The Next Big Thing

Six reasons for Finland’s record start-up success: Clash of Clans maker Supercell reveals all

Founder of world’s No.1 mobile game developer says Nordic country’s can-do corporate culture just tip of the iceberg

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2015, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 5:17am

How can a medium-sized Nordic nation with a population smaller than Hong Kong grow more start-ups than any other country in the world?

Ilkka Paananen, founder of the world’s No.1 mobile game company Supercell, believes Finland’s unique business culture makes all the difference.

“I think the Finnish culture is to get things done, although we don’t talk too much,” Paananen said this week during a group interview at the company's headquarters in Helsinki.

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Supercell is behind many of the world’s most popular game titles including Clash of Clans, Boom Beach and Hay Day.

Paananen, who serves as chief executive of the technology company, gave six major reasons why Finland is becoming one of the world’s top countries for start-ups to get up and running successfully.

Despite the struggles that Nokia, formerly one of Finland’s biggest success stories, has encountered in recent years in adapting to the smartphone era, new companies are flourishing in this sparsely populated country of 5.5 million (Hong Kong’s population hovers around 7 million).

“There is no small talk in the country, so there is no guessing [among colleagues and partners] when we do business,” said Paananen, who began his career in computer gaming right after graduation.

Such a “great work culture” bolsters efficiency and helps Finnish entrepreneurs and their teammates quickly turn their businesses into a success, he said.

He made a point of comparing this to the high level of bureaucracy that can often tie up companies elsewhere in Europe and the United States.

“Finland is a very small country ... so in many cases we know everybody [in a company] and there is less management needed, so we can be very efficient,” he said earlier this week.

SLUSH, Europe’s biggest start-up conference, is taking place in the Finnish capital this week with the support of the country’s foreign ministry and other government agencies.

Other factors that have made the country stand out in recent years include a strong reservoir of technology talents, including many experienced programmers and engineers.

He also praised Finland’s education system for helping shore up and attract talent. It has been ranked as “the world’s best” by the well-respected education industry standard Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is backed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

Paananen noted that after Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia in mid-2013, many former Nokia employees, including many outstanding Nokia developers, went on to start their own businesses.

Nokia used to ranks as the world’ s largest mobile phone maker before it was superseded by Apple when the latter’s iPhone redefined the industry landscape.

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Nokia may no longer be considered the biggest source of Finland’s national pride, but many former staffers are now key drivers behind local start-ups and industry innovation in new business areas. Some have been hired by Paananen to work on new projects at Supercell.

Start-ups have taken off around the world in recent years and especially in China, with homegrown companies like car-hailing app Didi Kuaidi valued at US$16 billion and drone maker DJI, which controls over 70 per cent of the global marker for civilian drones, now worth at least US$10 billion.

While the Chinese mainland ranks as the world’s No.2 economy and the world’s largest and fastest-growing internet market, Hong Kong is also keen to play a leading role in new technological advances.

After years of delay, the city’s new Innovation and Technology Bureau was approved last week by local legislators. Part of its aim is to help Hong Kong, which for decades has been known as one of the world’s leading financial hubs, transform its economic structure by growing more start-ups with the aim of churning out so-called “unicorn” enterprises valued at US$1 billion or higher.

READ MORE: Hong Kong ‘ideally placed’ to become fintech start-up hub: experts

Paananen, also one of the richest young business leaders in Europe, chose not to directly compare Finland with other countries in terms of their respective business environments for start-ups. But he noted how the strong English-speaking environment and high standard of living in the Nordic welfare state have also helped drive the success of new companies.

Adopting a new mindset is also important, he said, as more Finnish people now have very different views on new businesses like mobile gaming.

“When I graduated and began my first job in the mobile game business, many people would still ask me when I can find a ‘real job’,” he said.

“Now that’s certainly changing,” he added, noting the game business has already become one of the major tax contributors bolstering Finland’s economic growth.

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