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The mind of an entrepreneur

What is an entrepreneurial individual like and is it possible to shape such a person at university?
Photo: Fall by Kalle Kataila.

Sometimes it isn't necessary to hunt for a business idea. In the case of Martim Gois, it actually sank its teeth into him – well, his girlfriend to be exact.

Gois, who is about to graduate from the School of Business, had just completed his Bachelor's phase studies in San Diego, USA, and was touring Asia with his girlfriend for a couple of months.

In autumn 2013, after returning from the journey, she noticed small red spots on her skin that turned out to be bedbug bites. Gois had not bite marks, but his better half insisted that the exterminators check out his flat, too.

“I was frustrated by how the company dealt with the issue. The exterminators showed up at the wrong time and failed to inform us of necessary precautions. Their customer service was pretty poor,” he says.

Had he owned the apartment, he would have been unhappy that the flat was fumigated just in case, without knowledge of whether or not it was actually infested with bedbugs.

His problem-solving mind immediately began thinking of ways in which the process could be improved.

Students can experiment without pressure

Bedbugs are a growing blight all over the world. Travel helps them spread, but the real problem is that the bugs have developed a resistance to pesticides.

“Ten years ago, extermination typically took 1-2 weeks, while today's average is 3-6 weeks,” Gois says.

The longer bedbugs are allowed to fester in a home, the more likely they are to spread to the neighbours or elsewhere via clothes. Shame delays the taking of action to fix the problem.

Gois started by studying the subject online and found out about the thermal eradication of bedbugs. He enrolled in Aalto University's PDP product development course and proposed that his team's project focus on bedbug extermination.

Thus a mundane problem spurred the creation of Luteiden Torjunta Helle, which Gois and his business partners are running out of Aalto Design Factory.

Heating an infested space with blowers to at least 52 degrees Celsius kills all bedbugs from eggs to adults in a single day and there is no need to dispose of mattresses and furniture. Moreover and unlike when pesticides are used, the treatment does not need to be repeated.

Leaping out from the financial sector to become a “real-life Ghostbuster” felt like a crazy idea at first, but Gois now recognises it as a natural continuation of his earlier activities. So far, he has worked as a DJ and organised clubs independently, and he says that he has always had an entrepreneurial streak.

University provided an opportunity to test and experiment.

“I've been able to learn new things and make mistakes safely alongside my studies, so the risk of becoming an entrepreneur has not felt so big.”

Engineers are almost complete entrepreneurs

These 10 traits identify an entrepreneur. The 20 most important characteristics of an entrepreneur.

Assistant Professor of High-growth Entrepreneurship Mikko Jääskeläinen thinks about the promotion of and prerequisites for entrepreneurship on a daily basis. He's seen numerous lists that declare what entrepreneurs are like.

But in reality, no such list can be determined accurately. Psychological studies have not identified specific, clear traits of an entrepreneur, not even with respect to appetite for risk.

Entrepreneurship is associated with some kind of proactiveness, optimism and the making of active observations, but it can often be the case that a suitable life situation turns a person into an active optimist.

“These characteristics say more about what each individual is like at a given moment than they do about their personality,” Jääskeläinen says.

Jääskeläinen works on making the development of entrepreneurship a natural aspect of university studies. Or, more broadly speaking, he promotes industriousness – a way of thinking and acting that is helpful in any professional career.

Startup and growth entrepreneurs have become today's heroes. Jääskeläinen reckons that, for some young people, the dream of being an entrepreneur is actually more important than what they would, in practice, be doing as entrepreneurs.

An individual's own competence forms the basic pillar of all entrepreneurship, however. This competence defines your possibilities, which is why the greatest thing a university can do to support entrepreneurship is to be a university, i.e. educate and train people in their respective fields.

“Someone with a Master's in engineering, for example, is already a 90% complete entrepreneur. Such a person is interested in how things work and how they could be made to work better.”

Identifying opportunities

A university cannot force students into entrepreneurship, nor does it need to do so. It can, however, encourage them to identify opportunities.

Aalto Ventures Program is a 25-credit minor subject totality, which simulates entrepreneurship, develops prototypes, hears from mentors and teaches a testing-oriented approach to work.
Ideally, all teaching will include something which Jääskeläinen refers to as insidious empowerment.

