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How Finland’s culture supports its telecom startups

Nokia smartphones.


For Stefano Mosconi, the opportunity to work for telecommunications powerhouse Nokia was enough to lure him to the bustling streets of Helsinki from his life-long home in Rome.

It was 2005 and the telecommunications boom in Finland was in full swing. But seven years after his move, Mr. Mosconi's career took a sharp turn. MeeGo, the open-source platform software that he and his Nokia colleagues had helped launch in 2010, was discontinued – and so was Mr. Mosconi.

There were two paths laid out before him in this post-Nokia phase: join a new telecommunications company or start his own. He, and a few of his former workmates, chose the latter and decided to breathe new life into the software they had helped create.

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"We looked around and thought, 'Okay, maybe it's time, before somebody else does it, to start a company and to continue the journey of MeeGo,'" says Mr. Mosconi, now the chief information officer and co-founder of Jolla, which is set to release its software soon.

Jolla was founded, like a lot of startups, through necessity. But it was also possible because of the strongly collaborative aspect of Finish culture, Mr. Mosconi says.

In fact, both observers from abroad and those within the industry say the development of Finland's information and communications technology (ICT) sector in general has a lot to do with this Finnish characteristic.

"Finnish guys are quite shy on one hand, but are also extremely fair. Nobody tries to screw you," Mr. Mosconi explains. "Collaboration happens easily. When two people get together and combine ideas, one plus one is more than two."

The ICT sector in Finland has flourished in the past 20 years – it was recently ranked first in the world by the World Economic Forum's 2013 Global Information Technology Report. Canada was ranked 12th in the same study.

From the early 1990s to the new millennium, Finland managed to turn itself from a barely-there ICT producer to a globally respected gaming and telecommunications Goliath. Motivation to step it up in the ICT sector came from the 1990 recession, which saw Finland's GDP drop 10 per cent and drove unemployment to 20 per cent by 1994, according to the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy. At this point, the economic focus shifted to research and development, education and innovation in the tech sector, and now there are more than 6,000 ICT businesses saturating the Finland market.

Then, Nokia's numbers began to slide a couple of years ago and that added even more incentive for entrepreneurs to try to enter this jammed market. But the main survival technique is still collaboration.

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Canada's problem in ICT is not about having more startup companies, says David Ticoll, distinguished visiting scholar at Ryerson University and adviser for the Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow's ICT Skills.

"The real killer in this respect is not the ability to have startups. We have tons of startups," he says. "The real killer is the ability to sustain companies that get to be promising but then get bought out by a foreign company that is larger."

The lack of later-stage financing and support is problematic for creating global growth within Canada's tech sector, but this is something Finland has managed to achieve through its partnerships with other countries and companies.

And it's not just Finland's startups and niche market businesses that are reaping the benefits of collaboration. TeliaSonera, which has more than 150 million customers, was originally two separate telecommunications companies (Telia in Sweden and Sonera in Finland) that joined forces in 2003 after trying to go it alone in the competitive market of the 1990s.

It's part of staying ahead of the pack, explains Tatu Tuominen, head of communications and public affairs at TeliaSonera Finland. "You have to keep the dynamics going, otherwise you start to stall." And stalling signals the death rattle in this fiercely competitive market, says Mr. Tuominen, so companies like his are always looking at reaching new audiences.

"You need to be consistent in developing your business and developing the technologies and investing in networks and services. That's the key," he says, but adds that the focus on "customer experience" is paramount these days in a market where people are constantly being bombarded by the latest new and shiny gadget.

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But it comes down to the mentality of working together to succeed in this sector. From Finland's consumer, to the government, to businesses – everyone is involved.

"There is consensus around this idea [of building the country's ICT]. I'm exaggerating a little bit here, but everyone in Finland thinks that this is an important thing, and it's something we have to work on."

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