juhani polkko marketing agency in finland san francisco oy PR communication

“Never force yourself to become an entrepreneur by all means” – Juhani Polkko, Founder of San Francisco Agency

Juhani has 700 apps on his phone – a shred of evidence to see how much interested he is in technology. He has always been fascinating about how computers and technology impact on human’s life and behaviors. He truly lives with his passion – either in Silicon Valley or Helsinki, every work he has been doing, mostly related to technology. People say it’s never too young or too old to start your business but Juhani believes the best time to try entrepreneurship is when you have some prior experience and not too much responsibility because entrepreneurship is all about uncertainty and risk-taking.

At 12 I was a “subcontractor” to another 15 years old “entrepreneur”

When I was a kid, the only entrepreneur in my family was my grandmother. She had a village shop in my hometown – Naantali. I didn’t understand anything about entrepreneurship but I think it was really cool that she had her own shop where people visit every day and bought groceries and such similar things. I spent some of my summers there and I got my salary in candies. Then, later on, I had my “own shop” at our summer cottage. When we had visitors I sold them “tickets” and empty carton milk boxes.

Throughout my childhood, I have noticed my huge interest in computers (gaming as well as programming) and exploring new stuff. I got my first computer at the age of 10. It amused me all the time while my friends at school were playing ice hockey. As a lower-middle-class family, my parents did not have much money for me to throw in electronic gadgets. I had to earn money myself to support my passion. So at 12, I was delivering newspapers around town. I was too young to carry it on my own so sometimes my mom did offer me some help and I was a “subcontractor” to another “entrepreneur” who was 15 years old. I made a bit of money out of that hard work.

I’m fascinated by how technology changes the way people behave and companies work

I’ve always been fascinating about the fast pace of computer development, the whole concept of technology and how it changes the way people behave and companies work. So when the opportunity came, I started my own business right after high school at the age of 18. It was before the mainstream Internet era and I worked as a reseller who imported Commodore Amiga parts directly from the manufacturers, and PC components from wholesalers assembled computers and sold them directly to end users using early-days internet marketing and bulletin board systems. My motivation was to work with like-minded people and learned about selling and marketing the latest technology at the time. It went quite well until I sold to some people on credit and they did not pay their invoice. I stopped after one year of full-time entrepreneurship because I lost a pretty large amount of money due to the lack of operating and financial experience.

After that I did my military service as an IT handyman for the Finnish Navy, installing computers and networks at ships and military bases. Then I worked for a company called Toptronics about the whole-selling computer software, games, and peripherals. During that time I was able to study my degree in International Business while building the company’s star account – Verkkokauppa.com. After five years, I left the company mainly because I felt like I had learned everything I wanted to know about in this kind of ultra-competitive business and the urge for going abroad.

I traveled extensively in 2000 and 2001, visiting my friend in Singapore and the states. I went to San Francisco in Spring 2002 only 6 months after the September 11th attacks so there were American flags everywhere. Everybody was a little bit nervous. It affected Americans quite a bit even on the West Coast. But that was very inspiring to get to know California for the first time. Since one of my classmates was having an internship at Finpro (now aka Business Finland), I thought there would be an opportunity for me. So I just made a call to the head of the trade center, asking for lunch to discuss the employment possibility. He told me this could be a good match but not until a year and a half later that I got their confirmation to start my six-month internship. I started from scratch as an “analyst” – it sounds fancy but my main work was to book meetings for our clients. After the internship, I continued to work there for another year.

People see each other as anyone could be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates

The best thing from that experience working in Silicon Valley was the chance to be inspired by going to different events and meeting people. Americans most of the time were so open and friendly that I could have a talk with all the billionaires and big shots who were very successful and holding important positions. What I appreciated there was an atmosphere of equality. It’s easy to approach other people or ask for help. I felt like I did have equal opportunities and potentials just like everyone else in the room. People see each other as anyone could be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, no matter how young you are or which ethnicity you’re from.