Engineering students are typically not shy to talk about how a device they developed for a course works. But they can be encouraged to present their ideas from the perspective of whomever will be using this device, whether or not it would be worthwhile to spend six months on product development, how it could be funded or what kind of organisation might successfully manufacture it.

“If you get used to thinking like this at university, becoming an entrepreneur is more like a series of small steps than a giant, daunting leap,” Jääskeläinen says.

Peer support from Aalto Entrepreneurship Society, Startup Sauna and other similar communities likewise serves to normalise entrepreneurship by showing graduates where they could end up after Aalto.

“Becoming an entrepreneur always involves an undefined, obscure feeling, a sense of searching and seeking. Peer support helps you understand that this is par for the course,” Jääskeläinen says.

Not always the hard way

An entrepreneur's mind is curious, sceptical, unbiased and values other people's competence. And it is patient.

The trait mentioned last is typically where a young entrepreneur needs support from someone more experienced.

“Many want to get ahead at breakneck pace. When I spar fledgling entrepreneurs, I almost always have to tell them that this is going to take longer than you imagined,” says serial entrepreneur, Board professional and consultant Kaija Pöysti.

Kaija Pöysti is one of the founding members and coaches of Startup Sauna, a venture originating in the Aalto University community. Pöysti's desire to spar with fresh entrepreneurs stems from her own experiences.

Pöysti started her studies in 1978 and established her first business in her twenties. In her youth, the atmosphere in academia and society as a whole did not encourage entrepreneurship. Pöysti did, however, come from a better-than-average starting point because her father was an entrepreneur and she had grown up in an entrepreneurial everyday environment.

At an early age, she learned the importance of having someone to bounce your ideas off of.

“You do need to learn things for yourself, but not everything has to be done the hard way.”

Igniting insight

Sparring can involve many things, ranging from a single meeting to the systematic development of a business idea through programmes and business incubators.

“Usually, we first set a one-hour meeting, sit down and see how our chemistries match. This is a human activity, where the compatibility of thinking is important,” Pöysti says.

Sometimes the business idea is strong, but Pöysti finds she has nothing to contribute. In such cases, she can point the sparring partner towards other contacts.

“At times, I've heard incipient entrepreneurs complain that their sparring partner did not sell the company's products or make any introductions. But if such things were never discussed, it is impossible for the sparring partner to know what the entrepreneur wanted. It is important that both parties speak up about what they expect from the sparring partnership.”

Sometimes sparring involves the sharing of experiences, and much more often the sparring partner will ask and then ask some more, making lots of questions.

Pöysti thinks sparring is at its best when she gets to see how fresh ideas ignite in the mind of a partner.

“I always like to hear my sparring partner say that our interaction has given rise to many ideas. This means that they have opened their eyes to fresh vistas and have themselves come up with something new.”

Entrepreneurship begets more entrepreneurship

An entrepreneur will develop the ability to notice the new. Martim Gois notes that there's no need to change the world all at once, and your first company does not have to be a scalable growth business.

You can just as well start with a more traditional business, identify problems in that sector and create new solutions.

This is what happened with Gois. Extermination providers are often asked to inspect hotels because bedbugs are a major image risk for them. Inspection visits are, however, an ineffective and uncertain way of ensuring a building is free of bedbugs.

This has prompted Gois and his partners to start developing a monitoring system, which drives bedbugs to a specific spot for sensor identification.

If all goes well, an application that can marketed internationally and a scalable growth business will be created. And after this, perhaps something entirely different.

“I view my life as projects. This is my first project, and what follows can be something else entirely. What I do know is that I want to tackle big issues and do things that leave a positive mark on this world,” says Martim Gois.
 

Text: Terhi Hautamäki.

The article is originally published in Finnish in the Aalto University Magazine issue 17 (issuu.com), October 2016.

Photo: Shintoo by Kalle Kataila
Shintoo by Kalle Kataila

The pictures of the article are from Kalle Kataila's series Landscapes and Contemplations, an analysis of landscape and meditation.

Kalle Kataila is a Helsinki-based photographer who received his Master's degree from the School of Arts, Design and Architecture in 2013. His works have been acquired by numerous art museums and art collectors in Finland and abroad. Kataila is part of the prestigious Helsinki School and his art has been displayed in private and group exhibitions around the world.

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