Traveling and launching a company: Antti Virolainen / Sharetribe

Antti Virolainen caught my attention when he wrote Around The World With A Backpack And A Laptop – A Year Of A Tech Startup Entrepreneur. A few days later, I had an opportunity to meet him. If I’m Piéton de l’air (Air Walker), call him His Airness Antti… because he made the world his basketball court.

Antti Virolainen

Antti Virolainen

Describe what Sharetribe does, what problem it solves and for whom?

Sharetribe is the easiest way to start a local peer-to-peer marketplace online. The site can be used to share many types of resources (items, help, car rides, spaces) and in many ways (sell, lend, rent, give), and the site can be customized to fit local community spirit and needs.

For example you can start a site to sell second hand books and rent student apartments at your university, or create a sharing site for your company where people can help colleagues, recycle small children clothes, share car rides when coming to office etc.

The main problem we solve for the user is that many times it’s difficult, time consuming or expensive to get the item or help you need, while many people in your existing community might like to help you or have the needed item. Sharetribe makes it easy to get what you need and help others while getting to know nearby people better.

For new site starters we solve the problem of complexity. On Sharetribe.com you can start a new tribe with a few clicks and customize it for your community. In near future you will be able to make money with your site if you want.

Sharetribe

Sharetribe

Why should people or companies use Sharetribe?

The main motivation for users is usually a combination of saving time, money and the environment while getting to know new people on the side. The biggest one for most is just the convenience of getting needed stuff from trusted people cheaper than buying it new, but the social and environmental benefits come as a bonus. It’s a win-win deal when consumption of new natural resources is avoided and social connections are made.

For companies the goal of making their worker community more social is usually the biggest motivator, although showing the environmental savings can be good PR too.

The third type of motivation to start a new tribe is to earn money through ads or commissions by offering a local market for a specific niche group, e.g. place where pet owners in your city can buy/sell equipment and find dog sitters etc.

Sharetribe

How did your initial idea evolve? Were there changes/any pivots along the way? What other options have you considered for the business if the original vision fails?

Sharetribe got started at Aalto University campus (Helsinki, Finland). It was part of a research project. The initial idea was to make a service where people on campus can ask help from other students (and to do research on how people use the service). The popularity of the service grew quickly as we added new types of exchange (e.g. lending items) to the service, based on the user feedback. When the end of the research project was getting closer, there were already thousands of users on the campus and we decided to investigate if there would be similar needs in other communities too.

One change of plans was that instead of growing the marketplace to cover whole Finland, we heard from users that they were appreciating the fact that it was their own site for their own trusted community. So we decided to do a platform to host local communities instead of launching a bigger global marketplace. When investigating the needs, it looked that there are enough of large-scale generic marketplaces, but what was needed in many communities was a tool to make their own trusted corner in the web to share items with the members.

At first we started selling our product to universities as that was the proven business case. It works, but the decision making process in most universities is annoyingly slow, so we started to look more towards companies and business parks. With them also the sales cycle by cold calling is very long for a small startup. This kind of sharing economy service is not yet so mainstream that it would be easy to explain the benefits to all the levels of hierarchy involved in the decision making process.

The latest shift of focus has been a bottom-up approach towards new tribe starters. Everybody can now start his tribe: we give tools for customizations, promotion, and also possibilities to earn money with the service. There is a huge number of classified sites started all around, and as the Sharing Economy movement grows, there will be growing need for an easy tool to start peer-to-peer sharing marketplaces for local needs.

What is your background? What are your previous experiences?

I got on to the entrepreneurial path quite directly from studies. I started in Helsinki University of Technology (that became Aalto University after a fusion of 3 universities in 2010). My study program was Information networks, which combines computer science, business and communication studies. I’d say that it was a great program for an entrepreneur, although I didn’t see this as a career option while studying.

