Networking and Marketing Startups in Helsinki

Anna Rosa is an experienced marketing and business development professional with extensive experience working with startups in Finland.

She’s one of my favorite people to talk to about growth hacking, business strategy and startup marketing. 

Listen to the full interview audio or read selected excerpts below.

Marketing Helsinki | Episode 23

➤ Let me ask you the first question – how do you describe yourself now when you meet someone new and they ask what do you do? How do you answer?

It depends. If it’s a professional encounter I would say that I have been building digital products and businesses for over 20 years, half of that in digital agencies and half of that in startups. And I’m really interested in all new technologies and emerging technologies and service design and product design in general. But privately, I don’t know. Maybe that’s not relevant to this!

➤ So, you don’t have a short one word title like I’m a designer or I’m a carpenter or I’m a consultant?

What would I say? Maybe I’m a pioneer. I like to start new things.

➤ Yeah I like that. One thing that I’ve noticed in the short time that I’ve known you, is that there are not many people in Helsinki’s startup world that you don’t know.

Well, it’s kind of like really a small community and you know there’s a big group of people that all know each other so socially and I would say that there are a lot of people who know at least as many people in the startup world as I do in Helsinki.

➤ OK so what is it about the startup world that attracts you? 

I studied at Helsinki School of Economics starting in ’93 and graduated in ’99. I was studying Economics and Statistics and French and I was trying to study Marketing but I couldn’t deal with all this sort of.. [brown-nosing]. I had one course that was called Building Networks In Business Relationships and it had all kind of theories how every time you see somebody you have to think about how you can use them and how they can be useful to you and memorize their name and their face so you can take everything you can from them.

I really didn’t like that at all when I was, you know, in my early 20s. So I dropped out of marketing because I didn’t like the spirit there. I went to Helsinki School of Economics and before that I went to SYK which is a really good school in Helsinki and many people from SYK end up being in top positions in art, culture, Business Science and whatnot. I always hated networking.

➤ I’m surprised to hear that. You’re so good at it!

Yes, but I didn’t like networking at that age at all. In 2003 I moved to Barcelona and I came back to Finland in 2008. Being in Barcelona and building up my network from scratch in another country, it was quite an experience and when I came back to Finland I was like, ‘Wow! Everything is so easy!’ You know? Whatever happens I know who to call and what to do and all the people that I went to university with are now in all kinds of similar jobs as me and in every company I have somebody to call.

One change in that period of my life was that I had two kids and I was at home for four and a half years with my kids because in Finland you can do that. I had been working hard for 13 years so it was a nice break.

During this time, the startup boom happened in Finland. I had been doing startups in Barcelona and now I see all these people who are like 10 years younger than me and they have this startup culture that they are creating in Finland and it’s like really lively and they are doing really great stuff. What I love about the Finnish startup world is that it’s really encouraging and positive. That’s not very typical for Finnish people in general but in the startup world you can ask anybody you know like, ‘Hey, I don’t know what to do. Can we grab coffee and I’ll explain what I’m struggling with and I would appreciate advice,’ and everybody will always say yes. And they will give you their honest advice and they will even pick their friend’s brain so they will introduce you to somebody. And everybody is just like you know willing to introduce you to anybody in their network that would be beneficial to you and they are not thinking like, ‘OK what am I going to lose.’ It’s a little bit like, if you share, everybody will share with you. 

So I was at home with the kids and when everybody was doing startups, I was like, ‘That was my thing. I was doing startups!’ And for that reason when I came back to work in 2014, I was so hungry for everything, you know? I started to really heavily network. I went to networking events and learned from everybody and listened to everybody. I met 20 year old founders who were really genuine that started really young and had built amazing businesses so my attitude to networking changed completely.

Then I started working for Vizor and I had to build up business development and fundraising from scratch. I didn’t know anybody in business development in New York and the VC network in San Francisco so that was like the first big push. In Finland it’s easy because you know everybody. You go to a few parties and you know everybody but with Vizor I really learned to network so I’m glad that now you see me as somebody who is good at networking. I didn’t feel like that when I was in school and I found all these cocktail parties really awkward and didn’t enjoy small talk at all.

