Mentor Fernando Trolia Slamic: “Good and bad ideas all look the same at the start; innovation determines which is which"

Welcome to another one of our interviews, where we introduce the mentors behind the Helsinki Incubators entrepreneurship programmes. Here, we meet Fernando Trolia Slamic, Director of Strategy and Business Development at Vaisala, an extreme sports enthusiast and dot connecter between the corporate and startup worlds.

Fernando Trolia Slamic, who hails from Argentina, gets excited by the entrepreneurial mindset of trying novel ideas and new things, so he aims to replicate that spirit in his senior leadership position at the Finnish industrial sensing company, Vaisala.

The natural assumption would be that indulging in extreme sports of any kind would require more courage than starting your own company. Still, Trolia Slamic says that startup entrepreneurs are another breed. While he is passionate about helping startups, he’s glad he has the proverbial safety net of his corporate career to rely on, “I don't think I have the guts that startup people have, but I get super energised by working with them. Therefore, I have made it my mission to help corporations get some of that contagious energy while being on the lookout for new ideas, technologies, and opportunities.”

Breathing new life into legacy company structures

Trolia Slamic settled in Finland in 2011 and has over twenty years of experience developing and managing international businesses in diverse B2B industries, from energy and food to technology and services. Over that time, he became inspired by the startup world, so he has been focusing on building new businesses and ventures within his corporate structure. Recently, he branched out and became a mentor for the University of Helsinki’s Nexus incubator programme. 

This arrangement works well for Trolia Slamic as he gets to work outside the risk-averse confines of corporations.

“Sometimesin corporations, we lack the foresight to identify good ideas early enough, so working with startups means that we can integrate innovation by working with them,” he adds.

For some startups, eventually being acquired by a bigger company is a very attractive proposition, too, and if that’s the case, Trolia Slamic considers his input into the maturity of the startup and its solution to be a fundamental part of his mentoring.

“One of the things I have shared with my teams at the incubators is first to understand which phase they are in because the structure and the type of talent corporations need to produce value and profits may mean it’s too early. Therefore, for more early-stage startups, I’d say that investors or venture capitalists are a better option,” he explains.

Trolia Slamic has worked at several large Finnish companies, which, in addition to Vaisala, include Huhtamaki and Ensto and has come to respect the professionalism, straightforwardness, and ambition he says are common values in the Nordics. He also likes the willingness to experiment with new business ideas and validations using elements like lean startup methodologies or service design, highlighting Finland as a champion in these domains. 

“Those methodologies and techniques allow you to assess the risk and find a fit much quicker. It's more linear and cascading, and there can be great benefits from being more agile and interactive while allowing for a bit of uncertainty along the way,” he says.

However, as Trolia Slamic explains, there is often a balancing act when trying to apply these approaches within the framework of a more traditional industrial company, “If large companies launch a product that doesn't get traction from the market, it very quickly needs to be shut down, regardless of how much time and money was invested. So, while there might be an openness to technology, there isn’t always the capacity to embrace it, so I’ve learned to be cautiously ambitious,” he adds. 

Team, time, preparedness and messaging: critical factors in equal measure

Trolia Slamic highly regards his experience as a Helsinki Incubators mentor and, in particular, has been stimulated by the diversity of the startups he has worked with. He also says that the chance to connect with fellow mentors and other teams for possible collaboration is a huge bonus, “I didn't expect that it would be great to connect with the other mentors, and the number of international mentors here is fantastic. It’s been a bonus for my professional networking and motivates me to help the startup community even more,” he exclaims.

Trolia Slamic also says that he had to learn to let go of his typical mindset, which was to focus more on the technical side of a solution, and instead prioritise finding the right team, “What I learned by working with these startups is that you get a higher probability of success by working with the right team, even if the idea is not perfect. I learned to put more value in matching peoples’ chemistry and energy.”

However, as Trolia Slamic found out, there is a tendency for budding entrepreneurs to stick to their comfort zone, and they tend to want to form their team based on colleagues they know as opposed to someone with more professional experience, therefore needing guidance in that area.

“Reaching potential clients as per the potential business case can be hard for those just branching out, so I helped by connecting them with my professional network, as just having discussions with someone from the target industry or company is very useful.”

“But, reaching the right people at potential client companies and having initial discussions is one thing, but convincing them to run a trial or a pilot is much more challenging. This is where timing is a key factor as they may not want to commit due to factors like quarterly budget allocations, or maybe it’s simply not a good time of the year to make commitments for whatever reason.”

“The other is the preparedness of the teams. So, how crisp is the idea? They need to think from the client’s point of view and determine how the client’s business will be better off with your idea or solution.”

“One very useful exercise I did with my teams was, OK, guys, assume I'm an angel investor, and you want €100,000 from me. You have five minutes before my next meeting, so convince me. Getting them to acclimatise to having to be in the stressful position of explaining your story in a very short timeframe has been useful to them. So, messaging plays a big part in mentoring, too,” he adds.

Filtering ideas through an accelerated timeline

Trolia Slamic’s three teams each had vastly different outcomes at the end of the Nexus programme. Still, for all of them, it was a valuable learning experience, “One of them at least probably didn't reach most of the goals they set for themselves, while another team reached the point of getting funding and having field trials with serious companies but then did a 180° and changed their whole idea within six months. So yes, none of them really achieved what they initially planned, but now they are much wiser, all of which constitute different forms of success in my eyes,” he happily points out.

Another important factor that he says is great about the Helsinki Incubator programmes is that they help teams determine much quicker if an idea is worth pursuing, “I think the incubator also has the value of accelerating time. They may or may not have learned as much within two years if they had done this alone, so it comes back to the issue of time. Two years is a long time to discover that your idea is bad, so the sooner you learn it is not a good fit or unrealistic, the better, even if it means abandoning the project,” he says.

So, considering his expertise and experience, what are some golden nuggets of advice that he feels are good to share with anyone considering leaping into entrepreneurship?

“Ensure that your questions are the right ones because you can always have your own biases, so you need to be conscious about the questions you ask potential clients even if they may prompt answers you don't like. In saying that, the answers you don't like are sometimes the best.”

Trolia Slamic says that the best way to find the right questions is speaking with and learning from people with as diverse backgrounds as possible, including those you might not see as obvious, “For example, I often talk with my teenage children about these things, and it's great because they always ask questions or give answers that throw me off guard but which may lead to something inspiring.”

“Finally, I would say that the level of stamina you need in this journey has to be high to accept nos or non-answers because if you reach out to many people, maybe one out of twenty will respond to you, which still doesn’t guarantee a meeting. So, managing the grind of staying motivated and retaining energy is critical.”

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. Keen to join our community of curious and motivated doers? Read more about and apply to our thematic incubator programmes kicking off this spring:

NEXUS — For Sustainability Solutions in Deep Tech & AI. Apply by 14 April!

Biosphere — For Impactful Solutions in Bio- & Circular Economy. Apply by 1 May!

TREMOR — For Changemakers in Society, Education, Wellbeing, Communities & Law. Apply by 17 April!