“One of the most important activities for entrepreneurs is to go on vacation” – Raija Lehtinen, Owner of Punainen Lanka

It was a busy day close to Midsummer. We met Raija in her colorful button and textile accessory store – Punainen Lanka (“The Red String” in English) – at Hakaniemi market hall. Customers came every now and then during our interview. There was one lady came looking for badges. Raija and she had a long conversation like two friends after a long time no see. We thought the lady must be a regular customer. But later Raija told us this was the first time they met. We were amazed by her customer service. She treats customers in a way that makes them want to buy and keep coming back.

I never think too much before taking action to prevent procrastination

I was working at the information desk at Helsinki Airport, but I never got that job permanently. I had two daughters to take care of, so I decided to have a business of my own. I had no clue what it could have been, or what I wanted to do.

I was going to a horse camp in the summertime and met a lady from Rauma. We became good friends. She was living in Helsinki but wondering about coming back to Rauma to take over her family business which is a button shop.

After 10 days of the program, I asked her if it was fine for her that I would open a button shop in Helsinki. She totally supported me for that idea and invited me to her shop for a coaching session on how to run the store. That’s how everything began 37 years ago.

I’m an impulsive person. I never think too much before taking action to prevent hesitation and procrastination. Sometimes you make wrong decisions, sometimes you fail, but it’s normal. You just have to change the plan. Until now, I have never regretted anything about Punainen Lanka. When I run this business, whatever comes to my mind, I always give it a try. The freedom I have to apply new ideas is one of the reasons that keep me stay here.

20 years ago I chose a lifestyle called “Always Say YES”

Before starting my own business I was working in the Pacific Ocean onboard a cargo ship. I have traveled around the world 10 times. It’s always been my passion to take an adventure and explore new places.

I have just had my two-week vacation in Costa Rica, even though I knew almost nothing about the country. There was a customer who came to my shop telling me “In my country, there are lots of this kind of shops. I didn’t expect that you also have it here in Finland. Such a wonderful shop!” We talked and I got to know she’s from Costa Rica. I asked her some questions about the country and four days later I was traveling there.

Raija at her button store

About 20 years ago I had chosen a lifestyle called “Always Say Yes”, which means I almost never say “No” when somebody has a good and reasonable suggestion for me. This leads me to some experiences that are totally out of expectations and beyond my own imagination, pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I decided to live like this because I never wanted a boring life. I know when I get bored, I become a negative version of myself. This is a good practice that I would recommend people to take on to refresh the mind. It doesn’t have to be a big thing – a small new challenge is enough for you to see the result.

I never took a day off from work until my elbow’s operation

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Raija helps a customer to select the most suitable product.

I had two strong hobbies, horseback riding and playing tennis. Horseback riding I did for 13 years and then I switched to tennis. In 2006 I won a bronze medal in “Women 50” of the Finnish Championship in tennis. Tennis was another passion of mine which I have been doing for more than 30 years. Now not anymore due to my leg injury but I used to spend all of my free time practicing besides managing the stores. Normally I played in the evening, but if I had to be at the store in the morning then my employee would be in charge of the store. I have to admit that running my own business did give me more time and flexibility to follow my passion for tennis. However, I also had quite a lot of paperwork to “take home” because back then I had 3 shops with 15 employees in total.

I kept managing the business without any pause. Only until my elbow’s operation five years ago that I had to be away from work for six weeks. Luckily I have been very healthy all the time, even before starting my own shop. This helps me realize the importance of good health, especially for entrepreneurs, so that you can focus on your business without suffering from any illness. If I recall my recovery period again, I will say that only staying at home was strange and a bit unpleasant experience for me.

I woke up and started regretting about purchasing that store

Starting a second shop in Korkeavuorenkatu was a milestone for my business. I would say it was a “favorable accident”. I heard there was a shop similar to mine “finishing” and I thought I might get a bargain from the finalization process. I went there and stayed for half an hour and the owner sold me her whole shop! She introduced me to the book-keeping and it was half of what we had been doing here in Hakaniemi. I asked her why was the sales number so humble. She said the shop was closed quite often because she had to take care of her parents.

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The button shelves in Raija’s shop

Next morning I woke up and started regretting my purchasing decision. I impulsively bought a new shop and there were more tasks for me to handle like recruiting and so on. So I called the lady explaining my concern especially regarding financial issues because I had to take a loan to purchase it. We had agreed from the beginning the price would be 50,000 markkaa. I was asked how much I could afford and I said 25,000. Surprisingly, the owner told me that although we did write a sales contract, we could make a new one with half of the original price. That was a three-minute phone call that I will never forget. I felt thankful for this unplanned event because it was truly a lift for my business. From there I started to learn to recruit employees and handle more accounting tasks, which puts a foundation to the next stage when I got new shops set up in Vantaa and 15 people working in total. I was put into a situation where I had to learn new skills in a month otherwise I would lose the business. The work at that peak time was so demanding that until midnight I would still be on my desk crunching numbers.

I came to Brazil without knowing Portuguese and stayed for four months

For 20 years, I had more than 1 shop open. When I finished the last one in 2006, the shop here in Hakaniemi became too small for me. I also felt like I have been working so much, so it would have been a good time to try something else. One of my tennis mates found a Finnish guy in Brazil who wanted to exchange the flat. She also knew that I had my South American program and Spanish language background. So she introduced us with each other and my new adventure started from there. I stayed for four months in Salvador, Bahía.

Within a week, I realized I couldn’t manage with my Spanish or English as the locals only speak Portuguese. So I went to a language school every morning. It was a wonderful school with excellent teachers. I changed my keywords from Spanish to Portuguese. After one month, the new life started. I could have conversations with people on the bus stops, on the street, in the food stores, etc. Once they asked me where I’m from and replied to my answer with another question “What is Finland?”.

