An investor dinner at Slush 2013.
On arriving at the legendary Slush startup conference in Finland's Helsinki, the environment is akin to a fantasy world, a place that is dark and mysterious. It's as if the Northern Lights are flashing not in the interplanetary sky, but all around the conference center.
What began as an idea in a Helsinki bar is now a conference in its seventh year, having grown into one of the must-attend European events for investors, entrepreneurs, mavens, thought-leaders and more besides. Its reputation as a place to do business, have fun and enjoy the unique manner of Finnish hospitality as the Christmas season approaches is irreproachable.
Lasers of different hues shade the venue, robots walk and talk around attendees' feet and people dressed up as Father Christmas, rabbits and even one guy with a plastic baby strapped to his chest pass by.
Suddenly the chaos comes into focus and on the main stage a siren rings out, signaling the start of the show. An opening video backed by a hardcore techno soundtrack attracts everybody to the main stage; it is a stunning entrance.
Next up is the Finnish prime minister, arriving on stage as if he was the deejay behind the decks, talking about Slush and its importance to the Finnish economy, followed by local favorite Nokia announcing an Android-based tablet.
Senses already disorientated, it is then a walk around four stages with more than 13,000 attendees from 79 countries and 3,600 companies, one-third of which are startups with less than 50 employees.
Here, the outside world doesn't exist, and for tech behemoths such as Apple and Google, this conference doesn't exist either. This is not a conference for them; this isn't CES in Vegas, but perhaps after seven years, it never will be. But, with or without them, the mood is beyond optimistic.
Naturally, an event of this kind takes some organizing. One of the main drivers behind its growth is the dynamic and furiously energetic Pekka Viljakainen, commonly referred to as The Bulldozer in reference to how he gets things done.
Viljakainen is the adviser to Viktor Vekselberg, president of the Skolkovo Foundation and the Russian Government. He is Finnish, not Russian, so he understands how to move between worlds. His role at Skolkovo, the Russian innovative city project, is to accelerate the establishment of entrepreneurship in Russia.
" The purpose of Slush is to bring together three neighboring superpowers of startup ecosystems — Russia, China … and Finland— haha. Of course, Finland is a smaller element, but I am also serious."
"From the Russian standpoint, there is a great scientific background for innovation, but from the sales/marketing aspect, we are beginners compared to the West. Slush is a learning experience in all of its manifestations. It is also a place for global investors to have a first look at Russian entrepreneurship," he says.
Back at the conference, the excess continues as the first day draws to an end. Huge beer trucks arrive at the Southern Entrance as the parties begin … and what parties they are. The Finnish can drink … they can drink and drink; and so does everybody else.
The morning of Day Two is less frenetic. Hangovers have afflicted everybody; the walking and talking robots are a little more annoying today and the lasers induce headaches and nausea, but the Holiday Inn hotel adjacent to the conference is doing great business selling morning-after alcohol as the game begins again.
Peter Arvai is the co-founder of Prezi, a cloud-based (SaaS) presentation software and storytelling tool for presenting ideas on a virtual canvas. Prezi allows its more than 50 million customers to create beautiful presentations and to access, for free, more than 160 million shared presentations.
Arvai is about to go on stage and announce a $57 million funding round, so he is ebullient about his company and Slush. Founded in Hungary, the company now has 70 employees in Silicon Valley in addition to the 170 working in Budapest.
He gives me an example of how the company operates and asks me to describe three things in my kitchen. I answer toaster, blender and kettle.
"When you thought about these three things, you didn't think of text and a list, you thought of your kitchen and visualized them. Not only is this a visual approach, it is also a spatial approach' and that is exactly how Prezi works. We bring people into the kitchen to tell the story," Arvai says.
He's right, but he has to leave for the Silver Stage and his fireside chat, so it's on to a smaller, but still innovative, company. Steven Judge is English and based in Helsinki. He is the founder of Finnish-based "gamification-as-a-service" company GameLayer and he, like everybody else here, is awed by Slush."
This conference is unlike any other, and everybody from around the world seems to be here. We get to meet our clients, we get to create new business and we also have a great time in the cold Finnish winter. The infrastructure and support from Slush for the Finnish startup scene is unparalleled, and we will be coming here for years to come," Judge says.
Another company that finds Slush crucial to its business is chat-based games companyPalringo, which has offices in London and Gothenburg, Sweden. Its platform allows users to form and join large groups based on common interests and play games in those conversations.
With more than 28 million users and 250,000 groups, some of which have 2,000 members, Palringo's CMO Magnus Alm is effusive about the opportunities Slush gives to his company and how integral it is to the games and tech ecosystem.
"Slush is one of those great shows where tech, gaming and investors meet and greet. From our perspective it has high relevance due to our focus on the convergence of messaging and games," he says.
As the conference comes to a close and the intelligent ones head home on flights across the world, the more hardcore party animals prepare for one last stand — another night enjoying the various parties on offer. I'm ready to join them, slightly angsty over the eternal buoyancy of the people here, but a party's a party, and friendly people are never a problem.
The spice of life is here, and so is the magic … and that's not something that is often said about an industry trade show. Long may that continue, and maybe Apple or Google will make an appearance next time.
Tags: BUSINESS, CONFERENCES, CONTRIBUTOR, STARTUPS, WORK & PLAY, WORLD