The co-founder of Skype Niklas Zennström, Prince Daniel of Sweden, the co-founder of Flickr Caterina Fake, former Vice-President of the European Commission Neelie Kroes – the Slush event in November has an impressive list of speakers. Four years ago, this would have seemed rather an utopian situation to Miki Kuusi and Atte Hujanen.
At the time, in September 2011, Slush came very close to being cancelled. Kuusi and Hujanen had inherited the student event, with around 200 participants, from Rovio's Peter Vesterbacka earlier in the spring. The pair decided to turn Slush into the type of international-level investor event Finland needed with a group of people from Aalto Entrepreneurship Society. Then summer arrived and other obligations. Two months before the D-day, the situation looked so bad that Miki Kuusi picked up the phone.
– I told Peter that we had no website, speakers or investors, but he was so enthusiastic that I didn't have the heart to tell him that there wouldn't be an event at all, he recalls.
– I thought that we simply had to give it a try, so I sent an e-mail to Supercell's Ilkka Paananen, who typically replied immediately with those magic words 'Of course, how can I help?'.
2011 – Wow, this turned out great
Paananen's contacts gave Slush the speakers it needed and Vesterbacka helped bring in a few bigger investors. A clear target was set for the event production - to do everything better than others.
– Exhibition arrangements often mean a roll-up and a halogen light. We wanted to have the best arrangements and were bold enough to give the responsibility for doing so to passionate people, even though they didn't have any experience, states Atte Hujanen.
– I remember being surprised and thinking: 'Wow, this turned out great.'.
Two months of hard work attracted an amazing 1 500 participants to the venue at Cable Factory in Helsinki.
– The fact, that we were able to pull the event off that first year, was solely due to the efforts of some very committed people. We worked without titles according to the principle that everyone took care of what they did best. Even though some of the people have changed and the event has grown, that same commitment and zeal are still evident – people take time off from their jobs in Finland, and around the world, to work at Slush, explain Hujanen and Kuusi.
2012 – The philosophy of overflow
The decision to continue with Slush was not made immediately, but in winter 2012 the pieces fell into place so fast that another event seemed like a good idea. A Finnish commercial TV channel, MTV3, came on board as a main partner and, at the time, Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen agreed to give the opening address. Vesterbacka, Paananen and other experienced serial entrepreneurs provided tips about international investors, and the Skype lines were busy as Miki Kuusi convinced them that coming to Helsinki in November was actually a good idea.
– I told them that we have an incredible amount of technology expertise in the Nordic countries, which is where stories like Linux and Skype began, and now we want to bring the best companies and investors together.
One big name after another promised to attend, and others followed suit after those names were announced on the Slush website. The number of participants doubled to 3 500.
– In Finnish technology circles, it was customary to complain that entrepreneurs get no respect, investors aren't interested in us, and the media doesn't write about us. We decided to break down these myths one at a time, says Kuusi.
A philosophy was created for Slush – the experience should feel overwhelming, the kind that is impossible to find anywhere else.
– The speakers only have 15 minutes, so in an hour you can see on stage two prime ministers, a growth entrepreneur and the CEO of a major corporation, says Miki Kuusi, who admits that the short slots were actually an accident.
– Being inexperienced, I booked too many speakers. The idea of a meeting area for investors was another chance invention that also proved to be a success. This year, more than 1 000 meetings have been booked via the electronic matchmaking system, and over the past year and a half investors have invested more than 400 million euros in companies they met at Slush.
Miki Kuusi and Atte Hujanen wanted Slush to be an overwhelming experience.
2013 – The world's largest tent
The 2012 Slush event received a lot of praise but Kuusi and Hujanen's group were worn out.
– For two months, it felt like we never want to do this again. Then we started thinking that if we had achieved something so great, while still working at our regular jobs and without a proper organisation, what would happen if we put all our efforts into the event.
The duo got permission from the Slush board of directors to hire an eight-person strong core team. The recruiting strategy was simple: pick up the phone and get the best people involved by means of social pressure.
– Our current CEO Riku Mäkelä left a highly-paid intern position to join us.
The team and 1 000 volunteers began working on the biggest challenge facing Slush 2013 i.e. a lack of space. The Cable Factory had already been bursting at the seams the year before, and creative solutions were needed as no suitable, larger venue was available.
– We wanted to hire one of the ferries that operate between Finland and Sweden and dock it at a harbour in Helsinki, but the ship's technical manager said it was impossible, say Kuusi and Hujanen.
In the end, the world's largest tent, with more than 15 metres in width and over 100 metres in length, was set up in the Cable Factory yard. In November 2013, the wind was freezing and rain had turned the ground into mud. However, on the day of the event, the clouds disappeared, the temperature rose and the patched-up tent kept the wind at bay.
– We had put together the biggest international event ever organised in Finland and Europe's largest investor event. We were on the global map - Slush was recognised everywhere from Israel to the United States, recall Kuusi and Hujanen.
2014 – On an important journey
After the tent experience, the team contacted Helsinki Exhibition and Convention Centre well in advance.
– We had to work hard to convince them to do things our way. For the first time, everything was so well organised that the whole team actually enjoyed what they were doing, explains Kuusi.
– We didn't have to worry about electricity or portable toilets, and everyone thought that this is really fun, says Hujanen.
Slush 2014 doubled its visitor numbers again. Miki Kuusi and Atte Hujanen believe that the secret to success lies in having the right people and the right spirit for the event.
– Nobody's in this for money. Even the big names do this for free, because helping others is part of the start-up culture. Slush is not meant to turn a profit, and the dream is that in 20 years it will have given rise to new Googles and Übers, companies for which participating in Slush was an important part of their story.
Education is one of this year's themes. What direction should education take in order for Finland to be in the future an even better place to live and do business in?
– In my opinion, a university has two important tasks, to bring the right people together and to help them find the joy of learning, sums up Miki Kuusi.
– These are the things that are the easiest to improve in Finland. We don't have the resources to compete for the world's top-ranked entrepreneurship professors, but we can create places where people can find inspiration, emphasises Atte Hujanen.
Both men appreciate the culture created by Aalto University, where different actors are encouraged to do their own thing.
– Without that sense of trust, there would be no Aaltoes or Slush, nor many other things, either,' says Miki Kuusi and continues by saying that people should just forget about the Shanghai ranking lists.
– Top research is just one part of a university's activities. Success stories can also be brought about by helping people meet each other and find their passion.
Text Minna Hölttä, photos Mikko Raskinen