A letter to my people: III

During the years 2014–2017, I had the privilege of working at a non-profit organization called Slush, known as the worlds leading entrepreneurial event. Before the pandemic hit, Slush gathered 20 000+ to the cold capital of Helsinki that I call my home. When I was tasked with leading the organization next to CEO Marianne, I formed a habit of writing emails to the whole organization now and then. There was always a particular timing involved as to why and what I wrote.

This article contains the last letter I sent to the team after the event in 2017 and before moving on to future endeavors. The goal was to distribute a sense of pride in the work done, give some advice for the way forward and give some solace to those in the team whose scars of life affected their ability to deliver at work.

A photo of the banner above the entrance of Slush 2016

This article contains reflections on the last of three letters. I didn't do any additional reviews in the first letter as I still believe suggestions to be valid—the letter contained thoughts on how to operate as an organization. In the second, I tried to give context to the environment we had to work in, and the letter itself was aimed to rally people for the upcoming event. I realize now when reading it. I sound way too self-centered, a clear sign of underlying moderate depression I didn't understand I was struggling with.

In this article, I reflect on the last email I sent to the team as there are some corrections I feel need to be made, as the approach is plain wrong and some elaboration for the choice of words back then.

Additionally, I am happy to have written these for no other reason than myself. I wrote the first part of this series a year ago and introduced this series by saying.

Luckily like most of my self-expression, I’ve written them down so that I, or others, can return to them whenever they feel lost

During the past year, I was utterly lost. I quit my job without a plan. I've also gotten divorced as part of the same process to force myself to find a new direction in life. Both I did for what I still believe to be the right reasons.

doing the right thing does not always come with relief,

and doing the wrong something does not always come with grief.

I only found this particular letter again in the fall of this year and amidst being lost. Trying to find individuals in my life to function as reference points as examples of who I am and who I want to be, I ended up finding the guide in myself within my writing.

"The world breaks everyone" — I hope this article serves as an inspiration to those who have been broken and need to piece themselves back together again. Additionally, to my people, I hope to remind you what we stood for back then, and may it serve as a bedrock for whatever you have chosen to stand for today or in the future.

To my extended family,

TL: TR;

I haven't written in a while and thought of sending a few closing words for this year.

1. Be proud of what we achieved together, but remember, "ego is the enemy."

2. Be the best you can be and help others around you to be that to

3. You might leave Slush, but Slush never leaves you

I am finally wishing you a happy new year, suggesting how to start the new year!

_____________

  1. Be proud of what we achieved together, but remember, "ego is the enemy."

"How do you compare Kilimanjaro to Mount Everest? Slush is Mount Everest"

That quote gave me shivers when I heard it the first time. Finally, we created something that received a comment like that. It was the first time I felt proud this year. The years blow by fast, and you always seem to be in a constant tunnel of struggle. The more years, the stronger this feeling becomes and the harder it becomes to stop and appreciate the actual results of the operational battle. Nonetheless, this year we achieved perfection when it came to serving the core crowd and considering what we set out to do at the beginning of the year.

However, one should remember: All the things we didn't set out to do, that we should've, all the things that are still undone, all the hiccups, all the mistakes, and all inefficiencies. Ego is the enemy, and when you think you're the best, you start losing the reasons you were the best in the first place.

The constant struggle between being proud of accomplishments and keeping our egos in check is well coined by an Indian philosopher: "Love tells me I am everything. Wisdom tells me I am nothing. And in between these two banks, flows the river of my life". Furthermore, one needs to understand that the only true sense of who we are and who we were resides in the memories that others have of us (I kept coming back to this video a lot this year). I believe this to be true for people and businesses. Thus, we can never define who we are, and we should always strive for meaningful interactions that transcend something bigger than ourselves. Only then can we hope to be remembered.

Hence, we should be proud to be remembered as the Mount Everest of startup events, but wisdom tells us it still means nothing if we continue being humble, humorous, and hardcore.

2. Be the best you can be and help others around you to be that to

"It is in our brokenness, not despite our brokenness, that we discover what is possible."

One of my coaches in basketball ones said when talking about potential: There is the level your mom thinks you can play at. Above that is the level you think you can play at. However, it's not the level your coach knows you can play at (and that is why he usually gets mad at his players). Ultimately, there is the actual level of your potential beyond what anyone can imagine (your mom, you, your coach, or anyone else), and when you play at that level, you're the best you can be.

The difficulty in reaching that level of potential is that we need to become the best versions of ourselves by being truly honest with ourselves, self-aware, having the ability to admit our faults, working through the things within us we don't want to, and pushing ourselves well beyond our comfort zones. Unfortunately, many fail to see that "the obstacle is the way," and only by going where we do not want to go do we find our way.

