It is a story about SISU.
By Anton Gauffin
Below, I’m sharing a few pages from the book “The Secret of Silicon Valley” — written by our former chairman of the Huuuge board Wibe Wagemans and Eva Schram, a Dutch journalist, who have been working out of Silicon Valley for many years.
The book is about innovation and how to innovate outside the Valley. In the book, I tell the story of the journey that got me to where I am today and how Huuuge as a company has overcome hard times. It is a story about sisu — powering through hard times to make your dreams come true. It’s in our DNA and thinking of the many many amazing comebacks we’ve seen on our so far journey, without a doubt can say that much of our success is thanks to SISU and I hope below sparks much more energy and sisu in all those who read it.
Anton Gauffin, CEO | Founder
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The Finnish word “sisu” is about not giving up. Anton Gauffin is the founder and CEO of Huuuge Inc., a mobile gaming company. Anton grew up an hour and a half from the Arctic Circle in Finland. A place where the Baltic Sea ice melts in June, with temperatures below zero degrees Celsius — 32 degrees Fahrenheit — six months out of the year. In December, the sun rises — albeit slightly — at 10.29 AM.
Sisu is about finding a way against all odds. Anton started playing floorball at 14, and “truth be told, at first I sucked at it. But I loved training and got better and better all the time. Then at the end of the season, the coach wanted to say a few words. He called me out because of my love for training and accoladed me as the most improved player.”
What happened next is the stuff of legends: Anton realized that it doesn’t matter where you start — it’s sisu — what matters is that you improve and get better every day.
For industries that are not mature yet, like mobile gaming was when Anton started, it is hard to predict if and when the industry will take off. “If you want to succeed, it isn’t that easy,” he says. “Most successful companies have faced difficult times, and overnight successes are extremely rare. It’s usually the resolve of doing hard work for a very long time.” When asked why folks from Oulu typically display sisu, Anton answered: “It’s fucking cold there. It builds character.”
But according to Anton: “Sisu is a lot more fun when you’re surrounded by people you highly respect. I want to continue feeling excited about what we are building and what we are doing. The desire to be part of a winning team and to build winning teams. It’s about spending my time with people I highly respect.”
Anton always wanted to do startups — Valley-speak for founding one — “because I felt it would give me a sense of freedom.” Having anything to do with startups was highly unusual in Finland at the time, and looking back, Anton said he was naive. In 2001, he founded his first startup that provided e-learning packages for getting into university. After a year, he concluded it wasn’t the right business idea to devote his life to, but sisu kicked in to keep searching for another opportunity to build a new venture.
Anton has since been involved in founding a dozen startups and probably another two dozen that he invested in.
One of the moments he had to show sisu was in 2015. Like most startups, Huuuge Inc. was having cash flow issues during the first few years of the company. Before he eventually closed a series A round, revenue had dipped. “I was in a very uncomfortable position,” he says. “It was clear to me that I was in my life’s biggest battle so far and I also had a lot of going on on the family side. The company had a very limited runway of only one month. And to make things even worse, my personal finances were also leveraged, so pretty much everything was at stake. That is a high-pressure situation to be in.”
Anton: “When you have very little runway left, the worst thing you can do is panic. Sure, we made some very difficult decisions — like closing the Gdansk office with twelve people — but we didn’t lose control of the situation. Running a startup is a team sport: at that point, I became hyperactive and pushed us to make decisions at an accelerated pace.
Another step that saved us was that we briefly sacrificed the user experience. “To best serve our customers, we do not want to overwhelm them with ads. But when we were having cash flow problems, we acted on a radical idea: we asked them to watch an advertisement before continuing to use our free product. By doing this, we managed to increase our revenues just enough to turn the corner.” Now ads are no longer shown.
The Pillars of Success
“While we were implementing those tough decisions, we were engaging with various investors. By becoming cash flow positive, we were able to close the series A round. That was a big relief after fighting cash flow issues for so long. There have been battles since, and there’s always gonna be some battles in the future, but the danger in 2015 was very real, and Huuuge Inc. was awfully close to the edge, if not half-dead already.”
“My biggest lesson from having a one-month runway is that you have to make sure you don’t freeze. This is the time to move super fast and make the hard decisions and just go full speed ahead to battle the problems head-on. It’s difficult not to melt, but in those moments, use that focus and remove everything else from your mind.”
Anton was not ready to give up on Huuuge Inc. As a leader, that exposes you to a lot of stress, but you also need to hold the team together and show confidence. “It’s hard because certain things are not under your control anymore. You’re awfully close to the edge, but why would you focus on that? Your family and employees would freak out even more, and it’s not helpful”, says Anton.
The idea is to focus on solving problems, moving forward, and making progress. “As a CEO, I no longer get to spend 100 percent of my time on product development on a very detailed level. I leave that to our SVP Games, Wojciech “Wrona” Wronowski, who works in the Warsaw office in Poland. But when we were in survival mode, Wrona and I started working even more closely together to get out on the other side.
“Every Monday, I started the week in the Szczecin office, in what we started calling Sweaty Mondays. The concept of Sweaty Mondays was built around being 100 percent focused on our product, and typically, that meant that I arrived at our Szczecin Studio very early, carrying with me a long list of ideas on how to make our product better. And I truly loved those Mondays; I had so much energy and a team that was operating with such focus and intensity that it was unbeatable.”
“The high level of productivity delivered positive energy throughout the whole company, and we turned the ship around. Now that we are doing so much better as a company, I am involved in all different aspects of running it. But I do look back on Sweaty Mondays with great pride and fondness. It was one of the routines that pulled me through the hard times.”
Not about all-nighters
Psychologist Angela Duckworth has been researching grit for quite some time. In 2007 she defined the trait with colleagues as “perseverance and passion for its long-term goals”.
Whether you call it grit or sisu, that type of perseverance is an absolute necessity, in addition to a reasonably bright mind and a bit of luck, to make it in the Valley. It is inspiring to encounter people with the same drive regularly, but at the same time, we want to warn that grit doesn’t mean you only work.
Duckworth said in an interview with Techcrunch62: “The message of “Grit” is not that 90-hour workweeks [are ideal] or all-nighters because the emphasis on endurance suggests that you have to take care of yourself. I mean, if it were a 60-second sprint [that you were facing], I guess you could do all these unhealthy things. But it is a long-term goal that you’re working on, and therefore it’s incredibly important you pick the way you want to do it. You have to care for yourself physically and emotionally to stay in the game.”
In other words: taking a break for a beer in the pub now is fine as long as it’s a reward, not procrastination. Sometimes, it pays to ask yourself honestly: am I still motivated to achieve my goals? Can I go up a notch? Or do I need some distance and schedule a rest day?
From “The Secret of Silicon Valley” by Wibe Wagemans & Eva Schram copyright November 2020
Ebook available in English and Dutch at
Connie Loizos, ‘‘Grit’ author Angela Duckworth on working smart versus working too hard, when it’s okay to pivot, and the impact of tech on grit’, Techcrunch/2018, https://techcrunch.com/2018/11/01/grit-author-angela-duckworth-on-working-smart-versus-working-too-hard-when-its-okay-to-pivot-and-the-impact-of-tech-on-grit/