Confessions of a start-up entrepreneur

It is the first day of the New Year.

I find myself doing the same as many others: Reflecting on the past year.

In a nutshell, 2014 was a year of taking risks and caring for the loved ones. I have always known I have a high-risk profile, but last year I surprised even myself. In the steep downturn of the economy, rather than playing it safe I bet it all in: Invested in both the existing company Compassion, and started up another one, AuroraXplorer, with co-founders. 

As with many other decisions in my life, my friends and family have asked, how do you have the courage? And as I have answered regarding previous decisions, I feel I had little choice, or rather, did not have the courage NOT to take this path.

The new business, AuroraXplorer, grew out of one of my co-founder’s observation, that by consulting I can support (and charge ;P) only one company at the time for building their success on the Chinese market. In contrast, with AuroraXplorer we now have the opportunity to lift a whole industry into a growth track, and create lots of new jobs in the process. What a vision!

So, in early summer of 2014, we came up with the idea of creating an online store, where Chinese travellers would find the most exciting once-in-a-lifetime experiences Finland can offer. During the summer, we interviewed Chinese tour operators and Finnish travel companies to find out what works and what doesn’t as the Chinese guests visit Finland. We found that there exists a niche for our idea. We were also able to convince the Aalto Centre for Entrepreneurship (ACE) about this, and received some seed money to be able to pay for the first legal fees (oh, do I wish I would have enjoyed those legal studies more!), domain name registrations, and out-of-pocket expenses for the research. 

In the autumn we set the big wheels turning: We started designing the user experience for a mobile service, and the software architecture, to be able to execute on big scale on the Chinese market. We negotiated the shareholder’s agreement; applied for Tekes-funding; registered the company (oh no, it is not at all as quick and easy as it is famed to be!); got the first twenty travel partners to join us; got consumer feedback for the concept; launched the demo version. We selected partners for accounting, auditing, legal advice in Finland and in China, and banking (did you know that many banks may not want to take start-ups as customers???) We were five co-founders, only me working 100 % on this business. We would have welcomed two more partners, but they turned out to be wrong choices. I bitterly swallowed my disappointment on the time and trust wasted on them and moved on (I did see the signs, and should have known better thanks to my experience, but the optimism and work overload took the best of me. Some people are not cut out for start-up lifestyle, plain and simple).

I met with ministry officials and potential investors; seasoned experts from the travel industry; filled in loan applications; filled in information to different investor platforms (FiBAN, Pocket-Venture, SLUSH...) each in their particular formats, never being able to complete most of them because they are all different and take too much time; listened to advice from generous friends who gave their time to help (can never thank you enough!).

We launched live version 1.0.

We attended SLUSH.  I was there only virtually because I had no voice. My Chinese co-founder did a great job with Chinese contacts. We got interviewed for TV, newspapers, and radio.

We gave a launch event to our partners and the Chinese community in Finland. (I was still sick, but with some voice). We moved offices from Start-up sauna to Innopoli. We applied for the second round of Tekes-funding, and for another Finnvera loan. We decide to start a crowdfunding campaign with Invesdor. Suddenly it was Christmas.

It has been a FUN and CRAZY ride!

Would I have had the same courage, had I known that both my elderly parents would fall seriously ill simultaneously? That my two small children would hate me for not being able to pick them up from day care every day? That some guy in Tekes can make me cry during a meeting, where I am supposed to get advice (sorry, my mistake)? That money granted is not the same as money in the bank account, the difference can be several weeks, and nobody cares, unless I have a melt down? That I would wake up at 4 am almost every night to worry about how we can get the financing in place to be able to pay the salaries to our amazing team members? That I would finally learn how to prioritize and loose my perfectionism?

I will never know (lucky me!) 2015: Bring it on.



Cultural Branding - start it now!

Cultural Branding is a term coined by Douglas Holt (2004). He promotes brands as icons connecting with cultural myths. Here, culture does not mean “high-culture”. Instead, depending on your customers, culture can refer to national culture, but even more often, to the shared sub-culture of a smaller group. Such as the Harajuku girls in Japan, the Harley Davidson devotees wanting to connect with their young rebellion inside, or the moms who want to dress their baby-girls with pink Hello Kitty products from head to toe.