For some, the way is genuinely dealing and being at peace with the scars of life and our perceived weaknesses. Japanese culture has a beautiful concept of viewing the wounds of life and our imperfections; "wabi-sabi" — the ability to find beauty in imperfection. If a vase is accidentally broken, they do not throw away the pieces, try to patch it up, or try to hide the accident. Instead, they take golden glue and painstakingly reassemble the vessel, so its unique flaws make the piece more beautiful than it could have been before the accident.

The obstacle is not as clear for others, not carrying the scars of life. In this case, one needs to work twice as hard to find the obstacle, but it can be challenging since even if one finds an obstacle, it does not necessarily mean it is the one that will help you get closer to your true potential. However, as Hemingway said, "The world breaks everyone," so there should always be something in our lives pointing towards the right obstacle.

In both cases, we should remember we need the help of others to point out our weaknesses and our obstacles (it is proven that people generally overestimate themselves). Furthermore, we should help others overcome theirs by pointing them out and just being there when they try to overcome them or suggesting some tools for going about it.

That is what I believe is the greatest gift you can give anyone, to help them be the best that they can be, and I always feel gratitude when someone points out weaknesses in me or my mistakes. That is radical candor, and that is how you create meaningful relationships in work and life.

3. You might leave Slush, but Slush will never leave you

"With great power comes great responsibility."

… reads a quote from one of my favorite superhero movies. I've always struggled with people saying, "Slush holds the future business leaders," etc. We represent a brighter future. I mean as if we would be perfect or know what we are doing half of the time. I finally came to terms with it at some point. If this is what people believe, if no one else has the courage or the will to carry the burden of creating a better future, then we will. At the very least, we'll try or have fun failing.

Slush has become one of the most prominent brands in the entrepreneurial scene. When we lift a finger today, it sends ripple effects that can spark change in society, and it will be recorded in history. One must understand that it has been proven that people's relationships with strong brands awoke the same kind of behavior as their relationship with religion. This causality means that the stronger the brand grows, the more influence it will have on people, and thus we have the responsibility to set the right example. To communicate the correct values and live them and not discredit others just for having different values.

However, the brand is nothing without the people who have worked, are working, and will work for it in the future. All of us thus have the responsibility to set the right example and be the best we can be because no matter when we got into Slush, what we did at Slush. No matter how we leave, where we go in life, and no matter what we do. We will always be part of the same family, and we will always carry Slush with us since Slush is owned by those who have given it their time.

Slush is much more than just an event, a platform, or a movement. It is a state of mind.

I might be leaving Slush, but you can't take Slush out of me. My door will always be open to those with the Slush state of mind, and when the community calls, I will always answer.

_______________

Happy New Year!

Finally, I thought of sharing an exercise I do once a year around the New Year that has helped me find my obstacles and set my direction. If you pick up on it is up to you. However, I strongly suggest you define your process for reflection. Also, before starting, always ask yourself if there is something you would want to change with your reflection process :)

Many of you have heard me talk about the concept of ikigai.

Step 1: write some reflections, a page or two for each of the four questions in ikigai: 1. What do I love? 2. What does the world need? 3. What am I good at? 4. What can I do to acquire wealth?.

Step 2: Based on the writings in step one and the papers from previous years (if one has any), write one page of reflection titled "Who am I?".

Step 3. Write as many goals for the coming year as you feel like, reflecting on writings in steps 1 & 2 and your plans for the previous year (if you have any).

Step 4. Hide all your writings of this exercise until the following year.

Some like to have their goals in front of them every day. I've strived to set goals that align with my purpose. My purpose is off, or my goals are not aligned with my purpose if I cannot achieve them consciously or unconsciously by the end of the year, which gives material for further reflection. I rarely remember any of my goals by the end of the year. However, I have been hitting about 80% the past three years with increasing accuracy.

With love,

//Niki

Summary of reflections of the letter:

  1. People fail to realize that thinking of your people as family and operating as a high sports team are not mutually exclusive efforts if you're playing an infinite game.
  2. When it comes to helping others be the best they can be, focus on their strengths more than their weaknesses.
  3. The right people will care about you, regardless of what you choose to do. Nobody cares about what you do after Slush or whatever your next step is in your career, so you have to. That's taking responsibility. However, if you've surrounded yourself with the right people, they will care to help you wherever you want to go and will cheer you on regardless of your choices.