I focused on programming and worked on many web development projects during the summers and part-time during the semesters also. I made my master’s thesis on the research project where the first version of Sharetribe was made. So the path to starting my own company with a colleague from the project was after all relatively straightforward.

Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland

Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland

Can you describe what you’ve learned from your trip to Russia by train (Aalto on Tracks) in 2008 and the Aalto on Waves trip last year? I’ve also heard that Aalto is going to Africa in 2013!

I’m a big fan of these student-organized Aalto Experiences. Each has taken me to a completely new country and culture and in a mostly new travel company. They naturally thought me a lot about the places visited. I think this kind of projects gather together really interesting people so the network of people I’ve got by traveling with them is also great.

Still maybe the biggest lesson has been that many things which sound incredible are in fact possible. It started with just a few students thinking that it would be cool to take trainload of Aalto people from Helsinki to visit Shanghai world expo traveling the Trans-Siberian railroad. They started sharing the idea and quickly a bigger group of enthusiastic students got involved. A few people rented the train (apparently not too easy in Russia), a few organized the accommodation in China, one took care of the Visa applications and almost every participant helped to create some program on board and during the stay in China.

Encouraged by this example a few Aalto on Tracks participants started to plan the next journey, from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro… by ship! And that trip was made possible by over a hundred enthusiastic students joining. Now the third Aalto trip is going to Africa in September. As I’m not officially a student I’m glad that the organizers allowed the alumni to apply too!

To summarize, the biggest lesson of these trips has been the inspiration provided to all of us. It also encouraged students from the Chinese Tongji University to pay us a visit back via the same route (Tongji on Tracks program), and I hope to see this kind of movement spread even further. It can even work as an entrepreneurship education in a form of a travel experience. You can dream big and you can make it happen. Especially if you don’t try to do it all alone.

Aalto on waves

Aalto on waves

Tell us about your trip through South America once you reached Sao Paulo by ship.

It was an interesting mixture of balancing between work and holiday mindsets. I travelled all the time in a group from 2 to 5 which partially made it easier, but probably traveling alone would have resulted in a larger amount of completely work dedicated days.

Traveling through the continent was actually easier than I expected. Night busses were comfortable and cheap and covered long distances easily. From Sao Paulo we took one to see the waterfalls at Iguazu and then another one to get to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, which apparently is not the biggest tourist attraction of the continent, but was fun to see.

From there we cheated a bit and took a flight to La Paz, which was surprisingly great city to see. A capital in almost 4000m altitude took some time to get adjusted to, but was somehow fascinating. From there it was again easy to continue by busses and see Titicaca Lake, Cusco, Machu Picchu, Colca Canyon and some parts of northern Chile before the final 24h bus ride from Iquique to Santiago to be there on time for Start-Up Chile.

What resources or tools did you find most helpful during the Start-Up Chile program?

As the reality of a bootstrapping startup usually is that there’s not enough money for anything, the biggest single asset we got from Start-Up Chile was the money. 40 000 dollars budget for 6 months helped us to buy necessary resources from laptops to software. We were able to hire help for internationalization, travel to events in the US and Japan to make us more known, design a better logo and visuals, etc.

However, money was definitely not the only benefit. The whole experience of living in Chile and putting up business there was really important for me. Also on the personal level, but also it taught me a lot professionally. It kind of forced us to exit the small and cozy markets of Finland and put our product out to the world.

Also the network of young entrepreneurs from all over the world was great and there was a real spirit of helping and sharing knowledge. Even now afterwards people are staying in contact and asking for favors back and forth.

The most important « survival asset » was the open and flexible attitude, like it is in almost everything. Organization and the Chilean system in general were pretty good, but of course there are moments of frustration. To keep our geographically spread team on the same page, we used a lot of Flowdock, Skype, Google Hangouts and Google Docs and things went pretty nicely.

