Moro! Building a truly global company in Helsinki

Posted on May 9, 2016

By Chris Thür, CEO of Yousician.

I was an international student at Tampere University of Technology when I met my co-founder Mikko the first time. Little did we know that together we would build a company, that would grow to become a truly global actor in music education. Today, Yousician is not only a successful music education platform, but a truly multicultural company: We have users basically from all over the world (including Tonga, Turkmenistan and North Korea) but also the team behind the application is genuinely multicultural. Even though the company is located in Finland, about half of our team members are originally from somewhere else. This has been the way of Yousician from the day one. First there was only me, a guy from Switzerland and Mikko. Gradually we have built a team of currently around 50 people from 17 different countries.

When looking for new team members for Yousician, there are a few things that we find very important, but nationality is not one of them. We search for the people who have the passion for music or music education, love what they do as a profession and are great at it. We are a group of proactive people with a can-do attitude and we are looking for people who enjoy taking strong ownership for their own areas. In a nutshell, we are looking for a cultural fit to Yousician, and it turns out this fit does not correlate with nationality.

Most international people at Yousician had already worked or studied in Finland before they joined us, so they knew the weather and culture they were getting into but some of our team have also moved to Finland to join the team, so previous experience of Finland is not a requirement in Yousician. Yousician is a rapidly changing, agile company and something new and exciting is happening every day. But there is one rule we hold on to tightly: We do not speak any other language at the office than English. If you “get caught” speaking some other language, there is a severe punishment: you have to clean up the kitchen!

For us it has always been clear that we want to be a global player and build a genuinely global company, the strictly English only approach has made it easier to achieve. Most of our customers are in the English speaking world and our application is in English. Also the world around our company works through this global language: the literature, start-up blogs, technology conversations, science on education, our investors from Silicon Valley, and advisors from all around the world. We got the idea from the CEO of Wooga, Jens Begeman and it has proven to be a right decision for us. And actually it is quite difficult to talk about our work in Finnish because most of the vocabulary we use derives from English. E.g. the sentence “We are implementing matrix algebra API for neural network project and improve the API of multi-threaded evaluation DSP” would in Finnish be “Käytämme matriisialgebra-API:a neuraaleille verkkoprojekteille ja parannamme monisäikeistä evaluaatio-DSP-API:a.” So perhaps now you understand why we prefer English…

Communication and transparency within the company are very important for us. With the exception of personal issues that concern one individual team member, everyone can know anything within Yousician: how much revenue and users we have, what everyone is working on, why the management makes certain decisions. The “English only” rule helps a lot with transparency, as it removes the language issue of our multinational mix and helps us to make sure everyone is included and able to participate. So if you are a Finn or not, good skills in English are a must if you would like to join us.

But just like every other rule, there are a few exceptions for this one too. It is ok to speak Finnish with our Finnish speaking guests e.g. the guys who carried up our grand piano to the 9th floor. Also, if one of the team members wants to learn to speak your mother tongue, then non-work related conversation in a language other than English is ok. And the third but by no means least of the exceptions is, as the company was founded in Tampere, many of us still say “Moro” as we leave the office.

As an educational company, we strongly encourage our international team members to learn Finnish, and the company is paying for people’s Finnish classes. Good language skills have never hurt anybody and we also have a more strategic reason for that: Even basic skills in Finnish help people feel more home here. And our team members enjoying their lives in Helsinki is a vital element for a long-term working relationship with Yousician.

Even though our team is multicultural, nationality is actually a non-issue at our office. There are no nationality cliques in Yousician and sometimes it is hard to remember who is a Finn and who isn’t. Other than when people bring e.g. traditional goodies for their birthdays to the office, the question of nationality is rarely brought up.

We also see that different backgrounds give us competitive advantage. If we would primarily be a Finnish company, most of our team would have very similar backgrounds, both culturally and in terms of education and work environments. In a team that has people who have studied, worked and lived all around the globe, we are better equipped to look at things from a different perspective. Living and working in an international culture also encourages people to question their own views that we easily take for granted. Personally I have lived for over 10 years away from Switzerland, and I both enjoy and value this experience a lot.

Yousician has been founded over 5 years ago, and had our ups and downs, things that worked and things that did not. Regarding an international and passionate team, there are two things we have certainly learned: First, if you are an entrepreneur going after an international market, you should think about introducing an english-only policy too. And second, if you are interested in working in a truly international company, and love music, you should join Yousician 🙂 Until then, Au revoir, auf wiedersehen, tot ziens, so long, sudie, adeus, До свидания, viszontlátásra, sbohem, güle güle! Or simply Moro!