Business, Technology

An American’s first impressions of innovation in Finland

Last weekend, I joined a panel of esteemed technology and airline representatives in judging the first-ever .AERO Future of Travel hackathon, a 48-hour hackathon in Helsinki, focused on the next frontier for air travel, and co-hosted by Reaktor, Finnair, and Finavia Helsinki Airport.

As a technology journalist, startup marketeer, and former venture capitalist, I’ve judged a lot of hackathons and startup competitions, but this was my first in Europe and certainly in Finland. While it was only a glimpse into the innovation economy in Finland, I saw a number of positive signs and a few stumbles that are quite common as well.

It’s cool when big non-tech industry players get scrappy.

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Hackathon mentors and judges included executive representatives from Finnair, Finavia, Helsinki Airport, Reaktor, Reaktor Ventures, and Runway Girl Network.

The most impressive aspect of the .AERO hackathon – or #PaxExHack as it was endearingly called on social media channels, standing for “passenger experience hackathon” – was that large industry players were willing to get gritty with Finland’s top talent in the name of innovation.

Hackathons are often well-attended by large technology firms – like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon – that seek today’s top development talent. But it’s very rare to see non-tech industry partners spending time and resources on hackathons. Before I even accepted the invitation to judge the hackathon, I was impressed that Finnair – the world’s fifth-oldest airline, founded in 1923 – and Finavia Helsinki Airport even saw value in engaging the hacker community. That’s surprising.

Why was I surprised? Hackathons tend to have a rough-around-the-edges feel; they attract the not-so-social, not-so-business-savvy type of technical talent, which buttoned-up recruiters and executives aren’t typically adept at engaging. Traditional industries – let alone the airline industry – don’t seem “ready” for this type of engagement. But #PaxExHack proved that hunch wrong. They’re not only ready, but also willing to collaborate in the name of innovation.

This hackathon proved to me that though innovation can be a fast, gritty, and laborious process, an old industry like air travel is up for the challenge of innovating. And furthermore, hackers are interested in stepping up to the challenges they face as well.

Collaboration is king.

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The day before the hackathon, I visited Reaktor headquarters in downtown Helsinki and was immediate struck by the collaboration in play, at least within Reaktor’s walls. At minimum, the Reaktorians – as I believe they call themselves – were highly transparent. I learned that their 300-person all-hands monthly meeting would take place that evening in the sauna. Transparency to the utmost, I guess!

But beyond internal workings, the inter-company collaboration was apparent. Not only was the hackathon a huge collaboration between three brands, but a number of other initiatives came up in conversation during my visit. Slush – the multi-day, Helsinki-based technology conference – was mentioned on multiple occasions and one of the Slush teammates was even co-working from the Reaktor offices. And Reaktorians, left and right, were name-dropping Finland-based companies and startups, and offering to introduce me to their work. Supercell, Enovo, Yousician – every company seems to be a connection away. One introduction and the collaboration begins.

Of course, one could argue that the relatively intimate size of the Finland tech scene could be the reason for the tight bonds… But I have a gut-feeling that it’s more than that. No data to bring to the table here; just an observation.

The customer is everything.

CodersCoded, winners of the 2015 AERO hackathon, pulled ahead in the competition partly because they understood and built for a specific group of users: those who are afraid of flying.
CodersCoded, winners of the 2015 AERO hackathon, pulled ahead in the competition partly because they understood and built for a specific group of users: those who are afraid of flying.

The other hackathon judges and I watched 29 demo pitches at the AERO hackathon this weekend – some were fun, silly hacks and others were more geared towards serious business model innovation in the airline industry. But overall, most forgot to take into account the most important factor in any business: the customer.

Rare was the team that spent time understanding the customer journey and/or the problem faced by the customer. That should be expected, you might say, because hackathons are attended by tech-savvy, not business-savvy people. I find it a problem, though, when product architects completely and utterly forget about the customer, the user, or any potential economic buyer or person who might experience the app or service.

This lack of awareness towards customer issues and needs isn’t unique to the Finnish hackathon scene – fortunately, and also unfortunately. It’s a common mistake I see across startup and hackathon competitions alike. Even huge businesses forget, from time to time, to consider their customers during product development.

If I could give any feedback on what I saw this weekend, though, it would be that the more established startups and mentors advising the next generation of innovations should push customer research and problem-focused product development as starting points for hopeful entrepreneurs. Founders can over-engineer solutions when they’re not clear on the actual problems faced by their target markets; frameworks like Lean Startup can prevent those types of wasteful time and resource expenditures.

Alas, we all have to make mistakes on the entrepreneurial journey. So, nothing will be perfect!

Parting thoughts…

While my time in Finland is brief, I’ve already begun to learn about some of the local flair that Finns bring to the startup table. Industry partners and a collaboration-centric mindset were the two standout qualities that struck me. I hope to see a lot more of that and will keep an eye open for startup-to-corporation innovation programming.

I do, however, worry when a majority of pitches at a hackathon fail to understand the users they’re addressing – that’s an area for improvement that I hope to see approached differently as I dive deeper into Finland’s tech startup ecosystem in the coming days.

All in all, I see a vibrant tech community ripe for newcomers and many more innovations to come. I look forward to seeing how the Finnish tech scene buds after my departure!