The Next Generation of Entrepreneurs: Slush Asia (Part 1)
Finnish entrepreneur Antti Sonninen, former Japan Office Representative of Rovio Entertainment – home to the big hit “Angry Birds”, established what has become the largest English Start Up Event in Japan Slush Asia with the help of several companies and volunteers. Through this event he aspires to create a new community for young Entrepreneurs. Using Slush Asia as a platform, he hopes to communicate to students that “Entrepreneuring = Cool” and hopes to encourage people to step up to new challenges. We sat down with him to talk about how he came to start Slush Asia and his ideas for the future.
When did you begin to feel that the Start Up community in Japan needed to change?
Antti Sonninen (a.k.a Antti): It all started when I came to Japan in 2013 from Finland to spread our hit game and I experienced the barriers when it came to foreign companies expanding into Japan. Of course, there is the Japanese language barrier as well, but more than that, I noticed Start Up success stories from other countries were not being shared in Japan, and there was a lacking sense of “venture” when it came to global expansion. The more I researched it, I realized that there was a lack of enthusiastic entrepreneurs ready to tackle global challenges – mainly because there weren’t any good role models for them to aspire too. Today in Japan there aren’t many opportunities to learn or teach about the entrepreneurial spirit. I believed it was necessary to spread the message that it’s okay to have grandiose ideas and put them to the test. That’s when I came up with the idea to borrow the “Slush” event we have in Finland and hold a Start Up event called “Slush Asia”.
With the Slush Asia event coming up, we’d like to know what environmental or referential influences inspired you?
Antti: I was largely influenced by the thinking of the Representative Director of the Mistletoe company, Taizo Son. Taizo Son is working hard towards fulfilling his goal of “creating an Asian version of the Silicon Valley venture ecosystem by 2030” by looking for venture support and growth opportunities inside and outside of the country. Having experienced the fervor and energy of Slush in Finland, I decided wanted to bring that to Japan as well. I shared this idea with Taizo, who was participating in the Slush event at the time. He is someone who is continuously looking to participate in new challenges and to improve the norm. He agreed with my idea and encouraged me by saying “if Slush could happen in Japan, there would be a huge change among the people”.
That is an encouraging influence for sure. Why did you choose to do this in event form?
Antti: I thought the most effective way to encourage interest in Start Ups in Japan would be to periodically hold a stylish and unified event, to build a sense of community. The event venue has both lecture spaces and product demonstration spaces, with new products and services lined up by both national and international Start Up companies alike. I thought this way would best inspire the participants to believe that “even I can be an entrepreneur”. Moreover, the reason why the event is held in English is that, while we may be in Japan, I wanted to create an opportunity for participants to experience English demonstrations by entrepreneurs. While we shied away from the idea of doing Japanese Start Ups demonstrations in English, we hope that by presenting at Slush Asia, it will be practice for future idea pitches to companies abroad and will lessen the obstacles of expanding abroad.
Slush Asia 2016 is the second time this event will be held in Japan, and the participants have already climbed to over 4000 people. Most of the operational personnel are student volunteers, what is the reasoning behind this?
Antti: The operational structure of the first event was largely composed of the working class, but for 2016, we focused on students as we felt that it was important for them to interact with national and international entrepreneurs. 80 percent of the 400 volunteers are students, all with diverse reasons for participating. Some of them want a chance to use English and increase the points of contact between Japan and the World, while others want to make Japan a country where taking on new challenges is easier. Of course, with the working class there are benefits for networking and knowhow. However, in order to realize our goal of educating the next generation of entrepreneurs, we felt that it was an important step in influencing students in business practices and the belief that entrepreneurship is something attainable. At the heart of Slush is the culture of “celebrating those who genuinely work”, and more than anything we want them to embody this.