Happy in Helsinki: what’s bringing business leaders to Finland’s capital
With abundant natural beauty, regulated working hours and impressive public services, it’s no wonder that the UN’s World Happiness Report 2022 named Finland the world’s happiest country for the fifth year running.
The epicentre of Finnish culture is its capital Helsinki, which offers 130km of accessible coastline, an enviable city landscape comprising 40% green spaces, and a thriving business ecosystem that supports innovation for large and small businesses alike. It boasts a fast-growing entrepreneurial community and a start up scene that benefits from considerable venture capital investment.
Catherine Lückhoff, CEO of tech company 20fifty, experienced Finland’s unique lifestyle and business culture first hand when she relocated from her native South Africa to Helsinki for three months. Lückhoff is no stranger to doing business internationally, having worked in the US, the UK, Nigeria and Kenya, but her most recent location offered something very different.
“It’s amazing to see quite young children toddling around the streets on their own, feeling completely safe,” says Lückhoff. “For me, as a woman growing up in South Africa, safety is always a concern but I realised that people in Helsinki just don’t worry about it. There’s also a great integrated bus, tram and train system, and it’s the kind of city where everything is easily available.”
For someone used to the Mediterranean climate of Cape Town, she had her concerns about moving to the Nordics but these were soon laid to rest as she and her family enjoyed long walks through the forests and even went paddleboarding in the light at midnight.
“I’m an introvert masquerading as an extrovert, and so I loved the openness and directness of the Finns. People sometimes call Finland a country club rather than just a country. Everyone knows everyone. If a Finn says that they’ll do something, then you can be confident that they will. There’s a very high level of trust, which makes it very easy to do business.”
Lückhoff’s Helsinki relocation was made possible when she was one of a small group of people chosen to be a participant in Helsinki Partners’ 90 Day Finn Programme. Now in its third year, this is an opportunity for professionals from around the world, predominantly from the tech sector, to live and work in Helsinki for three months.
The programme was a great fit for Lückhoff’s company because it is very exportable. Lückhoff wanted to see how 20fifty’s specialism in modern application development and serverless cloud computing could transfer to other countries. She appreciated, she says, the support that the onboarding process offered. There were both regular workshops and meetings to enable the group to develop new business opportunities and connect with local businesspeople, and opportunities to exchange ideas and contacts with the other 90 Day Finns.
The response from the Finns themselves was very encouraging. “The local people were so proud of this programme that they really wanted to speak to us and help us,” says Lückhoff. “It’s very much a two-way street, more so than I was expecting.” Helsinki Partners holds one to three events each week, with more of an arranged programme at the beginning. This is then scaled down as the participants develop their own contacts and interests and their projects begin to gain momentum.
“As well as people running their own businesses, like me, there were investors and technical people, and there was also a business coach. So we were all very different,” she says. The diversity of the local business community struck her, as did the ease of doing business in Finland. “Helsinki Partners themselves really got to know us and our business. They advised us on what we could learn, as well as finding out what we could bring to the party. They were very open-minded. I’m planning to return there at some point, perhaps in April or May, to set up a subsidiary.”
The idea for the 90 Day Finn Programme came about when Helsinki Partners’ Johanna Huurre realised that turbulence in Silicon Valley offered an opportunity to attract tech talent who might be looking for a new base. “We were aware that Helsinki wasn’t the best-known city when it came to technology, and so we realised that we had to do something different, something more imaginative than what was currently available,” she explains. “We wanted to find people from different backgrounds, including innovators, entrepreneurs and investors who could bring something new to the technology sector. And so the 90 Day Finn was born.”
It has attracted some amazing people, says Huurre, and choosing between applicants can be agonising. The programme is constantly evolving as the team picks up feedback from participants and keeps an eye on the ever-changing world of tech. “When we find that people are interested in a specific topic, we introduce an element into the programme to meet that interest. This year, for instance, we’re focusing on sustainability because we know it’s an issue that the business world is increasingly interested in.”
Applicants come from every continent, with business leaders from Singapore, Italy, the UK and the US, among the participants of 90 Day Finn in 2021 and 2022. Lückhoff points out that there’s plenty for spouses and partners too, with many identifying opportunities to do business themselves.
“It’s just so attractive when someone says to you, ‘come to our country for 90 days and we’ll give you a co-working space and introduce you to people who can benefit your company and broaden your horizons’. It’s like a first-class ticket to go and do business.”