Who owns the brand meaning?

In my view, cultural branding is about understanding the cultural background and myths of both the brand and its many users, and co-creating the brand together with the users so that it fits into their everyday life. This is where cultural branding differs from traditional branding, where the “brand owner” claims some superior position in defining the brand. Nowadays, brands like McDonald's and Starbucks can and do have different meanings for their Western users than for their Chinese consumers, for example. Localizing these service brands has meant that the Chinese have been given the opportunity to decide for themselves how they want to incorporate these brands into their lives. Therefore, McDonald's is a place for a young Chinese couple to go on a date in a country where public dating has not been typical. And Starbucks provides a small trip abroad, without forcing coffee down the Chinese throats, but instead providing a choice of tea or beverage more fitting to the local taste. Unfortunately, Finnish takeaway pizza brand Kotipizza, instead, has not fully taken on the free advice provided by users in online discussion groups, to create more appetizing and familiar tastes for their Suzhou customers for this non-Chinese format for food. Luckily, the cold smoke salmon pizza, which also won the bronze medal at the America’s Plate International Pizza Competition 2010, interests Chinese consumers, too.

Are you green with envy or reaching the flying altitude?

The Internet has provided a platform for totally new cultures to emerge. These might no longer have any national connections, but are based on some other common set of shared values. Examples include indie-travellers who share their experiences online, or those who build their lives around ecological values. The gaming industry has shown that the Internet provides other opportunities, as well, since the entertainment brand Angry Birds has been adapted into promoting education expertise with as much enthusiasm and success as it is being used for selling candy (by Fazer), soft drinks (by Olvi), or children’s wear (by Reima). It is also enlightening to see that while many Finns are mocking the Angry Birds and expecting it to flop, the above and many other big brands rather see the value it provides for them. Fazer, Olvi, and Reima, among others, are taking advantage of the success of the brand and the media reach it provides, and have joined in on the flight to new markets. Angry Birds has done a great job in co-creating their brand with local users for example by making local versions of the game Seasons to engage Chinese, Japanese and other Asian consumers. This is paying off for the other Finns connecting their own products with the brand, too.

Taken by the storm or getting lost in the Super Bowl?

Another interesting example is Supercell with their games the Clash of the Clans and Hayday. Personally, I am a bit worried about the recent developments ever since the majority of the company was sold to Japanese investors. Don’t get me wrong; I am applauding the business transaction, itself. But two issues are disturbing me. First, while I think it is marvelous that the founders are giving back to the community by ways of several charities, I wonder if this takes too much time off the true focus of the company. But second, and more importantly, I agonize over the fact that the company totally missed the mark for their biggest marketing investment yet, the Super Bowl 2014. I have no idea who designed their campaign, but apparently they had even less of an idea what the Super Bowl and advertising on the big screen and TV is about for the Americans (see for example this post by David Sable from Y&R advertising https://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20140205012759-234814-super-gmoot-bowl). At best, the commercials in the connection of the Super Bowl are something that creates a big part of the event, and the best ones are positively recalled decades later. Therefore, one thing has become of essence in designing commercials for the Super Bowl: the element of surprise, often with a humorous connection. Unfortunately, Supercell saw the arena just as a demo platform of their product, and even pre-released (!!!) their ads. For the Americans, this meant killing the suspense factor for one key part of their Super Bowl experience. Rather, Supercell should have thought about how their potential users watch the Super Bowl, and how they could connect and engage within that situation. Hopefully, the brand was not harmed failing to do this, but even in the best case, it was a lot of potential engagement down the drain.

So what can you do, right now? 1) Define the cultural values of your brand as of now. 2) Learn about the values of your brand users, and how and why they engage with the brand. 3) Make local adjustments in both the product or service and the communication so that your brand becomes their brand. 4) Start again from point one. 

Because, if it is not their brand, there is no brand. Simple as that.


New Creative Strategy for Marimekko?

