Originally from the US, Grafton was living in the UK with his wife when she landed a great job opportunity in Finland. It was meant to be. About six months prior to this, he had founded a growth agency designed to help mission-driven organisations to achieve their growth goals. And so, while looking for potential clients in Finland ahead of the move here, he came across his current employer, the children’s science education-focused startup Kide Science. The company had a full-time role that closely resembled what he was doing at the time. “So, I applied with an email that was way too long, and they agreed to speak with me,” he recalls.
The rest is history, and then some. Grafton and his wife arrived in Finland in March 2020 – just before the country closed its borders.
Moving to Finland was… definitely unusual! We moved on 17 March 2020, which I’ll remember forever because it was the day before Finland closed its borders (and shortly after Denmark closed theirs – the gate next to ours at the airport was full of distraught travellers realising that they couldn’t board their flight to Copenhagen).
Arriving to a new country that’s in lockdown is… disorienting. We had spent a couple of weeks in Helsinki in 2017, so we knew what summer was like, but the airport was empty, the streets were empty, and everything except grocery stores were closed.
It was about four weeks between finding out about the offer and moving, with a two-week work trip in between, at the start of a pandemic. In all, it went about as well it could, given the circumstances.
The main differences in working life in Finland compared to other countries where I have worked are… oh boy, how long can this response be?!
The major, day-to-day difference is work-life balance, which is a huge plus here. In the US, it’s very easy to work 60-plus hours a week without really meaning to – there’s just nobody there to tell you not to and there’s so much to do. You always know that even if it’s not encouraged, it’s often rewarded. That’s not even counting time off, holidays, healthcare…
Here, a colleague would tell me to go outside or spend time with family and friends. There’s much more concern for, and awareness of, the need for the whole person to be healthy and happy to be effective in their role as an employee.
The challenges that I have encountered and overcome while adjusting to working life in Finland are… pretty small, really! I’m very much used to a faster moving, “break-things-but-don’t-make-the-same-mistake-twice” approach to startup work.
In my previous work cultures, it has been very focused on a shorter time horizon (one to three years at most). Here we’re much more intentional about what we’re building and trying to build it to last 50-plus, 100-plus years. That leads to moving a bit more slowly, which has been both educational and challenging at times.
Finland’s approach to children’s education is… focused so much more on facilitating meaningful interactions with the world around them, on their level, than it is in the US (at least where I grew up in the US).
We don’t force adult conceptions of education onto children, we help them learn by exploring the things they’re already doing, with the people they’re doing it with. They learn to learn, really, which is a skill that helps exponentially over time.
It’s silly to try to force fact-based learning onto children that may not be making long-term memories, yet. Social and critical thinking skills are so much more important at that age, and they’re easy to overlook or undervalue in places that have an interest in quantifying progress through tests and measurements.
During the pandemic digital solutions from Finland have been beneficial for children’s learning by…
I think that the early-age focuses on social and critical-thinking skills really help prepare kids to handle changing environments and build stronger social networks. Of course, they don’t know this, and that’s kind of the point. It’s just the water they swim in, to borrow an analogy. I believe that, in future years, we’ll see that Finnish kids handled the pandemic with fewer complications or issues than children in other countries for exactly this reason.
On the science front, we’ve been very focused on making science accessible everywhere. That can be your kitchen, your school, your back yard or a park. Children are doing little experiments all the time, learning how the world around them works. We try to facilitate that as much as possible, because the learning that happens there is no less valid or insightful than the learning that they might be doing in a science class.
The organisations that have supported my professional growth in Finland are…
First, the people at Kide Science have been truly amazing. Sari Hurme-Mehtälä and Sampsa Kuronen hired me without having met me in person and took a chance on someone that was new to the country and spoke not two words of Finnish (I had picked up ‘kiitos’ from going to the grocery store). Aside from their obviously keen eye for talent (ha!), they’re also, more importantly, wonderful people. Every day at work is a challenge, in a very good way.
Beyond that, I met a lot of great people through Icebreaker.vc’s Spring 2020 program, as well as The Awesome Marketers, a Slack group based here in Helsinki that is run by Anna Pogrebniak. I also joined the board of the Finnish-American Club, which has been a wonderful experience.
The reason I help startups grow on a sustainable path is… I think that there’s an increasing sense that our lives are overly influenced by about 10 companies and that their incentives don’t always align with ours when it comes to what we want our daily human experience to be. Small businesses and startups can place a higher value on what people actually want and benefit from, and they’re typically more interested in making a positive impact on their communities. Kide Science is a great example of this – there are a lot of very powerful education companies in the world, and very few of them align with how Finland would approach education. Yet, Finland gets better results.
When we were moving to Finland, the This Is Finland magazines that were in the Finnish Consulate in London were very comforting! There were so many startups and small companies that seemed to share my values, and it was really comforting to see them highlighted and profiled in an outsized way.
Seeing Kide Science on the cover of that magazine this year was really rewarding, and I hope that maybe some other person wondering what life is like in Finland might be persuaded to come here by finding out more about us.
What I love most about the Helsinki suburb that I live in, Vallila, is… the variety and proximity to the forest.
When everything was closed last spring, my wife and I would spend an hour or more every day walking in the forest, just appreciating being outside and figuring out what we needed to do to get our lives sorted out.
And our neighbourhood has such a lovely variety of older, established businesses and restaurants, and new things coming in. When we go strolling, we always find new places we want to eat or shops we’d love to check out.
The hobbies that I have really enjoyed practising in Finland are… does sauna count as a hobby? Because if so, that’s the main answer. I’d guess I sauna for five-plus hours a week. Our cat has also adopted the sauna as his own, it’s truly a family activity.
Beyond the sauna, I’ve used our proximity to the forest to get back into trail running. I grew up playing soccer (football) and running through the woods, so it has been great to get back to the running part, at least. Fingers crossed on the soccer front, I’d love to join a club and league again.
The words of advice I would have for someone thinking about moving here for work is… Finland is a great place to work, full stop. There will be cultural differences, but that’s a relatively small hurdle.
One thing that really helped me not only professionally, but in all aspects of life was noticing when something irritated or bothered me and asking myself why. 95 per cent of the time it was just something I wasn’t used to and had to adjust to, not something that actually bothered me. And 95 per cent of those times, it was a chance for me to grow and learn.
Also, drive the speed limit.
The reason my wife and I would like to permanently settle in Finland is… that we’re really, really happy here.
It’s really easy to see why Finland is the happiest country in the world, year in and year out. The no-nonsense approach to work-life balance and the priority that’s placed on doing things outdoors is huge for us, and such a welcome change from the places we’ve worked and lived previously.
It’s not an extra or a self-indulgent thing, it’s a clear acknowledgement that to be happy you need to see friends and family, and spend time in nature. All the things that other cultures say they value, but maybe don’t do enough to actually prioritise. Taking care of yourself, your society and your environment is non-negotiable, and it’s infused into seemingly every aspect of life.
What’s not to love?