Inside the travelling sauna that wants to help ex-Nokians build their own start-ups

Two men are taking the message to aspiring start-ups across Finland that they can't be any worse than some of the 'crud' in Silicon Valley - and hope to give them some northern exposure in the process
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer on
Burning Platform driver Mike Bradshaw (left) and Kristoffer Lawson (second from left) chat with sauna pitchers.

Two men are dragging a 1.7-ton sauna across the Finnish embers of Nokia's 'burning platform' in the hope of finding hidden gems for the nation's hottest start-up incubators.

Exposure is literally what would-be Finnish entrepreneurs will get this week if they visit the 'Burning Platform' sauna trundling through every town in Finland where Nokia has, or once had, a facility ('Burning Platform' being a reference to Nokia CEO Stephen Elop's now-legendary memo on the company's fortunes). 

More than a steamy room to sweat out toxins, in Finnish culture the sauna is where deals are brokered and promises made. This week, Burning Platform's sauna is also a stage for anyone with an idea for a new start-up to hone their pitch and overcome the sense of impossibility that can nag at them as they start to build their fledgling company.

"It's where all the big decisions in life should be made. Nothing better than forming a partnership in searing heat with, at most, a towel on," Kristoffer Lawson, the man behind the expedition, tells Norse Code.

The Burning Platform sauna's tour kicked off in Finland's capital Helsinki on Monday, after which it ventured north to Jyväskylä on Tuesday and far northern Oulu on Wednesday. From there, it heads south on the back of an already stressed Land Rover to Tampere, Toijola, Turku, Salo and Espoo, where the tour ends next Tuesday.

The Burning Platform sauna on tour

Although the tour is targeted at ex-Nokians, anyone with an idea can use the sauna to refine their pitch and get feedback from Lawson, and the Burning Platform's 'driver', Mike Bradshaw.

Lawson, a half-Irish Finn, has fired up two start-ups and while the first has fizzled, the second, a banking and financial management product for start-ups called Holvi, recently secured seed funding from European accelerator Seedcamp.

Bradshaw, a Brit with Finnish heritage, has "mostly been working with teams at an early stage with the aim of getting them from abysmal to bad", and is one of 20-odd coaches at Finnish incubator Startup Sauna.

Startup Sauna "open sources" seed funding for start-ups with the aim of weeding out the most promising and shipping them off to Silicon Valley. Besides a dozen or so local angel investors and entrepreneurs, Startup Sauna's line-up of coaches includes Rovio's 'Mighty Eagle' marketing chief, Peter Vesterbacka.

Startup Sauna

The purpose of the tour, according to Lawson, is to identify pre-embryonic start-ups with the potential to make a successful pitch at Slush, a major northern European start-up event that has been running since 2009, which is being run by Startup Sauna this year.

"The plan is very much to help the best teams prepare for participation into Startup Sauna, so we will be mentoring them with Mike and they get fast-tracked into the programme. Additionally the best get the Burning Platform stamp when applying to present at the Slush event coming up," says Lawson.


Ahead of the Helsinki stopover, the Burning Platform has reached out through start-up centres like Protomo, as well as the organisers of Nokia Bridge.

Its sejour in the Finnish capital attracted 20 people and, while it "could have been better" according to Lawson, "we got four pitches and three of them had never pitched before, and three of them were coming from a Nokia background. That was actually a huge success".

"One guy had been working for 15 years at Nokia and he had never been involved in the start-up scene or entrepreneurship before and he's just pitching his project now to the Nokia Bridge fund to see if he can get some early funding from it."

The trip to Jyväskylä, where Nokia shut its operations in 2009, was a bigger success, but Lawson was struck by the sense of impossibility harboured by aspiring entrepreneurs.

"One of the topics that people kept talking about was that you couldn't build a billion-Euro business here in Jyväskylä because there's no investors up here," Lawson says in an video he posted on Bambuser yesterday.

"I would just like people to get rid of that notion completely. There's nothing really that special about a lot of the Silicon Valley start-ups, so just forget about what people say. A lot of them are rubbish at pitching and the technology is nothing that special. There are fantastic start-ups there but there is a lot of crud as well and so there's no reason you couldn't do that."

The other psychological battle for anyone considering a start-up is loneliness, which Lawson believes can be overcome by networking.

"We've seen some really tough times and we just feel that it would be great to share some of that and connect to people so they don't feel alone when they're starting off because believe me, there are times when you feel incredibly alone as an entrepreneur — there's just nobody that wants to share your miseries or stories."

Image credits: Mikko Ahonen, Protomo


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