Helsinki Incubators Mentor Neri Friedlander: "When building a platform, focus on your core feature first"

Welcome to another edition of our interview series introducing the mentors behind the Helsinki Incubators entrepreneurship programmes. Here we meet Neri Friedlander, a specialist in nurturing startup-led innovation from within large corporations.

Bridging the traditional mindset of a corporation with the entrepreneurial approach of a startup can be a challenging task. It requires vision, patience and determination. Most importantly, you need to be able to bring out the best in people.

This is what Neri Friedlander specialises in. An expert in developing new business ventures from within large corporations, Tel Aviv-born Friedlander worked for Google and the Mercedes-Benz Group AG before joining Continental as Director of Global Partnerships and Tech Ecosystems.

“I look at different tech ecosystems around the world to spot opportunities for collaboration,” he explains. “I also more broadly study the challenges that corporations face in developing new ventures. Big companies have far greater resources than startups, yet often fail to embrace innovation. I try to holistically understand and overcome these obstacles.”

While working for Mercedes Benz’s innovation arm, Friedlander was tasked with developing a solution to improve the utilisation rate of the company’s mobility services – including peer-to-peer car sharing, ride-hailing and chauffeur rental. Instead of approaching the challenge purely from the perspective of travelling from A to B, the team looked at what potential users were actually doing at points A and B. This led to the creation of a discovery app and a platform for local retailers.

“We saw that people were using mobility experiences to travel around a city and browse products in brick-and-mortar shops, before returning home to buy those products online. So we started working with the retailers to help them understand how e-commerce was impacting their business,” explains Friedlander.

The team then developed ways to incentivise users to visit and make purchases from brick-and-mortar stores. Incentives could be a free ride back home, for example, or gaining trial access to a mobility service.

“It was a super interesting project and unique for a traditional automotive player to look at this kind of opportunity. We were basically given the freedom to develop something from scratch,” he recalls.

“Automotive organisations have not changed much over the past years. They know how to make cars, but now with software in the game they need to transform their culture.”

Define the kind of startup you want to be

Friedlander is now sharing his innovation mindset with Helsinki Incubators for the second time, having previously been a mentor as part of the Nexus 1 programme. Back then he advised IdealAQ, formerly NAPA, as they worked to secure 700 000€ in funding to bring its product to market.

This time around Friedlander is mentoring HemmaKoti®, a platform that connects people with services for the home. There are more than 20 such service categories on the platform, including window cleaning, dog walking, furniture assembly and even interior design.

“When you’re creating a platform, you need to build engagement and generate a network effect. These are not easy things to do,” he observes.

“You need to focus on your core feature first. Nail that one, create the hook with your customers, and by doing that you find your product-market fit that you can expand later. This is the kind of the approach I'm trying to achieve with the HemmaKoti team,” he explains.

Friedlander broadly distinguishes between two kinds of startups.

On the one hand are those founded to develop a specific feature or solution that satisfies a need at a specific point in time. Once the need is met, the founders aim to make an exit and move on to the next project.

On the other hands are the startups that aim to be around for the long term, gathering a massive base of users and transforming behaviour in a given domain.

“It’s super important for a startup to make this distinction. If you want to be the next Facebook, then the resources you need are very different from what you need if you want to develop a specific solution and make a quick exit. There’s also a big difference in terms of how investors perceive you,” he explains.

“I personally love working with serial entrepreneurs, as they have seen so much. Each success is often followed by an even bigger one,” he says. “The essence of entrepreneurship is creativity. It’s about figuring out how to bring something valuable into existence that was previously just a concept in your mind.”

Play to the strengths of the Finnish ecosystem

Friedlander has been visiting Finland regularly since 2016. He’s seen the country’s startup ecosystem mature significantly, with funding now more readily available to founders. In addition to its leadership in gaming technology, Finland has a number of startups focusing on sustainability. Space technology is another area where the country has something unique to offer. Having experienced startup ecosystems and incubation programmes in several countries, Friedlander believes founders in Finland should play to the unique strengths of the local context.

“The Finnish startup ecosystem and entrepreneurial mindset are very different from other countries. This is an honest culture. People usually sell what they know and really have something to back it up. It’s very humble from that perspective,” he reflects.

“Founders need to think about how to leverage this unique DNA versus other ecosystems or universities.”

“The solutions coming out the University of Helsinki are quite diverse. Universities usually seem to focus on one or two verticals, with the solutions repeating themselves. But here you have hardware, software, platforms, analytics and more – all kinds of unrelated solutions from people with very different backgrounds,” he says.

“One of the best times to develop your idea is while studying at university, as you can access the resources you need and often find the right partners. This is why the Helsinki Incubator’s programme interests me so much.”

Friedlander also sees his participation in the programme as a way to explore business opportunities. He says the quality of the other mentors and their networks is second to none.

“From what I have seen, other incubation programmes do not have mentors with such skilled backgrounds,” says Friedlander. “The mentors we meet are excellent, the students are great, and the programme is a learning experience for everyone. We truly enjoy being here.”

“Helsinki has a nice diversity between the Finnish culture and some kind of international culture. I believe it has the potential to become one of the strongest startup ecosystems in Europe,” he observes.


More information

The University of Helsinki's entrepreneurship programmes, the Helsinki Incubators, provides support and opportunities for bold thinkers in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area interested in taking their ideas and turning them into impactful ventures. Interested in getting involved in our pre-incubators and incubators? Subscribe to our newsletter for updates on when the next calls open.