Startups and Innovation: 5 key takeaways from Slush 2015

I was fortunate to attend Slush in Helsinki this past week for the second consecutive year. What is Slush? It’s a non-profit event that brings together startups, tech talent, executives, investors and media. Last year the event had gotten so big that it moved to the Messukeskus exhibition center, and this year it took even more space – spanning three days and hosting 15,000 attendees.

Having worked in product marketing for several years, and most recently as an independent consultant in new product development and innovation strategy, Slush has become one of the annual high points of my ongoing quest to learn and lead innovation. My biggest learnings this year:

1)     The key determinant of successful innovation is culture. Finland has created a culture and ecosystem of innovation that goes to the roots of its education system: Aalto University is the merged product of the former Technical, Economic and Design universities in Helsinki, and its students are constantly challenged, encouraged and mentored to think of new ideas and new processes. This spirit of innovation has permeated throughout the Nordics and the Baltics, from Helsinki to Stockholm, Oslo and Tallinn and more. Startups from as far away as Austria and India have relocated or opened offices in the region to plug into the innovation vibe and wealth of entrepreneurial tech talent.

2)     Great innovators do even better when they share experiences. The rise of innovation incubators and co-working spaces has not simply been because it’s cool or because it’s cost-efficient for a bunch of unrelated businesses to utilize old warehouse spaces. Startup Sauna is an innovation accelerator that pairs startups with serial entrepreneurs and other resources in an intensive one-month program that has created several successful entities. Startup Lab in Oslo provides workspace, mentoring and access to funding, and plenty more incubators and accelerators are out there, in Northern Europe and beyond.

3)     A successful innovation must have a clear value proposition. This applies not only to startups, but to extensions of existing product lines, or any new concept within an existing organization; a company’s reputation alone is not enough to ensure the success of a new product launch. My friends know that, as a linguist, I take word meanings literally. So, what is the value you propose to offer with your new product? In other words, what is it, what does it do, who is it for, what does it mean to them, and how is it different from whatever they might be using or considering now?

4)     A Perfect Pitch is the best route to mentorship and funding. One of the key parts of Slush is the Slush 100 pitch competition. 100 pre-selected startups each make a five-minute pitch to a panel of five judges. 20 startups make it to the semi-finals on Day 2, and the Top 4 finalists pitch later that day with the winner earning a substantial equity investment and notable media exposure. I’ve watched startups with a fantastic, game-changing concept but a poorly written or delivered presentation. I’ve also seen startups with a good but not earth-shaking idea tell a well-written, cohesive story and present a solid supporting business plan that advanced them in the pitch competition and gained investors.

5)     Innovation without Execution is just another cool idea. It all starts with a great idea to solve an unmet need, but that’s really the easy part. It’s not just about the idea. Or the design. Or the coding. Or the business model, or the client cases or the customer support. It’s all of it – everything matters, and all of it has to come together to make that one nugget of inspiration a reality. Otherwise, yeah, that was a cool idea.

What can we take away from this?  My summary of these points: culture, collaboration, a clear value proposition, a perfect pitch and execution. I’d love to talk with you about your specific challenges in innovation strategy or new product development to see how I can help.

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