From Crisis to “Sisu” – Finland’s way to create new jobs by promoting young people and entrepreneurship

Helsinki might not be the first city you think of when you are searching for a place to spend part of your summer holidays. But if you are interested in the Nordic Startup scene, you should consider to stop by.


Pic: cdt / Not a hospital… anymore! Maria 01 Entrance


The rise of the Finnish Startup Community was first of all caused by an economic crisis: the fall down of the Finnish tech giant Nokia, who was the biggets employer and tax payer in the small country until 2007. At the same time, entrepreneurship was not quite popular, even within business administration students. A grass root student movement, some successful entrepreneurs and engaged state officials still work hard to change this. Following the Finnish attitude of “Sisu” – sometimes translated with “never giving up” or “persistence”.

In the meantime, Finland is not only under the top 5 of the most digitally advanced countries in the world. Wi-Fi is even offered in churches and you can get unlimited mobile internet for little money. The small country also has a growing international Tech Startup industry with a global impact. 19 universities offer entrepreneurship study programmes. There are not so many statistics on the Startup workforce, but unemployment rates fell from 15% after the Nokia crisis to 8% today. It is said that former Nokia employees founded more than 200 Startups.

Networking as success factor

Getting to know the Finnish Startup scene, I really liked the friendly networking approach. “We are all friends and work together” states Kirill, Chief Networking Officer of the Nordic’s biggest Startup campus and incubator Maria 01. The friends of Maria are called Startup Sauna and Slush Festival. All initiatives have their roots within a strong student movement, started by successful entrepreneurs like Kristo Ovaska, Co-Founder & CEO at Smartly and Miki Kuusi, Co-Founder & CEO at Wolt.

Once adopted by the community, this is the typical lifecycle of a Tech Startup in Helsinki:

Startup Sauna, located at Aalto University campus 15 minutes away from the Helsinki city centre, offers a first desk and support for founders who want to start a business. The early stage accelerator has a great international network of both coaches and startups, and Startuplifers, which operates under the same roof, organises exchange and internship programs around the world to help students to understand the world of entrepreneurship. When too big for Startup Sauna, early stage companies can directly move to Maria 01, as both teams very closely work together and trust each others due dilligence processes.

For the Maria 01 Team, growth means international growth. They support their members with work space and contacts to big corporates as well as venture capital. But to be part of this network, the applying Startups have to show that they do not only focus on the small Finnish market. Some even start their first English website, just because they want to be part of the Maria movement. The incubator’s team works like a strict but supporting accountabiity partner. A company not growing, has to leave.

A year ago, the initiative supported by the Finnish Government and the City of Helsinki, moved into an old hospital building near Helsinki’s west harbour. Some programmers are still sitting in former surgery rooms, while the whole complex is renovated step by step. In the end, Maria wants to host not less than 350 Startups. The basement of the main building is dedicated to the social Startup The Shortcut. They want to offer an open space to everyone, so people from around the world can make themselves feel at home and recognise opportunities for themselves in the Helsinki startup scene. Facing the current social challenges, The Shortcut team also works on concepts to integrate refugees, marginalised youth and unemployed talent into the startup community.

Not at least, the Slush Festival plays a big role in Helsinki’s Startup ecosystem. Following the same idea of international growth, the Slush Team also organises founder festivals in Tokyo, Shanghai and Singapore. It all began with a meeting of 300 people. This November, 17.500 attendees will come to Helsinki to learn about the secrets of entrepreneurship.

Social Impact as growth factor

As visitors, we asked ourself how it can be possible, that the Nordic Startup scene is so successful. We found out, they do not have a bigger budget than anywhere else in the world. There were very bad economic conditions in the beginning ten years ago. And like in other European countries, entrepreneurship and the very often directly connected situation of failure had a bad reputation within the society.

What we noticed, is a constant patterns of being open to the world, helping each other and volunteering or giving back to the community. All representatives we met, started as student volunteers and later moved to other jobs within the Startup community. Even successful CEOs still follow this patterns. Very important to add, that none of the mentioned companies is a charity. Everyone we met is absolutely clear about having an impact does not mean working for free!

Hand in hand with the government

Next to their own businesses, all three Startup initiatives work as consultants to the Finnish government. So students can directly address their ideas to government representatives without needing well known door openers anymore. Therefore the situation of the Finnish Startup scene looks quite good at the moment. But there are still some wishes left. Like the one from Anni from Startup Sauna, “It would be great if we could have Startup Visa like in Estonia. That would make it easier for talents from around the world t move to Finland.”

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