Saturday 4 May 2013

The Finnish futurepreneur

It's not about starting well but finishing well, says Thomas Zilliacus. He tells Susan Long how he gave up corporate super-stardom to foster entrepreneurship, a flatter world and a more balanced life.
The Straits Times, 3 May 2013

HIS unprepossessing office in Beach Road sits atop a roasted meat stall. He uses a $200 Ikea table and chipboard cabinets he assembled himself.

But if Singapore-based e-commerce social network YuuZoo's listing goes through, a Filipino cleaning lady will be laughing all the way to the bank. She will be at least a couple of hundred thousand dollars richer, as will all its 25 employees.

In fact, three project managers will become millionaires.

And that is exactly how YuuZoo's executive chairman and CEO Thomas Zilliacus, 59, a Finn who has lived here for 27 years, planned it. His goal is to create, in Nordic fashion, a more equal and balanced world but with a Singapore twist - where the sky is the limit for the talented who toil.

In the last five years, he has offered his hires, mainly "young, tech-savvy, big consumers of social networks", a deal popular with Silicon Valley start-ups. He negotiates their salaries to slightly below market rate, offering them lavish performance bonuses and stock options instead.

"We want people who say, 'Yes I'm an entrepreneur at heart. I don't have the capacity to start my own company yet but I want to feel like an entrepreneur in an entrepreneurial environment where I have a stake'," says the man who never leaves home without an elegant pocket square.

But even as YuuZoo, which has two million registered users in 164 countries, tries to double its workforce leading up to its listing by year-end, he laments that it has been tough finding Singaporean programmers and designers willing to take a gamble on something new.

There is also a paucity in e-commerce and mobile development skills here. In a recent recruitment exercise, he received 800 applications, and only four were from Singaporeans.

"I always promote YuuZoo as a home-grown Singapore company and I'd love to give opportunities to young Singaporeans to work here. But it has been hard to find them," he says.

He has 10 Singaporeans and permanent residents on his staff. The other 15 are from Israel, Sweden, India and elsewhere.

YuuZoo, meanwhile, is rewriting the market rules. It came up in 2008 when Mr Zilliacus joined forces with Australian founder Ron Creevey after he saw how quickly social networking was changing communication and consumption patterns. "A large majority of young consumers no longer trust traditional advertising anymore. What they do trust is people within their social network telling them what's good," he says.

YuuZoo's basic proposition is: People enter a social network to find new friends who share their passion. So a YuuZoo user who follows Australian rugby team Wests Tigers will avidly watch its videos on the site, chat with fellow fans and eye merchandise in the club's shop. Meanwhile, clients like Wests Tigers get to advertise, monetise their fan base and manage their brand.

His achievement: avoiding the fate of most social networking sites with "amazing valuations but no money" - by rapidly building his franchisee network. "Like McDonald's and Starbucks, I sell the rights to the local market and they do the local adaptation. Just like McDonald's has a wasabi burger here, I want my franchisees to build local adaptations of our solutions for their own market."

Last year, YuuZoo made a net profit of about $10 million on revenues of about $35 million, an improvement over its $3.5 million profit on revenue of $25 million in 2011. Its clients include American publisher Hearst Corporation, TV producer FremantleMedia and online video gaming company IAHGames.

YuuZoo founder Creevey, 41, who has worked with Mr Zilliacus for five years, says: "Thomas has a strong focus on how a start-up needs to be managed from a financial perspective. Too many people focus on just the technology and ignore the importance of putting strong financial disciplines in place."

Next: Mobile Idol

MEANWHILE, Mr Zilliacus has another 15 start-ups in the mobile and Internet space on the boil. He is now looking for young Singaporeans game to take them forward.

"It's like a reversal of the venture capital business where you wait for people to come to you with ideas that you invest in. I have turned it around by creating the idea and am looking for people to take them to the next stage.

"Of course, I'll give them shares in the company as well, so that if one of these things becomes a huge success, they will not only be employees; they'll be true entrepreneurs sharing the success," he says.

He will soon launch Mobile Idol, a more egalitarian online version of American Idol, which might enable a kid in the slums of Calcutta to become a global superstar.

He hopes people will use their smartphones to film each other warbling and post it online; and the huge social network out there - not a panel of celebrity judges - will vote for the best. It is a way of using new technology as an equalising factor, he says.

On the side, he is also working with his two daughters, aged 14 and 16, on social networks for pre-teens and teenagers on hobbies they are interested in, such as photography or dancing. "Again, modern technology allows people to create their own videos and pictures, share these with others and cast their votes," he says, adding that he hopes to unearth budding photographers from far-flung places who could use the prize money to further their studies.

Having it all early

MR ZILLIACUS was Finland's IT poster boy and its most eligible bachelor in the 1980s, boasting three meteoric careers in business, sports and politics.

The eldest of three children of a confectionery company senior executive and a housewife aced school, gaining direct entry to two universities to study political science and business at the same time.

He was a champion footballer and at 20, spent a year training in Brazil, where he played at the world's largest MaracanĂ£ Stadium. At 27, he went on to chair Finland's premier football club, HJK.

