What do Oracle, Apple and Dell have in common? Aside from forging a path to greatness with their pioneering approaches to technology, the CEOs of these companies actually never completed their university degrees.
Add to this list – for the time being at least – Slush CEO Andreas Saari.
Starting out at the student-run event by handing out conference bracelets and name tags, Saari quickly advanced through the ranks to become head of startup and investor operations, and then programme development. Along the way, he also co-founded Wave Ventures, the first student-led venture capital fund in the Nordics.
After taking the helm at Slush last year, needless to say, this meteoritic rise has left his studies somewhat in limbo. Life sometimes just gets in the way. And then some – this year’s event boasts 25 000 attendees, including 3 500 startups, 2 000 investors and 700 journalists, representing over 130 nationalities.
Last year’s Slush was your first as CEO. What goes through your mind the morning of the first day?
It’s actually a rolling start, as we have many events beforehand. But on the morning of the main event, it’s a mix of hoping that everything will go well and pure excitement for the people who are there. It’s an exceptional setting to have, that so many brilliant people are there. You never know who you will run into and have a conversation with. I hope people will run into something outstanding and awesome. Personally, I’m just running from place to place for the couple of days and I have to have tunnel vision [to focus].
Why are we still talking about Slush after so many years?
There’s still demand for entrepreneurship in Finland and the world. What Slush does is try and make things easier for those building companies. We are finding new and different ways to help entrepreneurs. This year we launched a digital media, last year we launched Slush Academy, which we are only now getting up to speed.
Startups are a fantastic way of changing the world. If you think about a problem and a solution, it usually stays as just an idea or perhaps gets published in a journal – which is great. But it is really effective when these ideas are turned into products. Companies are the engines that take these products to the world. The idea of a for-profit company and its incentive to scale and grow means that the world wins.
How do you set the goals for each coming Slush?
We have ongoing discussions at the start of each year. We try and gauge what’s happening in the world of building companies and VC in Europe and globally. The goals this year have been to grow the event – not too much – through side events. The goal-setting procedure is based on what we feel will benefit the companies the most.
You believe in entrepreneurship as a means to solve big and meaningful problems in the world. What is the most significant problem you’d like to help solve?
Personally, for me, it’s climate change. It has been for 10 years. The reason is simple: if this is not dealt with, not many other problems will matter.
What is the next big trend for Finnish startups?
Companies based on science and technology that are solving a big problem. In Finland, we have companies like Solar Foods, Sulapac and Spinnova. Those kinds of hard-science companies will be a really big thing. They are all changing existing industries. Also, there are emerging startups living in symbiosis with bigger companies. Norsepower is an excellent example of this, working with big ship manufacturers.
What would you say are the key elements for starting and running a successful business?
Having an excellent team, a relentless drive to build the company and meaningful insight about the market you’re entering or creating. Having a superior technology and a brilliant marketing person doesn’t hurt.
Having co-founded Wave Ventures, how do you know when you should make an investment?
If the founding team is amazing and there’s a signal that the timing to build something like what the company does is right.
What is the best piece of advice you have received that you now give to others?
One of my favourite things in the world is asking questions. It’s what I’ve been in the habit of doing the past few years when meeting incredible people from around the world. I’ve started gathering excellent questions from them. When someone is giving you advice, you listen more than you speak. I live according to this: every moment I am speaking is a lost opportunity to learn something. This is something I genuinely believe in. There is always an opportunity to learn.
What would you most like to be remembered for?
I could choose 1 000 different things. But hopefully it’s making a significant contribution to reversing climate change. On a personal and humane level, I’d also love to be remembered as a person who really cared about the people around me.
How would you describe yourself in five words?
Curious, easily excited, endlessly driven.
How do you relax?
By spending time with family and friends, doing all kinds of extreme sports, reading books.
What constitutes a perfect morning for you?
In chronological order: waking up next to my girlfriend, reading, working out, meditating and having a magnificent breakfast. The sun would shine. The view outside is either of mountains or looking down from a mountain top. I can’t imagine anything better than that.
Finally, what are the best tips for someone who would like attend Slush for the first time?
First, figure out who you want to meet at Slush – and do your homework on them – or identify interesting speakers to learn from. Keep your eyes open for serendipitous meetings – there are all kinds of magnificently interesting people present. Lastly, don’t push buying your ticket to the last minute: they often run out early.