Learning some Spanish was helpful and also highly motivating in an environment where meeting non-English speakers was quite frequent. I didn’t have time for official Spanish courses, but using mobile version of Anki flashcards while sitting in the metro and trying to speak a lot despite the numerous errors ended up getting me on a good survival level during the program.

Start-Up Chile

How did you realize that it was necessary to be global?

Most of the businesses starting in Finland should know that already when starting. Unless it’s something really mainstream, the 5 million population is not going to be enough. I don’t say that things should be global from day one, but for us when getting out of Finland, we decided to at least open the doors for people to start a new Sharetribe, wherever they wanted.

You had an opportunity to attend SXSW in Austin, Texas…

SXSW is pretty awesome Startup (and music and film) festival. It was possible to put the costs to Start-Up Chile budget and there was such a lot happening that year in the field of the Sharing Economy that we decided to send me there to network with the people on the field and make Sharetribe a bit more known. It really feels like the place to be in order to be playing along with the bigger guys in the field, but it’s also really challenging to get your voice heard there or to even decide which one of the events to choose.

How did you end up in South-East Asia?

My co-founder spotted a story on the Arctic Startup website about Project Getaway. It’s a project that gathers entrepreneurs to live for one month in a rented villa in Bali and work on their projects there. The Project Getaway was held at the perfect time because I was about to leave Chile, I had no rent to pay in Finland, so it was a good opportunity for traveling. I decided to apply and got through. There was also a conference in Vietnam a bit before Project Getaway so these both stops on the way home from Chile ended up fitting in my schedule quite nicely.

Also this trip thought me about possibilities. The winter and autumn in the Nordics are not the best times weather-wise, so the simple idea of renting a place in a warm, beautiful and cheap place was surprisingly good idea from the Danish guy Michael Bodekær who started the project few years ago. And again, he decided to invite like-minded people to share and co-create the experience.

Like Start-Up Chile, Project Getaway included a lot of events where participants shared their knowledge. That resulted in a lot of practical information (e.g. about payment gateways, Adwords, etc.) and a lot of inspiration about how to automate things and run businesses on the road.

Project Getaway (Antti Virolainen)

Project Getaway (Antti Virolainen)

It is often said that Western developers are attracted to South East Asia by the cost of living. They want to have time to code and develop their product… Have you seen some of them in Vietnam?

Yes, in Vietnam I visited a co-working space in Ho Chi Minh City and met a few people working there. I also learned that they have some flats right next door so it’s possible to go there to live and work and enjoy the great Vietnamese food on quite a reasonable budget. Similarly the Power House community (by the creators of Project Getaway) of a few permanent villas rented in Bali is growing as more and more people want to go there to work on their online businesses.

Can you describe what Startup Stay is and how it helped you?

Startup Stay is like Couch Surfing, but it is focusing on entrepreneurs only. Everybody has to get an invite to join so they put effort to build a trusted community. The shared interest towards entrepreneurship is what has made it more interesting than couch surfing for me. You can ask for accommodation there, but they also encourage members to get in touch with entrepreneurs coming to their town and that has resulted already in many nice encounters, like this interview !

Fred Caballero, co-founder of Startup Stay, is hosted in Riga, Latvia by another entrepreneur, Maris Jonovs 

What were your biggest mistakes, or biggest wastes of time/money during this year as a traveling entrepreneur?

The first thing that comes to my mind as completely unnecessary waste of resources was losing a laptop by being not cautious in Chile. It was stolen from my backpack in an event where it was earlier used as presentation computer attached to the projector. Luckily the data loss was small because it was a new laptop that we got for a person working for us there. Most of the money was returned by travel insurance, but still it was a lesson learned the hard way, and the rest of my trip I was maybe even bit over cautious, but didn’t lose anything else.

Is it difficult to work remotely?

Most of the development is relatively easy. What is hard is to get in the good spirit of brainstorming and throwing ideas and planning longer term future. With my co-founder we can do that easily in the same room in front of a whiteboard, but we haven’t found yet an online tool that would get us to the same state of creativity.

