Black Vodka, a Finnish Sauna, and a Database

As I got on the plane to Helsinki, I wondered if I had been duped. I was flying blind--I didn't know where I was staying, whether anybody would be there when I arrived, or if I would end up sitting in a hotel room by myself for three days. But when the well-known founder of a billion dollar company invited me to his home to help my business, I figured I'd better get on that plane.

It started with a simple email. Michael "Monty" Widenius wrote a blog post about leaving Sun, who had acquired his company, MySQL, last summer. Monty had left the company over disagreements about the quality of the new product releases, and in his post, he described his next steps. Among them was setting up a boutique programming company with a set of business rules he called the "Hacking Business Model." The Hacking Business Model is a recipe for a kind of company that treats employees with respect, a set of conditions of employment for both employees and employers.

For the past few years, I've been trying to build a business with similar values. And like many inexperienced entrepreneurs, I was struggling to get the business profitable. So I sent Monty an e-mail asking for advice. Much to my surprise, a few days later he answered. A phone call, a few emails, and about 6 weeks later I was on the plane to Helsinki.

When I got through customs, there was a guy holding up a book with MySQL on the cover. It was Monty himself, waiting for me. "I thought you would recognize the book," he told me as we got in the car. And so the visit began.

We met with a business partner of his, Ralf, who talked about what he saw in our financial figures. "I'm not going to tell you what to do," he said. And then told me about another company he had helped through similar circumstances. The main point I got about our business is that we were clearly trying to do too much, without having a clear enough focus. Over the course of the weekend, they helped me identify where we were doing the best, and how to navigate the whitewater we were going through. From 5,000 miles away, I had a stellar outside view of my business, and a pretty clear new direction to set.

While we spent a lot of time talking about business, a key principle of Monty's Hacking Business Model is balance. We managed to balance the business with a bit of play. He dropped me off in the center of Helsinki in a blizzard, so I could walk around and see the sights. We watched some really bad science fiction movies in the evenings from his huge collection of videos he adds to on every trip to the states. And we had 4 hour dinners with his family, discussing all kinds of things until the wee hours.

His family is very sweet. His 20-year-old daughter, My, came over for dinner, and I learned that she is the namesake for MySQL. She is taking a year off before college to travel and discover what she wants to do, something I did myself. His wife, Anuta, was very friendly, though I don't think she knew I was coming--it sounds like for them a chaotic schedule is the norm. And they were quite happy together.

At one point, Monty told me that since selling MySQL to Sun, he had bought a nice car (a hybrid Lexus, with parking assistance warnings that kept going off when the sensors got packed with snow), he had bought a few more things, and he didn't have to worry so much about making an income, but otherwise their lifestyle has changed very little. He works in his basement office, he travels a fair amount, he entertains guests regularly, and tries to get the most out of life.

At dinner time, he asked if I liked vodka. "Sure," I said, as he poured me a shot of Finnish black vodka, not quite what I was expecting. "Cheers," he said, and tossed it back. It was a strong licorice flavor, quite sweet, but very good. And then we spent the next 3 hours eating, talking, drinking. Monty is quite the cook. He had a bunch of recipes he wanted to try out on a guest. My favorite was a seared strip of King Salmon, singed on the outside, sushi in the middle. Rhubarb pie, King Crab legs, mussels, Finnish Salomon caviar in pastry cups, we had a feast. He delights in surprising his guests. He served me a highly chilled Scotch, to see if I could guess what it was. He pulled out some giant wine glasses, each of which held 3 liters, and the half-bottle of wine he poured into each looked like a small taste. We were up eating and drinking long after the rest of his family went to bed. And then it was time for the sauna.

Now, I'm no slouch in a sauna. I've spent time in south west Alaska, where the "steam" is how you bathe. In an Alaskan steam, the temperature is usually 140-160 degrees Fahrenheit, and it's a wet sauna--lots and lots of steam. You stoke the fire up and keep pouring water on the stove until you can barely stand it, until you get a shiver in your core that indicates the heat has sunk in, after you've been in for a half hour. And then you go jump in a lake. But I've never been in a sauna like Monty's Finnish sauna.

In Finland, they like it dry and hot. When we got in, the temperature was 110 degrees--Celsius. That's around 230 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the boiling point of water. You had to water the bench so you didn't get burned when you sat down. And I got the shiver after a mere 10 minutes.