This experience could be considered a victory for me. I proved to myself that I can do something else and I don’t have to be working all the time. During my absence, the shop opened normally. I was proud to have very good, hard-working employees, who were always there when I needed their help. One of them have been working in my shop for 35 years, the other one for seven years. They work all year round, even during hectic times like Christmas or summer. When I was in Brazil, one of the employees passed all the invoices using Corporate NetBank program, and I confirmed the banking from the other side of the world. She’s the type of employee that every company dreams to have.

What I found out back then when having 15 employees is that every twentieth is good.. It’s a harsh truth. For the shops in Vantaa, we could only hire young girls who were studying at school. Some of them performed really well. But some only needed the salaries, and they couldn’t commit to the job and did not really care about their jobs. However, thanks to that experience of managing multiple stores, I now became a top-class coacher to train people to become a button dealer.

Joining HEI (Helsinki Entrepreneur International) is a real eye-opener

It started as a co-operation between Sarianne Reinikkala and me. Sarianne came to my summer cottage four years ago for a midsummer holiday. She planned to be a chairman of Helsingin Yrittäjät Ry (The Regional Association of Enterprises in Helsinki). Sarianne asked me if she got elected, would I help her set up an international group inside Helsingin Yrittäjät Ry? Because I speak different languages: Finnish, English, Swedish, Spanish, German, Portuguese, I said “Yes”, of course, also because of my lifestyle. Then Sarianne was selected to be the first female chairman of the organization. A few months later, HEI (Helsinki Entrepreneurs International) network was established for which I was a chairman for three years from 2016 to 2019.

Raija’s story in the book “365 voimaannuttavaa tarinaa naisista” (“365 Empowering story about women”)

A significant responsibility I contributed to HEI is the newsletter where I wrote five to six stories for each edition. Half a year later, we started the Business Date each month in the center of Helsinki which has been a great success. There are about 20 to 30 participants who take part in the networking event each month. We have been cooperating with NewCo Helsinki, different universities, cultural groups, and embassies (especially the embassy of Switzerland). The group has been growing with more than 1,000 members. There is no HEI membership fee that people need to pay. For me, I’m glad that I can help to build the entrepreneur network here and also have the chance to use my language skills by talking, meeting, connecting people.

Thanks to HEI, I learned a lot from foreign entrepreneurs located in the Helsinki area, which is purely eye-opening. And I was amazed by the statistics from research showing that a massive amount of foreign entrepreneurs have been contributing considerably to the economic prosperity of Finland. Most of them recruit employees, which creates more jobs for the labor market.

According to a study from Suomen Yrittäjät, there are 10,000 companies by immigrant entrepreneurs in Finland, immigrant-owned companies generate around 3.5 billion euros in net sales and employed about 30,000 employees. They are also more likely to hire foreigner employees.

One of the most important activities for entrepreneurs is to go on vacation.

My advice for entrepreneurs, especially those in my generation who have never had a vacation, is to take a break and travel. Go somewhere else, relax in a different environment, reflect on yourself, see your own life, your own business from a distance. This helps you to spot out what’s going wrong. It’s really refreshing. Go see the world, have some fresh air, be more open-minded. I’m sure that brilliant ideas will come to you when you can rest your mind out of the day-to-day hustle.

For those who are struggling with work-life balance, I would suggest finding a suitable hobby that you love doing and it brings you some type of benefits. Ideally, you should have at least three hobbies: one to make you money (this can be your own business), one to keep you in shape (playing sports, going to the gym, etc.) and one to keep your creativity flowing (playing music, drawing, learning new skills, etc.).

Be willing to learn new things. Don’t be afraid of new knowledge or complications. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you. Learning something new causes the brain to build more connections among neurons, replacing those we lose over time, which boosts our memory, intelligence and prevent cognitive aging.

Taking care of your family life, they are true supporters whom you can count on in times of crisis. Try to spend a decent amount of time with your loved ones so that they won’t get hurt because of you always working. But anyway, I think it’s part of being an entrepreneur. You have to accept some sort of inevitable sacrifice to follow your vision.

I don’t think of retiring. I always want to keep working because that’s good content for your life. You have a purpose when you are working. Try to find the meaning of your work, align it with your life purpose, and work happily ever after. Because the biggest part of our life will be spent working, so it’s worth doing something you truly enjoy.

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Raija’s portrait

I was working too much by myself during my 20 years – running the business when there were many employees. Because of the time constraints, I was forced to learn what I had to know so that the business could run smoothly. After that, I realized that I could get quick information and important know-how from other entrepreneurs, but I had no connections. Partly because I was spending all the little spare time I had after work playing tennis and neglected my professional network. So when I joined the Helsingin Yrittäjät and HEI, I got to know more entrepreneurs and learn lots of good tips from them along with a wonderful network of like-minded people.

So entrepreneurs, don’t wait any longer to enlarge your network, even before starting your business, good connections will be a perfect foundation for growth.

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Raija Lehtinen is the founder of Punainen Lanka – a retail shop providing buttons, laces, and zippers for sewers and tailors – in Hakaniemi market hall, Helsinki. She has been running her business for 37 years. Raija was also the first chairman of HEI (Helsinki Entrepreneurs International) and had been holding the position for three years. Now she is an active board member of the entrepreneur community in Helsinki.


Ha Nguyen
Ha Nguyen
Co-founder of EoF - Ha is a social entrepreneur & writer who cares about children, education, fairness, the environment, and sustainability. Connect with Ha here: https://linktr.ee/ha.nguyen

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