Readers in Finland may recognise Kim Väisänen from the reality TV-show Leijonan Luola (Lion’s Den). It’s the local equivalent of the Shark Tank concept, where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of investors (the ‘sharks) in the hope of raising capital. It’s not for the faint of heart – feedback is often delivered in fiery tones…
Väisänen’s direct and shoot-from-the-hip communication style is made for the show. But he’s just as demanding and critical of himself as he is of others. Described in his own words as “a jack of all trades and a master of none,” Väisänen got started in business during the mid-90s after a less-than-successful attempt at studying economics.
“I kind of sucked at mathematics,” he confesses. “So I slipped out of studying economics in Joensuu and became an entrepreneur. That was 27 years ago, even before we started using the term ‘startup’ in Finland.”
"In the beginning I also kind of sucked as an entrepreneur! But I learned that success comes from relentless focus. The range of opportunities for entrepreneurs is huge, so you have to set your sights on something and commit to it. This necessity is one of the things I teach to all the people I mentor,” he says.
Väisänen focused on founding and developing Blancco Technology Group, a circular-economy company that specialises in erasing data for end-of-life IT assets. He was CEO for more than 18 years, eventually selling Blancco to a company listed on the London Stock Exchange and stepping down in 2015.
While running the business Väisänen had multiple encounters with demanding customers who often provided harsh feedback. These interactions ultimately resulted in product and service improvements being made, leading Väisänen to see that feedback – even when tough – can be extremely valuable.
“I was once in Japan visiting a customer who spent six hours taking us through an endless spreadsheet of what he thought was wrong with our product. There were literally hundreds of things he didn’t like,” recalls Väisänen.
“He was actually right about many of those things, so he made us better by pointing them out. What I realised is that if we were able to make such a demanding customer happy, then all the other customers would be child's play.”
Väisänen believes in giving honest and clear feedback to the companies he mentors – even if it means delivering tough messages. He says that personal and business relationships without this kind of communication are doomed to failure anyway.
"No news is bad news. If you aren’t talking, then things are heading straight to hell,” Väisänen observes.
Another key learning from his own entrepreneurial journey is the importance of hard work – especially when faced with competition. As with his views on customer feedback, Väisänen believes that competition pushes individuals and companies to continually improve.
“If you are a successful entrepreneur, you actually have to work a lot. The competition is extremely tough. The other companies out there they will do everything in their power to make your life as difficult as possible. But I like this, as competition makes us better,” he says.
Väisänen helps the startups he mentors to channel these competitive pressures into realistic strategies and business models. Defining a company’s value in the market may mean asking its founders tough questions about the services and pricing models they plan to offer.
As a Helsinki Incubators’ mentor, Väisänen works within the NEXUS programme for Deep Tech, AI & Sustainability companies. One of the startups he worked with in the previous six-month incubator round is HeiTech, an AI-based platform for translating and dubbing video into more than 70 languages.
“By the end of the programme the founders knew where their business was coming from and what they needed to do. But it wasn’t always that way,” recalls Väisänen. “They had initially thought that most of their customers were consumers. Then we went digging into the data and saw that it was actually companies buying the service. So HeiTech pivoted its model from B2C to also include B2B.”
“This is one of the beautiful things about entrepreneurship – it provides you with an opportunity to make and learn from your own mistakes. You listen, digest the new information, and apply what you have learned in your daily actions,” he observes.
In the current incubator round, Väisänen is mentoring a startup called Kliin, headed by Luis Mantilla and Devontay Cross. The company is developing a pick-up and delivery laundry service that customers will be able to access through an app.
“I have an ongoing WhatsApp discussion with Kliin’s founder Luis. He has a lot of questions, which I try to answer as I've been in the same position,” says Väisänen. “We had an eye-opening moment recently, so we’re now working on the numbers for that. Who knows, I may even consider investing in Kliin.”
Väisänen also mentors Finnish startups through other accelerator and matchmaker programmes. He sees mentorship as a two-say street built on mutual respect and trust, with the mentor providing guidance while also gaining fresh insights. This learning aspect is why Väisänen got involved with Helsinki Incubators.
“All mentoring programmes have their good sides and bad sides,” he says. “The good thing about Helsinki Incubators is that most of the entrepreneurs have an academic background. The selection process is excellent – a lot of clever people go through the programme.”
“There’s also much more diversity among the mentors than with other programmes,” Väisänen adds.
Contrasted with his role on the Lion’s Den TV-show – which he describes as “done by the rules of entertainment” – mentoring is an opportunity for Väisänen to give something back to the business world. He sees it as his responsibility to help founders avoid common mistakes and put them on the path to success.
“The king who has plenty should give plenty. This is something one of my lawyers used to say,” recounts Väisänen. “I came from nothing, but now I have more or less have plenty. So it’s my duty to share some of my knowledge and the lessons I’ve learned over the years.”
“When you’re over 50 – as I am – you can become cynical and pessimistic. But then you see this fresh batch of people who burn the midnight oil to create something successful from the opportunities that are given to them.”
“If they make it, I can say I was around to help them get started. This is the reward for me,” he concludes.
The University of Helsinki's entrepreneurship programmes, the Helsinki Incubators provides support and opportunities for bold thinkers in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area interested to take their ideas and turning them into impactful ventures. Interested in taking part in our pre-incubators and incubators? Subscribe to our newsletter for updates on when the next calls open.