I grew up in Haukipudas, a small town in northern Finland on the Kiiminki river delta. We were surrounded by a forest where I explored; trying to catch the colourful pheasants with my home-made spear. It was very close-to-nature: we also did a lot of fishing with dad.
Through my youth, I was often idle. I got through my education with minimal effort, getting good grades without studying or doing homework. Once I was a bit lost with some chemistry and was stressing about memorising it for the exam. My dad then asked “Does the exam matter that much? Wouldn’t understanding matter more?”. I think that stuck in my head, and I got my laziness rationalised.
One summer I found out about online chess. I was familiar with the basics but now I started playing it a lot. In high school, I was distracting myself during the classes with blind chess with my mates. One of the first trips I made after getting my driving license was to the national youth chess championships, on the other side of the country.
I read a lot and loved the classics; first Tarzans and Zorros, and later Dostoyevsky and Hesse. The existentialists, in particular, removed some of my remaining motivation. How could anything earthly matter? At the age of 15, I was convinced that life was about finding peace through deep concentration on difficult subjects. For me, that was most likely math or physics in academia. Chess is similar too: I can rest my mind by playing, not having to focus on anything else.
I always did lots of sports. I played soccer, ran, and then during winter, I did cross-country skiing. I started combat sports in high school with Taekwondo, and later moved into kickboxing. However once I started working as a developer, I soon quit them. It was just too hard to focus and not get beaten after a rough day. Sparring is quite a mental practice. It took time, but then suddenly there was this silence. No fear, anxiety, or anything else. Just focus. I’ve only experienced that once in an equally pure form; when fetching fishing nets on a particularly rough sea with my dad.
After finishing high school, I had two possibilities: physics or mathematics. The physics exam was first so I only bothered with that one. I was a loner at university, without the discipline for studying. At the time poker was taking off and all my friends were playing. Even my roommate started making money, so why not me too? I invested 50 euros and started from the penny games, rising to tables where I was making 50e per hour. I played an hour or two a day and lived comfortably.
While playing poker, my hunger for meaning in life grew. I applied to study literature and philosophy but didn’t have the discipline to get in. Then the next year I applied to do something that came more naturally. I applied for computer science, the exam required no studying and I got full points. I always chose overly difficult programming challenges, e.g. poker AI for the most basic algorithm course exercise. The results weren’t perfect, of course, but that’s how I’ve learnt the best – doing something too difficult.
Then life went on and I moved to Helsinki to live with my girlfriend. At the time poker wasn’t going well. I started looking for developer jobs and once I had finished the basic Java courses, I somehow got one. The company wasn’t succeeding, but this was actually a blessing. My work mattered to the people around me, and there was more of it than one person could manage. People changed jobs and my role grew.
In a succeeding company, I could have gotten more mentoring and comfort, but I needed the challenge more. I think laziness is just a lack of motivation and discipline, and meaningful work can solve both. Back then, entrepreneurship was already a distant dream. I loved building things and I always had some side project going on.
Asking the right question helps a lot. You don’t influence people by telling facts, you ask the perfect questions that trigger them to think. When I got to join the company, Futurice was just selected as the best place to work in Europe. Working there boosted my self-confidence and ambition. In the beginning I looked up to every single person. One year later however, a few beers led us to discuss who was the best developer of the company. Suddenly I was asked: “Why not you?”. I was still relatively junior, but the questions made me think.
At Futurice I also got directed into business books. Trusted Advisor was one that affected me a lot at the time. Although Futurice was a fantastic workplace, I had learned to enjoy the struggle of being underqualified for the task. Until I became an entrepreneur, I moved onto a new challenge every time in less than two years, leaving behind four relatively short jobs.
My route into entrepreneurship started from a meet-up visit. I was a regular in local tech gatherings, but it was my first and only time at the “Searching for a Co-Founder” meet-up when I met Sakke. Sakke wanted to see how AI could change the world of patents. He was a physicist with 13 years of patent attorney experience, a background that could have slowly cooked a key innovation for the domain. I had just been working with an idea for a new kind of language model for Finnish. This AI for patents would have many of the same elements, but a much clearer path to value. We started talking, and he shared his idea about the graph model behind all patents.
Slowly it became apparent for us that the search would be in core for any kind of AI-based patent tool. Whatever you intend to do, you need to get to the relevant data. There were existing search engines, of course. The keyword-based ones had no hope of narrowing down something complex, and the free text ones were just fuzzy. Our graph model seemed like a path to something exact. I’m an optimist at heart. If I don’t see why something cannot be done, I assume it can be. So if we can model patents in an exact machine-friendly way, I don’t see why searching patents couldn’t be solved.
