Videolla (“video” in Finnish) was an online startup in media content distribution founded three years ago. Vladimir Gurgov and Alex Petrov, both from Russia, were the entrepreneurs who worked hard with determination and passion to turn their entrepreneurial dreams into success.
In order to do this, they we were fortunate to start their product with the help of one of the best university business incubators in the world, Startup Sauna. This is a program for early-stage startups from Northern Europe and Russia, where the new companies get coached by experienced successful entrepreneurs and investors in an intense one-month program in Helsinki. For instance, Peter Vesterbacka, best known as the “Mighty Eagle” of Rovio (Angry Birds) is one of the coaches.
Videolla was a first step to start a new business, Virool, an advertising platform for branded video content with the intention of selling their service to big brands. Vladimir Gurgov co-founded it with Alex Debelov in 2011 and the rest of the story is well-known.
They moved from St. Petersburg to Silicon Valley, joined Y Combinator in the beginning of 2012, the prestigious Silicon Valley incubator, shifted their business model to be the “Adwords” of video and raised a large seed round of $6.6 million five months ago from various investors such as Lady Gaga’s manager or former CTO of Yahoo.
Gurgov and Debelov are an example of successful Russian entrepreneurs that incubated their projects in the Finnish seed accelerator at Aalto University. Startup Sauna was created by Aalto Entrepreneurship Society but with a special singularity: it is managed by engineering students from Aalto’s School of Science and Technology instead of university staff. Maybe that is one reason to succeed.
Startup Sauna was originally set-up in order to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem and drive towards global success of the Finnish startups. This was then extended to all new-growth initiatives in the region. In fact, Startup Sauna runs two six-week programs every year and visits twice a year a couple of Russian cities. They organize one day events in these cities where they meet local startups and give them feedback and coaching. They have been in Russian cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk.
The most promising innovative businesses are afterwards invited for a six week long intensive program. The teams receive funding as well as coaching and mentoring to develop their ideas further. Coaches for the young business people include academics, investors and especially other entrepreneurs. The coaches donate their time and expertise to help entrepreneurs prepare for the real business world. They aim to create a more viable product and prepare it to investors. The best companies are later on taken to California to meet investors and customers and learn Silicon Valley culture.
The Captain or Head of Operations at Startup Sauna, Juuso Koskinen, explains that the program itself focuses more on the business development side. This includes everything from pitching to putting together an investor deck and helping companies find a scalable business model, a culture that provides the resources and mentorship to create cutting-edge startups in Finland.
The numbers are proof of the success: the accelerator has graduated 100 companies to date and 500 startups apply every year but just 8% of them get into the program. Finland’s seed accelerator receives a lot of applications from Russia, with high-tech teams in their startups. “The program is always open for startups from all fields of business as long the business has the potential to scale and go global”, says Koskinen.
Startup Sauna has been named as the top young university business incubator in the world for 2013 by UBI index. The ranking is based on the assessment framework which shows how much value incubators generate for their environment and their entrepreneurs.
The Virool story summarizes from the very beginning the Startup Sauna mission to build a vibrant and viable startup community. OhMyStats! And Eltechs are other Russian startups that have been incubated in Finland. Eltechs is a young high-tech software start-up founded in 2012. Eltechs won recently the competition and as a prize, the team moved to Silicon Valley.
OhMyStats!, founded by Aleksey Kulichevskiy, is a marketing analytics service that helps its users manage marketing statistics and find out what kind of money works and what kind does not.
In addition to the accelerator program, Startup Sauna organizes annually the biggest startup conference in Northern Europe and Russia called Slush. It was founded in 2008 with the intent of promoting the local startup scene at least once every year. Now, five years later, Slush attracts more international venture capital and media to the area than any other entrepreneurial event out there. Last year, 3,500 entrepreneurs, investors and partners congregated in the conference to share, network and engage with one another and see the best tech talent from the Baltic region. The next edition will take place on November 13-14, in Helsinki.