Located on the western fringe of the city, the Cable Factory is another example of Helsinki’s creative reappropriation of disused spaces. Transformed into a hub of museums, galleries, dance theatres, art schools, artists, bands and companies, the venue these days is thick with the buzz of new ideas.
Yet, when I meet Aviv Ben-Yehuda, the CEO of Big Ear Games, on the ground floor, the air’s contents are somewhat more pronounced. Moments after shaking his hand, on cue, a pair of waiters accidentally topple the contents of a trolley down the stairs next to us in a crescendo of broken glass and spilled beverages.
Percussive noise has been a mainstay in Ben-Yehuda’s life. Originally from Israel, he completed his medical studies in his 20s and seemed destined for a long career as a doctor. Yet he couldn’t shake his passion for music, something he had cultivated since first picking up pair of drumsticks when he was six years old. So strong was the call that upon graduation from medical school he slowly began to focus more and more on alternative medicine, which in turn freed up his schedule to allow him to perform and eventually teach music.
When he moved to Finland for love at the turn of the millennium, the lure of music was far stronger than that of medicine. Intermittent work as a music teacher eventually snowballed into a full-blown career that has now stretched for nearly two decades.
Echoing his earlier pivot from medicine, the recent arrival of digital devices in and outside the classroom caught his attention. Whilst his students were more than capable of absorbing the technical knowledge and knowhow required to navigate their instrument of choice, they were repeatedly hesitant to embrace improvisation.
A light switched on in his head. Big Ear Games was born.
The first of a planned suite of games, Big Ear lets users learn to play songs via a series of musical puzzles and collect various instruments and compose as they go. The gamification of this learning process has caught on like wildfire, attracting backers such as former Angry Birds spearhead Peter Vesterbacka and MinecraftEdu co-founder Santeri Koivisto. It’s not just locals who have sat up and paid attention. The company is currently deepening ties both in the US and in China.
All this, mind you, has happened within the space of a year-and-a-half. We sat down with Ben-Yehuda to learn about the relationship between trust and education in Finland, the ‘Silicon Valley of China’ and what his favourite musician joke might be.
Your love of music surpassed that of medicine. Do you see any common ground between the two disciplines?
Not directly as such, but I think music is a medium where there is a lot of healing done. People find their own solutions through music. It’s their way to treat themselves and take care of their anger, for example. There is something about this expression that is coming from somewhere very, very deep. It takes you to a kind of space where your state of mind is different. Everybody is engaged with music in some way. That’s the beauty of it.
Finland is famous for leading the world in education. What has working as a teacher here been like?
Finland has a very good attitude to teachers: they are given a lot of freedom about what they teach and how they teach. This was great for me, for somebody who had not actually graduated as a teacher. It was very important that I was teaching what I like to teach. [My teaching method] was not so common.
Personally, it is a great attitude in general because it supports teachers big time and makes them be at their best. For me, it was super important because I could develop myself and, at the end of the day, help the development of the school’s education system.
I appreciate the way that things are done here and the attitude, again, more than anything. Kids get a lot of trust and responsibility from day one. This is very different from places that try to be more in control and make rules from moment to moment. It allows the learning of the child to be more effective. This is something that I really like, not only in learning skills but also in personal skills.
Sometimes when I saw certain things that made me clench my teeth, as it was so weird to me, I realised it was only my conditioning that made me feel that it was too much. The kids are getting trust from the teachers, and the teachers get it from their supervisors. It’s a very trustful system.
Why do you think Big Ear Games has been so successful?
First, it is about music. As I mentioned earlier, music touches everybody. Learning music and understanding how it works is a mystery. The way we do it at Big Ear Games is that you don’t feel like you are learning. It is seamless. The combination of having the games knowhow and the music knowhow deeply on both sides, that’s the killer recipe. One more word that comes to mind is ‘simple’. From the user side, the product isn’t so complicated, and also this is how the development and business are done: we are quite simple and straightforward. I feel that too many are going in the other direction and are too complex with their product and the business side of the story.
One significant area for Big Ear Games’ business development has been in Shenzhen. What has been your impression of the ‘Silicon Valley of China’?
It is super modern, with hard-working people and global standards. People there have a lot of willingness to work and network with foreign companies. Unfortunately, there is still a gap in understanding from the West how China is developing and where they are right now. Until I arrived there, my whole picture was quite different.
There is a lot of eagerness to do business everywhere in the big cities of China. It was about going there and doing things, participating in gaming industry events and getting to know the developers better.
What advice would you have for those looking to do business in China?
It’s not easy. One thing that was surprisingly positive is that, even though there are cultural differences, the Chinese are much more likeminded to us – much more than many people would think. One thing is clear: you need to be persistent. [A breakthrough] is not going to come very quickly. I already gave up on the public sector in China, after making great connections here in Helsinki. It only came after a year of work. When I arrived there, and by chance met someone at Slush Shanghai who was also part of the same delegation I had met earlier, [clicks fingers] it happened.
In order to make things move, you don’t have to move your company there, but you need to go there. I got advice from my investors to go, go, go! This is a crucial element. I noticed that some other people are letting others do business for them there. But in order to find the right people, you need to be there.
It has been such a busy year-and-a-half since the company was founded. How do you relax?
Music is my most important relaxing hobby. I have many instruments that I can play on silent mode. It’s super relaxing for me. I don’t compose real pieces, but I am playful, checking out sounds. It takes me to a different space. When adults play our game, they are relaxed. It has a relaxing effect. I am experiencing the same thing when trying out notes, that’s what you do in the game.
What inspires you?
It’s hard to pinpoint it. It might sound stupid, but it’s something about doing something meaningful. Of course, what we do at the company is a challenge that we want to take up. It’s like, ‘hey we need to do this because nobody has done this before’. We see that other people are convinced. We have to make it happen.
Finally, I have to ask: What is your favourite musician joke?
Actually, I’ve never told musician’s jokes. Maybe it’s because I’m a drummer and I love the bass. Most of the jokes are about those two. [laughs] This might be a reason.