Finns traveling

The Finnish contingent makes its way south.

While some people gripe that South By Southwest isn’t cool anymore and has gotten too big for its own good, others are prepared to travel halfway across the planet for the occasion. Take, for instance, the Finns.

In November, I traveled to Helsinki and found a startup ecosystem hustling to adapt to Life After Nokia. The startup craze is happening pretty much everywhere now, but in Finland it comes with an extra edge of intensity. Nokia alone used to account for 4 percent of the country’s GDP, and it was both the center and the pride of the country’s tech achievements. Now that the handset manufacturer has shrunk in relevance and size, startups are key to the future of Finland’s economy.

So I wasn’t all that surprised to find the Finns have a strong presence at SXSW this year. But I was surprised at the numbers. Between 50 and 60 people representing about 30 startups traveled the 5,390 miles to attend the festival.

Last night at a party to mark the launch of Rovio’s Angry Birds Toons that attracted a lot of Finns, Mikko Kuusi, chief organizer of Nordic startups conference Slush, said that the interesting thing about the Finnish startups at SXSW is that they all came of their own volition and paid their own way. This wasn’t one of those co-ordinated trips sponsored by a chamber of commerce or government ministry.

“This is more of a big party than a conference,” Kuusi said. “The value is in the people who are here.”

The Finns were aware of the criticisms about SXSW and claims of its declining relevance, but they decided to come anyway. Many were combining the trip with visits to Silicon Valley or New York. Plus, the festival gives the startups access to people that would otherwise be hard to find. “All the investors are here, all the major media are here, and all the startups are here with key people,” said Kuusi. “It’s very difficult to meet these people other than in events like this, and this is very informal so it makes it even easier to approach people.”

Jarkko Jokirinta, the CEO and founder of a reviews app called Good vs Bad, said he and his partner had paid about $5,000 total to attend the festival, and that it was money well spent. He had just been to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, but SXSW provided a superior experience. “This provides so much more in my opinion, because people are relaxed. They are doing business. They are having a good time. They are in a whole different mood,” Jokirinta said. “So I think it’s a good starting point for any kind of business context.”

Another Finnish founder is planning to launch her app at SXSW, even though she knows it might be lost in the noise. “It’s going to be the worst timing, but it’s kind of the best timing at the same time,” said Kiki Ylimutka, who will be launching a location-based music discovery app called Clerkd. Her co-founder is Australian, and so Ylimutka reckoned the Australian press might be interested in covering the launch simply because it happened at SXSW.

Still, she was deliberately keeping her expectations low. “It’s an adventure,” she said. “The less you plan, the more things happen to you.”