“Aim high but don´t starve to death”

Academic entrepreneurs need to think carefully about their customers` needs and create sellable products.

Two recently formed university based companies, Torstai Helsinki and Kaskas Media, presented their business ideas to a team of experts at the “Business With Knowledge” event at Tiedekulma on January 31. The event was part of “Hyvä yritys” week that focuses on building a stronger role for academic entrepreneurship within the University of Helsinki.

The “advisory board” of the day consisted of Bo Jørgensen, service design expert, Eeva Houtbeckers, researcher, Aalto University, Ossi Kuittinen, director of Information Society Development at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, Pauli Komonen, sociologist and futurist at 15/30 Research, Peter Tattersall, entrepreneur, Hahmota and Yrjö Wichmann, director, IP Finland.

The host for the event, Outi Kuittinen from Demos Helsinki, pointed out at the start of the discussion that academic startups often have the relevant knowledge and enthusiasm in order to succeed but lack the ability to communicate what they bring to the table. The customer point-of-view indeed became a central focus point of the whole session.

The co-op Torstai Helsinki was the first to pitch their business idea, a customizable cross-disciplinary consultant service. They were right away confronted with a simple question: How will you make money, or better put, how do you create value for your customer?

“I get offers from consultant companies all the time and only choose the service that fits my needs perfectly at that exact moment”, said Bo Jørgensen.

The advisory board stressed the importance of storytelling and packaging: consultant companies need to phrase very simply what they can offer and convince the customer that they are able to deliver what they promise. This is best achieved by creating sellable products. Yrjö Wichmann suggested that Torstai do a project for a client without an actual assignment just to get some practice and a grasp of the typical problems that arise during a project.

The second pitch of the session was made by Kaskas media, a journalistic production company that designs information in new, interesting ways such as storytelling from a human interest perspective. Inspired by the pitch, Yrjö Wichmann told an example: the most expensive axe on the market is not the Finnish one known for its supreme quality but a Swedish one that is marketed as an individual piece of equipment with a story attached to it.

The discussion revolved around defining Kaskas` exact place in the confusing communications, marketing and advertising scene. Kaskas made it clear that they want to represent journalistic values of integrity and honesty instead of just “saying things that sound good”. Eeva Houtbeckers suggested that Kaskas should present themselves as investigative journalists for companies` internal needs.

Bo Jørgensen thought that a potential problem for Kaskas might be convincing their clients that their understanding of different niche industries and hard core economics is deep enough. A key step for them would thus be establishing a reputation by getting some small-scale clients while keeping an eye on the big ones.

“Remember to aim high”, advised an audience member with a business background, “but don´t starve to death”, added Bo Jørgensen.

The session put Torstai Helsinki and Kaskas Media to the test: Both companies were met with difficult questions about their ability to define a demand for their service and a unique proposition to deliver a solution for the need. The advisory board made it clear that clients are after clarity and need a guarantee of delivery. Torstai and Kaskas received plenty of advice on “getting there” and how to transform knowledge and expertise into something sellable – and thus having an impact in the world.

“You need to tell a company that they don´t know what they´re doing in a particular situation and that you can show them what to do” was Eeva Houtbeckers` final advice to both companies.

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