A notion that was pointed out to me by my people after first publishing this was that I’m not fighting ego when I say, “when we lift a finger today…”. That is a prime example of my own privilege not being restrained until others point out my fallacy. I am grateful that people care enough to point it out and apologize for my arrogance.

1. Family & Team are not mutually exclusive

I want to start by elaborating with my words to address the team.

“To my extended family”

When writing this letter, I had recently read the book Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of caring for your people like family. As I thought it entailed a leadership approach with the team, I chose to address them as family. That's how I felt and still do feel, e.g., the core team from 2015 was at my wedding.

Many don't like the notion of "family" in business. Instead, the preferred thought is to think of it as a sports team. Netflix is a commonly used reference point covered in the book by the Netflix CEO; No rules, rules.

However, I'd argue that treating your people as family and operating as a high sports team are not mutually exclusive if you're playing an infinite game. They are merely a language used to describe specific actions needed at different stages to get your team to perform at a level that makes history.

Simon Sinek explains his derived version of infinite games vs. finite games from Jim P. Carse.

Another way of describing the nature of the organization that is operating as it would be playing an infinite game is the 5th level of "Tribal Leadership," as described in the book "Tribal Leadership: Leveraging natural groups to build a thriving organization."

Operating at the 5th level removes any sense of competition. You're only goal is to solve the problem and whoever is trying to solve the same problem is "on the same side."

The thesis of tribal leadership is getting your team to the 5th level requires a specific set of actions and specific use of language at each phase. I wasn't explicitly aware of this framework when I wrote the letter. Still, the vocabulary and mindset of "family in business" are what I would use today to get people from "apathetic victims" to "lone warriors." The team language is what I'd use to get "lone warriors" to "tribal pride." Finally, as Miki Kuusi, the co-founder and former CEO of Slush, thought us, "just keep repeating the cause" is what you do to get beyond "tribal pride."

At the heart of the debate about not using the notion of family in business is letting people go. However, (regardless of the team's level) you don't fire people because you don't care about the individual, quite the opposite. You fire them because you care. You care about the individual as much as you care about the cause. Additionally, not letting go of someone might mean you don’t care about the rest of the team who suffers because of the one who does not fit the team. Furthermore, letting go of people doesn’t mean you have to be free of compassion, as Ben Horowitz describes in "Hard Things about Hard things" had some sense of this, describing how he'd help carry the stuff of the people he fired, as the most important thing is to let people go with their dignity intact.

Just because you can't have them on your team doesn't mean you won't help them in life and find their next opportunity, something covered explicitly in both books about Netflix No Rules, Rules, and Paddy McCords Powerful. If you cannot do this, you've recruited the wrong people. Thus, it's your fault and not theirs. Hence, if the "fault" is yours, we come back to the fact the humane thing to do is take responsibility for your shortcomings and help those affected by them.

Now I appreciate the corner cases when you have harassment or the "brilliant a*sholes," etc. However, if they exist, you've hired the wrong people, and your team is not operating on the 5th level if they are still around unaddressed. Nonetheless, you still have some work to do on your recruitment process and practices.

Additionally, the process of getting your team to that 5th level will include having to establish both the cause you're on and the values you share, which, based on you, can create a group of expected performance and direction. These actions, in turn, will likely result in some people inherently leaving because they don't recognize themselves in those values or that cause. To give an analogy for what this means, The CEO of Netflix, Reid has said, "Don't teach people how to build a boat. Teach them to yarn for the vast endless sea." Thus, neither for better nor for worse, the people who want to climb mountains won't and shouldn't join your journey.

Patrick Lencioni covers this in his way in the book "The four obsessions of an extraordinary executive: A leadership Fable," the fable describes a CEO who never had to fire anyone because they knew when to leave, as the expectations were so clear, his people knew when they'd fallen short, so many times they should find a new home.

Why is it so hard for leadership teams in venture-backed companies to operate with an infinite mindset and thus so hard to swallow the thought of treating people like family in the business environment? My argument would be the following;

