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#3: Ville Kulmala, Head of Asian business development for Papyrus Software, Singapore

I met Ville while studying in Amsterdam where we were part of the same floorball team, The Amsterdam Agents. I remember him being incredibly energetic, impatient but also funny and social. He had a very Finnish hardcore approach to sports, without becoming a jock, and always struck me as genuine, but also often frustrated. A bit of an enigma with a good heart. Last time we met was in Bangkok in 2010, but he’s been Singapore based since 2012, where I reached him in mid-May amid a Covid-19 lockdown.

I started by asking what led him to decide to leave Amsterdam in 2009?

“I worked for Accenture Capital Markets, which offered me a redundancy package as a result of the last financial crisis. I did some travelling and my vision was to become a digital nomad, living cheaply in Asia and building a tech start-up. I figured that if you could work anywhere, you might as well be on a beach somewhere in Thailand. So my idea was to create a start-up with a global team.”

Ville also had ambitions to connect people with no links to the tech industry with e-commerce opportunities. He set up an event, following a model he’d seen in Amsterdam’s start-up scene, where entrepreneurs met on Tuesday mornings to discuss ideas over coffee.

“I saw the beauty of it in Amsterdam when I was a start-up entrepreneur. I kept meeting interesting people in Bangkok, like someone who worked on Twitter’s user interface that no one knew about. There would be these tight knit teams in cool offices working for Silicon Valley companies, but no one seemed interested in meeting anyone else. But I started to connect the tech scene and doing open coffee meetings, which has now grown into a community with 5000 people.”

The coffee meetings eventually developed into Mobile Monday, an event series that connected tech leaders in Thailand and the wider Asia region. It was the rapid rise of the iPhone that made Ville realise that the time was right for this kind of event.

“I met someone at BlackBerry at an event, which was huge in markets like Indonesia and Thailand. Then within weeks I noticed that everyone was using Apple devices on the SkyTrain in Bangkok. It happened almost overnight, you could see the revolution. Suddenly some of the restaurants in the city had the highest number of Foursquare check-ins anywhere in the world.”

Ville on stage at a Mobile Monday event

Ville managed to secure ballrooms in the best hotels and funding from major tech companies, such as Google, Amazon, Twitter and Nokia as Mobile Monday took off.

“We had government officials and ministers, and all the executive level managers from the Tech companies. It was very exciting. I saw it as an NGO, in most Asian markets you have these really strong family conglomerates that do retail, banking, insurance and so on. My idea was to give the guy who makes the best noodle on the street an opportunity to learn about e-commerce. That is how I saw it ten years ago, but now it’s the complete opposite! These same families still dominate the market.”

With a move to Singapore in 2012, and the increasing time commitment required to deliver a high-quality event that sometimes attracted more than 400 people, Ville eventually decided to hit the pause button. The last Mobile Monday took place in 2016.

His Singapore move got off to a rough start, he broke up with his girlfriend and found himself off for a fresh start in life in January 2013 in what at that time was the most expensive city in the world.

“I left my business behind and had to recreate a new career. It was a really hard year. But I found some freelance work through my network, which sort of validates the idea of weak ties, working for some agencies such as TBWA, where I was a project manager as Nissan re-launched their low-cost car brand Datsun in some Asian markets. It was good experience to get started in Singapore.

Ville then became involved in a start-up led by a Japanese/German former Head of Sales at Deloitte and his Greek/Columbian business partner. They had both grown up in Miami and were running a customer experience business that collected feedback from hotel customers and produced customer service sentiment analysis. Ville’s role was to help them scale the technology.

“It didn’t really take off and they ended up returning to Miami. But our main competitor became a unicorn [a privately-owned company valued at more than 1bn USD]. That is how it is, in the media you only see the surface, for one success there are thousands of failed companies. I don’t really like the start-up environment when you get people involved in start-up competitions. I like the energy, but what I see more and more is people draining themselves for this big prize that never comes.”

Since 2015, Ville has been working with Papyrus, a privately owned Austrian tech company where he is responsible for business development in Asia. He works for the CEO, “a hard-core business lady and brilliant entrepreneur”. For Ville the opportunity for European companies in Asia lies in strategic knowhow and quality.

“Asia has become very competent in technology, but they are not very strategic. They can do a lot of complicated things, but you need architects to build a great building. They tend to rely on cheap coders, the appreciation for great products and quality architecture isn’t really there. The challenge for European companies is to adjust their pricing and business models to fit this market.”

Ville as a chef in the HBO series Invisible Stories

Ville managed to leave the most surprising, and in many ways interesting, part of his story to the very end. Just when we’re about to say goodbye he mentions that he’s started acting.

“So far it’s been a hard road, but I was a featured extra as a chef in an HBO series that basically was a local version of Crazy Rich Asians. The other one was Westworld, which filmed their latest season in Singapore. I was not sure what I was, I think I was a robot or droid following Thandie Newton’s character around in Chinatown. Then there were some Nazis. I think I was a Nazi robot. I think there is something with my face, I don’t know what, but they immediately chose me for this feature role. I had to act for fifteen hours. I was three different robots. Let’s see what stays in, might be a few seconds at the end. I don’t think I’m an actor, but it’s one of the most interesting things that has happened to me in the past year.”

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