Cold, wet, oft numbing to the extremities, Finland may seem like the last stop to Norway. And we all know what comes after that; an army of ice zombies just past the ice wall? Even colder feet? Adding to its foreboding, the capital hangs like the dripping tip of an icicle warning of a treacherous climb or worse. And yet, somehow it seems the safest place on earth. And it probably is.
Recently my Finnish friend and boss shared the story of a certain well-to-do Swede (up market home in Stockholm and all) who suddenly decided to leave the lap of luxury for the sparse, cold climes of Swedish Lapland; think reindeer, vast snow swept vistas and beautiful hats; way north. He, my boss took it as an opportunity to question his own decision to remain in Helsinki for all these years. What logic would possess someone, he asked?
Like any port city worth its salt, Helsinki has all the rough, gruff and even joyless prescience of a seasoned sailor. Blank looks, “I’m gonna kill you” smiles and long silences in conversation; the Finns don’t do small talk. Rather, the menu may include herring, grey drinks, dark humour, dire warnings of tragically underestimated dangers and a notable lack of charity for those who don’t pay heed. True of any large port maybe, but this one is no one trick pony. Helsinki has it all. Beauty, history, art, architecture, music, nature, food, fun, ease of mobility, trust, safety, innovative businesses, hard working, super smart people, and dare I say, vibe to spare. Is that what kept my friend here and me coming back? Not a bad stack of reasons.
Welcome to Hel
Lovingly referred to as “Hel” – a tribute to the capital’s airport call letters – Finland is hardly for the feint of heart. And yet a piece of mine chills here, “comfortably numbing” as one of my jam mates from “On the Rocks” a swell Rock and Roll bar in Kallio (Helsinki’s answer to Williamsburg, NY) said on mic at last week’s open stage. And here’s the rub. Though I haven’t even begun talking up the people, the Finns may need an introduction, but they don’t want one. They are in a class by themselves. Though I may have a dock full of whys, professional, personal, financial and otherwise to wax sycophantic about them, it’s my opinion that they are amoung the sharpest, brightest, hardest working, yet most humble and kind people I have ever met. Though, they’d flip an effacive shrug at the mere suggestion; their way of taking compliments seems rather dry: they dispense of them as rapidly as possible. Which leads me to wonder (though I think I know the answer); is it that they’re insensible to them? I hope not. Perhaps in their quiet moments away from the inexplicably brash world they contrast to so starkly, they are infinitely pleased by them? Whatever the case, they’ve got “Sisu” to spare. A gem of a word and fun to say that defines their national character. It roughly translates as “stoic” but this falls far short of Sisu, which packs much more punch.
As a devout “Finnfan”, I hold there’s a lot to make fan fair about. Of course you’d never catch them doing so. So it seems to leave the “emotional” types like me to stand singing to a wall. Not so much a wall, but a perhaps giant Nordic god that may be amused but hasn’t the time or patience for such frivolity. Perhaps that’s why they’re not averse to hiring out of country when it comes to marketing and sales, and may explain why I am here, standing in slush, or better at “Slush” cooling my heels.
If you haven’t heard of it, shame on you, and if you have, you know why this annual celebration of all things innovative has continued to attract plenty of A-listers in tech and just about everyone and everything else. Now verging on a small city, this year’s event boasts some 17,000 tech heads from far and wide and a keynote roster that looks more like the flight list for the last shuttle leaving space rock earth for Planet B. Ever cheeky and irreverent, Slush’s sloganed theme is each year a memorable head turner. Last year’s retort? “NO ONE IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WOULD EVER COME TO HELSINKI IN NOVEMBER”…(with the bold qualifier)…“EXCEPT YOU, BADASS. WELCOME. This year’s theme is just as cheeky NOTHING NORMAL EVER CHANGED A DAMN THING. HEY, WIERDO STEP IN.
One of the first things visitors, weirdoes, badasses, (whatever the case), may notice when they first come to Finland is the liberal use of ALL CAPS. This includes all street names (in both Finnish and the country’s 2nd official language, Swedish – who only represent 10% of the population; I’m looking at you Quebec, wink, wink), most advertisements and a good number of brand logos. And while almost anywhere else in the world this would give the reader an impression of being yelled at, this is somehow the furthest from one’s ears in the quiet, keep-to-yourself streets, offices, restaurants and bars of this capital of understatement. So why all the caps? No one can seem to really answer, but this DIY designer suggests that it’s because it simply looks cool. And like their brothers and sisters in Sweden, Norway and Denmark the Finns have design cool to spare, and it may be even cooler since they don’t make a big thing out of it. One might simply brush it off, as “all part of the charm”, but I’ll hazard that it’s something much deeper, and may even suggest a clue to understanding the unique perspective that this Nordic country – they don’t like to be called Scandinavian – melts lightly down upon us from its contemplative perch near the increasingly ‘slushy’ top of the world. Practicality.
