A while ago, we had the pleasure of having Mårten Mickos — an Aalto alumni, entrepreneur and current CEO of HackerOne — visit us for a talk. He shared his journey from Otaniemi to Silicon Valley, full of valuable tips for the aspiring entrepreneur. We gathered eight of what we think are the most important lessons from his talk:
Make your own journey, don’t copy others
Everybody is on their own journey. For Mårten, his big thing in life was moving to Silicon Valley and beginning a life there, but for you, it could be something totally different, yet just as meaningful. He encourages everyone to find their own big thing instead of trying to live someone else’s life. People have different backgrounds, talents and ambitions, and it makes no sense to follow a path that’s not for you. “My journey is mine, and ancient history besides. Make your own way, don’t try to follow in my footsteps,” he says.
Direct your motion
We’re all in constant motion, Mårten says, but sometimes the direction is unclear. As long as we’re alive, something is going on in our minds. Sometimes it might feel like we’re just moving in circles, but that’s still moving. By focusing on what we want to achieve, we can direct that movement toward our goals and ambitions. You might not always get where you want, but you will get somewhere — and that’s better than nowhere.
When others are better than you, it makes you want to be better, too.
Go where good people gather
Mårten was never interested in technology, and he still isn’t. He decided to study at the Helsinki University of Technology — now Aalto University — because he felt that’s where he would find the most talented people. He thinks the same is true for Silicon Valley, which he describes as Otaniemi for adults. “The best thing I got from Aalto was the friends I got to play and compete with. When others are better than you, it makes you want to be better, too,” Mårten says.
“I thought that everyone is an optimist, but that’s not true,” Mårten says. He is, though, and encourages everyone else to think positively, too. Focusing on opportunities instead of risks leads to braver ventures, he claims. If you’re not optimistic, his advice is to practice it until you are — so fake it ‘til you make it. Thinking positively doesn’t mean you should be ready for risks; just that you shouldn’t spend your time worrying about them too much. Or, like Mårten says: “Be optimistic until sh*t hits the fan.”
What you want is what you get
Our goals drive our actions. If your goal is to make money, you — perhaps unconsciously — start looking for opportunities to make money, such as a job as a consultant. While there’s nothing wrong with being a consultant, Mårten thinks it doesn’t teach you the grit, courage and tenacity needed as an entrepreneur. Instead, you should set your goals higher and strive for something greater. In the startup space, you need money, sure, but you can’t focus on it, or it’ll be the only thing you achieve. “I learned that doing things I like with good people leads to impact, which in turn leads to money,” Mårten says.
Don’t look for your passion; you might never find it
Some people tell you to follow your passion. Mårten says those people are wrong. He feels like most people don’t have passion, and if they’re told to follow it, they end up doing something silly and failing since they don’t really know what they’re doing. Passion isn’t something everyone’s born with, or that can be found if we look hard enough. Mårten claims that passion comes through work: “People think they have this divine right for passion, but that’s BS. Just start doing something, whether it’s boring or difficult, and the passion will come. Don’t waste your time looking and doing nothing.”
People think they have this divine right for passion, but that’s BS.
Develop agency, take responsibility
You should always believe that what you do has meaning. If you think that what you do doesn’t matter, that you’ll fail anyway, or that it’s best just to do what everyone else is doing, that shows a lack of agency — and Mårten thinks everyone should have agency. Developing agency isn’t simple, as it may result from so many different factors — being poor, wealthy, neglected, supported, and so on. According to Mårten, however, the key point is to understand that no matter your background, you succeed or fail because of you, not where you come from. “We succeed not thanks to our conditions but despite them. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you got from your parents, university or country — only you can make you,” he says.
Time is money, money is time
“In Finland, people think how to save money. In Silicon Valley, they think how to spend more,” Mårten says. Time, however, is another thing — that should not be spent carelessly. Many people found their startups too early, but there’s no time to waste once they do. Attention will fade, people will stop caring, and something new will steal your spotlight, so strike when the iron is still hot. Spend all the money and other resources you need, but make the most out of the time you have — it’s the only thing you can’t get back. Time is indeed money, but sometimes, the opposite is also true. “If your business is sinking, but you have money, you can drop everything else and use that money to stay floating long enough to come up with a fix,” Mårten says.