What happens when you bring together thousands of European start-ups and venture capitalists in the heart of Finland? You get Slush – the tech party of the year.
It was my first time at Slush in Helsinki. And oh my, it is miles apart from the conferences I’ve attended in the UK.
Slush – described as the “most founder-focused event on earth” – is reminiscent of a techno music festival, with an electrifying buzz, renowned DJs and hundreds of side events and parties (in the freezing snow). Don’t forget the trapezists and acrobats who danced down from the ceiling to kick off the opening ceremony.
It’s an unrivalled line up: from top tier tech and investment journalists, eager early-stage founders with big dreams through to heavyweight investors with decades of experience. These ingredients could make the event cliquey, but it’s not – it’s a friendly, open atmosphere.
This openness translates into the activities that shape the social calendar around the conference. I bumped into VCs that I’d met earlier in the week at the local sauna, and strategically timed my next sauna visit with a journalist also planning a trip, just so we didn’t have to experience an awkward encounter in the wellness pool.
One night, a crypto fanatic told me and my journalist companion that his ex-girlfriend threw his crypto wallet in the sea (with six figures on it). He was already thousands deep into paying scuba divers to retrieve it (sadly to no avail) and wanted our help in creating a ‘media frenzy’ to save his wallet.
On that wild note, here are my takeaways for investors and start-ups looking to attend Slush next year, and tips for how to make it an impactful communications moment.
Focus on the fundamentals
I watched fireside chats with the hot shots of the tech industry: OpenAI, Monzo, Stripe, Bolt, Booking.com, Discord through to investors from Northzone, Accel, Index, Atomico and Sequoia.
A key theme: get back to basics. Executives were asked about navigating the downturn, reaching profitability, and how to grow – and secure new funding – in the current economic environment.
The overwhelming response was the importance of strong foundations, taking the time to perfect your product and build the right teams for success. This resonated well with the audience, who were comforted by talk of sustainable, steady growth, not crazy high valuations (though there was definitely interest in whether public markets will make a comeback next year, with Monzo tipped to list in either Europe or the US).
VCs emphasised similar points, giving practical tips and tangible advice on the Builder Stage to an audience of seed founders taking diligent notes.
This mantra is also true when it comes to sustainability. The trick is to focus on getting the right data and measurement systems in place. There isn’t a playbook for all start-ups to follow, every company is different, so take baby steps in the right direction and don’t bite off more than you can chew.
A personal panel favourite – which highlighted the risk of forgetting the fundamentals – was ‘How To Avoid Going to Jail’ with Erika Cheung from Ethics in Entrepreneurship. Erika, a key whistleblower in the Theranos scandal, asked the important question: when does a founder’s enthusiasm stray into exaggeration, and then into fraud?
Recent hype cycles have created a frenzy where people do whatever they can to get their hands on capital – cutting corners and in extreme cases, committing fraud.
The lesson for founders (and communications teams’ supporting leadership) was – don’t say you have a product yet if you don’t, or say you have money or users that you don’t have. We need open, transparent cultures where employees feel empowered to share their opinion. The success of a start-up is the success of the entire organisation, not the founder alone – so there’s no shame in following a timeline of realistic sustainable growth, rather than a visionary’s dream timeline.
So when preparing your comms for a panel or investor pitch at Slush next year, remember: fundamentals are key.
Time your news and thought leadership
There’s a lot of news coming out of Slush. The event is a popular place for launching new reports – every year Atomico presents its latest State of European Tech report on stage, while Forbes presented its Midas List of top VC investors in Europe. Smaller stages and lounges also played host to start ups giving business updates – a worthwhile tactic.
There’s an important earned play to Slush too. With the likes of the Financial Times, CNBC, Bloomberg, The Economist, Sifted, Wired, Insider and several other media outlets on-the-ground at Slush, you should use these moments to strengthen these relationships and build rapport with spokespeople (pitching stories and company news as appropriate). The timing of Slush also means it’s perfect for predictions-led commentary and getting a coveted spot in journalist’s look ahead outlook features.
Fierce investor competition
Slush is a bunfight for investors’ attention. There’s a whole room dedicated to investor speed dating, where founders book meetings with VCs to pitch their ideas.
You also have the Slush 100 competition, with a prize of €1,000,000 equity investment from five leading early-stage funds in Europe: Northzone, Accel, General Catalyst, Lightspeed Venture Partners and NEA. Applications open in June and start-ups pitch live on stage, before the winner is crowned on the final day. This year’s winner was Faircado, the first AI-powered second-hand shopping assistance tool.
It’s not just start-ups who compete. All the major VCs host their own exclusive events, with journalists trying to decide which party will have more scoops (and free drinks). I heard rumours of one investment firm’s club night that had queues of people in minus 12 degrees until the early hours. A personal highlight was DJ Klingande playing the saxophone hit ‘Jubel’ at a top tier European VC firm’s party.
Different events achieve different outcomes, so it’s worth thinking carefully about your comms objectives. Are you looking to broker deals or build rapport with specific individuals? If so, an intimate dinner works best. If you want to make a bigger marketing play, hosting a larger event is more effective for boosting brand awareness. These parties can be an excellent way to celebrate the ecosystem, build a sense of community, thank your network for their support this year, and show that you value your founders, operators and investors.
Have fun with it!
Slush is not a place for taking yourself too seriously.
Romain Huet, Head of Developer Experience at OpenAI, was asked questions on stage on the fall and heroic comeback of Sam Altman. Rather than pulling out last minute to avoid scrutiny, Romain embraced it, saying he’d been blown away by the OpenAI team’s spirit, drive and commitment.
It could have been a tense moment (the interviewer admitted he’d been told NOT to ask) but Romain took it in the cheery Slush spirit. He then charmed the audience by asking ChatGPT, who was celebrating its 1-year birthday, to give a short welcome speech to everyone in the audience. He proceeded to play ChatGPT’s brilliantly eloquent words into the microphone. It was the perfect move: the crowd went wild.
So, if you’re in comms at a scale-up or VC, and Slush isn’t on your roster for next year, it’s one to throw in the mix (if you have the budget). You might be on the hunt for a new investment, to nurture media relationships, build brand recognition, or show off new thought leadership content on stage.
If the answer is yes, then get your ticket, grab a robe, and get ready to party (sweaty Sauna style).
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