Miki Kuusi, the main organizer of Slush, reminisces on the startup event’s early days back in 2011. How is a small startup gathering transformed into a huge global festival?
”Don't worry, be crappy”
"I was the chairman of Aalto Entrepreneurship Society (Aaltoes). After Nokia’s “burning platform” memo leaked into the public, Finnish media raved on about how everything had been lost and it was all doom and gloom. One Monday afternoon, an idea struck that the situation required a bit of provocation and something new. We organized the Finland Post Welfare event at Finlandia Hall, which included Jorma Ollila, Björn Wahlroos, and Risto Siilasmaa as speakers. 1,700 people turned up, with Image magazine and daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat featuring lengthy articles on the event.
Aaltoes began to plan the next move. It dawned on us that Finland was lacking a conference aimed at international investors that would bring together startup guys from the Nordic Silicon Valley… With all the confidence of a 20-year-old, I declared that we’d arrange it.
It was spring 2011. Slush had been held since 2008, and one of its organizers, Peter Vesterbacka, suggested we’d take the event on, as otherwise it would probably no longer come about. We met up once and agreed on the next phase, but things never lifted off from there.
By the beginning of September we had nothing together. One night I called Peter to say there’d still be slush at the beginning of the following year. This fall, time was running out. He was so excited about us doing the event that I could never bring myself to telling him we wouldn’t go ahead. I had told the whole team that Slush was off the cards in the fall, as we didn’t have speakers or investors lined up, and it wasn’t public knowledge yet. But I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth.
It was about nine o’clock at night. I ran up my emails thinking I should probably start inviting speakers. The first invite went to Ilkka Paananen from Supercell, which had been founded a year before. Paananen replied with an immediate yes and an offer to help. I told him we really could do with some help, and he put me in touch with about half of the Finnish players in the industry.
Somehow we managed to pull it off, as two months later we’d arranged an event for 1,500 people. We had a website with 246 likes created for free using Wordpress, 27 speakers, a rather large stage, and a good thing going. It was like one of those happy student festivals.”
”We learnt from the best and created a techy conference with a twist”
”Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen visited Startup Sauna, and I’d invited a few experienced guys to host the visit. We sat there afterwards and I asked Ilkka Paananen what he thought I should start doing, as I didn’t feel ready to go back to studies yet. A week later I was working for Supercell.
We assumed that someone would probably arrange Slush again in the fall. When nothing had happened by the previous spring, Atte Hujanen and I began to contemplate whether to organize the event once again. Atte booked the Cable Factory, while I got busy with emails. After the summer, we set up a foundation we’d been working on for a while, and I left Supercell.
This time things were more professional. We got some Russian firms involved, and managed to get through a couple of cash flow crises. At some point the sheep effect emerged: one by one, international investors announced their interest in supporting the event, which in turn brought in more companies and investors.
The aim was to create a one-of-a-kind technology festival. We visited Israel, and followed top international events to see what they did right and what we could learn.
We managed to get Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen to open the whole show. In 2012, Slush attracted 3,500 attendees. The event succeeded in bringing lots of crazy ideas into fruition and benchmarking the best events in the world. All this created a techy conference with a twist.”
”Dream come true: International event”
”I’ve decided each Slush would be my last. But each time I’ve been left with a hunger for more.
In April 2013, I told Atte that our two full-time people model would no longer work, and continuing on a voluntary basis was getting a little scary. We had reached such large proportions that even if there were enough volunteers, we’d need more people to take responsibility.
I drafted the first ever staff budget for Slush. The board voiced its concerns, fearing the fun of volunteering would be lost. But we decided to push on. In April-May-June, we’d set up a team of eight. I called the best people in the community and explained what was going on. A few came onboard, who then recommended others. Many of these people continue at the Slush office to this day.
Slush has never recruited anyone. It’s been easy to join the organization: you walk in and prove yourself. But that’s also the hardest thing: officially we are never looking to hire anyone and there’s no application process. This is a meritocratic system, and building an organization has been important for Slush. An eight-person team is big for us after getting used to just two people doing everything alongside other responsibilities: I’ve been the CEO of Startup Sauna, while Atte runs his own company.
We realized Slush would need larger facilities, but there was nothing suitable around. We got a little down about having to carry on at Cable Factory. How could it be scaled up?
Covering the courtyard?
A Silja Line ship in the backyard?
A building in the backyard?
The National Board of Antiquities didn’t like the idea of a covered courtyard, so we went for a heated marquee instead. The idea of using a Silja Line ship was even discussed by the ferry company’s board, but fell through due to technical difficulties. We did have three smaller ships docked on the seafront though.
Finnish commercial television station MTV3 ran its breakfast show from Slush despite our insistence that nothing at Slush is to be in Finnish. But the breakfast show airs so early in the morning that there was no one at the venue to listen.
Slush was scaled up to cater for 7,000 visitors. This was our first dream come true: a leading, Nordic startup event that also involved top companies from Russia and the Baltics. We had Jorma Ollila, the Estonian president, journalists from Forbes, Jolla releasing their new products, Spotify, Skype, Japanese companies, Nokia… Incredible content and a rock festival feel. It was both an international event and a Finnish breakthrough.”
”Slush conquers the world and moves to a venue for 10,000 people”
”We aimed for a 5-digit visitor number and knew we’d need new premises. Messukeskus Helsinki had a fantastic attitude and was willing to change its own practices to ensure Slush could use the venue.
2014 was a rollercoaster ride; we set up a total of 71 international events in 43 different countries. Building a concrete international image while branding the Nordic countries was our starting point.
Slush isn’t an event, but a community and movement, evangelized abroad and making the techy scene proud. That’s why large enterprises want to attend and the news spreads by word of mouth.
The past year was a huge risk. Overestimating the number of international visitors would have made us bankrupt.
Slush is organized increasingly professionally. Becoming established as a recognized international player has taken quite a few years.
Similarly to Cannes being a movie mecca, Milan a fashion and design capital, and Barcelona a mobile city, it’s our dream for Helsinki to be home for startups, new technology, and growth companies.
Silicon Valley hosts plenty of lousy conferences that cost a lot of money but have no focus. People go there because of the location and to hear Mark Zuckerberg speak.
That’s something we can’t afford. People don’t necessarily even know where Helsinki is. It’s not enough to snatch the best investors - we have to arrange the best party, do so much more, be an event with a difference.
This year, the foyer of Messukeskus Helsinki was transformed into a type of chapel. We brought our own restaurants and vibe.
Slush has to be a world of its own: a holistic, seamless experience.
We put a lot of effort into international marketing, video, and the likes, and each Slush event is built on the last.
I know I held my goodbye speech also last year, but this year I really stepped down as CEO for Slush. It’s time for other flowers to bloom.”
”Gathering precise feedback to develop Slush”
”I continue as a board member and work behind the scenes at Slush.
Now is the time to analyze the previous year’s achievements and failures, how investor meetings went, the number of investments, and what metrics and analytics speak about the event. All the hype and good vibes are great in light of the cultural shift, but not the main point. What actually happens at Slush is what counts. People wouldn’t come over to walk in the slush, if this was just another festival.
We are now building a new website, sending out save-the-dates, nailing speakers.
As for whether the next Slush will target 10,000 or 20,000 people - getting bigger isn’t really the point right now. The focus is on the overall package and international aspect: heading for Iceland, and Japan, and…”