He also chaired the University of Helsinki's students' union, whose board produced three Finnish premiers. At 22, he ran for Parliament and lost. But at 23, he was the youngest member to win a seat on the Helsinki City Council, where he served eight years.

By 25, he was plucked out of business school to be Nokia's global head of public relations, branding and marketing. Within five years, he transformed Nokia's dowdy image as a rubber boots and paper mill company into a dynamic telecommunications player.

At 30, Nokia sent him to Singapore to explore opportunities in Asia. "I was 15 years younger than everybody else, single, the cheapest person to send," he reflects.

In 1986, he arrived here, quickly discovered his inner entrepreneur, began selling mobile phones, fixed lines, networks and cables and built Nokia's Asian business from scratch.

From 1988, he was also roped in by the Football Association of Singapore to help Geylang United football club which he helped manage for five years. He did it pro bono, even defrayed club expenses and housed European players he helped recruit.

He did this till he felt homesick. When he returned to Helsinki in 1993, he had expanded Nokia's business to over 10 countries and thousands of employees across Asia. Till today, Asia remains Nokia's largest revenue generator.

But he felt hemmed in by head office bureaucracy in Helsinki after running his own show so far away for so long. He lasted barely three months before he resigned.

Finland had become "too slow" for him. Missing Asia's dynamism, he returned here to try becoming his own boss.

He had been widely tipped to be Nokia's next CEO and was seen as disappearing into the sunset. Years later, in 2005, the leading Finnish financial weekly Suomen Kuvalehti ran his face on its cover with a story headlined: "What happened to Nokia's big hope of the 80s?"

But it was easy to walk away because, at 39, he had nothing left to prove. "I had already done the things most people then only did in their 50s," he reflects.

Rebalancing life

GOING it alone was dispiriting at first. His initial forays into paper machinery, Nordic health products and business consultancy for European companies entering Asia failed to take off, till he started Mobile FutureWorks in 1998 to develop and invest in companies in the mobile space.

He met his Japan-born, US-educated wife in 1993. After their daughters were born here, he changed tack to pursue a better work-life balance, making sure he was home for them after school, getting involved in their hobbies and coaching their soccer teams.

For the last 20 years, he has shuttled his family between Finland and Singapore, spending three months in Finland and the rest of the year here in a colonial bungalow near Mount Faber. Idyllic summers are spent on the 27 Finnish islands he owns, which create a small archipelago. They go back to basics there in a solar-powered house, washing clothes by hand, fishing in the sea and going boating.

Once, he attended the board meeting of a Singapore-listed company at 4am Finnish time, via Skype, and wearing his pyjama shorts beneath the table.

He attributes his personal turning point to his former CEO and mentor Kari Kairamo burning out and committing suicide in 1988.

The latter, a depressive known for his unrelenting work ethic, stopped his medication to give his all to Nokia. But his successors played down his legacy, which made Mr Zilliacus thereafter resolve to find his own significance outside of work and status symbols.

Today, he donates social networks worth hundreds of thousands to various charities here, such as the Global Citizen Forum. He's also building a social network platform for the United World College, where his daughters are enrolled, to create a safe environment for kids to chat on.

He's also thinking deeply about how best to help both Singaporeans and Finns live the best, balanced life knowingly and gratefully. "I am fortunate enough to live in two places which count among the best places to live in the world - Singapore and Finland. Unfortunately, people in both places complain way too much," he observes.

"If there's one thing I would like to help change in my lifetime, it's to help both populations - both coincidentally about five million - believe in their own country and in themselves, and understand how blessed they are to live in these exceptional places."

Thomas Zilliacus on...

Seeing into the future

"I do believe that I have a certain ability to see where things are heading. In a 2002 CNBC interview, I held up a basic feature phone and said that, a few years from now, you will be able to watch videos, take pictures on these phones. When I came to Singapore in the 1980s, my first office for Nokia was at Liat Towers and I said to my local friends: 'Look, there's this enormous pavement, why don't we rent space there for an outdoor cafe, where you can watch people and drink coffee.' They laughed at me and said nobody will ever sit outside, it's way too hot and nobody drinks coffee here, only tea. That was before Starbucks. So now if I believe in something, I just do it. I will no longer ask others. There are always naysayers who see only the present."

Singapore becoming more Scandinavian

"I am a little concerned that some here feel Singapore should adopt the Scandinavian model. Singapore has been very good in creating equal opportunities by supporting education, housing and other key functions, so that everyone has the opportunity to rise up. But when society starts to take care of those who have failed - and I'm not saying it shouldn't - it is on a slippery slope. There will always be people who will misuse the system.

In my home country, you have 500 days of unemployment benefit where you get up to 90 per cent of your salary. Strangely enough, during those 500 days, people can't find work for whatever reason. But the day the money runs out, all of a sudden they find a job.

I feel equality, above all, should mean equality in opportunity, not a stranglehold where the deserving are pulled down by a system that says you cannot be too successful."

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