How I became an entrepreneur

 

It was year 1999, at the height of the dotcom boom. I was working at Nokia, then the best company in Finland, having the best year in its history. At the time, I was 24 year old. After my MBA, I had worked for two years at Nokia.

Some Finnish angel investors had heard rumors that I contemplated founding  a startup. I got multiple calls from people who asked if I was interested in taking investment.

By October, I felt I was ready, and called one of the angels I knew. He said he will refer me to the managing partner of the fund he had invested in. I got a call back in 30 minutes. The conversation went something like this:

Managing Partner: I heard you are planning on founding a startup. You come highly recommended, so we want to invest in your company.

Mikko: Thanks, I appreciate it. Yes, I would like to discuss possible funding. We need to consider that I have a 90-day resignation period due to my role, and I have to hand over my customer accounts to someone else before taking off.

MP: No problem. What is your business idea?

Mikko: I don’t have any yet, I just decided that I’m now ready to start build a company.

MP: Call me back when you have a pitch deck.

Mikko: Sure, I will get back to you in a couple of weeks.

I spent the evenings and weekends for the next 2 weeks drafting the plan. I was joined by 2 co-founders, one hacker wizard and the other with engineering management background.

We were all young, foolish and naive. And had ambitions way beyond our skills. We thought we could take on giants with little resources. We thought we could reach the moon with a moped.

Promptly in two weeks, I emailed the plan to the investment firm, and got a call back the same day. They said things looked cool, and that they will send us a term sheet.

We made a couple of minor changes to the term sheet, and sent it back. They accepted, and we were good. There was no due diligence as we didn’t even have the legal entity yet.

We filed for the papers and got the investment completed in December. I resigned from Nokia just before Christmas and with my 90 day notice, we agreed that I’ll join the startup as its founding CEO in late March 2000.

As I transitioned my clients at Nokia, my co-founders hacked away day and night to get our first product out. I joined them on evenings and weekends.

Our first product was software for simplifying the management of supply chain processes. At the time, there were lots of manufacturing business in Nokia’s supply chain and I had connections to them due to my biz dev background.

In March 2000, as the stock markets hit all-time highs, my boss at Nokia raised a glass of champagne for me. It was my farewell party at the office. He said “Mikko is leaving to do what we all secretly want to do – to run his own startup.” I felt privileged.

Soon after I started, the April issue of the local business magazine was released with a flashy cover: “TOP 100 IT Innovators in Finland”. Instead of listing people in a typical ranking order, they decided to list the innovators in alphabetic order by surname. Lucky me, I was the first name on the list.

I started getting phone calls from friends. “How the heck did you become the number one innovator in the country on the first day of your entrepreneur life??”

Fast forward 6 months. It was November 2000. We had 12 employees, and had failed in pretty much everything. I had closed a couple of deals from Nokia’s supply chain, and had already postponed the delivery for a few times, because the software was not ready.

In fact, our engineers insisted that they needed to rebuild the whole thing from scratch because the first version was “just a prototype hacked together in few months” and won’t be reliable enough for production use at a large business.

It was a Wednesday in late November. The stock market had crashed over the past months, and the investors were running for cover. We had a funding round open, but nobody had invested. We had spent our funding and had probably 2 weeks of cash left.

We had no working product, and naïve as we were, no idea how long it would take until we were ready for the market.

It was late in the day, and I was sitting at the office with my co-founder, talking about our options. Everyone else had left home already. We were humbled and tired. We understood that there wasn’t much we could do anymore. We needed a miracle to survive.

That night, I prayed. It went like this: “Dear God, I screwed up. I don’t deserve anything myself for my misgivings, but if you think those 12 people who trusted me in this journey deserve better, please give them a chance.”

On Thursday morning, I was having morning coffee at the office with my co-founder when there was a knock on the door. It was a local multi-millionaire entrepreneur who we hadn’t met before.

He said he heard that we had a funding round open, and that he had a feeling that this was the right move for him. He wanted to invest, under a condition that he would also become the chairman of the board.

I was floored. In tears of relief and joy, I emailed all investors we had talked with earlier with little success, and announced that we had a well-known lead investors who’s also becoming our chairman. The round was subscribed by the end of the day.

The company became a long-time fixture in the local software scene in Finland. I sold my shares in 2004.

My first startup changed my life. It made me humbler, and more caring to others. It reminded me that my life is not about me, but about how I serve others. I’m continuing on that path.

 

Mikko Alasaarela

Creative entrepreneur living in Berlin. Husband and father of 3. Founder of 7 startups. Investor in a few. Life-long learner of emotional intelligence.