I had a chance to talk with Startup Sauna CEO recently. This is one of the most successful early-stage acceleration programmes in Northern Europe, with its startups raising more than 100 million dollars in the last 6 years. This is a story about a startup accelerator that changed the perception about tech entrepreneurship, as well as about a Nordic eco-system from their perspective and the importance of innovation.
“After Startup Sauna, we were ready to raise money from Silicon Valley”, says Simo Suoheimo, a young founder of a food & supplements startup, Ambronite. This startup raised 600k dollars in seed investment, based itself in San Francisco and focused on revolutionising the industry. Its founder is a member of one of more than 190 different startups that went through Startup Sauna acceleration programme in the last 6 years.
But Startup Sauna is more than “just” an accelerator. As one of the biggest players on the Northern Europe startup accelerator and incubator scene, other than the mention acceleration program through which they have helped raise 100 million dollars in investments, Startup Sauna offers internship programmes in startups based in Helsinki, New York and Silicon Valley, and they are behind the Slush conference, an event started by students in Helsinki, which grew from 300 people to a world renowned startup event that, in 2015 alone, gathered 15.000 visitors and 1.700 startups in Helsinki, 4.000 visitors and 360 startups in Tokyo, as well as 1.300 visitors and 340 startups in Beijing. All in all: 1.150 investors and more than 900 journalists!
I had a chance to talk with Panu Paljakka, Startup Sauna CEO, about startup scene and challenges of such a dynamic environment.
It has really been a long and successful journey for Startup Sauna! As the business grew, what were some of the main challenges and how hard or easy it is to start a business in the Nordics, and in particular in Finland? Or even better: how has the situation changed since 2010?
With Startup Sauna, I would say the biggest challenge has been, and always will be, to stay relevant. The global startup scene is evolving faster than ever and there are new kinds of investors, accelerators and incubators popping up every day. Staying on top of the trends is crucial.
The popularity and public image of entrepreneurship has changed drastically in Finland during the past 5-10 years. Before, you were considered a societal misfit, but nowadays successful entrepreneurs are the rockstar-like public faces. We’ve been lucky to have a handful of companies to look up to, as well as a supporting community.
Do you cooperate with both public and private sector? Is the state, and in what ways, important for startup ecosystems in your opinion? Legal framework etc. are of course important, but do Nordic countries try to develop entrepreneurship through education, funds etc. And has this been successful so far?
Yes we do. The state can support an ecosystem for example by having different kinds of programs or funding mechanisms. I use the word support, because the government should, in my opinion, support the ecosystem instead of trying to initiate one themselves. In Finland we’ve had entities like Tekes, Finnvera and Sitra who have been active in the scene.
You are CEO at Startup Sauna, and it is surely a dynamic and interesting environment! But it also comes with some challenges. Could you tell me more about your typical day at work and if you have any advices for the young peoplewho would like to try and work at startups. (For instance, I know there’s been programs for interns through Sauna)
My typical day consists of 5-10 cups of coffee, hours of screen time, a few meetings, maybe a Skype or two, and sometimes endless commuting between our co-working space and the city center.
My advice for anyone who’s considering working in a startup, or startup related environment, is to keep their eyes and ears open at all times and try to continuously learn more.
Startup Sauna is a great place for meeting and networking, coworking and different events, but it is also more then that. It connects an internship program for university graduates to intern at startups in Helsinki, NYC or Silicon Valley, an accelerator program for early-stage startups from the Nordic and Russia as well as the SLUSH conference Is there any particular project or a situation that is especially dear to you or that makes you proud?
I’m extremely proud of all the initiatives that have been born from our community, and I sometimes get dazzled when I remember that all of these are ran by people who are usually aged between 20-30.
Could you share some tips for young founders for the end?
Stay humble, work hard, and apply to Startup Sauna if you think you can take the heat!