It’s not the efficiency-obsessed practicality of say the Germans or Japanese, or the unpoetic, unapologetically “me first” practicality of ’murica. Nor certainly is it the collectivist brand of “practicality”, rolled into those horrendously devastating 5 year plans that consumed soviet Russia, and quite nearly yet unborn Finland as well – who narrowly managed to lift themselves from under that Bolshevik boot when the last Tsar wasn’t looking.
(UPDATE: Today, the 6th of December is Finland’s 100th Anniversary of Independence)
No, it’s a practicality all their own, and one that may well find its roots in Sisu. To unpack the connection would probably take volumes, but suffice to say, the rugged, no-nonsense inventiveness of the Finns comes both of historical experience and necessity. And in this case necessity’s daughters and sons seem to have arrived at that perfect place of form meets function. Perhaps this explains why they don’t put any more stock in one over the other.
A good example of this came not long after my first arrival at the offices of Cloudstreet – now kangaroo carried on the belly of mothership Nokia’s fabled Espoo campus. I had been working for Cloudstreet from my offices in Montreal for about two years, never having met any of my colleagues face-to-face (spare our weekly Skypes and daily email exchanges). I noticed a piece of what we in the business refer to as Shwag – those throwaway promo items that line the counters of every trade show and keep thousands of faceless plastic junk factories in China in business. This was a small white device with a rotating meter on it with two rows of numbers, branded in with a catchy-looking black and blue dotted logo, and an almost endearingly un-catchy name, (again in all caps) “SOFTWARE FROM FINLAND”. What does it do? I asked Cloudstreet’s founder & CTO, Mika Skarp, thinking it was like every other piece of conference trash I’d ever seen, a one liner with less than zero practical value. “No” he said, and in his customary, almost boyish, infectiously curious excitement “It’s actually a tool that allows you to calculate the amount of time left on your parking meter based on the when, upon the clock you paid for it. Hardly a throwaway, and yet difficult to the uninitiated to see as simply a piece of marketing collateral. It was simple, nicely designed, practical and yet itself in need of marketing.
Once you discover that the Finns are often (always in my case), the smartest folks in the room, you start to look for clues elsewhere. And the spirit of invention is long and illustrious. They gave the world bike safety reflectors, the sauna, IRC terminal communication (the web’s first chat), mobile SMS and, get this; the world’s very first web browser, the erstwhile Erwise, invented in 1994 by three students at the University of Technology of Helsinki, who despite urging from the inventor of the World Wide Web to continue to develop the product, let it die uncertain of its commercial viability.
All you DIY revolutionaries out there will appreciate that it was the Finns who, despite its notably Russian sounding name, were the inventors of the venerable Molotov Cocktail, served in quantity during love ins with the Soviets during the winter war. Other Finnish inventions include many things we’ve yet to see for no particular reason other than perhaps their lack of marketing. These include everything from a bottomless, racked, dish drying cabinet over the sink, to a solar powered satellite sail.
And there are many more to come, as I was convinced during “The Gown Up Event” hosted by Business Finland (formerly Finpo, Finland’s export and investment support and promotion arm), with the introduction of at least five, super-cool and novel new technologies with no equivalents that I had ever heard of elsewhere. Perhaps that may explain why there were so many suitcase toting VCs there, poised to make a deal. And aside from the the abundant inventiveness, as Business Finland’s Eminently informative document “Business Guide for Companies Planning to do Business in Finland” describes, the nation’s in-arguable viability seals the deal.
“One of the wealthiest countries and most stable societies in the world, Finland is at or near the top in most international comparison studies looking at growth and development in the economic, technological and social spheres. Finnish government is business friendly, and the country has a developed infrastructure, a skilled workforce and competitive operating costs. Red tape is minimal and Finland is one of the least corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International.”
They go on, and so could I, but I feel like the Finnish would blush if we did. Safe to say, it’s hard to beat Finland on any score but the weather. However, if anyone on the planet were to figure out a solution to that problem, I’ll put my money them to do it first.