How do you see the startup ecosystem in Finland?

It’s growing really nicely and that has been happening for a few years now. Big thanks goes to Aalto Entrepreneurship Society which at least in my point of view has been one of the first and loudest voices encouraging people to see entrepreneurship as a career path. Now it’s something quite desired and even trendy. That really wasn’t the case 5 years ago.

The funding part of the ecosystem is not great yet, but also that is growing. Still I hear that many startups have to go overseas (to Silicon Valley or at least to bigger European capitals) to raise capital. The governmental funding of Finland makes it easier to get the first steps, and it has helped us also, but it doesn’t enable promising young companies to grow as they could with bigger private investments funds. Anyway I love the current atmosphere in Finland. Entrepreneurship is something that people talk about and believe in.

How do you see the growing number of startups focused on the sharing economy field in France?

It feels like France is one of the leading areas in Europe in Sharing Economy. Some fields like carpooling and peer-to-peer car rental seem to be relatively widely used whereas they both have been struggling to gain critical masses (and encouraging legislation) in Finland. Also the OuiShare movement started from France and it’s doing a great job by spreading the awareness.

OuiShare

OuiShare

Where do you see yourselves in 3 years time, what specific challenges do you hope to have overcome?

The most specific challenge is to get our business model to work so that the income is stable and enables further growth. The vision is to make Sharetribe the WordPress of the Sharing Economy and to make the experience of starting your own sharing site as easy as starting an online shop in Shopify. We are not there yet but in 3 years Sharetribe should be the default platform choice for anyone wanting to start this type of site.

We also hope that the collaboration between Sharing Economy services will grow a lot in the next 3 years. Even though we see the local communities as a great form of sharing forum, those should not be walled gardens. If two nearby communities are made with Sharetribe or some other software, it should be easy to enable sharing also when people want to cross the boundaries. There are already plans of common Sharing API, but I hope in 3 years it would be actively in use every day.

What is wrong with your industry that requires another startup to help it out?

There are thousands of small groups starting different sharing services here and there. Joining forces would make sense in many cases. But in practice it’s really really hard if two teams are on the way and have started to build their own product according to their own vision. I’m not sure if another startup could help in this. The challenge is to do the matchmaking so early that people can combine their visions before starting to work. When we started Sharetribe, we didn’t know (and apparently didn’t search too well) about similar projects. Especially with Open Source projects (like Sharetribe) it would be a huge benefit to have multiple teams joining forces.

Antti Virolainen

The Andes (Antti Virolainen)

Do you see things in common between traveling and launching a company?

Yes there’s a lot of similarities. You are heading for the unknown. And that’s also part of the reason why you are doing it. There would be safer and more predictable ways of getting along by staying closer to home. But taking the risk and getting comfortable with uncertainty can open you up to experiences and rewards that you didn’t even expect.

Some people like to plan their trips very thoroughly. I think it’s enough to plan the critical parts and those that are wise to book ahead (like long-haul flights) and then just get started. Leave some space for the puzzle pieces to move and you will notice them falling together sometimes because of something you learned on the way and sometimes almost by themselves.

Decide a direction, a guiding start that you can follow when lost, but don’t expect to reach that star exactly. A new valley will open when you climb that mountain and you are likely to change your plan anyway based on what you see later. But the better you choose the initial direction, the more likely you are to get on the regions that you’d like to see.

And one more encouraging thought: you can always change direction or come back home if you don’t like. You’ll probably lose some money but you’ll be wiser after the experience and that’s worth the investment in most cases. At least for me it has always been, but people are different. Listen to yourself.

His Airness Antti in Bolivia near Salar de Uyuni

His Airness Antti in Bolivia near Salar de Uyuni

 Read also Around The World With A Backpack And A Laptop – A Year Of A Tech Startup Entrepreneur by Antti Virolainen on ArcticStartup