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Forbes: What Finland’s business success can teach the rest of the world

Heikki Väänänen | Executive VP of Growth, HappyOrNot

In my latest Forbes article, I take a look at what makes Finland such a global success story when it comes to business, and why you maybe didn’t know why some of the world’s biggest companies are actually Finnish. 

For a country with a population of just over 5.5 million people, Finland seems to consistently rank at the top of a lot of lists. Take the 2021 World Happiness Index which, once again, ranked Finland the happiest country in the world. Likewise, the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) 2019 ranked Finland top for digital competitiveness in the EU. These lists go on and on and Finland is near the top or at the top of all of them. 

Knowing this, it’s no surprise that Finland has produced some of the biggest business success stories in the world, including global telecommunications company Nokia, cybersecurity giants F-Secure, Kone, the global leader in lift and escalator manufacturing, Supercell, the developers behind Clash of Clans, Angry Birds creators Rovio, and oil refining and marketing company Neste. Additionally, Finnish delivery app Wolt was also just sold to US giant DoorDash for a staggering $8 billion, one of the largest sales in Finland’s history. 

But, if your first thought after reading that was “I had no idea any of those companies were Finnish”, don’t worry, you are not alone. While some companies, like Wolt and Supercell have been making headlines and ensuring their target audience knows who they are, many have not. 

Part of the reason for this is that, as a rule, Finns tend not to boast about their achievements, meaning that lots of Finnish organizations are quietly thriving, unbeknownst to the rest of the world. But what makes Finland so special, why don’t people brag, and what can other countries learn from its unassuming success? 

It’s a Finn Thing

If you’re ever fortunate enough to be in a room with a group of Finns, the first thing you’ll notice will probably be their reserved and introverted nature. That’s not to say that Finns are unemotional or hard to talk to, though. In fact, you’ll often find quite the opposite. Once you get to know them, Finns are very warm, chatty and welcoming people. It’s just that being humble, bashful and unboastful is simply ingrained within the culture, as is avoiding small talk, and instead preferring to get straight to the point. These cultural norms, partly made up of pragmatism, reticence, and humble and quiet nature, have inadvertently paved the way for Finland’s great success in a number of categories. 

  • Finns focus a lot more heavily on social support for their citizens, whether that’s helping the unemployed find work, or helping the homeless find housing, Finns take care of their own and the effects are felt widely throughout the country where goals and ideas seem to align at every level of society. 
  • This attitude extends to businesses, too. Big or small, Finland has systems in place to ensure that everyone, regardless of background or wealth, has the opportunity to succeed, because nobody is deemed better than anyone else, purely based on social class.
  • Finland’s education system also plays a significant role. Following significant educational reform in the 1970s, Finland’s schooling system changed dramatically. The result was the abolishment of standardized testing, greater accountability for teaching staff, and an increased focus on ensuring children’s basic needs are met. This includes providing free school meals for all students, as well as placing increased importance on the nutritional value of the food kids are eating. Unlike in many schools around the world where vending machines offer up endless choices of sugary drinks and junk food, Finnish schools ensure that all food being served to children has nutritional value and will help students to focus when learning, as they should be able to do in school. 
  • Finland also gives students access to free healthcare and offers individual, personalized guidance and counselling.
  • Unlike in other countries, students are actively provided with options if they don’t want to go to university after high school. Finland, in addition to preparing students for college or university, allows students to enrol in three-year vocational education programs, which ultimately means that if higher education isn’t for you, it doesn’t mean your journey has come to an end.

Business Means Business

Finland’s business culture is also fairly unique, being primarily shaped by and built on a foundation of trust. A handshake agreement goes a long way in Finland because giving one’s word is just as powerful as signing a formal contract. Because of this, there’s very little underhandedness or backstabbing in business, meaning that you’ll very rarely find entrepreneurs making grand promises that they can’t keep. And if you ever did, the population is so small that news of such behavior will travel very fast and it’s unlikely that whoever it is would get away with it a second time. 

  • Business dealings in Finland are also a lot more transparent when compared with the rest of the world, leading to better relationship building, greater respect for your colleagues, and a sense of duty to remain honest and forthcoming with all business proceedings. 
  • Because of the successes of big brands like Wolt, Supercell, Rovio, Nokia and Kone, the country also has a lot more available capital. 10 years ago, raising $1 million for your startup was extremely difficult, nowadays, startups can secure $1 million from angel investors in a matter of weeks. 

The key takeaway is that it’s not always about who can shout the loudest, sometimes good brands speak for themselves and you don’t need to boast or brag in order to get attention. Equally, by focussing on the wellbeing and education of the population from a young age, progress is a lot easier to make.  

The Finnish people understand that it shouldn’t be about fighting your way to the top, there’s enough room up there for everyone and when you take the competition out of business, you don’t need to boast. Instead, you can simply just enjoy the success.