Marimekko is at the final stages of recruiting a new Creative Director. Over the past few years that has been a windy position. I hope that this time the company lands a visionary and strong candidate, who will also step into the limelight of international media.

Personally, I have followed Marimekko from an international business perspective since 1990, when I had the privilege of serving the company while working as a PR specialist at the Finnish Foreign Trade Association (now Finpro). More recently, I have studied Marimekko from the cultural branding perspective since 2005 as part of my (hopefully to be published...) PhD research.

This post is my passionate outsider’s perspective on some of the ways in which the creative strategy of Marimekko might be developed and implemented over the next five to ten years. For me, the creative strategy is part of the cultural branding strategy of Marimekko, which means that each design move should have positive and measurable implications on the brand and its public visibility, as well.

Glocalizing and Updating Marimekko Design in a Relevant Way

Marimekko is about bold, colourful prints. The brand has an impressive and invaluable catalogue of existing patterns. This heritage needs to be made relevant time and again, on every key market. At the same time new Marimekko designs need to be created to complement the collection, on the one hand, and to drive the brand forward, on the other.

How to do this? 

In my view, by working in collaboration with renowned international designers and artists, as well as with design schools and their students. The collaboration partners need to be chosen to represent the key existing and new markets; the growth areas of the international economy. 

Three practicable examples:

Create new Marimekko print designs
Invite internationally renowned designers with acknowledged ability to use prints/patterns to create new designs to Marimekko
Finnish origin, e.g. Paola Suhonen, Klaus Haapaniemi, Sanna Annukka, Anne Kyyro Quinn, Janine Rewell, Lotta Nieminen.
International, e.g. Yin Yiqing (China), Satya Paul (India), Custo Dalmau (Catalonia Spain), Joseph Ribkoff (Canada), Yeni Kim (Korea), Becca Allen (UK).
To update the Marimekko pattern catalogue with contemporary and locally relevant designs, while drawing from the Finnish Marimekko brand heritage.
Inspiration from
Finnish heritage translatable to prints
Each year a theme would be chosen for the collaboration. Examples for themes: Poems from Kalevala, powerful Finnish women, Finnish artists (icons e.g. Helene Schjerfbeck, or in collaboration with contemporary artists such as Nanna Susi, Marita Liulia), Finnish designers (e.g. Rut Bryk), Finnish photographers (in collaboration, e.g. Sanna Majuri, Nanna Hänninen), Finnish nature.

Revamp and upcycle existing pattern designs
Invite internationally renowned designers to come up with new uses of the patterns in the Marimekko catalogue
International e.g. Tord Boontje, Matali Crasset, Monica Fin Calgaro, Betsey Johnson, Stella McCartney, Kate Spade, Joao Oliveira, Yves Behar, Philippe Starck, Ross Lovegrove, Pia Wallen.
To find new perspectives to the Marimekko classics, and to boost sales and publicity for the brand.
Define a decade, or a theme (e.g. floral/abstract/stripes) or a colour scale, and open up the Marimekko catalogue for invited designers to make their own versions. These can be new uses of the pattern, new scales, new colour combinations, etc.

Revamp and upcycle existing print designs
Organize competitions for design students in collaboration with major design schools in key and new markets.
Parsons (USA), RISD (USA), Kanazawa International Design Institute (Japan), Kuwasawa Design School (Japan), CAFA (China), Tongji University (China), Hong Kong Polytechnic (China), Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (South Korea), Aalto.
Make the brand interesting for younger audiences and new markets; increase understanding of where the world is going.
Choose five topical prints and have the students come up with new interpretations. Reward by publicity and an agreement for further development and option for production.
These and similar activities should be developed into an annually rotating global programme, which would optimize global reach, development of designs, and resource allocation.

Since I do not have the numbers of the most profitable product categories or the big sellers at my disposal, the above is, as said, based on an outsider’s view.

Final note on IPR: These issues need to be at the forefront of negotiating and creating new and upcycled designs. If there arise challenges with already existing designs (ref. Metsänväki), Marimekko should settle with the original designer and negotiate a mutually admissible compensation. This is, after all, what they demand of those breaching their own designs, right?


