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Life after Nokia

03 November 2013, 15:53

Tampere -The decline of Finnish mobile phone manufacturer Nokia has encouraged a whole generation of local engineers to venture on a new and riskier path: that of entrepreneurship.

Housed on the top floor of a building located on the main avenue of the southern city of Tampere, the office of local start-up TreLab exudes ambition and optimism.

"We just sent our first five-figure invoices. It feels good!" 44-year-old chief executive Kimmo Saarela said.

This former Nokia employee joined four colleagues to create in December 2011 a start-up specialising in wireless measurement devices which can be used in sectors such as health care, logistics and personal wellness and training.

"Even if I sometimes miss the comfort of a regular salary and the job security provided by Nokia, I feel freer here. One can make decisions quickly, without going through all the bureaucracy of a big firm," he said.

In the early 2000s, when Nokia reigned supreme in the global mobile phone market and contributed four percent to Finland's gross domestic product, the job security offered by the company had no match.

Clear future

"When you were a Finnish engineer starting at Nokia, you knew you would leave Nokia only when retiring. Your future was clear," recalls Tommi Uhari, who left his management position to found Uros, a mobile wireless internet provider for international travellers.

Everything changed when the financial crisis hit and Nokia fell behind in the smartphone race after Apple launched its first iPhone in 2007.

Trapped in a failure spiral, Nokia started to lay off white-collar staff and ended up agreeing in September to sell its mobile phone division to US giant Microsoft for 5.44 billion euro ($7.5 billion) in a move considered by local media as "the end of an era for Finland."

When it began to need to downsize a few years back, the firm launched an uncommon initiative named the Nokia Bridge programme, through which it helped its former employees to create their own companies.

TreLab, the Tampere start-up, benefited from the programme, which allowed former employees to leave the company with up to 20 000 euros ($27 573) each.

Some engineers, the founders of TreLab among them, even got the right to use certain technologies they had developed at Nokia without having to buy any expensive patents.

"Without this support, we probably wouldn't have been able to create our company," Saarela said.

Taking risks

'People are ready to take risks ... do what really excites them'

According to Nokia, more than 1 000 start-ups had access to the Nokia Bridge programme, 400 of them in Finland.

The most famous one is Jolla, which has taken over Meego, a free mobile operating system abandoned by Nokia. The company is expected to launch its first mobile phone by the end of the year.

The start-up model does not suit everybody, though.

"Sure, there are a lot of engineers coming out of Nokia, with a long and brilliant career behind them. But very few know how to sell a product, which is a necessary skill when you're creating a start-up," said Tiina-Maria Siipola, president of the Association of Engineers of Oulu, a city in western Finland that was hit hard by Nokia's job cuts.

In Oulu, more than a third of all start-ups created in 2011 did not survive their first year.

Looking ahead

Some nostalgics in Finland still dream of the arrival of a "new Nokia", a top world-class company that will boost Finnish pride again.

This is not a pipe dream. Finnish entrepreneurs have had an uncanny knack for turning from underdogs into greyhounds.

Take for example Rovio, whose Angry Birds games exploited the new touchscreen features of smartphones and tablets to launch itself to success.

Another example from the same industry: Supercell, which was founded only 2010 and recently sold 51% of its shares to Japanese investors for $1.5 billion.

Entrepreneur Tommi Uhari thinks it is better for Finland to stick with Davids rather than Goliaths, however.

"When Nokia was successful, it was very hard to hire talented employees, because they all worked there! Now it is much more interesting. People are ready to take risks, and to do what really excites them," Uhrari said.



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