welcome sign for long-term investment. I suggested they consider an investment tax credit for pension funds that invest in Finnish based VC firms.

Nokia as “He Who Must Not Be Named”
I was in Finland three days before I realized that no one had mentioned the word “Nokia.”  After I brought it up in a meeting, you could have heard a pin drop.  Nokia was Finland’s symbol of national competence. Most Finns take their failure as a personal embarrassment. (Note to Finland – lighten up. Nokia was blind-sided in a classic disruptive innovation. 50% the fault of a Nokia management that didn’t see it coming, while 50% was due to brilliant Apple execution.) Ultimately, Nokia’s difficulties will turn out to be good news for Finnish entrepreneurs. They’ve stopped hiring the best talent, and startups are not looking so risky compared to large companies.

Nanny-Culture, Lack of Risk Taking, Not Sharing
What makes Finland such a wonderful place to live and raise a family may ultimately be what kills it as a startup hub. There’s a safety net in almost every part of one’s public and private life – health insurance, free college tuition, unions, collective bargaining, fixed work hours, etc. And what’s great for the mass of society – a government safety net verging on the ultimate nanny state – makes it impossible to fail. You find early stage employees expecting to work normal hours, to get paid a regular salary, and not asking or expecting equity. There isn’t much of a killer instinct among the masses.

It’s the rare region where risk equals experience. By nature Finns are not good at tolerating risk. This gets compounded by the cultural tendency not to share or talk in meetings, sometimes to the point of silence. This is a fundamental challenge in creating an entrepreneurial culture.  This extends to sharing among startups. The insular nature of the culture hasn’t yet created a “pay it forward” culture.

Summary
The young entrepreneurs I met are bringing impressive energy and intelligence to their goal of building one of Europe’s leading technology hubs in Helsinki. Finland itself has significant engineering talent, and is also attracting entrepreneurs from Russia and the former USSR. It will be fascinating to see if they can lead the cultural change and secure the political support (in a government run by an older generation) to support their vision.

Lessons Learned

  • Finland is trying to engineer an entrepreneurial cluster as a National policy to drive economic growth through entrepreneurial ventures
  • They’ve gotten off to a good start with a start around Aalto University with passionate students
  • Startup incubators, business angels and VCs are starting to emerge
  • The country needs to figure out a long term privatization strategy for Venture investing
  • Finnish culture makes risk-taking and sharing hard

Steve Blank Day 5: Success and Failure — The Spring of the Entrepreneurial Spirit

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