➤ So Spain opened you up.

Yeah maybe when you go away from where you come from and out of your comfort zone then you come back home, you’re like, ‘Everything is so much easier.’ Finland is so small so it’s easy to know everybody so yeah, living abroad opens you up and helps you see your own environments in a different way.

➤ I really like that you said you found it easier here when most people don’t think of Finland as a network hub. And I agree with you, I find it quite easy to network here and people are willing to help.
Do you think it’s because people are not so jaded like in Silicon Valley or in New York or London where everyone is just full-on networking every moment and here it’s not like that yet?

Yeah and I don’t think if it ever will be as [hardcore] as in the United States because we Finnish people appreciate our own time and our personal time and we are not that much at work all the time. For me, it definitely helps that I went to two schools that produced a lot of startup founders so that was like a massive seed of a network for me even before I started. But in Finland it’s generally so small and almost everybody in the startup world wants to go to the global market so there’s not so much competition. So, if you are helping somebody out it’s not like you are necessarily competing for the same investors and definitely not the same clients because in the global world there is enough for Finnish people because we are so few.

➤ Would you consider yourself an extrovert?

Yes, I think definitely but there’s also an introvert side of me and I like to also be alone and be by myself and you know I have both sides but I definitely consider myself more an extrovert.

➤ Finland I think celebrates introverts more. As a startup founder, do you think it’s necessary to have an extrovert personality? Because as an early stage startup, you as a founder, need to be able to sell and you need to be able to speak and communicate clearly, right? 

Yes, I would say that it helps. If you have to do fundraising or business development in the States you have to go way out of your comfort zone as a Finn in terms of how you talk about yourself and your product. And I have noticed that sometimes using the same kind of tone that was working in the States really [doesn’t work] in Finland. They think that you’re a terrible bragger and not everything can be that good. For instance, if you are doing a job interview or something like that and you pitch in the US style you can really sound bad in Finnish.

➤ And that’s such a key word you said, ‘brag’ and they really hate that here. Well, not just here; a lot of people hate bragging. Why is that? Do we feel like bragging is something that’s not necessary if we have a good product?

Well, bragging is not nice and it’s like if somebody sounds like bragging… for example, if somebody gets offended about something that I said, then I should have like picked my words differently you know and I say, ‘OK, I was not sensing the vibe of that person and I shouldn’t have used those words.’ But I don’t think bragging is ever nice.

➤ Doesn’t it depend on how we define ‘bragging’ because surely if I’ve done something that I’m really proud of and it’s a strong achievement, should I not say, ‘This was a really great achievement and I did this,’? Are we not allowed to do this?

Yeah, I don’t know why some people dislike that so much. It’s sort of like if you write something in Finnish and in Spanish and UK English and US English, it can be the same thing but it could seem a little bit more bold [in one language]. It’s definitely good to understand what tones to use in different languages and different countries. So in Finland you don’t have to be really humble but still, the most Californian kind of talking is maybe better left outside of Finland.

➤ You’ve worked as an advisor for lots of startups so you’ve seen so many founders come and go and I wanted to know, what patterns, what successful traits do they share?

Well, I would say that in the most successful startups what they have in common is that the founding team has a unity – a united vision and they have a strategy and they have discussed everything and agreed on everything and they have a common goal and they all agree what to do to reach that goal. 

They also have checkpoints where they see if everything is going as predicted and if not they try something else. And if they try something else, they discuss it truly and then they agree and then they do it. I think in the majority of startups there is not enough communication between the founders. There are many times you continue in the same direction where you’re going and you don’t observe what’s happening around you and you don’t make the adjustments and that’s why many startups run out of time.

Because as a startup, even if you get a multi-million-dollar investment you still have very little time and normally you have maybe one shot, maybe two shots, maybe three shots but you don’t normally have more shots than that. And I see that it’s especially common in Finnish start-up founders – that they generally don’t like to communicate so much and they are really interested in design or coding and they are really good at it and they are like, ‘OK, let the others deal with other stuff.’

Listen to the the rest of the conversation on the podcast.

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