SLUSH -- the preeminent Eurasian tech conference now in full swing in Helsinki, Finland -- remains “under the radar” to most in the U.S. tech industry. But, that certainly is not the case in the European and Northern Asian tech worlds. At least not anymore. Right now, I am in the midst of my first SLUSH -- wearing multiple hats. As an advisor and connector (“Bridge to Hollywood," “Bridge to U.S. tech” via Manatt Digital Media - a business consulting, connecting, and legal services firm). Investor (via the Manatt Venture Fund). And journalist (both this blog and as a regular contributor to leading U.S. digital video publication VideoInk). These are my observations after my initial 1.5 days (events that began Monday evening -- including one memorable affair I attended that was hosted by U.S. Ambassador to Finland, Bruce Oreck, who happily coaxed several U.S. VCs and me to an authentic Finnish sauna party, complete with our absolutely authentic -- and unforgettable -- immersion into the 35 degree Fahrenheit Baltic Sea (about 2 degrees Celsius). When I received that invitation, I knew that this was something I just had to do. Proudly did it. And have the pictures to prove it! (see below -- that’s me pictured after my final submersion into the Baltic and then warming up with the others in official U.S. embassy robes).
Some more about SLUSH. Why that name? It’s the Finnish sense of humor (shared by Finnish entrepreneurs like the founders of digital media/photo contest company Lovented, pictured on the left). While U.S. conferences frequently tout un-ending sunshine, SLUSH’s founding fathers here celebrate the cold, as well as that namesake frequent and terribly uncomfortable condition of freezing wet rain (although not this year). Let’s also not forget Finland’s long dark nights this time of year. The SLUSH venue mirrors and celebrates that darkness inside -- all windows and skylights are covered. No light inside here, once we enter the venue beneath a sign -- visible in the photo above -- that reads “This Is Not The Event You’re Looking For” (a sign which is an homage to Star Wars that was lost on me until someone with droid expertise explained it to me). Inside, we are engulfed by the darkness and overall vibe of a night-club instead, complete with lasers darting here, there, everywhere -- and with full-size and fully-nude pictures of men and women adorning the venue’s restrooms (I am not kidding -- see below the slightly more subtle version outside restroom doors which, I assure you, are followed with no subtlety on the pictures inside those restrooms). Hey, we’re here in Europe baby! Loosen up! This is the birthplace and home of EDM after all!
And, that’s how the event kicked off yesterday. DJ on stage. Frenetic video montage behind (just watch this video below). Steam blasting into the crowd. This ain’t your father’s CES.
Then, how about this for juxtaposition? From DJ to the Prime Minister of Finland, Alexander Stubb, who welcomed attendees with four themes that he believes define the Finnish people -- and the reason for continuous Finnish entrepreneurial success. One, the Finnish commitment to dream. Two, to believe. Three, to work hard. And four, the Finn's passion to succeed. He voiced that his dream for SLUSH -- which is absolutely shared by its ambitious founders -- is to become THE pre-eminent tech start-up event in the world. From what I have seen thus far, they might just pull it off one day. 750 venture firms now attend. And, Finland’s geographic location -- although very north and frequently very cold (although no snow this year) -- makes it convenient for most in the world (with the exception of those of us on the U.S. West Coast).
China’s Vice Premier Wang Yang (pictured up top) followed the Prime Minister’s opening words and predictably and dutifully touted his country’s entrepreneurial growth and success. He reported 3 million new private companies in China in the first 10 months of this year alone -- up 53% from the same time last year. He further underscored that “China is committed to opening up and learning from other countries” -- and that “Finland is a model of innovation.”
Indeed Finland is.
As I mention above, Finland tech is primarily known for two major areas -- (1) mobile (remember the Nokia of a few years back?), and (2) mobile games and game development (Rovio and Supercell, both of which are very much giants of the here and now -- and the latter of which served as host of night one’s mega-party with a cast of thousands). And, those themes were evident everywhere. Digital video and music (two other significant areas of my focus) not so much, although Spotify and SoundCloud put this region front and center outside of the gaming world as well.
Some notable digital media tech start-up companies to watch closely-- based on “insiders” here in Finland (top tech press and godfathers of the tech industry whom I have come to know) include: (1) Small Giant (which has raised well over $4 million dollars and whom some call the “hottest” games company in Finland right now, which is no small feat); (2) Seriously, another mobile game developer that has already attracted significant U.S. West Coast capital; (3) PlayRaven, yet another game developer (including the strategy game Spymaster); (4) Kiosked, an ad-tech company I know well that has raised over $15 million from blue chip investors, including the Chairman of Rovio; and (5) Sharetribe, a company in the “share economy” milieu that facilitates peer-to-peer rentals, among other things. I met with some of these and many many more throughout the day and night who share the Prime Minister’s dreams (including serial and extremely successful Finn entrepreneur Juhana Kotilainen who teased a new game company that launches soon -- be sure to watch than one closely when it does -- and the "Bulldozer” himself, Pekka Viljikainen, who is a force of nature in his own right). Exhausting (yes, jet lag kicked in today -- and I write this at 3 am). But invigorating at the same time. I am particularly grateful to well-known and highly-esteemed Finnish tech leader Micke Paqvalen for all of his time and introductions during the event -- he is a rock star who knows everybody and made me feel right at home. Special thanks also to Finnish tech legend Tero Ojanpera who also offered his sage insights.
SLUSH 2014. I am impressed. Very. Speakers are elite. Event production is top notch.
Let’s just hope that SLUSH’s ambitions of growth do not become fully realized. While ambition is good. Size does matter. And, sometimes smaller is better. There is no need for another gargantuan CES or IBC-like conference.
SLUSH. You are just “right.”
SLUSH. Glad to have met you. Glad to see, feel and recognize the global innovation that happens here in the Nordic region -- and is celebrated by investors and attendees from all over the world.
Don’t go changin’ too much ... you have a very good thing going.
Don’t go changin’ too much ... you have a very good thing going.