It was clear that we were after something but it wouldn’t happen overnight. I wanted to involve Juuso, my old colleague from when I worked at Adadrive, from the very start. His complimentary technological skillset was important, but what mattered more was his attitude and the ability to grasp the bigger picture better than anyone.
In Adadrive, he was the only one who managed to work across the code base of the whole company. Simply an amazing engineer, but what is at least equally important is his empathy. He always manages to take others’ points of views in account, and that will eventually make him quite a leader.
Sakke and I had created proof-of-concept for the UI, and we had big ideas. Juuso was involved and we seemed to be ready for something. Then things just happened.
We were visiting a meet-up with Sakke and stumbled upon a VC investor. We were way too early for them, but they wanted to introduce us to this earlier stage investor called Icebreaker. The people from Icebreaker end up liking the team and the domain, and suddenly they wanted to invest! We had to seriously think about what we wanted to do, things happened that fast. Regardless, we took the investment, IPRally got officially founded and the real work began.
When building our product, there was one particular part that might have been impossible. We had the UI for graph-based search input, but we wanted the database of tens of millions patent documents to be graphs too.
It might not always be healthy but it also gives you a sense of meaning to commit to something uncertain. We decided to build a parser that converts every single patent document into a graph. Data matters more than the algorithms, and with these graphs our data would be unique.
When discussing the high-level plan with my developer friends, I could read from their faces they thought it was just a collection of impossibly difficult tasks. Building the parser was hard. There is almost nothing similar to work from as the graph format is novel and you don’t have any training data. But Sakke had the perfect domain knowledge and patent text happens to be quite structured, from the point of view of a machine. We got the parser working with patent claims but there was an issue with speed. We were magnitudes away from a performance that would work for the full texts which can be a hundred times larger.
I was ready to give up but Juuso didn’t agree. He explained that unless we get the complete patent documents converted into graphs, we have no competitive edge. And he wasn’t wrong. I was thinking about solutions every part of the day and even when sleeping. One night a breakthrough hit me. We got past the slug, and suddenly we were able to parse full documents. The first big graphs were bad, and I think Sakke was actually quite shocked. Nevertheless, I was happy and certain that everything remaining could be solved.
We’ve been solving difficult technical challenges from the very beginning to this day. It took us one year to get to the point we could properly sell the product. Now the search engine is so good that the Finnish patent office took it into use. I highly value their opinion, as a patent examiner is the best patent searching expert there is. And we still have lots to improve. It may take years, but we aim to make IPRally the dominant solution for patent searching. And one day, science and technology may be searched with graphs too.
Even compared to the technical breakthroughs, by far the best moments have been when a new person joins our team. Joy, and quite a selfless type as well. You’ve lived for the company, and now the company has become one person larger.
For me entrepreneurship is the only natural profession. You get to create and grow. We plan to turn IPRally into something huge, and if for some reason that didn’t happen, I would start over. If I was a millionaire, I would still be building a company, just with fewer limitations.
It’s an old concept but courage is more important than anything. You need to have integrity, but that doesn’t happen without courage. You need to have difficult conversations, and yes you need to be smart there but without courage that doesn’t help. Courage is the basis for everything. Alone it is not enough of course, but without it, nothing else would matter.
You need to respect yourself. For me one example is losing weight. When I got my motivation and discipline fixed, I got obsessed about becoming the best possible developer but started neglecting my body. You need to be the best version of yourself to succeed, and last autumn I simply stopped any emotion-based use of alcohol and sugar. I may have a beer when I believe it is useful, but not just for fun. I’ve lost 15kg and I don’t plan on going back.
Then you want to combine self-respect with self-acceptance as you will end up in difficult spots and there will be lots of mistakes. Those can be painful but it is important to accept that this is the new reality. The past is just material for learning. You want to be merciful for yourself and others.
Building a company is more difficult than just about anything else, and worrying about the old mistakes is counterproductive. Yet you want to aim to the moon and keep super high standards.
I used to be quite nervous and self-critical, and it made me socially awkward at times. It may still show up somewhat. Regardless, the key there is to accept it with self-respect. “Perfect is boring, you are what you are and should be happy about it”.
Without being too full of yourself of course. That’s another big factor, building a team forces you to limit your ego. I was on top of my game as a developer and could have done pretty much any part by myself. But that doesn’t scale, and if you want to empower the team, you need to focus on them to succeed, not you. I think that’s the beauty of building a company, it forces you to find a balance for this difficult equation. It forces you to grow.