We did all the possible mistakes in that startup

I was having a proper career with a decent salary but then I felt the need for something new. Together with my friend, we set up a startup in San Francisco and a year later moved to Miami. It turned out to be a huge mistake since Miami was more like a place for party goers and retired people while in Silicon Valley there was truly a business environment to grow a company and a community to be surrounded by the right people who can give you advice and support. Another key learning point is communication. My friend thought I knew what to do and I assumed the same thing to him. Although we stayed in the same apartment, it seemed like we still did not have enough talk especially about strategy, the progress, and why we were doing what we were doing. We also did too much partying and were not proactive to ask for advice and support from fellow entrepreneurs. The apartment was really nice and the next building to Shakira and Shaq O’Neal (whom I greeted at a gas station, although I didn’t recognize him at the time, just complimented his nice car, a Rolls-Royce Phantom). When we went for lunch, we called the valet to bring either the BMW or the convertible Mercedes. At one time when we went out, we spent over 3000 dollars of my co-founder’s money on drinks. The consequence was a six-month delay of the product piloting.We did all the possible mistakes in that startup. In retrospect, it’s always easy to say the timing was great – Y Combinator launched in the same year, and we were one of the first partners for AdMob, a mobile ad network that grew from one guy to an exit worth $750 million four years later. At one time neither me nor my co-founder felt like having the energy to go forward. I did not plan to move back to Finland and start full-time MBA studies at Helsinki School of Economics (now Aalto University) until I was here for one month during summertime. I realized I no longer wanted to stay in Miami so I called my friend to send me my car and all the stuff. Eventually, we closed our company.Now thinking back it seems to me that I was pretty close to “burnout” at that stage. However, no matter how stressful it was, I think the risk is still low for me. Since I was young and having little constraint (no relationship, no family, no kids). So I think people should not wait for too long before trying out entrepreneurship. Because the older and more responsibilities you get, the less comfortable you would be at taking risks while entrepreneurship is mostly about uncertainty and risk-taking.

I became more grateful for the Nordic system

Helsinki was a new city for me so I spent all my energy to get to know people and how things work here. I think everybody should spend time abroad. It really opens your eyes to see your home with an outside view. Two and a half years in the US, I had witnessed the increased number of homeless people, the expensive education, people suffering because of the system and how impossible it seemed to move from a poor family to have some social status. I became more grateful for the Nordic system. The tax is a bit higher but people are being taken care of, so wealthy people can also feel safer. They try to keep inequality at its lowest to prevent crime and wealth gap.The startup scene in Helsinki was almost zero back in 2006. I don’t think people even talked about startups. The concept was unfamiliar to most of them. The common way to run a business was like what my grandmother did – making a big loan from your house without having any external investors or business angels, accelerators or an entrepreneurship ecosystem.

I realized it’s normal to feel insecure

Back then Aaltoes (Aalto Entrepreneurship Society) had just established. I found its events and programs very helpful. One of the best things that happened in my life is the trip by train through Siberia to China, with the fellow students and entrepreneurs in the community with whom I’ve made life-long friendships. I got a chance to talk with like-minded people sharing about how insecure I was feeling along the way. I thought I was alone in this but I wasn’t. When many others also admitted their feelings of insecure, I realized this was normal, and I could just relax and keep going.
After completing the master’s degree, and working a year heading Nokia’s advertising business in the Nordics, in 2009, I founded San Francisco Oy. Obviously from the beginning, I did not build a startup or look for external investors. However, I did receive decent support from the government, around ten thousand Euros in the beginning and some funding tickets later on.

I’ve been systematically building the network on LinkedIn since 2003

My company started smoothly thanks to all the experience and connections I had in California, particularly the Finnish entrepreneurs building their business there. I got several clients including a fast-growing Swedish startup in the first month of operating with the help of some online tools. I found social media platforms very helpful not only in personal life but also in business, in terms of building and maintaining relationships. I’ve been systematically building the network on LinkedIn since 2003. I think there were always some values behind each online connection.Same thing with Facebook. I set up my profile in 2006 a bit before the big wave came. One of the guys in Silicon Valley was amongst the first group of people I added in my contact. We did not even have a single chat. Ten years later I first sent him a message asking if he could help introduce me to a senior manager working at the same company – Facebook. And it worked. The next day, he helped me to have a meeting with the exact person I need for my business. That’s why you need to have a network to give and receive support.

Build your online trustworthiness by being open and authentic sharing your opinions

It is important to build closer relationships with people you have a strong bond with or share the same values, interests, lifestyle or beliefs. So you know whom to come to and rely on in tough times. Simultaneously, it is important to have a broad network of people for new opportunities. Whenever I travel, especially to a new country, I contact some people on my Linkedin and then meet them for a beer. A cool thing about social media is that you can spot the common things or recognize like-minded people from their postings and updates. To build your online trustworthiness by being open and authentic sharing your opinions!Some advice from my experience to share with other entrepreneurs or young startup enthusiasts out there. The business model is important. You need to work on that first and try to test as much as possible to know if it works, before following your dream to the next big things. Don’t put all eggs in one basket. Usually, it’s better to build a small, simple, sustainable business by creating products or services to meet existing demand. You can keep building it up, or sell it, or it fails. It’s all a good learning experience. Just keep in mind that it’s good to dream big but practically nobody can start the next billion-euro company at the first try.