Europe: Continent of Gladiators Fighting to the Death

European brands are competing each other with blood spilling on all sides. They are making their suppliers and consultant (falsely called partners) feel it, by shopping around non-stop for short-term efficiency. 

The worst cases take the creative ideas, which they have been trusted with and run off to implement them as their own by someone else. They also sell past their trusted distributors via online channels and web stores, exploiting these long-time distributors as showrooms.

What will all this lead to?

In the short term, these brands should become more profitable. For some reason, there is no evidence of this. In the longer term, however, their quality is bound to decline; their consumers become unsatisfied, and ditch them for other choices as the European brands save themselves to death. At the same time, the suppliers and distributors are getting bankrupt.

So who will benefit?

International investors, because money goes to money. And yes, more and more often they are Chinese.

At the moment, you can buy excellent brands with incredible IPR value “for peanuts”, as described the new owner of one Italian luxury brand. Keeping the patent portfolio of this brand up-to-date costs 100 000 euro per year, and as the European economy is what it is; even this seems to be too much, not to mention the investments in keeping the brand relevant with its users. 

Because European brands are still looking at the world through their colonial lenses neglecting the growth, consumption, learning, and innovation taking place elsewhere, they are soon left on the battleground gasping for air.

Meanwhile, in 2013, Chinese investors bought out a record of 120 European companies, says Ernst & Young. Out of these businesses, 25 were German, 25 British, 15 French, 7 Italian and 7 Swedish. Largest amount of companies were in the field of real estate, but 21 were consumer goods companies. Automobile sector is one of the most interesting ones for the Chinese.

Money has no nationality. Will Europe soon be without?


Consumer brands from Finland?

This week marks the burial of the most significant Finnish consumer brand of recent decades, Nokia.

The board of Nokia prefers to look forward. That is their prerogative. For me personally, it remains a mystery that the brand, which used to be responsible for 41 of the 100 mobile phones sold on this globe, will now voluntarily evacuate from the still simmering oilrig. Many of us small shareholders feel we have been sold out. I do, too, even though I made some nice profit with my investment, as I did not buy any shares before the price had gone below 4 €. But now I am selling out, as well.

From the nation's point-of-view, loosing the consumer brand Nokia means moving from "Nokialandia" to "Gamelandia", where Angry Birds and Supercell, hopefully among others, are keeping the spirits up. - Finlandia Vodka never really did.

But how are Finnish consumer brands doing otherwise? Are there other areas, where they have some significance?

Surprisingly, yes!

At the moment it seems like Iittala, for example, has some good vibes going on, and that their strategy for Asia might prove successful. Family company Marja Kurki is selling silk to the Chinese and Koreans, which never seizes to amaze me. Marimekko is trying to reduplicate their success in Japan onto other Asian countries, with questionable potential.

The course of the US of A has proven much more difficult. Yet some established brands - such as Marimekko - continue to bang their heads against the walls of New York, while newcomers such as Ivana Helsinki and Lumi Accessories are making small breakthroughs.

But, at the moment the brand that is making up for the loss of Finnish self-esteem brought first up and then down by Nokia, is Angry Birds. The game itself has broken several records. In terms of revenue, plush toys and a whole bunch of other spin-off products contribute even more, thanks to clever visual branding. Still, the biggest significance from the national perspective comes from the business, which other Finnish companies have been able to pull off by licensing the coveted brand. Maybe Mr. Vesterbacka is exaggerating - the companies themselves are not publishing exact numbers - but I do believe that Fazer, Lappset, Olvi, Primesmith, and Reima, among others, have increased their sales significantly with the Angry Birds product lines, and even been able to enter completely new market areas. I think the family Hed and the Mighty Eagle Vesterbacka have earned every cent of their success. And next we will witness how the Finnish education services take flight with the Birds.

Jolla Mobile is of course a brand that all Finns can now wish good luck for. For China, I have suggested them to grab the coat tails (or, more specifically, entrance routes) of Ikea when promoting their devices. Maybe a similar strategy becomes readily available and hopefully victorious for Olvi, now that a certain Mr. Kamprad has been stocking up on it. Would you not want to enjoy some of the world's best beers, long drinks and soft drinks with your meatballs while in China, for example?