There was no nearby lake, so we sat on the swingset outside, and then laid down in the snow. It didn't even feel cold--it felt like you were lying on a bed of styrofoam. There's nothing quite so invigorating as a great sauna. After the snow, we went back into the sauna for another 10 minutes, and we were done.

From my little weekend trip to Finland, I learned three important lessons:

  1. The importance of focus. If you're trying to make a successful business, you need to pick a clear focus. If you try to do too much, your customers won't have a clear sense of what you're trying to do, your employees will be switching gears or not have clear enough priorities, and you'll be spread too thin to deliver quality. It's much better to focus on a single area and be successful at that, than to try to do 3 different things and be unable to make them all work at once.
  2. The importance of balance, and rest. If you spend all your time inside a business trying to make it work, you never get a chance to see the outside perspective, and it's too easy to spend time doing things that don't matter while neglecting the things that do. It's critical to take a step back, take a hair-brained trip now and then, and do things to get recharged. I've always recognized this when working for others, but when I started my own business I got sucked into this trap, and found it quite difficult to actually take this necessary time for myself and my family.
  3. The importance of people. Nothing is more important than people. The people on your team, the people who do business with you, the people who advise you. You can't build a successful business on your own. Sometimes you need to ask for help, and admit you don't always have the answers. And sometimes people who have done it before will help you out, if you catch them at the right time, in the right way.


For more on Monty and my Finland trip:

Customer Spotlight

We've launched a lot of great projects in the past few months, and we're going to highlight them in upcoming issues. In this issue, we're proud to highlight a site that demonstrates a lot of great functionality we built for a client, besides being a cool local company. Our client, Robinson Newspapers, publishes four different weekly newspapers. Their biggest ones, Ballard News Tribune and West Seattle Herald, launched in February.

Client Spotlight
Freelock News

What's new at Freelock?

With a down economy, now's a great time to ramp up your marketing efforts. We've moved our own web site to Drupal, and since doing a bit of a tune up on it in the last month, I'm starting to write more. It makes a big difference to have an easy place to go to comment about developments in our field, and post useful things for our customers and visitors.

If your business is slow, it might be a good time to talk to us about an upgrade to your web site. We can put control of the content in your hands, and provide advice and implementation to hook your site up to all the current social media sites. We've been building checklists to catch all the usual stuff and make sure your site does everything it should. We're finishing up some great projects now, so if you're wanting to do something soon, we can probably fit you in the schedule.

This month most of our projects have been related to associations, building sites with central control but a bunch of different stakeholders, each with their own small piece--if you know of an organization or association who needs something like this, send them our way!

In case you haven't heard, we moved into an office between Fremont and Wallingford last fall, and we've been cranking away on web sites, big and small. We're now a block off Stone Way, with easy access from Aurora. Come say hi!

Thanks for reading this far, and if you'd like to talk, call me at 206-577-0540x20, follow me on Twitter @freelock, email me at john at, or leave a comment on our site.

Couple of thoughts on the three lessons learned from Finland:

1. Focus is good, but more important than focus is exploiting the strengths of the organizational team. If a company's organizational strengths are designing "whosits" and we focus on making "widgets", focus will bring a company down. Identifying what the organizational strengths are, ensuring that those organizational pillars are firmly in place for the journey, and leading the ship as it enters rough waters will keep the organization focused on the end goal. Simplying focusing on this or that is an easy way to lose focus and a common small business mistake.

2. Balance and rest are vital, without it a person may go strong for a year but will eventually burn out, lose focus, and throw the whole ship out of balance. That goes for the entire organization, from the top to bottom. One unbalanced or exhausted member and the entire team becomes unbalanced. The flip side is that too much balance and rest is just as unbalancing.

3. People are important, but leadership is even more important. People will follow, help, and sacrifice for leaders, and by doing so carry an organization through tough times. In contrast, people can only take others so far and when the waters get rough, they jump ship.

So if we are talking about what all successful businesses have in common, I would argue that more commonly its leaders and not people. Good people are a by-product of good leaders, and a good leader knows how to attract, retain, and reward good people. Good people then leads to great organizations, and great organizations then lead to greater rewards for everyone, including more number 2!

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