Mikko has steadily built an excellent SaaS company from Finland and is now expanding into the US as well. Read on for more.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your personal journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?
Mikko Honkanen: I was born in a small town in Finland 20 miles up north from Helsinki. I studied at Helsinki School of Economics. I also studied at Oxford. Then I spent the last 10 years in the SaaS business. I spent almost seven years at a Norwegian company called Meltwater.
Sramana Mitra: I know Meltwater. I know the founders of Meltwater. They’re here in Silicon Valley.
Mikko Honkanen: During that journey, I also lived in San Francisco when I was running the sales and customer success division in the US. I moved back to Finland in 2014 when we decided to launch Vainu. Now I’m back in the States.
Sramana Mitra: What was the thinking that led you to start Vainu? What did you see in the market? Why did you decide to quit Meltwater and start Vainu?
Mikko Honkanen: I was actually very satisfied with my job. I think Meltwater is an awesome company. It’s a typical company that believes in people. I got a lot of responsibilities even though I was very young. I was very involved in sales and customer success not only in the US, but also for the European market. I saw a pain point. I saw lots of sales people who were spending hours and hours prospecting.
The best sales people spend hours doing online research and wading through different types of lists of companies. I just felt that there was so much information out there. My co-founders and I felt that if we aggregate all that data and use computers and machine learning, we could actually provide a solution. You could have a tool that could identify ideal customers in no time, and also get notifications every time there’s a company who might need your product or service.
It was a big leap of faith. Making a decision to move back to Finland was a big decision. To some extent, I always had an idea that I would like to be an entrepreneur and see if we can build something that is very successful. I just made that decision and I’ve been very happy with that.
Sramana Mitra: What did you start with in terms of the MVP? What were the specs of what you started with?
Mikko Honkanen: It helped a lot that we knew the pain point very well. We had spent a lot of time doing sales and coaching sales teams. When we started, we only had the idea. We were three people and, very quickly, a fourth person joined. The first 10 customers, we got by only having slides. We were very transparent with them.
We said, “This is the idea we have. We will build a product and it’s going to work like this.” It was a big leap of faith for those customers to sign one-year contracts with us. The only thing we were able to say is, we will deliver this service in a few months but you need to sign up and pay upfront. What’s unique with Vainu is that we have been growing without external funding. We didn’t have salaries for the first six months.
Very soon, we were able to ship a product. Even though it didn’t do lots of things, the things that it did do, it did very well. That’s important when it comes to MVP. Whatever you do, you need to do those things very well. You don’t have to do too many things, but whatever is your main value proposition, try to do that very well.