A week from now the Finnish media will be full of Slush. And with winter upon us, the streets might be full of slush as well.
The annual Slush extravaganza of tech-meets-entrepreneurship-meets-big-business-meets-big-money officially launches in Helsinki on November 30th. But the build-up has been a year in the making.
“We started the year with the same mentality, it’s not going to be bigger, it’s going to be better” says Slush CEO Marianne Vikkula.
She’s fitting an interview with News Now Finland between planning meetings and a live radio appearance, as the Slush offices hum with last minute excitement before the event launches. A pile of shoes by the front door, and meeting rooms packed with millennials – you’d be hard pressed to find anyone over 35 – signal the impending event start date.
East Meets West
In reality, Slush stopped being just one event some years ago. It’s now become a many-headed hydra. Next week sees a parallel Slush Music event running at Helsinki’s Cable Factory. There’s major Slush spin-offs in Tokyo, Singapore and Shanghai that happen during the year. And dozens of smaller Slush-branded networking events mostly organised by superfans in different cities around the world.
“We’ve had the Slush events in Asia for three years or so, people come to Shanghai and they see how big everything is there” says Vikkula.
The Asia events are evolving as well, with the Slush Helsinki mothership acting as a bridge between Europe and Asia; with entrepreneurs, inventors and expertise going in both directions. It helped fill a gap in the Asian startup ecosystem.
“They’ve been growing, but becoming more independent from us too. The mentality is that our local teams, our local Slush events in Tokyo, Shanghai and Singapore have local roots in the community. Locals wanted to bring Slush there. Each of them has a bit of a different focus, but it’s always been the locals first” Vikkula explains.
Finland has grown into a unique geographic fulcrum between Europe and Asia – thanks in large part to Finnair’s focus on destinations in the east. The world’s largest gaming company Tencent – Vikkula calls it “the Google of Asia” – sunk more than $8 billion into Finland’s Supercell last year, with its hit titles Clash of Clans and Boom Beach. It’s no surprise that some of Asia’s best known tech giants want to be seen, and heard at Slush. They even landed a Chinese Vice Premier a few years ago to open the show.
“It’s a very unique group of people. It’s east meets west. There’s not many places on the planet where tech entrepreneurs come together. They’re mostly west-centric, but not that many able to bring the top names from the east” says Vikkula.
“I’m personally excited about Tencent president Martin Lau […] but I’m also excited about how there’s so much great opportunity in Asia that we are not even aware of because we are so focused on tech or companies built in the US or Europe” she adds.
Over the years, Slush has built its reputation on securing A-list guests.
And this year is no exception, with political royalty and real life royalty turning out.
Former US Vice President Al Gore is giving the opening address. Sweden’s Prince Daniel, who runs his own entrepreneurship academy is making a second visit. And Britain’s Prince William will show up as well.
There’s also high profile names from the world of tech and finance, senior figures from companies like Tencent, Supercell, Skype, Airbnb, Nasdaq and Google. You’ll find a Zuckerberg on the guest list this year too – not Mark, his little sister Arielle.
“Most of our big names that we end up getting to Helsinki are the result of years of work” explains Marianne Vikkula.
“The first time we reached out to Al Gore’s office was three or four years ago. We explain here’s who we are, why you should join. I guess you could get him by paying a lot to join, but that is not our mentality” she adds.
The ‘hook’ this year for attracting many of the top guests is to get them to give an hour of their time back to hungry young entrepreneurs, perhaps starting their first company or looking to expand. The idea of mentoring is important to the Slush brand.
“Slush is all about supporting entrepreneurs […] and almost everyone is willing to help out” says Vikkula.
Early stage company founders have the chance for a 15 minute one-on-one meeting with big shot investors, serious serial entrepreneurs or speakers. The aim is to pair up people who can get the most out of each other.
“We’ve come to a certain point in the history where there’s a lot of people who came, and we put a lot of effort into getting them to come for the first time. They come once, and they get a lot out of it. You start getting this critical mass of people together” explains Vikkula.
Slush CEOs don’t tend to stick around for very long. This is already Marianne Vikkula’s second event, and her two immediate predecessors went off to work at Finnish food delivery startup Wolt.
“You’re not here for a career. It’s not something you do for twenty years” she concedes.
“The most hungry and talented people join the team, do crazy things and learn a lot along the way”.
So what of Vikkula’s own future? The Espoo native trained hard as a gymnast, and represented Finland at junior World Championship level. So she wouldn’t mind building something around sports. The only problem is finding the time when Slush monopolizes everything.
“I don’t have anything yet that I would start working on […] but I would really like to combine this world, and my previous life as a gymnast”
Slush takes place at Messukeskus on November 29th and 30th, but side events run all week in Helsinki.