Three golden bits of advice from Demo Day’s speaker Thomas Grönholm

Thomas Grönholm from Duunitori was the star of Aalto Startup Center’s Demo Day: he provided startups with three golden bits of advice

The Aalto Startup Center’s annual Demo Day event on Thursday 5 March offered startups a business accelerator, while mentors were provided with a platform for presenting their business ideas to investors and others interested in new innovations. Organised at the A Grid centre for growth companies in Otaniemi, the event brought together over 40 companies which are either part of the Aalto Startup Center’s business accelerator community, ESA BIC Finland which focuses on space research, or Aalto University’s Research to Business projects.

Thomas Grönholm, Co-Founder and CEO of Duunitori, had been invited as a keynote speaker to the Demo Day, and he threw light on the different stages of the company’s success story and the biggest lessons he had learned along the way. In 2009, Grönholm founded Cloudingsky, which later became Duunitori, with Martti Kuusanmäki. In his speech, Grönholm returned to the company’s early stages, which many of the current start-up entrepreneurs could identify with.

Office lights were on until late in the night

More than a decade ago, the Startup Center was still located in Technopolis, Ruoholahti, where Grönholm and Kuusanmäki began to outline a business model for their company. There were no ready-made answers but plenty of open questions: what would the product be like, and who would be the target customer? In the depths of the Aalto Startup Center, noodle dishes often provided fuel for the two men thinking about their company, in particular during the first year, and the evenings stretched on.

‘We were really young when we founded Duunitori, which meant that we started to learn business from the very beginning. We were prepared to work long days. In many of the neighbouring rooms, the lights were switched off at the end of the office hours,’ says Grönholm.

‘The greatest benefit of being a member of the Aalto Startup Center community was that there were dozens of other start-up companies in the same space, and we received a lot of peer support from the community. At the same time, it was possible to closely monitor what was being done in the adjacent booths: this provided a good benchmark for our own work. Of course, experts from the business accelerator also provided valuable advice,’ he says gratefully.

The company grew through experimentation and learning

The company’s first years were characterised by an ambitious phase of experimentation and learning. The past five years have been a period of growth, as Duunitori has established itself as Finland’s largest job search engine and recruitment medium. Grönholm says that if he could go back a decade, he would do ‘everything differently’, and focus on three things in particular.

‘A startup at its early stages should go and meet customers right from the beginning, even if they do not pay anything yet. It is vital to listen to their needs and solve their problems. Moreover, you should pay attention to what kind of people you recruit from day one, as a good recruitment policy defines the entire business culture. The third point is to learn about growth hacking in marketing’, Grönholm lists.

Learning by trial and error eventually produced results: Duunitori now employs 60 people and has an annual turnover of EUR 7.2 million. More than half a million jobseekers visit the company’s job search engine and media platform every week.

Aalto Startup Center

Aalto Startup Center is a business accelerator for start-up companies that are less than three years old, with a particular focus on the technological field. The accelerator utilises the interdisciplinary competence offered by Aalto University in design, business and technology as well as the expertise and networks of the university. The participants include companies both from within Aalto and outside of it, and the accelerator also creates business activities from research-based projects. Currently, there are about 40 companies at Aalto Startup Center, 10 of which operate under Esa Bic Finland, which focuses on space technology and is a member of Aalto Startup Center. Aalto Startup Center’s premises are located in Otaniemi, Espoo.