Dare to dream big

18.04.2017
Krista Kinnunen

Kyrö Distillery's story is like something straight out of a textbook for successful entrepreneurs. Mikko Koskinen acknowledges that the right timing was also of great significance, however.

According to Mikkko Koskinen the company aims to be the world's most recognised rye distiller. Photo: Aleksi Poutanen.

It all started with an idea that popped up during a night in the sauna. A realisation that rye was already used to make just about anything in Finland, but not alcohol. Mikko Koskinen and his partners decided to take action. Kyrö Distillery was established in 2012 and Koskinen has now served as its brand representative for three years.

The initial concern was whether it would be possible to do business on a large enough scale to provide several people with a livelihood. Their analysis indicated that this could be done. Among others, the guys researched Swedish whisky maker Mackmyra and got in touch with anyone with knowledge of distilling. Three months later, the firm had been established and, within six months, the current team was assembled. In addition to Koskinen, the partners are Miika Lipiäinen, Kalle Valkonen, Miko Heinilä and Jouni Ritola.

After Kyrö's Napue Gin was named the world's best spirit for gin and tonic in the International Wine and Spirit Competition 2015, the pieces have been falling in place quite rapidly. This small distillery has become a global success story.

What explains your success?

“The time was ripe for a company in this field. The craft trend and high demand for handmade products has led to the rise of small breweries and coffee roasting houses, among others. We found a perfect opportunity in Finland, we're the first modern small distillery here. Elsewhere around the world, this trend had already existed for longer, but we weren't hopelessly late either,” Koskinen says.

Startup skills turn the old into the new

“From the very beginning, it was clear that we'd have to change Finnish drinking habits in order to be successful. We understood that this would require a powerful brand. Something better than what the Swedes could do,” Koskinen chuckles.

Stand-up comedy, something Koskinen has experience in, also helped to achieve this.

“Stand-up is the world's best school for storytelling. It's all about the ability to wrap things up understandably with a minimum amount of words. This is important for Kyrö Distillery. We have to be able to tell our story interestingly so that people get inspired.”

The founders are also applying fresh knowledge they learned in the startup scene to an old, established branch of industry. Koskinen thinks too many good ideas wither away because of an inability to maintain inspiration. Goals take too long to accomplish, there aren't enough things to look forward to.

“You need to get feedback about your idea and product as quickly as possible, and immediately evaluate, which aspects of it to utilise,” Koskinen says.

“Each of us paid in €500 to start, and then we moved on to the next concrete step. We always maintain sight of the next step we are heading for.”

Koskinen tells me that almost all of the founders' assets, and even those of their parents, were tied up in the company in the beginning. They have now paid back their loans and accumulated almost two million euro in additional funding.

“We managed to attract people and firms that were able to invest, in addition to funds, other individual inputs that help the company progress along its growth trajectory.”

Koskinen emphasises that mutual trust has been a prerequisite to success. This means that they can disagree on some matter, and still come to a conclusion. The team's diverse range of competencies has also been beneficial.

“In future, we intend to pay attention to the diversity of the company. We are, after all, very much an all-male panel.”

But how did Koskinen wind up becoming a rye spirit entrepreneur?

Focus on people

Mikko Koskinen ended up studying mechanical engineering partly because the profession was already familiar from home. His mechanical engineer dad was involved in the building of ice breakers, among other things. In the eyes of his son, this work appeared to be an interesting adventure in some respects, and a demonstration of top engineering expertise in others. Koskinen reckoned it would be great if he himself could also combine these aspects correspondingly.

While in Mexico for a student exchange, he realised that he wanted to concentrate on industrial design and the making of concrete products. This is also where he started thinking about concept design and how to take the human aspect into consideration in design.

After he returned to Finland, Koskinen landed his first job in the industry as a designer at Metso Automation.

“Designing big machines without human contact didn't win me over, however. Later, when I worked as a product design consultant for Finnish companies – on Buster boats and Kone lifts, for example – the work started to feel like me.”

Across the board, Koskinen's activities emphasise multidisciplinarity and a desire to engage in human-centric work with a larger goal. It is also no harm if this can simultaneously improve conditions for people and the environment.

Dare also to fail

Towards the end of his studies, Koskinen was given the opportunity to participate in Aalto University's ME310 product development course at Stanford in the USA. This experience was an eye-opener. Otaniemi's Design Factory had already given him the feeling of living in the future, and this was strengthened in Silicon Valley.

“Being in Silicon Valley and living the startup life means you're constantly five years ahead of everyone else. From the perspective of my own activities and starting up a business, this is of course a good thing. It also makes it possible to make moves at the right time,” Koskinen ponders.

He found that the learning provided by Aalto was easily sufficient for studying at one of the world's top universities. His studies had already emphasised problem-solving abilities, but the scale expanded at Stanford. Students were given many times more authority, opportunities, resources and budgets. Even though the projects he worked on there did not result in a business model, the Stanford course was the most cataclysmic experience of his studies. While there, Koskinen also encountered many people who have since had a substantial impact on his life. His own perspective on life also experienced an upheaval.

“I started to understand and believe that I could actually accomplish great things for real. My ambition grew, but I was also supplied with skills and tacit knowledge on how to achieve even the hardest targets and how to give an idea wings.”

A specific fruit of Silicon Valley has been the courage to accept challenges, and progress step by step towards the main objective. Furthermore, failure is not shameful there, instead you are valued for having had the guts to try.

Into management overnight

His startup life continued in Finland. In 2011, Koskinen and his student friends decided to take part in the Uutisraivaaja contest, which is sponsored by the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation. They presented the Scoopinion browser add-on, which recommends articles that may be of interest to the user. Scoopinion won first place, and the part-time researcher became the managing director of a startup overnight.

Koskinen focused on running the company for a couple of year. Business developed reasonably well, but failed to soar. This prompted the decision to apply for a place at the US-based media industry business accelerator Matter, which welcomed him aboard. Koskinen headed to San Francisco to develop Beatroot, a successor to Scoopinion. The business idea was sound, but failed to secure funding. In hindsight, both Scoopinion and Beatroot appear to have been ahead of their times.

Next, it was time for the story of Kyrö Distillery to begin as a result of that night in the sauna.

The company aims to be the world's most recognised rye distillery by 2022. Koskinen himself has the modest hope that, in five years time, he'll know “a little more” about branding and marketing. And that he'll have started a family of his own by then. Up to now, his time has been spent mostly at work.

But the work is yielding results. In February 2017, Koskinen and co. attended the 2017 Destillat Stockholm tradeshow in Sweden. They verified that they had now attained the standards they demanded of themselves: the branding of their products was superior to any Swedish brands showcased at the expo.

Koskinen now hopes that the distillery's first whiskies, due to be bottled this year, will be successful so that the upward trajectory of their strong brand may continue.

Mikko Koskinen earned his Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering in 2010. He participated in the development of the Scoopinion media service, which won the Uutisraivaaja media innovation contest in 2011. He founded Kyrö Distillery together with friends in 2012 and has served as the company's brand representative since 2014. Koskinen was also involved in the design of the gin recipe, which won the company the Gin & Tonic Trophy 2015 at the International Wine and Spirits Competition. In addition, he has designed patented wireless charging solutions for Power Kiss.

This article is originally published in Finnish in the Aalto University Magazine issue 19 (issuu.com), April 2017.