  • Firstly, venture funds themselves don't operate with an infinite mindset because venture funding is almost by definition a finite game with their fund cycles. Many funds explicitly or implicitly impose limited thinking on founders. The easiest way to fight this as a founder is to build profitable companies. The second would be to choose venture funds and investment capital to operate with an infinite mindset. Family funds tend to be in it for the long haul, but the likes of Sequoia are trying to re-think how venture funding is structured for there to be better returns but less artificial timeliness posed by LP's forcing finite games.
  • Secondly, the leadership team members do not start companies with the mindset to get them past the 3:rd level described in the Tribal leadership model. Their own "ego drivers" are not aligned with the just cause their product or company is trying to solve, which I've written in Nordic Notes. Miss-aligned ego drivers do not mean you wouldn't be able to build a successful company in terms of financial metrics. Still, I'd like to argue you'll be running a company at the cost of people as they won't develop to all they can be in your company (which is a loss for both and leads to job market inefficiencies). Additionally, getting work done will come at the expense of well-being. Active self-reflection exercises like the one I described in the letter help you align your efforts with your purpose, becoming a more authentic leader.
  • Thirdly, founders simply aren't familiar with the frameworks I've addressed here. Although they are mainly fighting all the fires related to business and products, they pay little to no attention to the human aspect of things. That is not to judge, as they are great founders because of it, but that does not make them great organizational leaders. This is not to say they couldn't be both. This is just to say what makes you successful when starting a company won't be the same focus you need when scaling an organization.

I've taken a long route to justify my choice of words, which essentially means;

"Family" and "team" are merely language used to inspire people on the journey of taking specific actions that will unite your team to operate at a level that no longer recognizes competition and is solely focused on solving the ultimate problem.

There is always a dichotomy to any language used. For example, any soldier who's been on the frontline for long enough will understand that war is ugly and humanity never wins. In the beginning, you may fight for "King & Country.", but when the conflict prolongs, morals are usually tested. Hence, the only sensible thing to do is fight for your brother on the left and your sister on the right; forget any noble cause. That's how you get through the tuff times. Nonetheless, in contrast, "times of war" might also mean letting go of your sisters and brothers, which is an excruciating process.

I have a hunch any CEO who had to go through the pandemic with their extraordinary team and was still forced to do layoffs, like Miikka Huttunen, CEO of Slush during the pandemic, would understand what the above statement means and what it feels like to go through a process of layoffs. One brilliant example of how organizations operating at higher levels in the tribal leadership model deal with layoffs during the pandemic was Airbnb. The message from their CEO and their actions were both used as an example and put under scrutiny.

Furthermore, anyone who has ever experienced working in a level 5 team will have difficulty compromising on anything less. That's why so many miss the times working at Slush, and as a person with a background in competitive team sports, the same elements applied when I played basketball in different teams. Additionally, units that have operated on this level also become groups of people the startup world like to call Mafias, like the Paypal mafia.

We've also been labeled the "Slush Mafia," however, I don't like us tagged like that. For two reasons;

  • Mafias can be highly effective organizations but can never operate higher than a level 4 in the tribal leadership model. They wouldn't be labeled mafias unless they would impose violence on those who share the same values but are seen as a threat to their group because they compete for the same resources or territory.
  • Slush was born out of a desire to create a flourishing entrepreneurial ecosystem, scaled by a student-led movement in Helsinki, Finland, and supported by an entrepreneurial network broader than just Slush. To label us a mafia is counterproductive to the cause of building a startup ecosystem that would serve as an example for generations to come and would discredit the works of many valuable contributors. We are a community of communities or a tribe of tribes more than we are a family or a team.

2. Focus on people's strengths, not their weaknesses

In the second point of the letter, I encourage people to point out flaws. I've come to find this is plain wrong in terms of helping people develop.

In the first letter of this series, I mention that spelling mistakes have prevented me from sharing my writing. I've fallen trap of focusing on my weaknesses and defects to the extent that in 2020 I couldn't finish my yearly self-reflection exercise because the stuff that came out was so judgemental, and I couldn't do it for a couple of years for the same reasons. My self-criticism was on overdrive, as may be identified from my writing this previous spring, "The landscape of my life."

The book 9-lies about work summarizes the science behind the power of focusing on strengths. Essentially, people don't need feedback as much as they need attention when they are at their best. Humans are social beings, studies have shown that negative feedback is 30x more effective than no feedback at all, and positive feedback (attention to strengths) is 1200x more effective than no feedback at all. "Nagging" works because it's "attention" when there otherwise maybe none.

Furthermore, there are few things as deadly in this world than the feeling of loneliness or, in some cases, "lack of attention." It's as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Therefore, instead of giving advice or "positive verbal attention," one should understand listening is also an effective way to give positive attention. The HBR article; The feedback Fallacy gives some good suggestions on what to do instead.

The authors of the Feedback Fallacy are the same who have done the research behind nine lies about work.

These notions about feedback are something I only accumulated after leaving Slush at Smartly.io, where I ended up after Slush. At Smartly.io, I developed manager and leadership training (among other things subject to another article), and developing feedback training was one thing I did. These notions resonated strongly with me as the feeling of loneliness was something I hadn't understood I was tackling. I hoped anyone interacting with Slush would feel as stated in the first letter.