Never force yourself to become an entrepreneur by all means

You can also be an entrepreneur inside a company or big corporation, especially when you just started your career without prior professional experience. Or if being a consultant sounds better for you, you can negotiate with your employer for this possibility as well. Never force yourself to become an entrepreneur by all means, just like you should not be ashamed by working for somebody else. You can always be your own boss – on deciding how you will perform in each of the tasks you’re in charge of. Working as an employee allows you to observe the business environment, learn hands-on experience, and earn money to finance your future enterprise. Also, the average age of a successful startup founder is 45 (according to Harvard Business Review, 2018). So no need to rush!
However, it’s a paradox. When you get older with more years of experience, a larger and stronger network, you may have a better chance to succeed. But at the same time, you also become more reluctant towards uncertainty and risk-taking. So the right time to start is not too early but not too late – when you have some experience but not too much responsibility.

I’m not going to stop, even when I reach the point of financially independent

I am still very hungry for growth. Now the first step is building this PR business, then scaling that up a little bit more so we are able to serve the bigger and more international clients. At the moment most of them are local companies but in the future, we will expand to the Nordics and extend our reach in the Asian market. I still have the hunger for success and I still see many more companies in the future to be founded by me. I’m not going to stop. Even when I reach the point of financially independent, I would 100% sure to start a new business.Nothing has changed since I was 30 years younger. I am still interested in technology with its fast development and how we, humans and companies are being affected. I still love exploring and being the first one to try out new things. I’ve always had my name as the first user name on Gmail, Instagram, and even Twitter. After I signed up, I left it unused for 2 years until it actually became popular-  then I was back.

Three types of entrepreneurs to choose from

I think there are several types of entrepreneurs to choose from depending on your personality – what are your priorities, how much risk you can take, how much pressure you can handle. First to be mentioned is startup entrepreneur which most of the time has something to do with technology. Startup means you’re building something new: either a new product in an old environment or an existing product to a new environment or a completely new concept. Usually, it has higher growth potential but simultaneously more risky. It requires external funding to kick-off, and you’re able to get much more support from outside when there is a unique innovation or technology behind it.For less risky and less rewarding, you can also be a franchise entrepreneur – working on existing proven business concepts. Being a consultant entrepreneur is a third option if you are selling your own expertise. This is quite flexible in terms of working time, amount and types of clients.

Take all the deals that come. Don’t say no

My tip is that whichever type of entrepreneur you might be, as long as you do this full-time, in the service business you should take all the deals that come. Even if you lack confidence or experience, don’t say “No”, say “No problem”. And find a way to do it successfully – asking for help, collaborating with someone who has better understanding and know-how, etc. You will quickly learn what kind of clients and what kind of work suits you best and later focus only on what you are great at.When you meet new people – that can be partners, clients, or investors. Be sure you tell them your story. I’ve learned that using storytelling to relate people will lead to a better result out of the communication. If possible, it’s best to do a little background check to know whom you are talking to and what they are interested in. So you tell your story but it’s not really about you, it’s actually for them. You can do this by knowing very clear your story and be authentic, then you narrow down and choose the most relevant part of your story to focus on. We even practice this story introduction as a team to give feedback to each other.

It’s good to show a minimum of respect for other people’s time by giving them the answer

My company turned ten years old last September. It’s been an interesting path with several different stages: despondent phase when I felt like we did not make enough progress, expanding phase when we hired more people and I personally took some time off for traveling, and most recently, a big change in our strategy and focus – becoming a PR agency that solely does communication strategy. It was a hard decision because I also had to fire 3 people from our team and it was an important learning experience and I hope I did it in the best possible way. However, I am very confident that we are on the right path here – to concentrate on one thing at a time.FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is real. It’s not easy for entrepreneurs to say no to new ideas and requires courage to overcome it. Saying no to other (less important) things and staying concentrated is a necessary skill to be trained. Sometimes in business, it can be hectic with all types of offer, I still prefer to spend time saying no and reject them politely instead of just ignoring. I myself would feel unpleasant for not receiving any response. So I think it’s good to show a minimum of respect for other people’s time by giving them the answer. And maybe get connected and keep in touch with the person. Who knows what the future may bring?

Juhani Polkko is the founder and CEO of San Francisco Oy – a marketing and communication agency specializing in PR strategy for businesses to earn media visibility globally. As a fellow active member of AaltoES community, he works with entrepreneurs and venture builders to help companies become global category winners. 

Edited by

Ha Nguyen

Ha Nguyen

Co-founder & Head of Operations at Entrepreneurs of Finland - Ha is a social entrepreneur & writer who cares about children, education, fairness, the environment, and sustainability. For more info, kindly check http://bit.ly/Connect_With_Ha
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