By David J. Cord, November 2012
Jolla, a tiny company from Finland, is aiming to break into a mobile communications market controlled by titans. Our reporter talks with a firm that grants very few interviews.
A young Finnish company has a problem that is somewhat unusual.
Typically, new startups struggle to get noticed in a market overwhelmed by a cacophony of eager entrepreneurs. Jolla has the exact opposite difficulty: the glaring spotlight of the press has given them a bit too much attention and they have acquired a reputation for shyness.
Now, finally, Jolla is prepared to start talking.
“We are ready to open up a little,” Jolla’s Jussi Hurmola concedes.
Jolla has attracted so much publicity because it is diving into an industry where few would dare to go: the intensely competitive smartphone market. The one-year-old company is taking the MeeGo operating system project abandoned by Nokia and plans to announce its first related device before 2012 is over.
Currently the smartphone market is dominated by firms such as Nokia, Samsung and Apple Corporation, the highest-valued company in the world. Yet in an industry of behemoths, Jolla thinks its small size and agility is a valuable asset. Even the name – Jolla, which means “dinghy” in Finnish – reflects this mentality.
“There are not many new ventures in Europe in this area,” says Hurmola, who acted as Jolla’s CEO until moving to become head of “Sailfish,” the codename for Jolla’s new MeeGo-based operating system. “We are going to transform the market and bring back mobile innovation to Finland. We will do something new, innovative and non-traditional.”
Although some clues have been dropped here and there, the exact details of Jolla’s plans remain murky. During Startup Sauna’s Slush event in Helsinki in late November, the company finally unveils the user interface on their smartphone to an eager audience. Hurmola is relieved that he will then be able to talk more openly about creating their devices, attracting developers and growing the ecosystem.
Despite the youth of the company, Jolla already has a distribution agreement signed with D.Phone, China’s largest phone retailer. Hurmola spends much of his time in China and Hong Kong, helping to develop partners among Far Eastern manufacturers, operators and retailers. The partners reportedly plan to invest €200 million in the new ecosystem.
Although Hurmola is signing up new partners in China, he sings the praises of being based in Finland.
“This wouldn’t be possible anywhere else,” he says. “The mobile industry is a big thing in Finland. We have the open-source technology and the expertise here. There are lots of good companies with MeeGo competence. Also, people in Asia, South America and the US see Finland as a very neutral place. They have a good image of us as being innovative and trustworthy.”
Jolla is hiring rapidly, and expects to have about 100 employees by the end of 2012. Hurmola says it has been easy to find excellent engineers and marketers in Finland, but he has had more problems getting people with a good financial background.
The company remains secretive about its financing arrangements, but hints at about ten million euros’ worth of financing in place, mostly from private investors. The Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation (better known by its Finnish abbreviation, Tekes) has provided some funding.
“We invested our own money, but it would have been very difficult without help,” says Hurmola.
The company hopes to capitalise on a system that Nokia didn’t want to develop, and believes that they have the opportunity to be giant-slayers in the mobile technology industry.
“We are creating an independent, open-source alternative ecosystem to the current mobile systems,” concludes Hurmola. “We are aiming to grow strongly in the coming years.”
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