I always hoped that anyone who interacted with the organization would feel, not just the people who worked for it. That is, whatever your quest might be in terms of a better future, you wouldn’t feel alone.

As this section is a stark correction to my previous writing, I'd also need to add that the word for repairing broken pottery is kintsugi, not wabi-sabi. Related thoughts are finding beauty in imperfection, but wabi-sabi is not the correct word for the practice described. I'm pretty embarrassed not to have fact-checked this at the time of writing, and nobody corrected me at the time, so I didn't know any better.

Furthermore, it's worth mentioning that using the word "they"

If a vase is accidentally broken, for example, they do not throw away the pieces, try to patch it up, or try to hide the accident.

It is not something I should've done, as it feels alienating to the team in Japan. However, I believe this letter was not addressed to the international team, only to the team in Helsinki. I'm highlighting this as using "us" & "them" within your company is rarely something you want to do, as it's decremental to creating a sense of unity.

3. The right people care about you, regardless of what you choose to do.

The most recent Slush event ended with an entertaining stage program for anyone familiar with the Slush organization. Namely, an interview by the Slush chairman of the board of the three Slush CEOs

Timo Ahopelto interviews Marianne Vikkula, Andreas Saari and Miikka Huttunen

The discussion was entertaining for us, familiar with these individuals. I hope it is insightful for those who don't. However, it isn't very actionable when building something like Slush or replicating it. That's the subject of a future article. I'd like to address the discrepancy between what Marianne said about "nobody cares what you do after Slush" and what I've written in my letter under the last point "…Slush never leaves you".

After doing something like Slush and looking at what people have done, one may feel pressure to measure up to the legacy. Saying "nobody cares" aims to release this pressure, but it shouldn't mean nobody cares about you as a person, as that's what caring for your people as "family" means. The reason I say my door is open to anyone with a "Slush state of mind."

Finally, I'd like to mention something about Marianne that I feel is not understood. She doesn't get the credit for it as she is avidly labeled a "doer" (Timo even tries to put those words in her mouth in the discussion above). As accurate as that may be, she was always and still is a remarkable listener. If there was ever a leader who cared about you as a person, she did it by listening before doing.

I saw my job as "President" regarding that of Marianne (being the CEO) to ensure she didn't feel alone, as Horowitz describes being a CEO as the loneliest job in the world. There was never any doubt about who makes the final decision, but she made you feel you could. I also did my best to help her design an organization where she needed to make as few decisions as possible, trying to make both of us redundant for anything but caring for our people when they felt they needed help.

The dynamic we had always made me wonder how co-founders struggle so much. As many founders as I've had the pleasure of talking to, I cannot remember many who haven't mentioned co-founder struggles. I hypothesize that our lack of problems had to do with the fact that we never filtered any thoughts, and our thoughts were never met with any judgment from the other. Additionally, I feel she is better than me at what she does than I am what I do, and she knows how to listen more than anything. Arguably, you can say we weren't co-founders as we didn't start anything from scratch, but that isn't entirely true since every year was always a new scaling exercise.

After all these years, we still get together from time to time, discussing life, leadership, work, and the ecosystem. She might say nobody cares about what you do, but I'd say the right people will still care about you regardless of what you choose to do.

There aren't many pictures of Marianne and me together, but here is one from the fall of 2021 courtesy of Oona Poropudas, former Slush President.

When we left Slush, I gave her the book Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of caring for your people like family to remind her that how Slush was led during our time was different from our predecessors. Not for better or for worse, just different. Additionally, she was heading to a place where others wouldn't understand this style, so I hoped she wouldn't forget.

I'm mentioning this as I revisited the book when thinking about what to cover in this article. Additionally, I remembered Marianne had picked out a quote from it when she addressed the team for the last time.

Walk with the dreamers, the believers, the courageous, the cheerful, the planners, the doers, the successful people with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground. Let their spirit ignite a fire within you to leave this world better than when you found it. — WILFERD PETERSON

Last year I lost myself and my sense of direction for a while (even if I knew exactly my reasons for taking my actions). I hadn't been able to do the self-reflection exercise described in the letter above because the things that came out when writing it were so full of social pain I just couldn't do it.

The memory of the quote helped me find my way, as it reminded me of what we stood for back then. Today, most team members have gone out to do brilliant things. All are striving to find their path in this life. We couldn't tell them what to do even if we wanted to. All we ever had to do was be inspired by them, which is still valid.

Hence, for all who feel lost or looking for a sense of direction, I leave you with this;

The right people will care about you regardless of what you do. To find your way, be inspired by them.

“I can see the light in you on your darkest day, because it’s the light in you that lights my way” — Yours truly.

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