Disclaimer: At the time of writing this post, I own shares in the following companies mentioned: Fiskars (Iittala brand), Marimekko, Nokia (but not for long), and Olvi. - Kirsi Kommonen


Ten things to know about the me-generation Chinese

Boy and grandfather playing with soap bubbles, Shanghai 2008
#1 Children born since 1979 have grown as only children, singletons, without brothers or sisters. They take for granted the undivided attention of their parents and grandparents.


Hello, blog!

I am back in business after having two kids. Now my husband is also working with me at our company Compassion Ltd. He is a photographer, so from now on many of the photos will be by him. Talk to you soon!


URBAN HOME "Beijing Espoo Hangzhou Helsinki Kunshan Shanghai Turku"

Photo exhibition
March 3-31, 2011

Aalto Tongji Design Centre, Shanghai, China
Aalto Design Centre, Otaniemi, Espoo, Finland


Colour-metrics Beijing Winter 2009

I did some counting while sitting at different Starbucks cafes and looking at the passers-by. I counted the colours of the people's over coats until one of the columns filled up with one hundred passers-by, and that was always BLACK. The three spots I chose were 1) next to Jianguomen underground station, 2) shopping mall The Place and 3) shopping mall Oriental Plaza. All in all, 29 % of women and 56 % of men had BLACK overcoats. For women, the next most popular colours were WHITE (14 %), RED (10 %) and GREY (7 %), followed by BROWN (6%), YELLOW, PINK and BEIGE (5 % each). KHAKI, BLUE and PURPLE each gained 4 % popularity, and finally BLUE-GREEN or TURQUOISE 2 % and PALE-BLUE 1 %.
For men, the palette was much more limited. As the black ruled, the following favourites were GREY (10%), RED, KHAKI and DARK BLUE (7 % each), and BROWN (5 %). ORANGE and BEIGE gained 2 % popularity, and odd votes were given to white, yellow, green, pink, turquoise, and purple.
Photo Tiananmen Square January 2009.



Yellows vary from pale and cool to golden and warm.


Also purples vary from hot to nearly indigo, from shiny to matt.


Pinks have a great variety: from the hottest of the hots, through shiny and coral, all the way to the palest powdery pink shades.


Blue-greens include also darker shades than I managed to catch with my camera.

Black, white and chequered

Black governs; white shoes are considered hip for guys, and check the bling in the lady's boots!

On the other photo, she is one of the first to have chosen chequered pattern, but there is also colour... in the glove fingers!

Down jackets & Beijing ladies

By far the most common jacket is the down jacket; but it comes in three lengths: the cropped, the half-length and the calf-length, as these three happy ladies exhibit.


Beijing 798 just closing

Pyo Gallery 798 has featured contemporary Chinese artists' 'Present 2008' exhibition. Even though it is a tiny exhibition (with 30 participating artists), it seems to feature the colours of contemporary Chinese art in a nutshell. Closes on January 20th, 2009.

Beijing 798

Whenever in Beijing, the Art District 798 is a must. Black seems to be a good background for a collage, whether it be art or a display for porcelain and ceramics. They both caught my eye (and the porcelain also my wallet)…


Fashion pick: camouflage yourself

I predict that the updated camouflage pattern will become a fashion statement. However, not in its traditional army look, but either in new colours like pink, purple or orange (photo from the latest collection of Yang Zhou Dong Xin Textile Co., Ltd, at http://www.made-in-china.com search with camouflage), or, in traditional camouflage colours but with a pattern that on the second look reveals itself as FLORAL camouflage.
Camouflage pattern is old news on fabric, but look out for camo on laptops, mobile phones, tote bags, hats and caps...

Odd Chinese colours?

I was all the more suprised to find those 'odd' Shanghai Tang colours combined into a single silk spread and cushion in Artistic palace, who sell the 'traditional' Chinese products. So, are these traditional Chinese colours after all? At least the paper bag of Artistic palace was Chinese-looking, in safe (=black) and stylish colouring...